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Marlow’s Catharsis in Heart of Darkness Conrad’s novel, Heart of

Darkness, relies on the historical period of imperialism to illuminate its

protagonist, Charlie Marlow, and his struggle with two opposite value

systems. Marlow undergoes a catharsis during his trip to the Congo and

learns of the effects of imperialism. I will analyze Marlow’s change, which is

caused by his exposure to the imperialistic nature of the historical period in

which he lived. Marlow goes to the Congo River to report on Mr. Kurtz, a

valuable officer, to their employer. When he sets sail, he does not know what

to expect. When his journey is complete, his experiences have changed him

forever. Heart of Darkness is a story of one man’s journey through the

African Congo and the enlightenment of his soul. Marlow begins his voyage

as an ordinary English sailor who is traveling to the African Congo to work.

He is an Englishmen through and through. He has never been exposed to any

culture similar to the one he will encounter in Africa, and he has no idea about

the drastically different culture that exists there. Throughout the book,

Conrad, via Marlow’s observations, reveals to the reader the naive mentality

of Europeans. Marlow also shares this naivet? in the beginning of his voyage.

However, after his first few moments in the Congo, he realizes the ignorance

he and all his comrades possess. We first recognize the general naivet? of the

Europeans when Marlow’s aunt sees him for the last time before he embarks

on his journey. She assumes that the voyage is a mission of “weaning those

ignorant millions from their horrid ways [. . .]” (line 16). In reality, however,

the Europeans are there in the name of imperialism and their sole objective is

to earn a substantial profit by collecting all the ivory in Africa. The reader can

also see the Europeans obliviousness of reality when Marlow is recounting his

adventure aboard the Nellie. He addresses his comrades: When you have to

attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the

reality–the reality I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden luckily, luckily.

But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching over me at

my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your

respective tight ropes for—what is it? half a crown a tumble . . . . (36) While

he is in the Congo, although he has to concentrate on the petty everyday

things like overseeing the repair of his boat, he is still aware of what is going

on around him and of the horrible reality he is in. On the other hand, his

friends on the boat simply do not recognize this reality. It is their ignorance

and innocence which provokes them to tell Marlow to “try to be civil” (36).

Not only are they oblivious to the reality that Marlow sees, but their naivet? is

so great that they can not even comprehend such a thing (Johnson 356).

Quite surprisingly, this mentality does not pertain exclusively to the

Englishmen in Europe. At one point during Marlow’s voyage down the

Congo, he wakes to find his boat in an enormous patch of fog. At that very

instant, a “very loud cry” is let out (41). After Marlow looks around and

makes sure everything is all right, he observes the contrasts of the whites and

the blacks expressions: It was very curious to see the contrast of expression

of the white men and of the black fellows of our crew, who were as much

strangers to that part of the river as we, though their homes were only eight

hundred miles away. The whites, of course greatly discomposed, had besides

a curious look of being painfully shocked by such an outrageous row. The

others had an alert, naturally interested expression; but their faces were

essentially quiet[. . .]. (41-42) One can see the simple-mindedness of the

Europeans, even though they were exposed to reality. An innocent mentality

is engraved in their minds so deeply that even the environment of the Congo

can not sway their belief that people simply do not do the horrible things

Marlow recounts. The whites are dumbfounded and can not comprehend

how people, even the natives, would simply attack these innocent people.

The blacks, however, who are cognizant of the reality in which they live, are

“essentially quiet.” They feel right at home and are not phased by the shriek.

