In Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darkness, a combination of orientalism’s view of “the other,” feminism’s patriarchal socialization, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s nihilistic theories illustrates how overall prejudice leads to a fear of the unknown and clashes between cultures. Rather than trying to understand the natives, Marlowe and his colleagues take a position of control and sometimes antagonism towards them, leading to a realization that they have been sheltered by their Occidental lifestyles and missed out on vital life experience. Their only relation to the white man is as slaves, and to Marlowe, this is precisely how it should be. Watching the African-American rowers, he remarks “‘We had enlisted some of these chaps on the way for a crew.
Fine fellowscannibalsin their place'” (Conrad 35). What does Marlowe truly mean by this last portion? Is he simply happy for the extra hands, or glad to see black men working for the whites as they were meant to do for so long? Edward Said’s discourse on Orientalism strongly supports the latter. In his essay, simply titled “Orientalism,” he notes that the dynamic between whites and Orients “ a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (Said 1870). And we do not help that relationship at all by using phrases such as “in their place,” which only serve to bring the Orients down and strain the already complex relations that exist between the two parties.
Because of this, the few complimentary gestures extended towards the natives feels slightly less significant and makes the contrasting portrayalsall the morerepresentative of Marlowe’s lack of understanding. Although he considers the black sailors to be “in their place,” he still extends the occasional expression of sympathy. Watching the slaves practically on their deathbeds, he marvels that “They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly nownothing but black shadows of disease and starvation'” (Conrad 11). The word “shadows” says a good deal about how the blacks had been treated even before illness consumed them. Even watching them seconds from death, Marlowe cannot seem to get away from seeing in only the most negative terms possible. Itseems to indicate that once they are gone, what little sympathy he has for them will cease, and they will be all but forgotten.
In his own essay onHeart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe mentions Conrad’s “ of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other” (1616). Indeed, the black characters remain all but wordless for most of the story. Even the portrayal of the African coast is plagued by obscurity, and treated as otherworldly when compared to Europe. In her article “Unspeakable Secrets,” Anne McClintock describes Marlowe’s first view of the coast as “ struggle that goes beyond the question of perception and involves the very stuff of language itselfAfrica is protean and featureless’ because it has withdrawn beyond the horizon of new language” (41). Knowing the historical context, the reasoning could be that the whites have kept the inhabitants in their place for so long that speech has completely escaped them.
The problem is that by depriving them of their faculties of speech, Conrad has upset the balance betweenApollineand Dionysiac contrasts, as detailed by Nietzsche inThe Birth of Tragedy. He describes the differing ideals with “Appolineart of the imagemaker or sculptor (Bildner) and the imageless art of music, which is that ofDionysos” (Nietzsche). There must always be a certain contrast between the simple andAppolinicthemes and the more bombastic, Dionysiac scenes, something that Marlowe seems not entirely aware of. The story begins on the river Thames of Europe, described by our initial narrator as “low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatnessbrooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth” (Conrad 1). Due to its calming nature, the Thames serves as theAppolinehalf of the duo, leaving the River Congo, “An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest” (Conrad 24) to serve a as Dionysiac.
One extreme cannot survive without the other, and to repress one side is to upset a delicate and extremely important balance. The few female figures suffer a similar treatment, as most of their actions lack true power, and the men’s patronizing attitudes show that patriarchal disease is to blame. Even one of the most powerful of female characters, Marlowe’s aunt, is overshadowed by the contributions and power of her male superiors. Although she is “‘ dear enthusiastic soul'” and is instrumental in sending Marlowe on his lifechanging journey, she is only able to accomplish the task because, in her own words, “‘I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administrationand alsoa man who has lots of influence'” (Conrad 5). Rather than helping him directly, she must instead rely on her connections to more powerful figures, all of whom are male. She leaves the story quite soon after setting its action in motion, hinting that she got no thanks from Marlowe for her assistance in the endeavor.
