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“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

In the novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad fully explores the concept of imperialism and the effects it has on everyone who is involved with the process. He does this while employing a new modern means of characterization and expression. It is difficult to describe this new form of expression which works to say something without actually saying anything. This is particularly evident in the closing dialogue of the story when Marlowe attempts to tell Kurtz’s Intended about his death. A deep investigation into this final dialogue with the tortured woman still mourning her fiance’s death sheds light on a great deal of the story that preceded it. This dialogue helps the still confused reader understand much more about the character Kurtz as well as Marlow. Although the woman is only an incidental character in the novel, her words bring depth to both of these characters that were easily missed or misunderstood previously as the two men’s characters are revealed through her relationship to them. Conrad utilizes various stylistic mechanisms within this dialogue as a means of explaining the significance of Marlow’s journey into Africa. This conversation also provides the reader with several helpful hints regarding how to interpret the story. Set against the backdrop of Marlowe’s journey into the darkness, this seemingly insignificant two-page dialogue between Marlow and Kurtz’s Intended brings the rest of the story into sharp focus. It provides a piercing definition of Marlow’s character while revealing the true nature of Kurtz by using various stylistic tools and dramatic irony that build upon the backdrop of the previous pages.

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Repetition provides much of the drama of this particular scene and gives it the weight of its own. As soon as the Intended makes her request to Marlow to repeat the final words he heard from Kurtz, a deliberate repetition of words and phrases begins. “Narration-as-repetition may lead to a working through, a resolving and an overcoming (as in transference, in the service of the pleasure principle) but it may also imprison and lock the narrative (as in repetition compulsion, in the service of the death instinct)” (Rimon-Kenan, 2009). The use of repetition here emphasizes the importance of this passage to the story as well as the lady’s desire to freeze time into a period when Kurtz was still speaking and the importance to Marlowe of overcoming the truth. She murmurs to him in a heartbroken tone, “I want – I want – something – something – to – to live with” (123). Almost every word in the sentence is repeated with the exception of ‘live with’, placing these two words in stark juxtaposition with the others. Her words reveal the true goal of this woman and bring the focus of the scene to her still-fresh grief over a man she’s known to have been dead for some time. Although this sort of repetition is not uncommon in novels such as this as authors attempt to fill their pages with realistic dialogue and the stuttering cries of people as they sob their hearts out, this scene does not convey any hint that this is the reason for the lady’s repeated words. Instead, they seem to be coming out of their own volition, almost as if the woman is unable to put her thoughts together on her own. She seems very reluctant to admit that she must continue living despite the fact she has nothing left of her beloved, reinforcing the psychological impression that repetition on her part is a means of shutting down, freezing the moment, and imprison the narrative. The idea that she intends to ‘live with’ these words places a great deal of strain on Marlowe as he considers what he should tell her as the truth since Kurtz’s final words of ‘the horror’ are not something anyone could comfortably live with. Instead, they are something to be haunted by, as Marlow is well aware.

After insisting that she be told Kurtz’s final words, the woman then repeats three times that she “loved him.” This is the only time in the entire passage in which something is repeated more than twice, and thus gaining its own kind of emphasis and again illustrating the depth of her grief as she reveals the true passion she still has for Kurtz. Although she is nearly silent through the remainder of the passage and does not repeat herself again when she does speak, everything she says is then repeated by Marlow himself, adding his own sense of emphasis to her words as he considers them in his mind. When the lady finally breaks down into tears after Marlow assures her that it was her name that Kurtz left on his lips, Marlow repeats the idea that “She knew. She was sure” (123). This repetition on the part of Marlow has the effect of exposing the lie for what it is, at least to the reader, and infecting the passage with a degree of the philosophical reflection that Marlow has expressed throughout the story. Almost unconsciously it seems, Marlow takes up the repetition of the lady’s spoken words in his thoughts as he listens to her sobbing. After reflecting, twice, whether he had done Kurtz justice by telling his lady a lie, Marlow thinks, “But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark – too dark altogether …” (124). More than simply underscoring the turmoil that is happening in Marlow’s own mind regarding his decision to falsify Kurtz’s words, this repetition serves to remind the reader once again of what those words actually were, another repetition of ‘The horror!’ – almost forcing agreement with Marlow that to have told this distressed woman, still suffering her strong feelings of grief, of the doomed realization of the man in assessing his own life would have been ‘too dark altogether’. This again forces the reader to reflect on the nature of this darkness, the inner turmoil of both men, and the darkness within the soul of every living human. Marlowe is now haunted not only by the final words of Kurtz and his recollections of what he discovered but also by the lie he has told to the Intended, realizing that darkness lives on.

Although the repetition alone serves to convey the dramatic effect of this passage, the interplay between direct and indirect speech brings the drama out to its fullest effect. Through the vast difference in tone between what has spoken aloud and what is thought by Marlowe, Conrad points out the vastness of the ice existing below the water’s surface as compared to the iceberg heard of audible speech. While the lady begs Marlow to tell her of Kurtz’s last words, Marlow himself can be seen to be begging her to understand these words will continue to haunt him until his dying day with such intensity that they must surely be heard by all within sight. “I was on the point of crying at her, ‘Don’t you hear them?’ The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind” (123). As she breaks down quietly on the couch following his lie, Marlow’s repetition of the woman’s words, as has been discussed, heightens the contrast between what she hears and what he understands to be the truth. This understanding is taken still further with a little extra reflection on Marlow’s part as he remembers how he felt at that moment after he’d lied to the woman regarding something as important to her like this: “It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head” (123). Yet nothing happens and Marlow is left free to continue reflecting on what this lie means to the woman, himself, and to Kurtz, whom he has wronged perhaps in keeping his final words secret. These words have the effect of bringing the reader to a point of reflection as well. While the woman sobs, presumably thinking of Kurtz as the brilliant, faithful lover of her dreams, Marlow reminds the reader of the truth of the matter, of the extreme darkness that existed in his heart, and of the harsh judgment Kurtz himself placed on his own actions in life. This makes Marlow wonder if the truth itself was the thing that should have been avoided at all costs if speaking it would have caused the divine act of retribution he half expected upon telling the lady his lie.

