Heart of DarknessHeart of DarknessConrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, relieson the historical period of imperialism in order to describe its protagonist,Charlie Marlow, and his struggle. Marlow’s catharsis in the novel, as hegoes to the Congo, rests on how he visualizes the effects of imperialism.
This paper will analyze Marlow’s “change,” as caused by his exposure tothe imperialistic nature of the historical period in which he lived. Marlow is asked by “the company”, the organizationfor whom he works, to travel to the Congo river and report back to themabout Mr. Kurtz, a top notch officer of theirs. When he sets sail, he doesn’tknow what to expect. When his journey is completed, this little “trip”will have changed Marlow forever!Heart of Darkness is a story of one man’sjourney through the African Congo and the “enlightenment” of his soul. It begins withCharlie Marlow, along with a few of his comrades, cruisingaboard the Nellie, a traditional sailboat.
On the boat, Marlow begins totell of his experiences in the Congo. Conrad uses Marlow to reveal allthe personal thoughts and emotions that he wants to portray while Marlowgoes on this “voyage of a lifetime”. Marlow begins his voyage as an ordinaryEnglish sailor who is traveling to the African Congo on a “business trip”. He is an Englishmen through and through.
He’s never been exposed to anyalternative form of culture, similar to the one he will encounter in Africa,and he has no idea about the drastically different culture that existsout there. Throughout the book, Conrad, via Marlow’sobservations, reveals to the reader the naive mentality shared by everyEuropean. Marlow as well, shares this naivete in the beginning ofhis voyage. However, after his first few moments in the Congo, he realizesthe ignorance he and all his comrades possess.
We first recognize the generalnaivete of the Europeans when Marlow’s aunt is seeing him for thelast time before he embarks on his journey. Marlow’s aunt is under theassumption that the voyage is a mission to “wean those ignorant millionsfrom their horrid ways”(18-19). In reality, however, the Europeans arethere in the name of imperialism and their sole objective is to earn asubstantial profit by collecting all the ivory in Africa. Another manifestation of the Europeansobliviousness towards reality is seen when Marlow is recounting his adventureaboard the Nellie.
He addresses his comrades who are on board saying:”When you have to attend to things of thatsort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality-the reality I tellyou—fades. The inner truth is hidden luckily, luckily. But I felt itall the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching over me atmy monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respectivetight ropes for—what is it? half a crown a tumble—(56). “What Marlow is saying is that while heis in the Congo, although he has to concentrate on the petty little everydaythings, such as overseeing the repair of his boat, he is still aware ofwhat is going on around him and of the horrible reality in which he isin the midst of.
On the other hand, his friends on the boat simply don’tknow of these realities. It is their ignorance, as well as their innocencewhich provokes them to say “Try to be civil, Marlow”(57). Not only are they oblivious to the realitywhich Marlow is exposed to, but their naivete is so great, theycan’t even comprehend a place where this ‘so called’ reality would evenbe a bad dream! Hence, their response is clearly rebuking the words ofa “savage” for having said something so ridiculous and “uncivilized”. Quite surprisingly, this mentality doesnot pertain exclusively to the Englishmen in Europe. At one point duringMarlow’s voyage down the Congo, his boat hits an enormous patch of fog.
At that very instant, a “very loud cry” is let out(66). After Marlow looksaround and makes sure everything is all right, he observes the contrastsof the whites and the blacks expressions. It was very curious to see the contrastof expression of the white men and of the black fellows of our crew, whowere as much strangers to this part of the river as we, though their homeswere only eight hundred miles away. The whites, of course greatly discomposed,had besides a curious look of being painfully shocked by such an outrageousrow. The others had an alert, naturally interested expression; but theirfaces were essentially quiet.
. . (67). Once again, we see the simple-mindednessof the Europeans, even if they were exposed to reality. Their mentalityis engraved in their minds and is so impliable, that even the environmentof the Congo can’t sway their belief that people simply don’t do the horriblethings Marlow recounts. The whites are dumbfounded and can not comprehendhow people, in this case the natives, would simply attack these innocentpeople.
That would just be wrong! The blacks, however, who are cognizantof the reality in which they live, are “essentially quiet”. They feel rightat home, and are not phased by the shriek. Similarly, the difference of mentalitiesis shown when Marlow speaks of the portion of his crew who are cannibals. While in themidst of his journey, Marlow, quite casually, converses withthese cannibals; even about their animalistic ways! As Jacques Berthoudsaid so accurately in his Joseph Conrad, “what would be nspeakable horrorin London. . .
becomes, on the Congo river, an unremarkable topic of conversation. . . “(47). These “unspeakable horrors” are hardly unspeakable in the Congo becausethey are normal occurrences there.
