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In Heart of Darkness, Conrad explores his memories of his disastrous journey to the Congo. He is in search of self-understanding and perhaps trying to exorcise psychological conflicts by which he was still possessed. In this short novel he dramatizes his own conflicting attitudes toward passion and reason, savagery and civilization Heart of Darkness is a truly great parable because these personal crises attain universal significance. The events of the story reflect ambiguities and tensions of central importance to Western culture. It is not surprising that T. S. Eliot was influenced by Heart of Darkness when he was writing 'The Waste Land.'
The narrative begins with a vivid evocation of the lower reaches of the Thames, with, to the west, the dark shadow of London. The sun is setting. On the Nellie, a cruising yawl, the anonymous narrator responds to the sense of history, to the "venerable stream" with all its immemorial associations: men such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Franklin set out from here on their great voyages of exploration, carrying a torch into strange lands unknown to civilization. In these opening paragraphs, as throughout the story, there is a subtle interplay between light and darkness. The language hints at symbolic meanings, as if the lurid glare of the red sun and the brooding gloom of London reflect the great conflicts of the centuries.
As darkness thickens, Marlow takes over the narration, recounting to his friends on the yawl his extraordinary adventures down the Congo in search of Kurtz, the great ivory collector who has become degraded by his lust for power over the natives. Conrad had first employed Marlow as his narrator in YOUTH. In ALMAYER'S FOLLY, THE OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS, and THE NIGGER OF THE "NARCISSUS" he tells the story in the conventional manner, as if he were the omniscient author who is in charge of the plot. For temperamental and ideological reasons this method did not satisfy. He wanted to suggest his own uncertainties about the meaning of events, his own deep-tooted skepticism, his belief that illusion and reality are inextricably intertwined. This is achieved by making Marlow responsible for the story. This new indirect method means that we can never be sure how much Marlow understands, how far events are transmuted by being reflected through his consciousness.
In Heart of Darkness, Marlow tells us his adventure proved "the culminating point of my experience." He recalls that in Roman times England itself was a place of darkness, the very end of the world, where the Roman legionaries confronted the savage origins of their own being. At first it might seem that light and civilization are benevolent forces tackling an inferior, primitive state of human development. But the darkness retains its own potency; the civilized man may succumb to "the fascination of the abomination." Marlow's quest ends in a new awareness of the inadequacies of civilized society.
Like Conrad himself, Marlow travels to Brussels to sign on as skipper for the Belgian company. He dislikes the city, which he calls "a whited sepulcher." In the company office he is received by two women, one fat and the other slim, knitting black wool. They guard the entry to Africa, to darkness, and recall the Fates, spinning and breaking the thread of man's life. There are many references that compare Marlow's journey down the Congo to the classic expedition to the underworld, passing down like Vergil and Dante through the circles of Hell -- the company station, the central station, and the inner station -- to the final confrontation with the devil incarnate, Kurtz himself.
Such mythic journeys fascinated Conrad's imagination. He felt that at crises in their moral lives men enter an area of reality that normally they prefer to ignore. On such occasions the active life of the seaman may seem an illusion, an evasion of the truth. The Conradian hero must confront the ultimate meaninglessness of the forms and conventions of society. Exposure to this dark side of reality may drive him to suicide, like Brierly in LORD JIM or Decoud in NOSTROMO. It may persuade him to indulge in the orgies and killings apparently so attractive to Kurtz. Yet perhaps only by this confrontation with absolute darkness can the potential sources of energy repressed by the illusions of society be released. Conrad's response to the underworld voyage is ambivalent, a mixture of fascination and repulsion.
This double attitude is seen in the contradictory use of the word "reality." On arrival in Africa Marlow is shocked by the exploitation of the natives. He is disgusted by the squabblings and self-interest of the Europeans, the hollow men, the pilgrims, as he ironically calls them. He turns with relief to the task of repairing the battered, tinpot steamboat that is to carry him down the river in search of Kurtz. "I don't like work," he admits, but he believes that through his labors he can achieve self-discovery: "your own reality -- for yourself, not for others -- what no other man can ever know." This is one kind of test, one way in which a man may find an acceptable identity.
