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Heart of Darkness – Metaphorical or Physical Journey? Essay

The worth of any physical journey can be measured by the value it has to the traveller; by the psychological, moral and philosophical insight gained during the course of travel. This is especially valid for a trip of such immense significance as the one undertaken by the narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow, as he travels along the Congo River in Africa. The symbolic importance of the Congo River is paramount throughout the novella; however, it is equally important to consider the role of the river on which the tale is told – the Thames, the centre of the nation that dominated colonial expansion. Both rivers offer a platform of observation of their respective societies – allowing Marlow to remain independent from these cultures and thus maintain his own moral compass.

On a surface level, the Thames appears to be the epitome of tranquillity and civilization, as Marlowe describes it as being ‘calm’, waiting for the ‘turn of the tide’ and being the centre of ‘the biggest, and the greatest, town on Earth.’ However, Conrad’s multi-layered writing undercuts this view, as many descriptions of the Thames have mortuary connotations, implying a feeling of death on the river. For example, Conrad describes a ‘mournful gloom, brooding motionless’, the feeling of stillness coupled with the ‘gloomy tone creates a corpse-like atmosphere. Even the images of light that Conrad employs are more or less negative in their more subtle meanings. He describes the torches of light (a metaphor for Western Civilization) as being merely a ‘flicker’, which implies that the façade of culture and humanity is ephemeral in nature.

The first words Marlow uses describe his surroundings as ‘and this also… was one of the dark places of the earth’, reminding listeners of the dark past, which is only partially and insubstantially covered. He then goes on to describe the ‘robbery with violence’ and the ‘aggravated murder on a great scale’ which the Romans had committed in ancient Britain. Whilst the present reality demonstrates an apparent conquering of the darkness, Conrad implies a different message, as he mentions the ‘toying’ of the ‘bones’ (another name for dominoes made of ivory), which refers to the abominations committed by King Leopold II in the Congo Free State, as he exploited the lives of African to further his own commercial enterprise. This associates the Thames, which has supposedly defeated its darkness, with an inherent evil, as it is at the centre of a culture obsessed with the ‘conquest of the earth’ under the guise of ‘weaning the ignorant millions from their ways’.

At the end of the novella, the primary narrator, who is listening to Marlow’s tale, begins to perceive the Thames leading into ‘the heart of an immense darkness’, showing how the story has shaped his own moral, psychological and philosophical views. The mortuary images used to describe the Thames are repeated later on as Marlow recounts his visit to the company offices in Brussels, which he describes as a ‘whited sepulchre’. The word ‘whited’ implies a degree of artificiality in Brussels’ apparent pristine condition, whilst the word ‘sepulchre’ has further associations with death. It is also a biblical allusion to the Book of Matthew 23:27, in which Jesus exclaims: ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whited sepulchres, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth.’ This allusion shows how the very European Marlow, has recognized a deep hypocrisy in his fellow countrymen, as the symbol of white (one of purity in Western civilization) is simply a façade to hide Europe’s inherent evil.

This motif of white is repeated throughout the novel, especially in Brussels where Marlow mentions the ‘starched white affairs’ of the Company uniforms, and near the end of the text describes the corpse like ‘Intended’ as having a ‘pale head’, ‘ashy halo’ and a fireplace of ‘monumental whiteness’. Marlow who is described as being ‘in the pose of a meditating Buhhda’ sees a different connotation to the white (just as white is associated with death and mourning in Eastern philosophy). Whilst Marlow sees and experience this hypocrisy first hand in Europe, on the Congo River, he observes an almost cinematic stream of images of temptation and sordidness, with the River acting as a ‘moral buffer’ for him, as his perceptions of humanity and morality change.

This change in Marlow’s nature happens through the characterization of Africa as a living hell which Conrad (through Marlow) achieves by continual allusions to the ‘Inferno’ in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which details the persona’s own journey into the centre of the earth and through the nine circles of hell. This is most effectively achieved when Marlow admits to his listeners: ‘I felt as though, instead of going to the centre of a continent, I were about to set off for the centre of the earth.’ This is paralleled when Marlow visits the company Offices and describes his assignment as going ‘dead in the centre’ (again invoking deathly overtones), which also explicitly references Dante. Like Marlow’s morals and philosophy, the allusion is developed throughout the journey, as Marlow observes the chaotic ‘wanton smash-up’ caused by the Europeans, and describes it as being in ‘the gloomy circle of some Inferno’, and showing how the river, acting almost as a slideshow for European corruption, helps change Marlow’s view of the morality of the Colonialists, who have turned Africa into a living hell.

The allusion to Dante, whilst certainly the most obvious, offers only an observation and a result, not a cause for the corruption. The allusion to the Book of Genesis on the other hand, provides insight into why there is corruption present on the Congo. When Marlowe first describes the river, he likens it to an ‘immense snake uncoiled’, which references the Devil in the form of a snake, tempting Eve to take a quince from the Garden of Eden. This allusion is more causal in its purpose, as it demonstrates the reason why the Europeans who have integrated into Africa (especially Kurtz and the station Manager) have been corrupted by the primitive allurement of the ‘unspeakable rites’ and ‘satanic litany’ afforded to them by the jungle.

Whilst Marlow is offered these things during his journey, morally he is able to maintain his distance, continuing as righteous through a continual commitment to pragmatism and action. This is evidenced by his almost obsessive need for ‘rivets’ to repair his boat so that he may continue his journey on the moral insulation of the Congo River, shielding him from any immoral temptations offered whilst ashore. On the other hand, people like Kurtz who have the river, find that the moral veneer provided by the façade that is European civilization is quickly stripped away when they go ashore for a ‘howl’ and a ‘dance’.

Marlow explains this phenomenon of primitive reversion among the colonialists via the effect that he perceives the river to have, saying that travelling down the river was like ‘travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world’ with the ‘fascination of the abomination; corrupting the Europeans, especially Kurtz, who is debased to ‘an animated image of death carved out of old ivory’. Significantly, the current symbolically make the journey into the ‘heart of darkness’ difficult, while the journey back is easy and rapid. In conclusion, the journey undertaken by Marlow on the Congo River, as well as his story telling on the Thames, much deeper significance than simply physical and geographical journeys, changing his perceptions of the morality and psychology of men. Conrad uses Marlow’s insights to influence the reader to share in the enlightenment gained by the narrator.


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