The setting is the basis of every story or novel, the basis of every prose work. Heart of Darkness is by no means an exception. Joseph Conrad’s nouvelle or rather said mysterious work is not being easily understood let alone assessed. But each reader of Heart of Darkness should try to solve the mystery the author has opened.
The setting reveals itself to be a mystery within the mystery. What is really the setting of Conrad’s nouvelle? And is it at all important to the work as a whole? Is it the usual setting of an adventure story that was popular at the time, is it a place of darkness, the heart of it, or just the jungle in the Congo region? The setting may be all of the above and it looks like composed of several different ones colouring the mysteriousness of the nouvelle, some contrasting the others.
Heart of Darkness begins in a voice that is not belonging to the protagonist.
This later appears to be the auditor of the protagonist’s(Marlow’s) story, so for short he may be called the Auditor. His introduction reveals that the setting is a yawl, called Nellie, swinging on the surface of the Thames awaiting for the turn of the tide so she can sail off. The beginning of the setting reminds the Auditor of England’s naval glory, he recalls the great knights – known and unknown – of the sea while the banks of the Thames remind Marlow that they have also been “one of the dark places of the earth”.
And exactly the word “dark” is the one that defines the setting throughout the whole of the nouvelle, varying only in shades. This becomes crystal clear from the moment Marlow begins to speak and he speaks through the whole of the nouvelle except the few introductory paragraphs. Going further to describe the setting Marlow begins his story about his journey in the Congo region, the heart of darkness. The protagonist explains that as a boy he looked at the blank spaces on the maps and dreamed of exploring them, but the Congo region was no blank space anymore, ironically according to Marlow it has become a place of darkness.
He is fascinated by the river in the heart of darkness, for him it resembles a snake, symbol of evil; while the river Thames described earlier is calm and serene contrasting the setting in the Congo river. Both rivers may be symbol of the tamed and untamed. London is tamed by civil and moral rules, that’s why it’s calm while the untamed Africa is cruel but free. Marlow sees danger even before his journey has begun but it doesn’t stop him from going to the other setting, the office of the Company. The following description is the gate towards darkness and death, the gate of Hell. The setting stays in Marlow’s mind and later on in his journey he remembers the two women dressed in black, knitting black wool and holding a black cat; guardian angels to the “gate of Darkness”.
Conrad reveals that not many of those who have been introduced to the Company by the younger woman had the chance to return and look at her again, as if by giving them a glance she turns them to stone like the Gorgone Meduse and dooms them to eternal darkness. Relatively the same is the moral “preached” in the setting in the doctor’s office. The doctor is interested in measuring the skulls of all those who leave for the Congo with the distinct idea that he could measure them again on their returning but so far none of them has returned. A fact that suprises Marlow who understands from the doctor that no matter what, the changes take place inside the skull; the doctor seems like the prophet to Marlow’s enlightment.
Finally Marlow leaves in a French steamer for the Congo. The setting changes as they sail nearer to the coast of the jungle. Marlow feels isolated and delusional by the immense water and the only touch with reality are the boats coming from the shore with “black fellows” in them. This particular setting is the first touch of civilization with wilderness and savagery. Civilization is characterized by light and “straight forward facts” while to the wilderness is given the heart of Darkness and freedom. The setting communicates the meaning of the episode. As it does in the next one presenting the Company’s station that Marlow is left in. The black boy he meets fascinates him with the white thread from beyond the seas around his black neck. Civilization intrudes the lives of the Africans and enslaves them.
The white thread looks like a manacle around the boy’s neck. After such a sight the white man Marlow meets at the “station” setting looks like a sort of vision. This miracle later appears to be the Company’s chief accountant. He strikes Marlow with devotion to his work and the fact that he had achieved something in his life, everything in it is in order while the whole station is falling apart. The accountant and his office is the island of salvation for Marlow when he wants to get away from the misery at the station. The importance of this particular setting is the mentioning for the first time the name of Mr.Kurtz, defined by the accountant as a remarkable person and from this moment on the mysterious Kurtz enters the thoughts of Marlow as well as the reader’s.
The setting of the Central Station serves its purpose too to the whole of the nouvelle. The forest near it looks huge and calm to Marlow, the setting alone sends the feeling to all of the readers, misery and greatness fill their hearts. Together with this the tickling feeling of the awaited by Marlow meeting with Kurtz makes the breathing of the reader harder. In the Central Station he meets a brickmaker who gives more detail to the fast-growing character of Kurtz in Marlow’s mind. He is an extraordinary human being, an emissary of pity and what not, bringing civilization to the dark continent. The brickmaker is sure that Marlow has some resemblance to Kurtz and if this is true the reader is only to find out on their own.
The months spent awaiting the needed rivets for the repair of the mysteriously broken down steamer are over. Marlow leaves for the Inner Station where he is to find out if the rumors about the best Company’s agent are true, the narrator leaves in search for the ill Kurtz whose death is awaited by most of the Company’s staff. The setting changes once more only to become the same as earlier in Marlow’s journey. Black people, enemies that are hiding on the shore like evil that is creeping and getting closer and closer to the steamer. Finally the evil prevails, the devoted black helmsman is murdered from a spear. The setting had built an unhealthy darkness that doesn’t allow the reader even the slightest chance to forget the focus of the nouvelle; the darkness within the heart of the jungle gradually fills the heart of the protagonist and respectfully the reader’s too.
