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Crime And Punishment Essay, Research Paper

Darkness and Light: the Illumination of Reality and

Unreality in Heart of Darkness

Throughout his narrative in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Thomas

Marlow characterizes events, ideas, and locations that he encounters in terms

of light or darkness. Embedded in Marlow’s parlance is an ongoing metaphor

equating light with knowledge and civility and darkness with mystery and

savagery. When he begins his narrative, Marlow equates light and, therefore,

civility, with reality, believing it to be a tangible expression of man’s natural

state. Similarly, Marlow uses darkness to depict savagery as a vice having

absconded with nature. But as he proceeds deeper into the heart of the

African jungle and begins to understand savagery as a primitive form of

civilization and, therefore, a reflection on his own reality, the metaphor shifts,

until the narrator raises his head at the end of the novel to discover that the

Thames seemed to ‘lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” The

alteration of the light-dark metaphor corresponds with Marlow’s cognizance

that the only ‘reality’, ‘truth’, or ‘light’ about civilization is that it is, regardless of

appearances, unreal, absurd, and shrouded in ‘darkness’.

Marlow uses the contrast between darkness and light to underscore the

schism between the seemingly disparate realms of civility and savagery,

repeatedly associating light with knowledge and truth; darkness with mystery

and deceptive evil. When Marlow realizes that his aunt’s acquaintances had

misrepresented him to the Chief of the Inner Station, Marlow states, ‘Light

dawned upon me’, as if to explicitly associate light with knowledge or

cognizance. It is significant then, that Marlow later associates light with

civilization. He describes the knights-errant who went out from the Thames to

conquer the vast reaches of the world as having brought light into the

darkness, flanked with figurative torches alongside their swords, ‘bearers of a

spark from the sacred fire.” That Marlow directly correlates knowledge and

light, and light and civilization, necessarily implies that Marlow seeks to

correlate knowledge and civilization. In a word, Marlow’s delineation of the

British imperialists implies that he understands civilization to be logical and

rational, while he understands primitive social organizations to be backward

and crude.

As Marlow proceeds deeper into the heart of the African jungle and begins to

understand savagery as a primitive form of civilization and, therefore, a

reflection on his own reality, the light-dark metaphor shifts. For example,

when Marlow goes wandering in the jungle, he has contrasting experiences in

the sunshine and in the shade that are ironic in light of the established

metaphor. Contemplating the colonialists in the jungle, he remarks:

‘I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the

devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! These were strong, lusty,

red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men – men, I tell you.

But as I stood on the hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding

sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby,

pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.

How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several

months later.’

That the ‘blazing sunlight’ would proffer to Marlow the realization that the

civilized colonialists were little more than ‘flabby, pretending? devils’ is ironic.

In keeping with the established metaphor, it would be logical for him to

glimpse the intelligence and inherent goodness of the colonialists in the

sunlight. The pun on the metaphor continues when Marlow departs the

sunshine for the shade and is aloud to partake of the natives in their ‘natural’

habitat: the darkness. We would expect to see the natives in all their wanton

savagery, but instead the darkness is ‘gloomy’ and filled with a ‘mournful

stillness’ . As Marlow describes, ‘Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between

trees, leaning against trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced

with dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair.’ Note

that Marlow describes the emaciated natives as being ‘half effaced with dim

light’. He is just beginning to see the realities of civilization and progress, and

the reality that the natives are not ‘the enemy’ or madly insane, but are sick,

starving, dying, helpless, and weak; the partiality and dimness of the light

reflects his half-awareness. As if to ensure the reader’s cognizance of the pun,

fate would have it that as Marlow departs for the station from the shade, he

runs into one of the colonialists: ‘I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a

light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clear silk necktie, and varnished boots.’

The contrast between the starving, deprived, wretched natives and this

overfed, overdressed man parodies the man, while his dress (’white’, ’snowy’,

‘light’, ‘clear’, ‘varnished’) again makes a pun of Marlow’s understanding of

light (the man’s tie also stands in august contrast to the absurd white worsted

the black man had wrapped around his neck in the shade ). These pun

provides a context for Marlow’s use of the metaphor later to critique the

colonialists treatment of the savages: noticing a painting of Lady Justice in the

manager’s station, Marlow observes: ‘The background was somber, almost

black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the

torchlight on the face was sinister.’ With this, the metaphor has come full

circle, and Marlow’s understanding of civilization has been fundamentally

altered.