And why should she? Given hisunflattering and extremely condescending views towards women, blood relations would hardly make a difference in his eyes. Lines like “It’s queer how out of touch women are” (Conrad 8) and “We must help them stay in that beautiful world of their own” (Conrad 28) relegate womenas a whole topretty, mindless faces that have no understanding of the world of men. And Conrad’s exclusion of the female audience has had lasting impacts outside of the text. NinaPelikanStraus points out that “Those who address the Woman Question more directlynevertheless approach this question in terms that evade the issue of why (it) must be so brutally sexist'” (127). The term “minority” does not apply solely to those of color; it qualifies for women as well.
By failing to include them in his audience, and not letting them in on the brotherly secrets he divulges to his male companions, Marlowe has created a divide between the genders that hinders female readers in becoming fully invested. Furthermore, Marlowe perpetuates Gilbert andGubar’stheory on patriarchal socialization, and how it can affect women and their behavior. In the past, as in this novella, women lived in stringent societies, and were expected to comply with unspoken rules on their behavior. However, as Gilbert andGubarnote, “ female diseases’ from which Victorian women suffered were not always byproducts of their training in femininity; they were the goals of such training” (1933). With such a strong pressure from the men in their lives, who not only took their spirits, but had their actions encouraged by society, most women finally succumbed and devoted their lives to their husbands.
Unfortunately, the onetrack mind they develop leaves them with an inevitable hole in their lives should their spouses perish. This proves to be the case for Kurtz’s fiance, who reflects the standards of 19thcentury women with her “fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me” (Conrad 75). The lightness of her appearance suggests a girl who has been cleansed off all impuritiesat least until we reach the eyes. The darkness within them tells us that her mind has been opened to “ purposeless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature” (Nietzsche 764). This in mind, perhaps the saddest part of her character is how Marlowe goes out of his way to shield her from the truth about her beloved’s demise.
In keeping with his desire to let women stay in their “beautiful” world, “Marlow presents a world distinctly split into male and female realmsthe first harboring the possibility of truth’ and the second dedicated to the maintenance of delusion” (Straus 124). This in turn exposes the problem with men’s treatment of their spouses, stripping them of whatever dreams they had until their only purpose was to be devoted to their husbands. Kurtz’s Intended shows the outcome of this ideal as she weeps, “He needed me! Me! I would have treasured every sigh, every word, every sign, every glanceForgive me. I-I have mourned so long in silence'” (Conrad 77).
Her behavior implies just how much this woman has built her life around her fiancee. Now that her “purpose” has disappeared, and exposedher to the bleak uncertainty of the world, it’s clear that there are no more guarantees as to what her life will look like. As we can see by their attitudes towards natives and females, both our protagonist and antagonist have developed truths for themselves that push them away from some vital knowledge and set them up for a rude awakening. It is debatable as to how much they have brought this fate upon themselves by remaining in the dark on the true nature of what they are exploring. For example, as Marlowe and his fellow sailors have their first encounter on the island, he reflects “‘We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed in-heritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil'” (Conrad 36), oblivious to the presence of the natives, who have claimed the land for themselves long before their arrival.
Thus, the great discovery Marlowe and the crew had already claimed was nothing but a myth. As Nietzsche hypothesized, “ beings themselves have an unconquerable urge to let themselves be deceived” (772). The men knew that the natives had some slight presence within the land, but allowed themselves to dream as a product of their need tobe seen asworthwhile, particularly Marlowe. However, as is typically the case, Marlowe struggles with the truth of his own importance, especially when compared to that of Kurtz.
