In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad relies heavily on the differences between appearances and reality to develop conflict in the story. From the appearance of the ivory trade and the continent of Africa, to the image of Kurtz himself, Conrad clearly shows us that appearances can be deceiving. As Marlow relates his story, the reader is drawn into a world of contradictions. These contradictions challenged the widely accepted European views of that time.
When Marlow begins his quest to sail his ship up the Nile river to partake in the adventure and excitement that is the ivory trade, he describes the enterprise as a “noble cause” (pg 6). Marlow’s aunt called him “an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle” whose purpose was to “‘ [wean] those ignorant millions from their horrid ways'” (pg 10). Yet through Conrad’s use of diction, our first image of the ivory trade is an image of darkness, death, and despair: “pieces of decaying machinery” (pg 12) “shadows of disease and starvation” “picture of a massacre or a pestilence” (pg 14). This may have been a harsh criticism of the British colonialism in Africa, and revealed the hypocrisy of those in the ivory trade who claimed to be civilizing the savages: “It was as unreal as everything else-as the philanthropic pretense of the whole concern … The only real feeling was a desire to … earn percentages” (pg 21).
Throughout the story, the African jungle is presented as a dark and alien landscape with “the lurking death, … the hidden evil, … [and] the profound darkness of its heart” (pg 28) of an “unknown planet” (pg 32). To Marlow, while he was in the heart of the African jungle, the “earth seemed unearthly” (pg 32). Yet, as he ventured deep into this jungle and comes into contacts with its savage natives, he feels a “remote kinship” (pg 32) with them. He understands that this is his ancestry in the far off past, and views Africa as “an accursed inheritance” (pg 32). This furthers the conflict of Marlow’s fear and loathing of this primitive land, and his feeling of belonging and appreciation of this savage lifestyle.
Finally, perhaps the most interesting contradictions of appearance and reality are those in Kurtz himself. When Marlow first encounters Kurtz, he comments that his name “means short in German” but that “[h]e looked at least seven feet long” (pg 54). He goes on to generalize this contradiction to his entire life: “the name was as true as everything else in his life-and death” (pg 54). He appeared to be weak and feeble as “an animated image of death” (pg 55), yet throughout the story we find that he is strong and powerful, frequently being compared to Jupiter: “‘he came to them with thunder and lightning'” (pg 51).
In his great work for the Suppression of Savage Customs he “[appealed] to every altruistic sentiment”. Yet, at the end in a footnote, scribbled the words “‘Exterminate all the brutes!'” (pg 46). Perhaps this biggest irony of Kurtz is how all the world viewed him as a creature of light with “his promise,” “his greatness,” “his generous mind,” and “his noble heart” (pg 70), yet, in the end, his noble heart was the Heart of Darkness.
In the end, the contrasts between the appearance and reality of the ivory trade, of Africa, and of Kurtz, provide a backdrop of confusion in which Marlow struggles with nature and truth, and, in the end finds himself superior for it. Joseph Conrad challenges the views of his nineteenth century civilized and sheltered readers. Yet, this message still bears meaning for us today. We, who rely upon the media and news for all of our information have little idea of the reality of life in far off places like Africa, Afghanistan, and Peru. The savage jungle still exists, and most of us are still blissfully unaware of how our perceptions of such places, of such people, holds up to the reality of life there.