We’ve now established that Marlow’s perception of reality in regards to

civilization changes: what he initially thinks of as rational and good, he

concludes is irrational and evil. It remains to be shown that Marlow believes

Kurtz to have been anything short of fundamentally evil. When Marlow first

learns of Kurtz’s activities in the jungle, he attributes Kurtz’s moral downfall to

his disconnect with civilization and reality, blaming the ‘dark’, ‘mysterious’

forces of the jungle for Kurtz’s actions: ‘?never, never before, did this land,

this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so

hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human

weakness.’ Marlow gradually becomes aware that perhaps Kurtz’s actions

were quite natural, however, and reflect not a madman’s sick abortion of

human nature, but rather reflect human nature itself. Take, for example,

Marlow’s reaction to Kurtz’s cannibalistic brutality: ‘?I seemed at one bound

to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where

pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that has a

right to exist – obviously – in the sunshine.’ Savagery itself is not shocking to

Marlow, but he is unable to reconcile its uninhibited, unapologetic treatment

(manifested here by its existence in the light of day). This implies that Marlow

understands savagery as something that exists in society, just not in a tangible,

explicit form. Kurtz’s government, less removed from its original formulation,

is therefore a truer reflection on ‘reality’ than the trappings of civilization.

When the harlequin warns Marlow not to judge Kurtz’s brutality because

Marlow can’t understand the ‘conditions’ that led Kurtz to impale heads upon

stakes outside his house, Marlow reflects: ‘I shocked him excessively by

laughing. Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear? There had

been enemies, criminals, workers – and these were rebels.’ But the harlequin’s

justification for Kurtz’s actions is not unlike the justification individuals from all

walks of life posit to justify the brutality of the sovereigns under which they are

socialized. To further the irony, Marlow stops just short of mocking the

savages in their militaristic procession: ‘Some of the pilgrims behind the

stretcher carried his arms – two shot-guns, a heavy rifle, and a light

revolver-carbine – the thunderbolts of that pitiful Jupiter.’ And yet such

displays are common in civil societies: carrying arms in the name of gods:

flags, leaders; against individuals who might otherwise be brothers, but who

happen to live on the wrong side of a collectively imagined border or believe

in a different deity at the head of their collectively understood religion. In these

ways, the natives

become a reflection of how absurdly we give up our bodies and our thoughts

to the Durkheimian group, and shed light on the reality that is human nature.

This realization terrifies Marlow, as indicated by his pronouncement: “I don’t

want to know anything of the ceremonies used when approaching Mr.

Kurtz,…Curious, this feeling came over me that such details would be more

intolerable than those heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz’s

windows.” Marlow is forced to conclude, however, that any partition between

the reality of civilization and the seeming unreality of primitive savagery is

diaphanous at best.

As Marlow comes to understand Kurtz’s ’society’ as a reflection on all

civilizations, and Kurtz’s actions as a reflection of the evil that resides in the

hearts of all men, he must necessarily conclude that all civilizations are, in

some small way, shrouded in darkness. His ultimate conclusion about

societies is that they are a form of escapism from the darkness of human

nature,: ‘When you have to attend to [menial tasks], to the mere incidents of

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

– luckily, luckily. But I feel it all the same [?]” That the surface realities of

social man’s life are little but absurd trappings of civilization is evidenced by

the socialization of the savages to the colonialist ‘white’ government. Marlow

describes and parodies three savages who have, in Rousseau’s tradition,

accepted the yoke of the colonialist on the condition that they have power

enough to enslave their fellow Africans. The most explicit instance of this

mocking comes from his description of one of his shipmates: ‘He was an

improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler?to look at him was as

edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on

his hind-legs.’ Marlow’s parody of this man parallels his ironical lauding of

civilization, describing a large, seemingly meaningless hole in the slope of a hill

as perhaps being ‘?connected with the philanthropic desire of giving criminals

something to do.’ Civilization, then, can be said to be a form of iridescent

escapism that protects us from the reality buried under its surface.

In the end, Marlow is fatalistic about his findings, gazing around London and

realizing that perhaps it is better that individuals should be filled with petty

delusions than for Marlow to preach to them like some deluded, living

Thomas Marley. In the end, however, Marlow’s message is heard by his

listeners, as the narrator raises his head at the end of the novel to discover that

the Thames seemed to ‘lead into the heart of an immense darkness,” thus

accepting, like Marlow, that the moral to be gained from Kurtz’s experience is

that the only ‘reality’, ‘truth’, or ‘light’ about civilization is that it is, regardless of

appearances, unreal, absurd, and shrouded in ‘darkness’.


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