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Heart Of Darkness Essay, Research Paper

Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, relies on the historical period

of imperialism in order to describe its protagonist, Charlie Marlow,

and his struggle. Marlow’s catharsis in the novel, as he goes to the

Congo, rests on how he visualizes the effects of imperialism. This

paper will analyze Marlow’s “change,” as caused by his exposure to the

imperialistic nature of the historical period in which he lived.

Marlow is asked by “the company”, the organization for whom he

works, to travel to the Congo river and report back to them about Mr.

Kurtz, a top notch officer of theirs. When he sets sail, he doesn’t

know 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’s journey through the

African Congo and the “enlightenment” of his soul. It begins with

Charlie Marlow, along with a few of his comrades, cruising aboard the

Nellie, a traditional sailboat. On the boat, Marlow begins to tell of

his experiences in the Congo. Conrad uses Marlow to reveal all the

personal thoughts and emotions that he wants to portray while Marlow

goes on this “voyage of a lifetime”.

Marlow begins his voyage as an ordinary English 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 any

alternative form of culture, similar to the one he will encounter in

Africa, and he has no idea about the drastically different culture

that exists out there.

Throughout the book, Conrad, via Marlow’s observations, reveals to

the reader the naive mentality shared by every European. Marlow as

well, 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 is seeing him for the last time

before he embarks on his journey. Marlow’s aunt is under the

assumption that the voyage is a mission to “wean those ignorant

millions from their horrid ways”(18-19). 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.

Another manifestation of the Europeans obliviousness towards

reality is seen when Marlow is recounting his adventure aboard the

Nellie. He addresses his comrades who are on board saying:

“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—(56).”

What Marlow is saying is that while he is in the Congo, although

he has to concentrate on the petty little everyday things, such

as overseeing the repair of his boat, he is still aware of what is

going on around him and of the horrible reality in which he is in

the midst of. On the other hand, his friends on the boat simply don’t

know of these realities. It is their ignorance, as well as their

innocence which provokes them to say “Try to be civil, Marlow”(57).

Not only are they oblivious to the reality which Marlow is exposed to,

but their naivet? is so great, they can’t even comprehend a place

where this ’so called’ reality would even be a bad dream! Hence, their

response is clearly rebuking the words of a “savage” for having said

something so ridiculous and “uncivilized”.

Quite surprisingly, this mentality does not pertain exclusively to

the Englishmen in Europe. At one point during Marlow’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 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 this 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. . . (67).

Once again, we see the simple-mindedness of the Europeans, even if

they were exposed to reality. Their mentality is engraved in their

minds and is so impliable, that even the environment of the Congo

can’t sway their belief that people simply don’t do the horrible

things Marlow recounts. The whites are dumbfounded and can not

comprehend how people, in this case the natives, would simply attack

these innocent people. That would just be wrong! 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, the difference of mentalities is shown when Marlow

speaks of the portion of his crew who are cannibals. While in the

midst of his journey, Marlow, quite casually, converses with these

cannibals; even about their animalistic ways! As Jacques Berthoud said

so accurately in his Joseph Conrad, “what would be nspeakable horror

in London…becomes, on the Congo river, an unremarkable topic of

conversation…”(47). These “unspeakable horrors” are hardly

unspeakable in the Congo because they 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? With solid pavement under your

feet, surrounded by kind neighbors 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

neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion(82)?”

In Europe, there are “kind neighbors” who are there to make sure

that everything is all right. The European lives his life “stepping

delicately between the butcher and the policeman”. Everywhere he

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 Congo and begins his voyage, that 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…

There is one specific theme in Heart of Darkness in which the

reader can follow Marlow’s evolution from the “everyday European” to a

man who realizes his own naivet? and finally to his uncovering of his

own reality. This evolution comes about as a direct result of 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 certain

things. However, it is precisely these observations which change

Marlow forever. Marlow first realizes the European’s flaw of not being

able to give 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 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 (21).

Conrad is teaching us something extremely important. Berthoud

points out that the “intelligibility of what men do depends upon

the context in which they do it.” Marlow is watching this occurrence.

