In Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, there are several ways of interpreting Marlow’s journey down the Congo River. Marlow’s journey is symbolic and metaphoric, and hence can be interpreted psychoanalytically, mythically and historically. A psychoanalytical reading involves examining Marlow’s journey in the light of Freud’s and Nietzsche’s understanding of humanity’s inner psyche. A mythical understanding reverberates on the plot, such that Marlow engages on a heroic quest to find his holy grail.
Furthermore the text can be examined historically, as a depiction of the colonial enterprise and the rhetoric that it stood for. Hence all three interpretations are valid and depict Marlow’s symbolic journey through narrative techniques such as frame narrative, metaphor, symbolism, setting and irony. A psychoanalytical understanding of Marlow’s journey stems from the philosophical developments of Freud and Nietzsche in their books The Interpretations of Dreams (1899) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). Freud’s ideas encompass the notion that dreams are the gateway for deep human subconsciousness.
In Heart of Darkness it can be said that Marlow’s physical journey to Kurtz is symptomatic of his own psychological journey to understand his own inner identity. This becomes easily apparent through the dream-like nature of Marlow’s journey in, “Going up to that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetarian rioted on the earth and the big trees were the kings. ”, suggesting through hyperbolic simile that man’s identity is timeless and concealed within the metaphoric “impenetrable forest” of the conscious mind.
This identity is what Kurtz comes to represent, emphasising man’s inner savagery, brutality, lust and desires which are repressed by society. Hence Freud suggests through Conrad’s novel that, when unrestrained, the unconscious desires of man become reality. This idea supports Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, that is, one who gives up the constructions of society such as religion and morality becomes superior to those around him. This is embellished by Kurtz who “had kicked himself loose of the earth” and “knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear”.
Kurtz’s metaphoric and cumulative rejection of societal morality and frivolous restraints makes him a “remarkable man” in the eyes of Marlow suggesting that the text is actually a description of humanity’s morality, psychological deterioration and intellectual journey to understand the essential self. This makes Marlow enlightened to a degree as he has seen the “edge, while [he was] permitted to draw back [his] hesitating foot”, emphasising through synecdoche that Marlow is now self aware of his inner darkness.
He was seen the “appalling face of a glimpsed truth – the strange commingling of desire and hate”, the chiaroscurist oxymoron of desire and hate is metaphoric of the ambiguity of light and darkness in one’s inner psyche. Marlow realises that it is an innate part of humanity and hence strikes a Buddha pose as he recounts his introspective enlightenment to the men on the Nellie. A mythical interpretation of Marlow’s journey is emphasised through the major events and emotions that Marlow tells and feels as he retells his story.
Marlow’s journey can be likened to a knight on a quest to retrieve his Holy Grail. In his journey, he witnesses or is a part of several events which have a profound impact upon Marlow as well as demonstrating the thematic concern of darkness. His initial assessment by the doctor is rather unusual, although he performs physical assessments, he also asks, “Ever any madness in your family? ” suggesting that darkness or insanity is somewhat intergenerational or gives individuals an indisposition for a lack of restraint.
The doctor suggests that darkness exists in everyone, however he Marlow does not believe so, evident in the scathing and ironic tone of his response, “Is that question in the interests of science too? ”. This event can be seen as the start of Marlow’s journey down the Congo and heightens his innocence as Marlow believes he can be immune to irrationality by maintaining a “devotion to efficiency”. Another major event is when the Marlow and his crew are attacked by the natives as they go down the Congo. A historical interpretation of Marlow’s journey down the Congo explores the colonial context of Conrad’s novella.
Conrad states that the purpose of his work was to expose the “criminality and inefficiency of colonialism”. Hence it can be said that that Conrad explores and comments on the ideologies of the colonial enterprise which were loosely based upon social-Darwinism whose aims were to bring commerce, Christianity and civilisation to ‘savage’ and ‘uncivilised lands’. These stereotypes fit in with the widespread notion of the “White man’s burden”, the idea that it was the white man’s responsibility, as a result of their superiority, to civilise people deemed to be inferior or uncivilised.
Instead the reality was the widespread exploitation of the natives despite “the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern … a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages”. As a result of this exploitation, Africa was literally carved up evident in the description of a map of the African continent as being, “marked with all the colours of a rainbow”. The irony is that these exploitative ventures look good at the outlook, but deep down Conrad dispels the idea of “progress” or “work”. “Progress” follows the ideals of colonising an area of “darkness” and bringing “light”.
However the ideals of the colonial empire are so inhumane and corrupt that the associations of darkness and light are subverted. One of these slices of the African cake eventuated into hands of King Leopold II of Belgium in 1885. This slice was the Congo Free State, the setting of Marlow’s story. The Congo’s main natural resources were rubber, copper and other minerals. Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo coincided with the advent of automobiles which eventuated in the form of an increased demand for rubber, which was supplied at a cost of at least ten million Congolese.
Hence the novella depicts the humanity’s greedy failure, exhibiting the horror of the innate human darkness. Hence Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness can be read as a psychoanalytical, mythical and a historical commentary on man’s inner darkness. Each interpretation presents its own merits and level of understanding of a specific context of the novella, including psychological, scientific, historic and symbolic detail. Together these interpretations give a larger understanding of Heart of Darkness and what Conrad is attempting to explain about the human condition.