He wonders to himself, “‘ occurred to me that my speech or my silence, indeed any action of mine, would be a mere futility. What did it matter whatany oneknew or ignored? What did it matter who was manager?'” (Conrad 39). One important focus of nihilism is the definition of truth, and Nietzsche’s ideas conclude that it is arbitrary to search for it solely to make yourself feel better. After all, “Just as it is certain that no leaf is everexactly the sameas any other leaf, it is equally certain that the concept leaf’ is formed by dropping these individual differences arbitrarily” (Nietzsche 767). Marlowe is therefore accurate in his assessment of himself and Kurtz, but it is a simple desire for “ inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz'” (Conrad 48) that keeps his small hope alive. Unfortunately, he forgets that in nihilism, “ single example turned out to be a faithful, correct, and reliable copy of the primal form” (Nietzsche 767).
He enters with a certain image of Kurtz, and is stunned to instead find him looking “as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces” (Conrad 60). His truth of this elusive man has been permanently smeared, although it is debatable as to how much it truly existed to begin with. Kurtz himself seems to have been living a lie, with his arrogance being the main obstacle between him and a greater understanding of the natives that surround him. Gerald Levin describes him as “unlucky to have lost the protection of a fixed code” (177), without even the very slight sympathy for the natives that Marlow has. Even on his deathbed, his idealism isfailingand his arrogance is evident, particularly in his stubbornness and how it affects those who had once admired him so greatly. The Russian man, for example, when recounting to Marlowe how the attack was Kurtz’s doing, says “‘He hatedsometimes the idea of being taken awayand then again.
But I don’t understand these matters. I am a simple man'” (Conrad 59). Considering how long Kurtz has lived among these natives, could that explain why this Russian has such a selfdeprecating view of himself, and seems to be waning in his attention towards the man in question? As Said recalls, “So far as the Orient is concerned, standardization and cultural stereotyping have intensified the hold of the nineteenth-century academic and imaginative demonology of the mysterious Orient'” (Said 1886). By not trying to truly understand his native people, and instead projecting his socalled superiority upon them, Kurtz has deprived himself of any true understanding of who they are.
This culminates at last with his final words: “‘The horror! The horror!'” (Conrad 69). Gazing into the eyes of death, he sees where his false truths and delusions of grandeur have placed him. It is all too clear that he is dissatisfied with the results. It might not have ended this way had Kurtz been more aware of Nietzsche’s concept of unconsciousness. His description of how certain human beings “ unconsciously in the way we have described, and in accordance with centuries-old habitsand precisely because of this unconsciousness, precisely because of this forgetting, they arrive at the feeling of truth” (Nietzsche 768) seems to apply perfectly to Kurtz. Having such high confidence in the capabilities of his mind, he allows himself to become stagnant and develops what Nietzsche calls a “superman” view of himself.
But when faced with death, he wakes from this unconsciousness, and finds that the truth he has made for himself was selfcontained. He understands himself not by comparing to others, but by comparing others to himself, and demeaning those who not measure up. In the aftermath of his death, it proves to be an epiphany for Marlowe. His somber demeanor in the present portrays his new philosophy on life, how “ must inevitably give way to disillusioned maturity” (Levin 177). It is best exemplified as he ends his story and “ apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha” (Conrad 74), a clear contrast from the wideeyed adventurer we were first introduced to. In summary, nihilistic conflicts ultimately tend to stem from a misunderstanding on some level.
In the case of the whites and the natives, the lack of understanding towards their Oriental ways pushes them apart. Blacks are treated as servants at best, and borderline nonexistent at worst. As for the female characters, few as there are, the conflict there is more hierarchyoriented. Do women have any place in the work of men, as blacks supposedly do in the work of white men? They canmake an effort, but it tends to be overshadowed by the successes of their counterparts and demeaned by the patronizing malefemale dynamics of the 19thcentury. The rather brusque treatment ofboth of thesegroups leads us to Marlowe’s ultimate conclusion: intellect is ultimately futile, for it only leads us further from reason.
It may be right that everyone’s idea of truth is different, but a glimmer of hopestill remains. Instead of basing our ideas on limited knowledge, we must give voices to the repressed,in an effort tounderstand them. It is the first step we can take to prevent an entirely bleak future.