But Marlow is not completely satisfied with this work ethic. He admits that his absorption in keeping the steamboat afloat prevented him from responding fully to another kind of truth, to "the overwhelming realties of this strange world of plants, and water, and silences": "When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality -- the reality, I tell you -- fades. The inner truth is hidden -- luckily. But I felt it all the same." He too is tempted to go ashore for "a howl or a dance." This is a good example of Marlow's method of narration. He acts as a mirror of events, but what he reflects does not emerge as a rationally consistent view of reality. Marlow needs to tell his story because its conflicts remain unresolved, because Kurtz and the wilderness still tantalize and disturb his imagination.
The story is built around these oppositions and tensions between the values of work and the fascination of the wilderness. The natives enjoy degraded rites, and they foolishly worship Kurtz as a god; yet the cannibals are respected by Marlow for their endurance, for their loyalty: he says they are "men one could work with." The young Russian, Kurtz's disciple, dressed in patchwork clothes like a harlequin, retains an innocence lost by the hollow Europeans, yet in his naive enthusiasm for Kurtz he seems simple-minded. He is transported by Kurtz's eloquence, its breathtaking charm, yet the conclusion of Kurtz's seventeen-page report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs blows away all such false rhetoric: "Exterminate all the Brutes!" Kurtz's savage woman, with her animal vitality, contrasts with his European fiancee, who dedicates herself to a lie, in her Belgian home that resembles a cemetery. And finally, how are we to interpret Kurtz's last words: "The horror! The horror!" As he approaches death, wasted by excesses and fever, is he at last realizing the evil of his past ways and so proving that the attraction of the wilderness is indeed an abomination? Or is he looking at the horror of death, which will remove him from the scenes of his lusts and triumphs? Marlow returns to Brussels, the sepulchral city, broken down in physical and mental health by the heart of a conquering darkness.
Heat of Darkness has been interpreted in many different ways. Anti-imperialists draw attention to the suffering and torture of the natives in the scenes at Matadi anduse the story as a tract against colonial powers. From the Marxist point of view, Kurtz is an embodiment of all the evils created by free enterprise in a capitalist system. In contrast, some readers find in Kurtz a devil whose fascinations, like those of Milton's Satan, are difficult to resist. Followers of Jung discover in the story a night journey into the unconscious, a trafficking with the secret criminal energies that civilization represses. The journey down the Congo has been interpreted by Freudians as a voyage into the wilderness of sex; Marlow penetrates down a narrow channel to find in the darkness an orgiastic experience. Other readers stress the fascination with the primitive, typical of later artists such as Picasso or D. H. Lawrence. Kurtz is seen as a type of the modern artist, courageously rejecting the bland lies of civilization. The artist-outlaw dares to transgress the taboos of his society and so rediscovers a terrible new kind of imaginative energy. Kurtz foreshadows modern writers such as Hemingway and Mailer, who cultivate extreme experiences as a means of escape from the depressing conventions of contemporary life.
The wealth of interpretation arises from the symbolic force of Heart of Darkness achieved through the great imaginative resonance of Conrad's style. For example, on his journey to the Congo, Marlow, an idle passenger, is overwhelmed by a sense of unreality:
The voice of the surf heard now and then was a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother. It was something natural, that had its reason, that had a meaning. Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang; their bodies steamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks--these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at. For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech -- and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives -- he called them enemies! -- hidden out of sight somewhere. (ch. 1).
Like so many famous passages in Conrad, this description is full of vivid, concrete details: the bodies streaming with perspiration, the ensign limp like a rag, the greasy, slimy swell of the sea. At the same time there are subtle hints concerning the central themes of the novel. The natives bring Marlow a "contact with reality"; they possess "a wild vitality . . . as natural and true as the surf," values that the novel suggests have been obliterated by European society. The French warship "firing into a continent" symbolizes the futility of civilized attempts to tame the wilderness. Such passages, while carrying the action forward with the excitement and speed necessary for an adventure story, evoke a whole range of complex feelings. The story haunts the imagination. Like Marlow, we return again and again to this Congo adventure to try to tease out its tantalizing and disturbing meanings.
With Marlow, Conrad presents his lingering wish to endorse the standard values of the Victorian ethic, and with Kurtz, Conrad expresses his foreboding that the accelerating changes in the scientific, political, and spiritual view of the world during the last decades of the old century were preparing for unsuspected terrors for the new..
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