Marlow,the “second” narrator of the framed narrative, embarked upon a spiritualadventure on which he witnessed firsthand the wicked potential in everyone. Onhis journey into the dark, forbidden Congo, the “heart of darkness,” so to speak,Marlow encountered Kurtz, a “remarkable man” and “universal genius,” who hadmade himself a god in the eyes of the natives over whom he had an imperceptiblepower. These two men were, in a sense, images of each other: Marlow was whatKurtz may have been, and Kurtz was what Marlow may have become. Like a jewel, “Heart of Darkness” has many facets. From one view it is anexposure of Belgian methods in the Congo, which at least for a good part of theway sticks closely to Conrad’s own experience. Typically, however, theadventure is related to a larger view of human affairs.
Marlow told the storyone evening on a yacht in the Thames estuary as darkness fell, reminding hisaudience that exploitation of one group by another was not new in history. Theywere anchored in the river, where ships went out to darkest Africa. Yet, aslately as Roman times, London’s own river led, like the Congo, into a barbaroushinterland where the Romans went to make their profits. Soon darkness fell overLondon, while the ships that bore “civilization” to remote parts appeared out ofthe dark, carrying darkness with them, different only in kind to the darknessthey encounter. These thoughts and feelings were merely part of the tale, for Conrad had amore personal story to tell, about a single man who went so far fromcivilization that its restraints no longer mattered to him.
Exposed to theunfamiliar emotional and physical demands of the African wilderness, free to doexactly as he chose, Kurtz plunged into horrible orgies of which human sacrificeand cannibalism seemed to have formed a part. These excesses taught him andMarlow what human nature was actually like: “The horror!” Kurtz gasped beforehe died. Marlow’s own journey from Belgium to the Congo and thence up the riverthen took on the aspect of a man’s journey into his own inner depths. Marlowwas saved from the other man’s fate not by higher principles or a betterdisposition, but merely because he happened to be very busy, and the demands ofwork were themselves a discipline. The readers perceive, too, that other whitemen on the Congo refrained from such excesses, if they did so, only because theyhad lesser, more timorous natures which did not dare to express themselvescompletely.
Marlow felt that he had taken the lid off something horrible in thevery depths of man which he could not explain when he returned to the worldwhere basic instincts had been carefully smoothed over. Faced by a crisis, heeven denied what he had seen to Kurtz’s Intended, though he was appalled by hislie as bringing with it a betrayal of truth which was essentially a kind ofdeath. In “Heart of Darkness” the sense of human waste that pervaded the story wasbest unfolded in the ivory itself. It was an object for the rich – indecorations, for piano keys and billiard balls – hardly a necessary item forsurvival, or even for comfortable living.
In a way, it was evil, a socialluxury , an appurtenance to which people had become accustomed; and it was forevil, for appurtenances, that the Congo was plundered and untold numbers ofnatives were beaten and slaughtered brutally or casually. This view of evil waspart of Marlow’s conception; a utilitarian object like copper or iron would havehad its own reason for being. Kurtz’s evil propensities (he collected natives’heads, he sought the “evil” ivory) made him so contemptuous of individual lives;for evil and life have traditionally clashed. Beauty for the few was gainedwith the blood of the many. Where evil ruled, it was a form of power.
The evil took on magicalsignificance, becoming a kind of totem and treasure. Perhaps consciously awareof this, like the evil he had become, Kurtz gained his power, indeed hisidentity and being, from the ivory he coveted. In a world of evil, the mostgreedy collector was often supreme. Cruelty was indistinguishable from thevision of Kurtz, a vision of power and control which the ivory provided for him.
Ivory, and thus evil, was merely a base on which he grew rich and powerful. Kurtz had risen above the masses standing on his pile of ivory. Kurtz, evil,and ivory were interconnected: he was ivory: He Kurtz looked at least seven feet long. His covering had fallenoff, and his body emerged from it pitiful and appalling as from a winding-sheet. Icould see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving.
It wasas though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking itshand with with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of cloth and glitteringbronze. The interconnection of Kurtz, evil, and ivory had far-reachingramifications in Marlow’s tale. “Heart of Darkness,” was ostensibly a journey,Marlow’s, to the source of evil and power up the Congo; and yet the readerrecalls mainly stagnation. Time and space were halted in that jungle outpost,and Kurtz, that demon of energy, was ill, passive, awaiting death even as hemade plans. The scenes of his final hours were images of futility and apathy.
His evil impotence, the root of both his power and powerlessness, wasincorporated into both tone and theme. Marlow’s adventure in the Congo was an experience that led not only tophilosophical conclusions but to a physical and nervous collapse. Marlow’shealth was ruined. He was profoundly shocked by the exploitation of the natives,and the dark, primitive jungle chaos haunted his imagination.
Witnessing theevils in the jungle allowed Marlow to do what Kurtz had failed to do: he wasable to repress the evil side of his nature and force his mind into safer, moralchannels of thought. He kept his sanity by suppressing the sense of horrorwhich had dominated Kurtz and forced him to become evil. Marlow saw thesickness in the whole account of the exploitation of the natives, and thesavagery he felt within himself, in the hypocrisy of men who wanted to bothimprove the brutes and to exterminate them. Since everything that was necessaryto Marlow’s sanity was parallel to Kurtz’s, he could not crawl out of Kurtz’smind for even a second. Hence the difficulty he had in putting down the heathenin himself intensified.
It is evident that Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is a story of therecognition of, in Marlow’s case, the potential of evil corruption in himself;in Kurtz’s case, the recognition and acknowledgement of the evil he had become. It is a tale of the acceptance of a hidden evil side in everyone. Marlow andKurtz were alike in their recognition of this evil, yet they differed in themanner with which they dealt with it. Marlow peered over the brink of the abyssthat Kurtz opened before him. Marlow judged Kurtz a moral hero for his directstare into the heart of darkness, and for his candid judgment of its horror. AsMarlow found himself looking into the abyss, he was able to turn back, andreject his own potential to become what Kurtz had become.
As he judge Kurtz’s proclamation of; horror to be a kind of “affirmation,”a “sort of belief” expressed with a terrible candor and “vibrating” with a “noteof revolt,” so we might judge Marlow’s expression of his indignation andcontempt to be a kind of moral heroism. Category: English