On the Nellie, Marlow explains to his comrades,the basic difference between living in Europe, and being in the Congo. He states:”You can’t understand. How could you? Withsolid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheeryouor to fall you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman,in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how canyou imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammeledfeet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude withouta policeman—by the way of silence utter silence, where no warning voiceof a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion(82)?”In Europe, there are “kind neighbors” whoare there to make sure that everything is all right. The European liveshis life “stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman”.
Everywherehe looks, there is always someone there who can “catch him if he is falling”. On the other hand, once a man enters the Congo, he is all alone. No policeman,no “warning voice of a kind neighbor”. . .
no one!It is now when Marlow enters the Congoand begins his voyage, that he realizes the environment he comes from isnot reality, and the only way he is going to discover reality is to keepgoing up the river. . . There is one specific theme in Heart ofDarkness in which the reader can follow Marlow’s evolution from the “everydayEuropean” to a man who realizes his own naivete and finally to hisuncovering of his own reality. This evolution comes about as a direct resultof Marlow’s observations of how things are named. This sounds very unusual,that a man would find his true reality by observing the names of certainthings.
However, it is precisely these observations which change Marlowforever. Marlow first realizes the European’s flaw of not being able togive something a name of significance, in the beginning of his voyage,when he has not quite reached the Congo, but he is extremely close. Once, I remember, we came upon a man ofwar anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she wasshelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going onthere-abouts.
Her ensign dropped like a limp rag; the muzzles of the longsix inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swellswung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the emptyimmensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firinginto a continent. Pop, would go one of the six inch guns; a small flamewould dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectilewould give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubriousdrollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuringme earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hiddenout of sight somewhere (21).
Conrad is teaching us something extremelyimportant. Berthoud points out that the “intelligibility of what men dodepends upon the context in which they do it. ” Marlow is watching thisoccurrence. He sees the Europeans firing “tiny projectiles”and their cannons producing a “pop”.
The Europeans, however, see themselvesfighting an all out war against the savage enemies in the name of imperialism!The Europeans feel that this is an honorable battle, and therefore, allget emotionally excited and fight with all they have. Marlow, however,sees it differently. He is now in Africa where reality broods. It’s lurkingeverywhere. The only thing one has to do to find it is open his mind tonew and previously ‘unheard’ of ideas. He looks at this event and reducesit from the European’s image of a supposedly intense battle, with smokeand enemies everywhere, to a futile firing of “tiny projectiles “into anempty forest.
For the first time, Marlow recognizes the falsity of theEuropean mentality, and their inability to characterize an event for whatit is. At the end of the passage, his fellow European crewmember is assuringMarlow that the allied ship is defeating the “enemies”, and that they justcouldn’t see the “enemies” because they were “hidden out of sight somewhere”. In actuality, they’re shooting at innocent natives who have probably fledfrom the area of battle already. Marlow is beginning to realize that “whatmakes sense in Europe no longer makes sense in Africa”(Berthoud.
46). With that passage, Conrad informs the readerof Marlow’s realization. From that point on, Marlow is looking to corroborateif in actuality, the mentality instilled upon him in Europe is similarto this, or if those are atypical Europeans who are living in a dream world. As the novel continues, Marlow recognizes that this flaw of not being ableto see something for what it is, and in turn, not being able to give itan accurate “label”, is indeed “the European way”. There are some names given by the Europeansthat simply don’t fit the characteristic of the object being named. Marlowpoints out that the name ‘Kurtz’ means short in German.
However, at Marlow’sfirst glance at Kurtz, he remarks how Kurtz appears to be “seven feet long”(101). Conrad shows us, through Marlow’s observation, how Kurtz’s name is justa blatant oxy-moron. Marlow recognizes yet another obvious misrepresentation. Marlow meets a man who is called the “bricklayer”. However, as Marlow himselfpoints out, “there wasn’t a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station”(39).
During his voyage, however, Marlow doesn’tonly observe this misnaming, but realizes the importance of a name. Whileoverhearing a conversation between the manager of the station and his uncle,he hears Mr. Kurtz being refereed to as “that man”(53). Although Marlowhasn’t met Kurtz yet, he has heard of his greatness.
He now realizes thatby these men calling him “that man”, they strip him of all his attributes. When one hears Kurtz, they think of a ” very remarkable person”(39). Thesemen are now, by not referring to him by his name, denying Kurtz’s accomplishments. This same idea of distorting a person’scharacter by changing his name is displayed elsewhere. The Europeans applythe terms ‘enemy’ and ‘criminals’ to the natives.
In actuality, they aresimply “bewildered and helpless victims. . . and moribund shadows”(Berthoud.
46). Clearly, the injustice done by the simple misnaming of someone isunbelievable. After witnessing all of these names which bare no true meaning,as well as possibly degrade a person’s character, Marlow understands thathe can not continue in his former ways of mindlessly giving random namesto something in fear of diminishing the essence of the recipient. As aresult, Marlow finds himself unable to label something for what it is.
