Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” Essay
Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”
When Marlow talks of London being a dark place, the theme of civilization versus savagery comes into play. Marlow’s aunt believes he is an emissary of light, being sent into the darkness. Marlow sees this darkness through the placing of heads on poles, for a man named Kurtz. All of this makes Marlow change his inner feelings of himself, which relates to the theme of the journey of the inner self. Marlow talks of when the Romans first came to Britain, and how they had actually brought some light into the somberness of London, and how one day that light may disappear. This relates to the theme of dark and light. As Marlow tells of his voyage deeper into the unknown, his capacity for self-control is tested.
Kurtz seems to inhabit his every thought. While this is happening, the theme of a journey into the inner self is seen again. There are certain patterns in “Heart of Darkness”; one of these is the theme of “threes”. There are three chapters, three women, three times Marlow breaks the story, three stations, three central characters and three views of Africa. Marlow indirectly suggests by referring to the Roman conquest, that the theme of colonialism has existed since the earliest times of human history. Colonialism is seen as one of the major themes in the book.
When Marlow talks of London once being a dark place, the theme of civilization versus savagery comes into play. The book implies that civilizations are created by the setting of laws and codes that encourage men to achieve higher standards. London itself is seen as a symbol of enlightenment. We see this through Marlow and how he tells his crew that the Romans had brought a light into the darkness of Britain. Marlow and Kurtz are two antithetical examples of humanity.
Kurtz represents what every man will become if left to his own desires, without a protective, civilized society. Marlow represents the civilized soul that has not been drawn back into savagery by his “heart of darkness”. The book implies that every man has a “heart of darkness” that is usually drowned out by the light of civilization. However, when a man is removed from a civilized environment, the basic instinct of savagery must be unleashed. Savagery is linked to darkness, and in most parts of the book, we see Marlow as the light in this darkness.
Marlow’s aunt believes he is an emissary of light, being sent into the darkness. Marlow sees the darkness through the placing of heads on poles, for a man named Kurtz. All of this makes Marlow change his inner feelings about himself, which relates to the theme of the journey of the inner self. Through Marlow, the book creates a voyage of self-discovery. All of Marlow’s experiences point to a change him. The thoughts about the people he meets, and their behavior, slowly begins to change.
Marlow’s trip from Europe to the outer, then central station tests his capacity to discriminate between good and evil, since he witnesses actions which directly ask him for a moral judgment, such as brutal beating of the native worker. Marlow’s detailed account of what he sees, shows his compassion. Conrad suggests that those who are unable of controlling their unconscious side, run the risk of losing control the their heart of darkness.
Marlow talks of when the Romans first came to Britain, and how they brought light into the somberness of London. He also tells them that one day that light may disappear. This relates to the theme of dark and light. In “Heart of Darkness”, there is an obvious contrast between what is light and what is dark. Light seems to represent civilization, or the civilized side of humanity whilst dark represents the uncivilized or savage side of humanity. In this book, dark and light or black and white, have the same usual connotations of good and evil.
According to Christianity, in the beginning, everything was dark. The same thing applies to London before the Romans came. At the same time, Africa was considered “dark”, as most of it had not yet been discovered. However, as Marlow’s journey progresses, it appears that dark and light are used counter intuitively. Darkness refers to truth and light refers to falsehood. In Marlow’s interview with the Intended, the windows of the room, which are normally a source of light, are covered and let in little to no light at all, as in a mortuary. The “cold and monumental whiteness” of the fireplace adds to the deathlike atmosphere.
This shows that Conrad had used dark and light inversely.
We could assume that the dark could represent the unknown. As Marlow talks of his voyage deeper into this unknown, his capacity for self-control is tested. Kurtz seems to inhabit his every thought. While this is happening, the theme of a journey into the self and the unconsciousness is seen again. Marlow’s story clearly implies that the kind of world men make for themselves, and for others, results from the character of individual behavior. Kurtz appears to be stuck inside Marlow’s head. Every thought is focused in this man he has never met. Kurtz wins control of men through fear. His power over the natives almost destroys Marlow. Kurtz is actually a victim of the manager’s murderous cruelty. It is possible that Kurtz might never have revealed his evil nature, had he not been tortured by the manager.
Marlow struggles with himself, the person he thought he was turns out to be a nobody. Marlow sees the “real” person he is, and fears himself. After seeing the Kurtz, Marlow realizes how much like Kurtz he has become and regains control from his heart of darkness.
There are patterns noticeable in this book. One of these is the theme of “threes”. There are three chapters, three times Marlow breaks the story, three stations, three women, three central characters and three views of Africa. The three stations are the inner station, the central station and the outer station. These are symbolic of the stages in Marlow’s journey of self-discovery. The inner station is the first station he goes to. Here, he sees how the natives are treated, and gets a glimpse of the things he may have to face in his future travels.
He reaches the central station, and discovers that Kurtz may not be the man he first heard of. He was told that Kurtz was this wonderful man, who had plenty of power. Now, Marlow is beginning to see in his mind, someone that has followed his own ideas, and doesn’t care about anyone else. He struggles within himself to see if he is like this man. At first, he dismisses the idea that he could ever be that kind of person, but soon after, he changes his opinion. The outer station is where Kurtz is finally reached.
Conrad also uses imperialism as a major theme in the book. Marlow indirectly suggests by referring to the Roman conquest over Britain, that the theme of imperialism has existed since early human history. As Marlow tells his story, a different narrator, who is also a member on the ship they are traveling on, sees the Roman invaders to be like the English conquerors. He expresses that they were both “hunters for gold and pursuers of fame”. He does not understand that without the Roman invasion, Britain may have remained a dark country.
Through Marlow’s tale of truth, pain, anxiety and the quest for complete knowledge, the major themes are revealed. Colonialism, the journey of the inner-self, the theme of “threes”, dark and light and civilization versus savagery. All of these themes lead to the understanding that Marlow’s voyage into the deepness of the Congo, is symbolic of the journey he had to take into the deepest side of himself. He successfully battled with his savage side, and came out a changed man. It just shows that no matter hoe perfect something seems to be, there is always a heart of darkness deep within somewhere.