He sees the Europeans firing “tiny projectiles” and their cannons

producing a “pop”. The Europeans, however, see themselves fighting an

all out war against the savage enemies in the name of imperialism! The

Europeans feel that this is an honorable battle, and therefore, all

get emotionally excited and fight with all they have. Marlow, however,

sees it differently. He is now in Africa where reality broods. It’s

lurking everywhere. The only thing one has to do to find it is open

his mind to new and previously ‘unheard’ of 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 is assuring Marlow that the allied ship

is defeating the “enemies”, and that they just couldn’t see the

“enemies” because they were “hidden out of sight somewhere”. In

actuality, they’re shooting at innocent natives who have probably fled

from the area of battle already. Marlow is beginning to realize that

“what makes sense in Europe no longer makes sense in Africa”(Berthoud.

46).

With that passage, Conrad informs the reader of Marlow’s

realization. From that point on, Marlow is looking to corroborate if

in actuality, the mentality instilled upon him in Europe is similar to

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 able to see something for what it is, and in turn, not being

able to give it an accurate “label”, is indeed “the European way”.

There are some names given by the Europeans that simply don’t fit

the characteristic of the object being named. Marlow points out that

the name ‘Kurtz’ means short in German. However, at Marlow’s first

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 just a blatant oxy-moron. Marlow recognizes yet another

obvious misrepresentation. Marlow meets a man who is called the

“bricklayer”. However, as Marlow himself points out, “there wasn’t a

fragment of a brick anywhere in the station”(39).

During his voyage, however, Marlow doesn’t only observe this

misnaming, but realizes the importance of a name. While overhearing a

conversation between the manager of the station and his uncle, he

hears Mr. Kurtz being refereed to as “that man”(53). Although Marlow

hasn’t met Kurtz yet, he has heard of his greatness. He now realizes

that by 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). These men are now, by not referring to him by his name,

denying Kurtz’s accomplishments.

This same idea of distorting a person’s character by changing his

name is displayed elsewhere. The Europeans apply the terms ‘enemy’ and

‘criminals’ to the natives. In actuality, they are simply “bewildered

and helpless victims…and moribund shadows”(Berthoud. 46). Clearly,

the injustice done by the simple misnaming of someone is unbelievable.

After witnessing all of these names which bare no true meaning, as

well as possibly degrade a person’s character, Marlow understands that

he can not continue in his former ways of mindlessly giving random

names to something in fear of diminishing the essence of the

recipient. As a result, Marlow finds himself unable to label something

for what it is. While under attack, Marlow reefers to the arrows being

shot in his direction as “sticks, little sticks”, and a spear being

thrown at his boat “a long cane”(75–77). When Marlow arrives at the

inner station, he sees “slim posts…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 formulate a name even for the

simplest of things.

Taking a step back and looking at his voyage, Marlow realizes the

insignificant, mindless, meaningless ‘labels’ which the Europeans use

to identify with something, and he wants to be able to “give to

experience, names that have some substance”. At this point, he is

similar to Adam in the Garden of Eden who is “watching the parade of

nameless experience” go by. However, Marlow is missing an essential

thing which Adam possessed. As opposed to Adam, who was delegated by

G-d to name experiences, Marlow lacked this authority to name. It is

Kurtz who will become 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…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…(79).”

Kurtz was “little more than a voice”(80), but there was no one with a

voice like his. He could speak with remarkable eloquence, he could

write with such precision… he could name with true meaning! “You

don’t talk with that man[Kurtz], 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 Marlow is looking for. However,

he does it in a very unconventional way. Kurtz teaches 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 he has

lived. He is barbarous, unscrupulous, and possibly even evil. However,

he has evaluated at his life, and he has “pronounced a judgment upon

the adventures of his soul on this earth”(118). 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…”(101). Kurtz takes everything in. He takes his life, and

puts it all out on the table. “He had summed up— he had judged…The

horror!”(119).

Kurtz’s last words is 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

already existing principles which they have ‘acquired’, Kurtz taught

Marlow to look inside of himself and to 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 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 have a voice too, and for good

or evil 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 in something. One can

not only depend on anther’s principles to find his reality in

something because they have not had to bear the pain and

responsibility of creating it. Principles are usually acquisitions,

which like other things we acquire rather than generate, like clothes

are easily shaken off. The power of speech which will sustain a man is

the power to create or affirm for one’s self a deliberate, or a chosen

belief (Bruce Johnson. 79).