While under attack, Marlow reefers to the arrows being shot in his directionas “sticks, little sticks”, and a spear being thrown at his boat “a longcane”(75–77). When Marlow arrives at the inner station, he sees “slimposts. . . in a row” with their “ends ornamented with round carved balls”(88). In truth, these are poles with skulls on top of them.
Marlow can formulatea name even for the simplest of things. Taking a step back and looking at his voyage,Marlow realizes the insignificant, mindless, meaningless ‘labels’ whichthe Europeans use to identify with something, and he wants to be able to”give to experience, names that have some substance”. At this point, heis similar to Adam in the Garden of Eden who is “watching the parade ofnameless experience” go by. However, Marlow is missing an essential thingwhich Adam possessed. As opposed to Adam, who was delegated by G-d to nameexperiences, Marlow lacked this authority to name. It is Kurtz who willbecome this authority, and eventually teach Marlow the essence of a name(Johnson.
76). Mr. Kurtz is the Chief of the Inner Station. He is a “universal genius, a prodigy, an emissary of pity science and progress”(40-45). It is Kurtz who will teach Marlow what a name is, for one simple reason.
. . “The man presented himself as a voice. .
. ofall his gifts, the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with ita sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the giftof expression, the bewildering, the illuminating. . . (79). “Kurtz was “little more than a voice”(80),but there was no one with a voice like his.
He could speak with remarkableeloquence, he could write with such precision. . . he could name with truemeaning! “You don’t talk with that man, you listen to him”(90)!Marlow has heard enough about Kurtz, in this case from his devoted pupil,to know that it is he who can provide Marlow with the authority to offer”correct and substantial names”(Johnson. 76). Indeed, Kurtz gives Marlow everything Marlowis looking for.
However, he does it in a very unconventional way. Kurtzteaches Marlow the lesson with his last words. “The horror! The horror!”(118). These last words are Kurtz’s own judgment, judgment on the life which hehas lived. He is barbarous, unscrupulous, and possibly even evil. However,he has evaluated at his life, and he has “pronounced a judgment upon theadventures of his soul on this earth”(118).
Marlow sees Kurtz “open hismouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he wantedto swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him. . . “(101).
Kurtz takes everything in. He takes his life, and puts it all out on thetable. “He had summed up— he had judged. . . The horror!”(119).
Kurtz’s last words is his way of teachingMarlow the essence of a name. A name is not merely a label. It is one man’sown judgment of an isolated event. However, unlike the Europeans who judgebased on already existing principles which they have ‘acquired’, Kurtztaught Marlow to look inside of himself and to judge based on his own subjectivecreeds. While Marlow is recounting the story, he says to his comrades:”He must meet that truth with his own truestuff—with his own inborn strength.
Principles won’t do. Acquisitions,clothes, prettyrags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish row—isthere? Very well; I hear; I admit, but have a voice too, and for good orevil mine is the voice that can not be silenced (60). “This is the lesson which Marlow has learned. Objective standards alone will not lead one to recognize the reality insomething.
One can not only depend on anther’s principles to find his realityin something because they have not had to bear the pain and responsibilityof creating it. Principles are usually acquisitions, which like other thingswe acquire rather than generate, like clothes are easily shaken off. Thepower of speech which will sustain a man is the power to create or affirmfor one’s self a deliberate, or a chosen belief (Bruce Johnson. 79). This judgment must be from one’s own internalstrengths. That is why Marlow says, “for good or evil, mine is the speechthat can not be silenced”.
As Kurtz has taught him with his own judgment,a judgment of truth overpowers morality. To find one’s own reality, onemust not rely solely on other people’s morality, others people’s ‘principles’and he must assess his own life. What Kurtz did is that he showed thatregardless of whether the truth is good or bad, one must face up to hisreality. He must face up to his own actions even when the conclusion is”the horror”, and by doing so, he will find his true reality.
Marlow understands that being true to yourselfis not following anther’s moral code, but being able to judge one’s selfhonestly and uncover their own reality. It is because of this understandingthat Marlow claims that Kurtz’s last words is “a moral victory paid forby innumerable defeats. . .
“(120). Despite Kurtz’s immoral ways, he is victoriousbecause he didn’t run away from the truth; and that is his moral victory. He is true to himself. !On his voyage, Marlow notices at one ofthe stations, a picture that Kurtz had drawn when he was there. It is a”sketch in oils on a panel representing a woman draped and blindfolded,carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre—almost black”(40).
At the time, Marlow didn’t really know what it meant. However, this isa precise representation of Kurtz himself. Firstly, the background was”sombre—almost black”. This is a manifestation of Kurtz because his lifeis full of darkness. He kills, he steals, and he is worshipped as a god.
