Heart Of Darkness 11 Essay, Research Paper
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is at its core the story of two men, Marlow and Kurtz, and their experiences with the evil that resides within mankind’s soul. In many ways, Marlow and Kurtz are the light and dark selves of the same person. Marlow is what Kurtz might have been; Kurtz is what Marlow could have become. Both Marlow and Kurtz begin their stay in the Congo as idealists of some kind, Marlow in the adventure that he expects to find and Kurtz in his plans to “civilize” the natives. Both find themselves irrevocably changed by their journey into the jungle and the darkness that they find there. Kurtz embraces this evil and willingly sacrifices a part of himself in exchange for the power that it offers him; he becomes an agent of that evil and, in the end, is wholly consumed by it. Marlow on the other hand, is able to resist the temptations that doomed Kurtz; he leaves the Congo with a greater understanding of the mysterious and impenetrable darkness that dwells there yet is, frustratingly, unable to really quantify it in any specific or explicit manner. Marlow’s inability to give more than a generalized description of this central subject parallels a corresponding incapacity in Conrad. The vast, abstract darkness that he envisions is too complex and overwhelming to be reduced to a clear or explicit truth. Instead, the truths of the world that Conrad creates in Heart of Darkness are, like those of the real world, necessarily messy, suggestive, irrational, and general.
In a sense, it is trying to explain the unexplainable brings Marlow to the Congo in the first place. Like a knight searching for adventure, Marlow was drawn to the Congo, “the biggest, the most blank, so to speak” (p 71) place on the map. Once there, Marlow discovers firsthand the horrors of colonialism as well as an even greater pull in the figure of Kurtz, a mysterious and startlingly efficient agent living deep within the African jungle. Kurtz is first introduced quite casually to Marlow by the Accountant, who describes him as “remarkable” and “first-class” (p 84). At the Central Station, Marlow’s vision of Kurtz is fleshed out to include such descriptors as “prodigy”, and “an emissary of pity and science and progress” (p 92). When Marlow finally reaches Kurtz at the Inner Station, his first description of him is as “a voice … grave, profound, vibrating.” (p 136). In the end, Kurtz embodies for Marlow the same issues with meaning and understanding that are present in the rest of the book. He is a word, then a set of ideals, and finally a voice. Never does he truly become a flesh and blood person; he always remains an abstraction. He is given definition only by what others make him out to be; Marlow himself notes that, “All of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” His importance lies not so much in himself, but in the effect that he has upon Marlow. At first, this influence manifests itself as merely a slight curiosity for a man who appears to embody the same moral principles that Marlow himself has. He was, as he puts it, “curious to see if this man, who had come out here equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all and what he would do when he got there.” (p 99) As Marlow’s journey takes him deeper into the Congo, however, Marlow latches on to Kurtz as a source of enlightenment and understanding, as someone beyond the hollow pilgrims, and managers, and Papier-Mache Mephistopheles that he had thus far encountered. So strong did Marlow belief in Kurtz’s revelatory powers become, that when he thought that he would not have a chance to hear Kurtz speak after all, he felt as if he “had been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life…” (p 120).
Unfortunately for Marlow, Kurtz is not the great prophet that Marlow makes him out to be, at least, not in the sense that Marlow expects. At the Inner Station, Marlow discovers the answer to his earlier question of “just what such a man [Kurtz] would do when he got to the top,” when he realizes that Kurtz had set himself up as a god to the natives. Here as in most of the rest of the book, Kurtz is portrayed, not as an individual person, but as an agent of some greater force or belief. The seventeen page pamphlet in which he writes that “we [white men] must necessarily appear to the savages as supernatural beings.” (p 123) is a statement of a commonly held European view, as evidenced by Europeans’ treatment of the natives in Heart of Darkness as inferior beings. Kurtz merely takes the idea one step further in actually becoming a god to the area’s native inhabitants. In essence, Kurtz embraces the darkness, allowing it to enter into him in exchange for the power that it offers. As Marlow describes, ” The wilderness had patted him on the head …it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initation.” (p 121) By the time Marlow finally reaches Kurtz, he is also at the apex of his dark powers. His command over the native population is absolute, as symbolized by the shrunken heads which adorn the posts surrounding his hut and the piles of rotting ivory that fill it to bursting. At the same time, however, he is at the nadir of his existence. He has been almost completely consumed and is now no more than “an animated image of death carved out of old ivory” (p 135). All that truly remains of Kurtz and indeed all that he ever really was for Marlow is a voice. Yet what a voice it is, one that “rang deep to the very last” (p 146), for Kurtz’s pact with the powers of darkness has also given him access to knowledge that other men did not have, or perhaps were not meant to have. Dark and twisted though this knowledge is, it still succeeds in astonishing Marlow with its eloquence and power. Kurtz has stared so long and hard into the darkness during his stay in Africa, that he has gained some insight into its workings. As he enters his final moments, his eyes seem “wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts of darkness” (p 147). It is here that Kurtz’s existence goes full cycle, and where he at least shows a clear spark of individuality. His enlightenment comes too late, though, and Kurtz dies in the same manner in which he had first come alive for Marlow, in a word. “The horror!”, he cries, as he sums up all the dark knowledge and insights into the world that he had acquired, “The horror!”.