Similarly, one can see the difference of mentalities when Marlow speaks to

the cannibals in the crew. While in the midst of his journey, Marlow quite

casually talks with these cannibals, even about their animalistic ways. How

can a man from the refined world of England calmly and casually discuss

eating human flesh with those who do so on a regular basis? One would think

such a topic would be repulsive to Marlow, but he seems quite all right with

the topic of conversation. He would have never had such a conversation in

London, but he is not in London. He is in the Congo, which is quite a

different world. On the Congo River, the subject of cannibalism is an

unremarkable topic of conversation. This atrocity is unspeakable in the

Congo because it is a normal occurrence. Marlow explains to his comrades

on the Nellie the basic difference between living in Europe and being in the

Congo. He states: You can’t understand. How could you — with solid

pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you

or to fall you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in

the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you

imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammeled feet may

take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by

the way of silence — utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind

neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion. (49-50) In Europe,

there are “kind neighbours” who are there to make sure that everything is all

right. There is always someone to help when needed. On the other hand,

once a man enters the Congo, he is all alone. He has no policeman and no

kind neighbors. When Marlow enters the Congo and begins his voyage, he

realizes the environment he comes from is not reality and the only way he is

going to discover reality is to keep going up the river. Marlow’s evolution

from an average European to a man who realizes his own naivet?, and

ultimately discovers his own reality, is evident in his observations of how

things are labeled in the Congo. It is these observations which change

Marlow forever. Marlow first realizes the Europeans’ flaw of not being able

to give something a name of significance at the beginning of his voyage, just

when he is about to reach the Congo: Once, I remember, we came upon a

man of war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she

was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on

there-abouts. Her ensign dropped like a limp rag; the muzzles of the long six

inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up

lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of

earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.

Pop, would go one of the six inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish,

a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble

screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch

of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it

was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a

camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere.

(17) Marlow is watching this occurrence. He sees the Europeans firing “tiny

projectiles” (17) and hears the pop of the cannons. The Europeans, however,

see themselves fighting an all out war against savage enemies in the name of

imperialism. The Europeans feel that this is an honorable battle, so they are

excited and fight with all they have. Marlow, however, sees it differently. He

is now in Africa where reality broods. It is lurking everywhere. The only thing

one has to do to find it is open the mind to new ideas. He looks at this event

and reduces it from the European’s image of a supposedly intense battle, with

smoke and enemies everywhere, to a futile firing of “tiny projectiles” into an

empty forest. For the first time, Marlow recognizes the falsity of the European

mentality and their inability to characterize an event for what it is. At the end

of the passage, his fellow European crewmember assures Marlow that the

allied ship is defeating the enemy, and that they just could not see them

because they are hidden from sight. In actuality, they were shooting at

innocent natives who had probably fled from the area of battle already.

Marlow is beginning to realize that what makes sense in Europe does not

make sense in Africa. With that passage, Conrad informs the reader of

Marlow’s realization. Marlow begins to wonder if the mentality instilled upon

him in Europe is similar to the reality he sees in Africa, or if he is surrounded

by atypical Europeans who are living in a dream world. As the novel

continues, Marlow recognizes that the flaw of not being able to see the true

essence of things and thus, not being able to identify things and events, is the

European way. There are some names given by the Europeans that simply do

not fit the characteristic of the object being named. Marlow points out that

the name “Kurtz” means “short” in German. However, after Marlow’s first

glance at Kurtz, he remarks how Kurtz appears to be “seven feet long” (59).

Conrad shows us, through Marlow’s observation, how Kurtz’s name is a

blatant oxymoron. Marlow recognizes yet another obvious misrepresentation.

Marlow meets a man called the bricklayer. However, as Marlow himself

points out, “[. . .] there wasn’t a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station”

