Heart Of Darkness (3810 words) Essay

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness
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.

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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 withCharlie 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 naivete 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
naivete 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 naivete 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 themidst 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
youor 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 naivete 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

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.


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, 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—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 naivete.

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’sinability 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

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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