By his presence next to Kurtz during his final moment of understanding, Marlow becomes the heir to Kurtz’s dark legacy. It is obvious from his zombie-like condition immediately after Kurtz’s death that Marlow was able to understand at least a portion the dark view of the world which Kurtz’s final word implied. For a period of time, he walked in “some inconceivable world that had no hope in it and no desire.” (p 149) Yet even after shaking himself out of the dark mood that he had been in, Marlow still finds himself frustratingly unable to sum up his new insights in the concise way Kurtz had been able to. “I was within a hair’s breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement,” Marlow says of the subject, “and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say.” “This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man.” Marlow continues, “He had something to say. He said it. … He had summed up he had judged.” (p 148) Marlow, though he tries more than once, seems incapable of speaking out with the same clarity that Kurtz evidences in his final moments. When Marlows returns to Brussels, the “sepulchral city,” he sneers at the people that he sees walking the streets, calling them “intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense.” (p 149). Yet he makes no attempt to enlighten them, possibly because he believes that they would not understand it and possibly because he cannot explain it. He is similarly mute with Kurtz’s relatives and acquaintances, the logical choices for passing on Kurtz’s legacy to. Instead of giving them something of Kurtz that is truly significant, Marlow merely allows them to carry off some assorted personal items and letters. Even when face to face with the Intended, arguably the person that was closest to Kurtz, Marlow is unable to, as he puts it, “render Kurtz that justice which was his due.” (p 157). Marlow clearly admits his own incapacities when talking about his experience with Kurtz and the darkness when, several years later, he is trying to describe his experience to his companions aboard the Nellie “Do you see the story?” he asks, “Do you see anything? 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, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible, which is the very essence of dream . . .No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning– its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream–alone . . .” (p 95). Impossible Marlow says, yet, being a conscientious storyteller, he keeps trying, continuing with the story even after he admits that he cannot really capture its essence. In the end, Marlow raises up more questions and mysteries than he explains. For instance, though Marlow’s narrative implies that the jungle is “the heart of darkness” (p 105), he begins it by stating that the “This [The Thames] also has been one of the dark places of the earth” (p 67). Just what exactly is the darkness that Marlow is speaking of? Is it separate from the darkness of the jungle or are they both part of the same thing? Marlow is never able to really give any concrete answers for these or any other questions about the exact nature of the darkness which he is trying to describe. It is also important to remember that Marlow’s narrative ends in a darkness so complete that the men aboard the Nellie cannot see each other, and may as well be completely alone on the ship. This suggests that it is not possible for Marlow to give any concrete answers; he can only guide them to understanding within the framework of his own story. In the end, each man must face the darkness in the same way that he lives and dreams, as an individual, alone and based upon his own experiences..
The very inability of Marlow and therefore Conrad to clearly portray the true nature of the darkness described within becomes a central theme. Nothing in Heart of Darkness is absolutely defined, no place names are used and, with the exception of Marlow and Kurtz, no names. Like Kurtz’s final word, the lessons behind the book appear at first to hang tantalizingly out of reach. They may be understandable by people such as Marlow, who have experienced firsthand the what Kurtz was talking about, but for the reader, it remains as impenetrable as the darkest African jungle. After all, “the horror” is a rather general way to describe something. That very idea, however, is the key to understanding Conrad’s purpose in his lack of specificity. Marlow admits during that course of his narration that his listeners are not likely to be able to understand his story because they are individual people who do not have the same background nor the experiences that he has had. Therefore, he tries to link his experience in the Congo to some experience of their own, by making his story as general in tone and universal in scope as possible. What Marlow is trying to do by telling his story is, in essence, to paint a picture of what he has learned. Like any form of artwork, this picture can be judged and evaluated pretty definitely by its aesthetic qualities, but interpretations of its meaning are likely to vary depending on the background and prior experiences of the people who see it. Conrad himself sums up his philosophy in writing Heart of Darkness very well in his reply to a critical article by his friend, Robert Curle. “Didn’t it ever occur to you, my dear Curle, that I knew what I was doing in leaving the facts of my life and even of my tales in the background. Explicitness, my dear fellow, is fatal to the glamour of all artistic work, robbing it of all suggestiveness, destroying all illusion. You seem to believe in literalness and explicitness, in facts and in expression. Yet nothing is more clear than the utter insignificance of explicit statement and also its power to call attention away from things that matter.” Conrad’s intentions with Heart of Darkness then, are not to shed the light of reason on the darkness that he portrays, but rather to re-create it in all its fullness. In this way, Heart of Darkness is similar to any piece of classical artwork; it’s appeal and lasting value lies, not in any specific message that it carries, but in its universality.