(27). During his voyage Marlow not only observes misnaming, he realizes the

importance of a name. While overhearing a conversation between the

manager of the station and his uncle, he hears Mr. Kurtz being referred to as

“that man” (34). Although Marlow has not met Kurtz yet, he has heard of his

greatness. He now realizes that when these men call him “that man,” they strip

him of his attributes. These men , by not referring to him by his name, deny

Kurtz’s accomplishments. This same idea of distorting a person’s character by

changing his name is displayed elsewhere. The Europeans apply the words

“enemy” and “criminal” to the natives. However, they are no threat. The

natives are confused and helpless victims being exploited by ignorant and

greedy invaders. The injustice done by misrepresenting someone is

catastrophic. After observing these names which bare no true meaning, as

well as degrade a person’s character, Marlow understands that he can not

continue in his former ways of mindlessly giving random names to things for

fear of diminishing the essence of the subject. Therefore, Marlow finds

himself unable to label something for what it is. For example, while under

attack, Marlow refers to arrows being shot in his direction as “sticks, little

sticks,” and a spear protruding from a man as “a long cane” (45,47). When

Marlow arrives at the inner station, he sees “slim posts [. . .] in a row” with

their “ends ornamented with round carved balls” (52). In truth, these are

poles with skulls on top of them. Marlow can not comprehend the reality of

these things. Looking back on his voyage, Marlow realizes how mindless and

meaningless the labels the Europeans use to identify things are. He wants to

be able to identify properly everything he encountered on his voyage. Kurtz is

the chief of the Inner Station. He is a “universal genius, a prodigy, an emissary

of pity science and progress” (28). Kurtz teaches Marlow how significant

labels are: The man presented himself as a voice[. . .] of all his gifts, the one

that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was

his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the

illuminating [. . .]. (48) Kurtz was “[. . .] little more than a voice” (48), but

there was no one with a voice like his. He could speak with remarkable

eloquence, he could write with such precision, and he could name with true

meaning. “You don’t talk with that man [Kurtz]— you listen to him” (53).

Marlow has heard enough about Kurtz to know that he can give Marlow

insight into the nature of the world. Indeed, Kurtz gives Marlow everything he

is looking for, but in an unexpected way. Kurtz teaches Marlow the lesson

with his last words: “The horror! The horror!” (68). These words are Kurtz’s

judgment on his own life. He is barbarous, unscrupulous, and possibly even

evil. However, he has evaluated his life and pronounced judgment. Marlow

sees Kurtz “open his mouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as

though he wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before

him…” (59). Kurtz takes everything he has done in his life into himself and

pronounces a judgement upon it. “He had summed up— he had judged [. . .]

the horror!” (68). Kurtz’s last words are his way of teaching Marlow the

essence of a name. A name is not merely a label. It is one man’s own

judgment of an isolated event. However, unlike the Europeans who judge

based on principles they acquired through social conditioning, Kurtz teaches

Marlow to look inside himself and judge based on his own subjective creeds.

While Marlow is recounting the story, he says to his comrades: He must meet

that truth with his own true stuff—with his own inborn strength. Principles?

Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly

off at the first good shake. No. You want a deliberate belief. An appeal to

me in this fiendish row—is there? Very well. I hear, I admit, but I have a

voice too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced.

(38) Marlow has learned that objective standards alone will not lead him to

recognize the reality of life. One can not depend on another’s principles to

find reality because they have not had to bear the pain and responsibility of

creating it. Principles are acquisitions, which, like other things we acquire

rather than generate, are easily shaken off. A judgment must be made from

one’s own internal strengths. That is why Marlow says, “for good or evil,

mine is the speech that cannot be silenced” (38). As Kurtz taught him with his

own judgment, a judgment of truth overpowers morality. To find ones own

reality one must not rely solely on other people’s morality or principles; one

must assess his own life. Kurtz shows Marlow that regardless of whether the

truth is good or bad, one must face his reality. He must face his own actions

even when the conclusion is “the horror.” By doing so, he will find his true

reality. Marlow understands that being true to you is not following another’s

moral code, but being able to judge one’s self honestly to discover a true

reality. Because of his newfound understanding, Marlow claims that Kurtz’s

last words serve as “[. . .] a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats…”

(70). Despite Kurtz’s immoral ways, he is victorious. Because he did not run

away from the truth, he won a moral victory (McLauchlan 382). Marlow

learns the essence of naming and understands what it means to search for the

truth within himself. Marlow encounters two extremes while on his search: the

European mentality, which he finds completely oblivious to reality; and Kurtz,

a man who has found his horrible and unrestrained reality. With this

extraordinary knowledge of the two extremes of mankind, he returns to

England. Because of his knowledge, he has a new understanding. He knows

it is impossible to revert to his former mentality because he has been

enlightened and, thus, lost his naivete. Perhaps he could adopt Kurtz’ ways

and live in the other extreme. At one point, Marlow had peered over the

edge (68). Why did he not jump? Marlow is repelled from joining Kurtz for

several reasons. First, Kurtz had “kicked himself loose of the earth…he had

kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone — and I [Marlow] before him

did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air” (65). Kurtz

had denied any sort of moral convictions in order to be worshipped as a god.

