Heart Of Darkness Essay, Research Paper
An Inward Journey
The journey in Heart of Darkness traverses not only the capricious waters spanning our physical world, but also the paradoxical ocean which exists in the heart of man and all of mankind. Through Maslow’s somewhat fanatical eyes we view the enigma that is humanity, and the blurred line between light and dark. It is a voyage into the deepest recesses of the human heart and mind, leading to epiphany, enlightenment, and finally spiraling downwards into the crevices of a hell existing within each and every one of us. Although through Maslow Conrad depicts a journey into the Congo, his use of symbolism and wordplay divulge that it is something much more profound.
The Heart of Darkness as an entirety is one immense metaphor, whose numerous annexes can be either convoluted or self-evident. Almost every action, object, and character in Conrad’s book has a deeper, more relevant meaning behind it, serving to bring the reader ever closer to the conclusion that the voyage is indeed an inward one. The first major indication of this is the posture of Maslow as he recounts his journey into the Congo. According to the narrator, “he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.” This lotus position is one typically used for meditation, which is in fact defined as a spiritual journey promoted by a lucidity of thought. Successful meditation leads to a more discerning understanding of human nature and allows one to contemplate the innermost workings of the mind. Therefore Maslow’s stance capitalizes on his true destination, insinuating from the very first pages that his journey is actually within himself.
From the start of Maslow’s tale there are a myriad of symbols relating to the unchartered places of the subconscious, and the journey intended to discover them. For instance, Maslow is lead to a room by two silent women spinning black wool (The women represent the Fates of Greek mythology, who spin a skein of wool which symbolizes a person’s life. The fact that these women’s thread is black creates an ominous sense of foreboding.). There his attention is drawn to a map and he finds himself enthralled by a large river coursing through the heart of Africa. He notices that the river resembled a snake, and that it was “fascinating.” For some odd reason, this long, sinuous river tempted him, despite its reptilian connotations, which already alerts the reader to danger ahead. The river is akin to the serpent in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, offering the unwitting pair a forbidden fruit – wisdom, and a dark knowledge of oneself.
Also, throughout the journey, there are repeated references to both life and death. Uncannily, these two are always intertwined. For example, there is a theme of bones which is constantly recurring in Maslow’s story. The Swede mentions a man who died, and whose skeleton was left sprawled on the ground until the grasses began to grow up through his ribcage. The grass represents life, and of course, the skeleton represents death. These two are woven together. Also, there is Kurtz’s obsession with ivory (dental bone), and according to Maslow he has the appearance of the object of his fixation. From Maslow’s description, Kurtz bears a skeletal resemblance even when he is alive. Conrad’s frequent symbolic combinations of life and death is probably one of his numerous parallels to light and dark, echoing the fact that the two must exist stimultaneously – there cannot be without the other.
Conrad’s book is based on the presence of light and dark within everyone, and in Maslow’s journey the question is often posed of which is predominant. There are times when darkness usurps the light, others when it is the opposite. However, the darkness (evil) usually tends to prevail. Conrad is implying that a sense of evil resides in the core of every human, and therefore reigns at the centre of humanity, however veiled by morals, civilization and refinement. This is one of the main facts Maslow ascertains on his journey, for he sees darkness everywhere, even when there is light.
Just as the line between light and dark is indistinct, the barrier segregating civilization from savagery is equally obscure. In Africa, Maslow repeatedly encounters natives, and his crew is comprised of twenty cannibals. As they progress deeper into the heart of the forest, we can take note that black people are dehumanized. They are perpetually referred to in animalistic terms, and are treated as such. However, it is these “savages” who survive and thrive in the heart of darkness, and whose ways eventually engulf Kurtz. There is also the indication here that technology, civilization, and refinement have been rendered useless. For instance, Maslow encounters a graveyard of “dead” machinery, rusted over and obsolete. Also, his vessel sinks to the bottom of the river, forcing him to remain at one of the stations for a long period of time. Every character thought to be at the pinnacle of cultivation and etiquette either dies or becomes corrupted by his surroundings (Kurtz, Fresleven). It is apparent that civilization is utterly futile in such surroundings.
Kurtz serves as a prime example of a civilized gentleman who capitulates to his barbaric side due to his environment. Regardless of the respect and admiration showered upon him by his peers, not to mention the jealousy, he was at heart a hollow man, consumed by his greed for ivory. This is probably why he gave in so readily to his primitive instincts, partaking in the horrendous rituals of the natives, and letting his dark essence become the hub of his actions. Kurtz is also symbolic of the evil within our society, for people saw him as the “emissary of science and progress.” He represents the person found deep within the recesses of our subconscious, the core of darkness ever-present beneath the gauzy layers of refinement and civility. “One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, ‘I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.’ The light was within a foot of his eyes.” In this quote we can see that, symbolically, Kurtz is so overcome by darkness that he is blind to light. This is also embodied in an oil painting done by Kurtz, depicting a blindfolded woman surrounded by darkness but carrying a torch which casts a sinister light over her face. The blindfolded woman can be taken as a common Western symbol of justice and liberty, things that man has created to differentiate himself from the beasts and savages. The fact that the woman is enshrouded in darkness with only insufficient torchlight to guide her says a lot about the nature of our society.
The culmination of Marlow’s journey leads into the heart of darkness, or in a more worldly sense, Hell. Heart of Darkness fosters the allusion that hell is within us, that it is the evil existing deep inside our souls. Marlow visits this place when he finally encounters Kurtz, and his innocent morals are challenged. He views firsthand the inhumanity man is capable of, and the journey begins to take on all the properties of a nightmare. When Kurtz himself is lying on his deathbed, he sees into his own heart, looks his personal hell in full view, and utters things which give Maslow a grim revelation as to what lies within that black abyss. Kurtz’s final words, as he ends his voyage into his bitter core, are “The horror, the horror!” referring to what he sees inside himself.
The journey Maslow undertakes is seemingly in our own world, something which we reside in yet know so little about. We delude ourselves into believing that we can tame and subdue it, and that it will readily succumb and be molded to our good intentions. However, just as trying to harness the dark and primal nature within ourselves is impossible, this is an equally unattainable fantasy. Conrad’s world is an embodiment of humanity, its ocean is its heart, and its impenetrable forest is its mind. Through Maslow’s epiphany it is revealed that at the mouth of every river, at the core of every grove, subsists a perpetual darkness encased in light.