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Heart Of Darkness 3 Essay, Research Paper

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The framing narrative of Heart of Darkness is presented by an unnamed, undefined speaker, who is one of a group of men, former sailors, now professionals, probably middle-aged, on the deck of a yacht at the mouth of the Thames River, London England. The time is probably contemporary with the writing and publication of the novel, so around the turn of the 20th century. One among the group, Charlie Marlow, a mysterious figure who is still a sailor, tells the story of something that happened to him several years before, when he drove a steamboat up a river in Africa to locate an agent for a Belgian company involved in the promising ivory trade. Most of the novel is Marlow’s narration, although Conrad sometimes brings us back to the yacht and ends the novel there. Also, as in Wuthering Heights, the technique of a framing narrative brings up questions of memory: how a story is reliable when related by someone many years after the fact, then reported by someone else.

The structure of Heart of Darkness is much like that of the Russian nesting dolls, where you open each doll, and there is another doll inside. Much of the meaning in Heart of Darkness is found not in the center of the book, the heart of Africa, but on the periphery of the book. There is an outside narrator telling us a story he has heard from Marlow. The story which Marlow tells seems to center around a man named Kurtz. However, most of what Marlow knows about Kurtz, he has learned from other people, many of whom have good reason for not being truthful to Marlow. Therefore Marlow has to piece together much of Kurtz’s story. We slowly get to know more and more about Kurtz. Part of the meaning in Heart of Darkness is that we learn about “reality” through other people’s accounts of it, many of which are, themselves, twice-told tales. Marlow is the source of our story, but he is also a character within the story we read.

Marlow, thirty-two years old, has always “followed the sea”, as the novel puts it. His voyage up the Congo river, however, is his first experience in freshwater travel. Conrad uses Marlow as a narrator in order to enter the story himself and tell it out of his own philosophical mind. When Marlow arrives at the station he is shocked and disgusted by the sight of wasted human life and ruined supplies . The manager’s senseless cruelty and foolishness overwhelm him with anger and disgust. He longs to see Kurtz- a fabulously successful ivory agent and hated by the company manager. More and more, Marlow turns away from the white people (because of their ruthless brutality) and to the dark jungle (a symbol of reality and truth). He begins to identify more and more with Kurtz- long before he even sees him or talks to him.

Kurtz, like Marlow, originally came to the Congo with noble intentions. He thought that each ivory station should stand like a beacon light, offering a better way of life to the natives. Kurtz’s mother was half-English and his father was half-French. He was educated in England and speaks English. The culture and civilization of Europe have contributed to the making of Kurtz; he is an orator, writer, poet, musician, artist, politician, ivory procurer, and chief agent of the ivory company’s Inner Station at Stanley Falls. In short, he is a “universal genius”; however, he also described as a “hollow man,” a man without basic integrity or any sense of social responsibility.

Kurtz wins control of men through fear and adoration. His power over the natives almost destroys Marlow and the party aboard the steamboat. Kurtz is the violent devil whom Marlow describes at the beginning. Kurtz might never have revealed his evil nature if he had not been spotted and tortured by the manager.

A major theme of Heart of Darkness is civilization versus savagery. The book implies that civilizations are created by the setting of laws and codes that encourage men to achieve higher standards. It acts as a block to prevent men from reverting back to their darker tendencies. Civilization, however, must be learned. While society seems to restrain these savage tendencies, it does not get rid of them. The tendency to revert to savagery is seen in Kurtz. When Marlow meets Kurtz, he finds a man who has totally thrown off the bondage of civilization and has reduced to a primitive state where he cheats everybody even himself. Conrad recognized that deception is the worst when it becomes self-deception and the individual takes seriously his own fictions. Kurtz “could get himself to believe anything- anything.” His friendly words of his report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage customs was meant to be sincere, but a deeper meaning of it was rather “Exterminate all the brutes!”

Marlow and Kurtz are two opposite examples of the human condition. Kurtz represents what every man will become if left to his own intrinsic desires without a protective, civilized environment. Marlow represents the civilized soul that has not been drawn back into savagery by a dark, alienated jungle. The book implies that every man has a heart of darkness that is usually drowned out by the light of civilization. However, when removed from civilized society, the raw evil of within his soul will be released. The underlying theme of Heart of Darkness is that civilization is superficial. The level of civilization is related to the physical and moral environment they are presently in. It is a much less stable or state than society may think.

The wilderness is a very significant symbol in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is not only the background in which the action of the story takes place, but also a character of the story in and of itself. The vastness and savagery of the wilderness contrast with the foolishness of the pilgrims, and the wilderness also shows the greed and brutality that hide even behind the noblest ideals.

The wilderness is not a person as such, but rather an omnipotent force that continually watches the invasion of the white man. The activities of the white people are viewed throughout the book as insane and pointless. They spend their time searching for ivory or fighting against each other for position and status within their own environment. Marlow comments: “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it . . . I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life” In contrast, the wilderness appears immovable, and threatening. During Marlow’s stay at the Central Station, he describes the surrounding wilderness as a “rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to . . . sweep every little man of us out of his little existence” It is difficult to say, however, what the intentions of the wilderness actually are. We see the wilderness entirely through Marlow’s eyes, and it remains always an open question. It is “an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” .

The natives, who are too simple to have false motives and pretenses, live perfectly at peace with the wilderness. At some places in the story their voices can be considered the voices of the wilderness. Especially when they are crying out in grief through the impenetrable fog, their voices seem to be coming from the wilderness itself. (”…to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed…”) The natives reflect the savage but very real quality of the wilderness. Consider Marlow’s description of the natives in the canoes on the coast: “…they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, and intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there” . The people who are successful in fighting the wilderness are those who create their own structured environments. For example, the chief accountant of the government station preserved himself by maintaining an impeccable appearance. Marlow says of him, “…in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That’s backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character” .

On the whole, the white men are successful in fighting the influence of the wilderness. They are either too greedy and stupid to realize that they are under attack, such as the pilgrims who are hunting for ivory, or they have managed to protected themselves with work, such as the accountant. There is, however, one notable exception. Kurtz stops resisting to the savagery of the wilderness. He gives up his high aspirations, and the wilderness brings out the darkness and brutality in his heart. All the principles of European society are gone away from him, and the passions and greed of his true nature are revealed. He collects loyal natives who worship him as a God, and they raid surrounding villages and collect huge amounts of ivory. The chiefs must use ceremonies when approaching Kurtz which Marlow feels disgust of. Marlow says, “…such details would be more intolerable than those heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz’s windows… . I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors . . .”

The degradation of Kurtz has implications for more than just himself. It also comments on humanity. At his death, he sees the true state of mankind. His gaze is “piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness” His final statement of “The horror! The horror!” is his judgment on all of life. The wilderness brings Kurtz to the point where he has a full awareness of himself, and from there he makes his pronouncement about the mankind.

Heart of Darkness explores something truer, more fundamental than just a personal narrative. It is a night journey into the unconscious, and confrontation within the self. Certain circumstances of Marlow’s voyage, looked at in these terms, has new importance. Marlow insists on the dreamlike quality of his narrative. “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream – sensation.” Even before leaving Brussels, Marlow felt as though he “was about to set off for center of the earth,” not the center of a continent. The introspective voyager leaves his familiar rational world, is “cut off from the comprehension” of his surroundings, his steamer toils “along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.” As the crisis approaches, the dreamer and his ship moves through a silence that “seemed unnatural, like a state of trance; then enter a deep fog.”

In the end, there is a symbolic unity between the two men. Marlow and Kurtz are the light and dark selves of a single person. Marlow is what Kurtz might have been, and Kurtz is what Marlow might have become.


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