Because of this unmonitored power, Kurtz lost all sense of restraint and

became the savage that he was. Marlow, however, has not lost his sense of

morality and, thus, has not become a savage free of societal hindrance. It is

because of Marlow’s rejection of both the Europeans, who he claims are full

of “stupid importance” (70), and Kurtz’ inability to establish his own moral

code, that Marlow chooses another avenue. The first time the reader

witnesses Marlow’s choice to find a middle ground is when he first gets back

to Europe. Marlow finds himself resenting the way the Europeans go about

their lives, “hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other

[. . .]” (70). Not only did he find their lives meaningless, but he also silently

mocked them. “I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some

difficulty restraining myself from laughing in their faces so full of stupid

importance. I tottered about the streets [. . .] grinning bitterly at perfectly

respectable persons. I admit my behaviour was inexcusable [. . .]” (70).

Although Marlow looked down on the Europeans, he judged his own actions

and found them inexcusable. This is evidence of Marlow rejecting Kurtz’

extreme. Unlike Kurtz who could not fault others because he lacked any

restraint, Marlow realizes that he can not fault them because they do not

know the truth he knows. He seems to be searching for a middle ground

between Kurtz’ enlightened madness and the European’s egocentric

stupidity, but the reader does not know exactly what Marlow feels. By

looking back to Marlow’s voyage, the reader can see an act of affirmation

for the middle of the two extremes. While aboard the Nellie, Marlow says, “I

hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie [. . .] simply because it appalls [sic] me.

There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies…” (29). However, near

the end of the novel, he acts in away that is diametrically opposite of his

assertion. Marlow visits Kurtz’ intended to speak of her beloved fianc?. She

desperately wants to know what his last words were. Marlow says, “The last

word he pronounced was—your name” (75). He lies to her. He does

something he previously claimed to detest. Marlow’s lie to the intended is an

indication that he has found a middle ground between the two extremes of

human nature (Stewart 369). Her question forced Marlow to look inside

himself for the truth of his reality. He found an instance where a lie was better

than the truth. Like Kurtz, Marlow judged the situation independently, but

unlike Kurtz, he used reason and reality. He rejected Kurtz’ values, which

were based on whims and void of any objective principles. Marlow

successfully used both personal creeds and objective principles to decide

what answer to give the desperate intended. Marlow found a middle ground

and discovered his own truth. Marlow saw the suffering imposed by the

imperialistic environment on the Congo and its natives and it had a

tremendous effect on him. He underwent a drastic change in response to the

hostile environment that was so different from his homeland. Kurtz showed

him the flaws of European imperialistic ideals. Marlow came to understand

European principles of his time and it changed his entire perception and


Primary Kimbrough, Robert, ed. Heart of Darkness: An

Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. By Joseph Conrad.

3rd ed. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1988. Secondary

Johnson, Bruce. “Conrad’s Impressionism and Watt’s “Delayed Decoding.”

Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties: 51-70. By Ross C Murfin.

University: The Univ. of Alabama, 1985. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness: An

Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. Ed. Kimbrough,

Robert. 3rd ed. Norton Critical Edition, New York: Norton, 1988.

McLauchlan, Juliet. “The Value and Significance of Heart of Darkness.”

Conradia 15 (1983): 3-21. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text,

Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. Ed. Kimbrough, Robert. 3rd ed.

Norton Critical Edition, New York: Norton, 1988. Stewart, Garrett. “Lying

as Dying in Heart of Darkness.” PMLA 95 (1980): 319-31. Rpt. in Heart of

Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. Ed.

Kimbrough, Robert. 3rd ed. Norton Critical Edition, New York: Norton,


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