Kurtz cannot be without blackness and survive. In addition, the picturedisplays the lesson itself. It is a picture of the lady of justice holdinga torch. This is Kurtz’s role. Unlike Europe, which imposes their principlesupon others, he is merely there to “illuminate”(79). Kurtz is there toexpand the peoples minds, to introduce them to a broad new spectrum ofreality.
However, he does not impose his own reality upon them. Hence,he is blindfolded in the picture. To him, they make a subjective decisionand they find their own truth, regardless of what that truth may be. Thatis his lesson. Eventually Marlow realizes that Kurtz’spicture was in essence, a self portrait.
The same thing which Kurtz conveyedwith ‘the horror’, he conveyed with this picture. Marlow’s realizationis evident with this remark. “I don’t like work—no man does—but I likewhat’s in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—foryourself, not for others”(47).
Marlow learns the essence of ‘naming’ andunderstands what it means to ‘be yourself’. However, Marlow has encounteredtwo extremes. The European mentality, which is completely oblivious toreality, and Kurtz, a man who has found his reality, but it is one of horrorand no restraint from any wrongdoing. He is now returning to his home todeal with his former world, however, he now possesses his new ‘understanding’. Marlow cannot return to his previous ‘European ways’ simply because hehas ‘been enlightened’ and lost his naivete.
However, why can’t he adapt Kurtz’s waysand live the other extreme? At one point, Marlow had “peeped over the edge”(119). Why didn’t he ‘jump over’? Marlow is repelled from joining Kurtz for severalreasons. Firstly, Kurtz had “kicked himself loose from the earth. . . he hadkicked the earth to pieces.
He was alone, and I before him didnot know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air”(112). Kurtzhad denied any sort of moral convictions in order to be worshipped as agod. Because of this unmonitered power, Kurtz lost all sense of restraintand became the savage that he was. Marlow, however, has not lost his senseof morality. What Marlow rejected in Kurtz was the “complete absence inKurtz of any innate or transcendental sanctions” (Johnson. 99).
It is because of Marlow’s rejection ofboth the Europeans, who Marlow claims are full of “stupid importance”,and of Kurtz’sinability to establish his own moral code, that Marlow choosesan “alternative reality”(Berthoud. 60). The first time the reader witnessesMarlow’s choice and becomes a centrist, is when he first gets back to Europe. Marlow finds himself resenting the way the Europeans went about their life,”hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other. .
. “(120). Notonly did he find their lives meaningless, but he mocked them to himself. “I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficultyrestraining myself from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance. . .
I tottered about the streets. . . grinning bitterly at perfectly respectablepeople. I admit my behavior was inexcusable. .
. ” (120). Although Marlowlooked down upon these Europeans, he says something remarkable. He judgedhis own actions and found them ‘inexcusable’. This is his manifestationof breaking away from Kurtz’s extreme.
Unlike Kurtz who lacked all restraintand would never find looking down on people bad, Marlow realized that hecouldn’t hold it against them simply because they didn’t know better. Clearly,Marlow is edging toward a ‘middle ground’. Despite this act of judgment, the readerdoesn’t know exactly where Marlow stands. However, Marlow does somethingthat is the quintessential act of affirmation that he has chose the middleof the two extremes.
While aboard the Nellie, Marlow tells his comradesthat “I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie. . . simply because it appallsme.
There is a taint of death, a flavor ofmortality in lies. . . “(44). Towards the end of the novel, Marlow is invitedby Kurtz’s fiancee to go to her house to speak of her beloved Kurtz. Uponher asking Marlow what his last words were, Marlow responded “The lastword he pronounced was—your name”(131).
He lies to her. He does somethinghe utterly detests. This is the event that convinces the reader of Marlow’suptaking of a middle position. He does look inside himself and use hisown personal ability to judge this event. He does what Kurtz had told him. Despite his abhorrence of lies, he judges this situation and decides thatit was right to lie.
However, he is different from Kurtz. Kurtz did judgeevery event independently, however, he does it solely based on his ownwhims. He could not incorporate any objective principles whatsoever inmaking his decision. Marlow does judge every event independently, however,he can not rely solely on his own creeds.
Regardless of his decision, hewill always incorporate some objective principles into his judgment. Marlownow creates his ‘alternative reality’ and achieves his truth. When Marlow was exposed to the imperialisticenvironment of the congo, it had a tremendous effect upon him. The protagonistof Conrad’s novel undergoes a drastic change in response to his environment,common only to that specific time period.
Kurtz shows Marlow the flawsin the Europeans imperialistic ideals. Kurtz sees the meaninglessness ofEuropean standards of the time, and therefore changes his entire perceptionand behavior.