Maybe the most interesting part of the setting is Marlow’s meeting with Kurtz at the Inner Station. The setting presents the true darkness, the very heart of it. It also echoes the cries of the Russian sailor who meets Marlow at his arrival. From the story of the naïve young sailor Marlow understands about Kurtz’s brilliance and the semi-divine power he exercises over the natives. The setting provides the visual confirmation of Kurtz’s cruelty. A row of severed heads on stakes round the hut gives an intimation of the barbaric rites by which Kurtz’s has achieved his ascendancy. An educated man like Marlow, a very intelligent one, a man of promise for the Company Kurtz has used his brains and gun, symbol of civilization, to enslave the natives and make his one dark tribe that would inhabit the heart of darkness.
Though at first sight the setting looks like a true adventure one underneath transpires the psychological and moral level of the work as a whole. Moreover Conrad’s nouvelle and respectfully it’s setting is also a symbolic journey of the soul towards the heart of man which he sees as capable of great evil. Kurtz is good personification of this particular idea. The setting may be interpreted as an allusion to Dante’s The Inferno, Marlow’s journey looks like an expedition to the underworld, a journey through the circles of hell and Kurtz is the devil himself. But the devil doesn’t want to leave his tribe nor do they want to leave him. When his tired and sick body is taken in the steamboat his black mistress appears. She looks at him with her “wild-eyes” giving Kurtz the power to live on but he couldn’t.
The setting changes and presents the deck of the steamboat. Kurtz is lying there awarding Marlow with his manuscripts and his words, his last ones “The horror! The horror!”. The setting reveals the whole moral of Conrad’s work, or in Marlow’s words “the moral victory”. For Kurtz the horror he talks of is his life and like he has shown the reader man is capable of great evil. Kurtz has neglected the signals of his heart that evil was inside him. Kurtz is outside of control of the moral rules of civilization whose representative he is. So the horror is he himself, the heart of darkness is not the jungle anymore but his own. The setting has changed once again only to become Kurtz himself, the most important figure for the nouvelle, the heart of it, the heart of darkness. The setting is one of the most important for the work because it reveals simple but existential truths to the reader. Man finds himself when is isolated especially from civilization as Kurtz does. But why is he considered mad by the “civilized” people that get in touch with him. He is mad for them because he had taken off the mask and everybody can see his true face – evil or remarkable is up to the reader to decided.
The important role of the setting is capturing the attention and the thoughts of the reader. Kurtz was like Marlow – an uncorrupted creature from the imperialist world that wanted to help the natives rather than colonize them but the darkness prevailed his heart and Marlow sees what he could become if he lost the trail. But Kurtz recognizes his action as cruel and evil that is his horror, he knows that what he is doing is wrong but the heart of darkness haven’t given him another option to survive. The setting also reminds the reader through the character of Kurtz of Europe at the end of the Imperialism era. The nouvelle is not only an adventure story but a political statement as well. Kurtz’s relationship with his mistress represents Europe’s love for their imperialized country, only the passion is temporary.
Kurtz dies leaving Marlow and the reader with the conviction that they should explore what is inside them and in most cases they’ll find their own heart of darkness. Intriguing are also Kurtz’s manuscripts and the words “Exterminate all the brutes!” He never told who are the brutes but the overall impression is that the brutes are not the uncivilized man, maybe everyone should find the brute within himself and exterminate it. The philosophical manuscripts did not solve any problems they just have shaped Marlow’s perspective and although he didn’t approve of Kurtz’s actions he was amazed with his spiritual and intellectual power, with the ability to persuade. That is exactly why Marlow stays loyal to Kurtz’s even after his death.
The setting takes the reader back to Belgium in the house of Kurtz’s fiancée. She, the woman that will always wait for him and always will mourn for him. She believes that she is the person that understood Kurtz best but Marlow is not convinced in that and he lies her about Kurtz’s last words. He never tells her what they really were, he mentions only that they gave him her name and that’s why he found her. Marlow is not sure if she’ll understand Kurtz’s ‘horror’. Africa has become a topology of his mind and the mind in general. Letting the forgotten savagery in the European and being the symbol of man’s inner change. Kurtz’s ‘horror’ is Marlow’s self discovery. The importance of the setting, given that it has shown to the reader the Congo region in it’s very heart of darkness, is that reminds the reader that it is time to make their own self searching.
Last but not least the setting of the nouvelle has shown darkness, the heart of it. It is important for the work as a whole because it presents Marlow’s individual journey towards enlightment that serves the purpose of a model for the reader to follow. It presents also Kurtz’s ‘horror’ who has taken one step further in the dark continent that Marlow is not ready and willing to take. The setting of the whole work enriches the reader following the narrator in the serpentine Congo. The setting emphasizes the idea of the conflict of what is real versus what is ‘dark’. Here particularly the word ‘real’ represents the civilized part of the world while dark is Africa. Marlow represents civilization on the edge while Kurtz represents civilization stepped over leading in the ‘darkness’.
The setting also is ivory, Conrad uses it as a symbol of man’s inner savagery, greed and evil. The author also uses ivory as contradiction to the usual symbols of good and evil. If good is represented with the white colour, here is Heart of Darkness ivory is the evil part no matter that it is one of the purest and whitest materials in the world. The contradiction the setting presents entraps the attention of the reader and provokes once again his search for self-discovery. The setting is pretty important to the work as a whole because it reveals the darkness within every one of us; the question is whether like Marlow we shall defeat it and gain enlightment or be defeated by it like Kurtz and fall in the very heart of Darkness.