This judgment must be from one’s own internal strengths. That is

why Marlow says, “for good or evil, mine is the speech that 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, one must 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 that

regardless of whether the truth is good or bad, one must face up to

his reality. 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 yourself is not following

anther’s moral code, but being able to judge one’s self honestly and

uncover their own reality. It is because of this understanding that

Marlow claims that Kurtz’s last words is “a moral victory paid for by

innumerable defeats…”(120). Despite Kurtz’s immoral ways, he is

victorious because 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 of the 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 is a precise

representation of Kurtz himself. Firstly, the background was

“sombre—almost black”. This is a manifestation of Kurtz because his

life is full of darkness. He kills, he steals, and he is worshipped as

a god. Kurtz cannot be without blackness and survive. In addition, the

picture displays the lesson itself. It is a picture of the lady of

justice holding a torch. This is Kurtz’s role. Unlike Europe, which

imposes their principles upon others, he is merely there to

“illuminate”(79). Kurtz is there to expand the peoples minds, to

introduce them to a broad new spectrum of reality. However, he does

not impose his own reality upon them. Hence, he is blindfolded in the

picture. To him, they make a subjective decision and they find their

own truth, regardless of what that truth may be. That is his lesson.

Eventually Marlow realizes that Kurtz’s picture was in essence, a

self portrait. The same thing which Kurtz conveyed with ‘the horror’,

he conveyed with this picture. Marlow’s realization is evident with

this remark. “I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what’s in

the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for

yourself, not for others”(47).

Marlow learns the essence of ‘naming’ and understands what it

means to ‘be yourself’. However, Marlow has encountered two extremes.

The European mentality, which is completely oblivious to reality, and

Kurtz, a man who has found his reality, but it is one of horror and no

restraint from any wrongdoing. He is now returning to his home to deal

with his former world, however, he now possesses his new

‘understanding’. Marlow cannot return to his previous ‘European ways’

simply because he has ‘been enlightened’ and lost his naivet?.

However, why can’t he adapt Kurtz’s ways and 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 several reasons. Firstly,

Kurtz had “kicked himself loose from the earth…he had kicked the

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”(112). Kurtz had

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

god. Because of this unmonitered power, Kurtz lost all sense of

restraint and became the savage that he was. Marlow, however, has not

lost his sense of morality. What Marlow rejected in Kurtz was the

“complete absence in Kurtz of any innate or transcendental sanctions”

(Johnson. 99).

It is because of Marlow’s rejection of both the Europeans, who

Marlow claims are full of “stupid importance”, and of Kurtz’s

inability to establish his own moral code, that Marlow chooses an

“alternative reality”(Berthoud. 60). The first time the reader

witnesses Marlow’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).Not only did he find

their lives meaningless, but he mocked them to himself. “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 people. I admit my behavior was inexcusable…”

(120). Although Marlow looked down upon these Europeans, he says

something remarkable. He judged his own actions and found them

‘inexcusable’. This is his manifestation of breaking away from Kurtz’s

extreme. Unlike Kurtz who lacked all restraint and would never find

looking down on people bad, Marlow realized that he couldn’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 reader doesn’t know exactly

where Marlow stands. However, Marlow does something that is the

quintessential act of affirmation that he has chose the middle of the

two extremes. While aboard the Nellie, Marlow tells his comrades that

“I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie…simply because it appalls me.

There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies…”(44).

Towards the end of the novel, Marlow is invited by Kurtz’s fiancee to

go to her house to speak of her beloved Kurtz. Upon her asking Marlow

what his last words were, Marlow responded “The last word he

pronounced was—your name”(131). He lies to her. He does something he

utterly detests. This is the event that convinces the reader of

Marlow’s uptaking of a middle position. He does look inside himself

and use his own personal ability to judge this event. He does what

Kurtz had told him. Despite his abhorrence of lies, he judges this

situation and decides that it was right to lie. However, he is

different from Kurtz. Kurtz did judge every event independently,

however, he does it solely based on his own whims. He could

not incorporate any objective principles whatsoever in making his

decision. Marlow does judge every event independently, however, he can

not rely solely on his own creeds. Regardless of his decision, he will

always incorporate some objective principles into his judgment. Marlow

now creates his ‘alternative reality’ and achieves his truth.

When Marlow was exposed to the imperialistic environment of the

congo, it had a tremendous effect upon him. The protagonist of

Conrad’s novel undergoes a drastic change in response to his

environment, common only to that specific time period. Kurtz shows

Marlow the flaws in the Europeans imperialistic ideals. Kurtz sees the

meaninglessness of European standards of the time, and therefore

changes his entire perception and behavior.


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