As can be seen in both the discussion regarding repetition in this passage as well as the discussion regarding the interplay between spoken and unspoken language, this passage has the effect of conveying a great deal of information regarding Marlow’s character as it has been experienced in the novel as well as shaped by the experiences of his journey. While the lady is shaken by her grief and her loss, Marlow can be seen to be shaken by his experiences, which is highlighted as soon as he tells her he heard Kurtz’s last words, “I stopped in a fright” (123). Because the reader has been there with him, it is understood that Marlow is not stopping out of some wish to spare the lady, as might be considered from an outside perspective listening to the spoken conversation, but rather out of fear of the words that were uttered by Kurtz upon his deathbed. The idea that these words will continue to haunt Marlow throughout the remainder of his life is then expressed as he debates what he should tell the woman at her request. These words float around him, whispered on the wind “in a persistent whisper” (123) to such an extent that he is almost certain she could hear them, too, if she simply listened. He has a half-mad conception that everyone speaking to him can hear the words as they float about inside his head perpetually. Additionally, as he hears her plea, Marlow imagines these words to “swell menacingly”, suggesting danger and dread that rise up around him on all sides. Despite this, Marlow shows courage in the face of his memories by telling the lady what he knows she wants to hear, that Kurtz’s last words were nothing more or less than a whisper of her name. His superstitious side is given voice as he waits almost breathlessly for the heavens to fall upon him for so altering the dying words of the man he had grown to admire, however darkly. “But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle” (123). This is not surprising given his current setting, in a dark house, facing a dark lady who’s weeping, discussing dark things such as death, and reflecting upon the dark way in which this death came about. However, Marlow’s philosophical nature soon grabs hold of him as he begins to think of what the greater injustice would be – to tell the truth of Kurtz’s death or to give the lady what small comfort he can by not inflicting upon her the nightmares he himself knows he will continue to experience.

In this passage, it is also possible to discover some of the characters of the man being discussed, Kurtz. As Kurtz’s Intended laments that there was “Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood” (123), she utters the thought of many young ladies who assume that they know all there is to know about a person. However, she has been introduced as no young maiden, easily deceived by her own impressions. Additionally, who has known Kurtz completely? Throughout the novel, it has been shown that no one has a clear concept of the man, who instead seems comprised of a series of impressions imposed upon him by others. He is considered dangerous and fearful by the Manager, a brilliant poet by the Russian Trader, was early thought of as a painter by Marlow, a wonderful musician by a cousin who meets with Marlow following his return from Africa, and an excellent elocutionist and politician by the journalist. The scene at his cottage in the jungle depicts a man of almost inhuman brutality and the sight of his African mistress instills a deep sense of dread every time she is seen standing upon the shore. The conversation with the Intended reveals her belief in Kurtz as a tremendous humanitarian with a genius mind while the Company official seems to believe he has every right to have expected more out of the man than what he’s been given, both in terms of material profit and scientific undertaking. Marlow’s own experiences of him portray him as an empty shell of a man who nevertheless deserves tremendous respect and honor because of his ability, in the end, to face his own reality in the final words he utters, “The horror! The horror!” The depth of this utterance strikes so deep that Marlow is convinced the lady must hear it as it continues to whisper its message on the wind, yet remains concerned that the lie he gave the lady was not justice to the man he watched die: “Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice?” (123). This concern for justice done, despite the deepest darkness of the truth, indicates yet another aspect of the man who was Kurtz as a man who valued truth above all things, finally revealing the motive for all of his undertakings and the final self-pronouncement of his own eternity.

Finally, the darkness of this final scene, in the shrouded light of the heavily draped living room and the woman in deepest black mourning, refers back to the beginning of the story in which Marlow questions the concepts of light and dark as it is applied to civilization. Light and dark are used throughout the story to illustrate the difference between civilized and savage, with the light always referring to the civilized world. This is obvious as the other men sitting on the ship on the Thames at the opening to the story have been discussing how the great heroes, the knights-errant of the sea, have made their way in similar fashion down the Thames and out into the dark places of the world, suggesting they were bringing light to other places of the world and defending the light of England against the dark hordes of other nations. They also comment upon the way in which this light was kindly distributed throughout the dark places of the world as the settlers and colonists bravely left their bright land and traveled down the Thames to dark areas that wanted exploration. In this, it is seen that bringing light to dark areas is a positive thing, always helping the savage people who are affected by it whether they know they want it or not. However, Marlowe has seen how these concepts are turned inside out in reality. He knew how these ‘enlightened’ Africans were actually slave laborers in the colonized regions of the continent. They were regarded as mere tools, both physically and intellectually, used for the advancement of the occupying nation and tolerated only as of the lowest subjects of the new ruling government. This condition, combined with the natives’ lack of formal education, spawned and confirmed the perception in the minds of the ruling population that they were people of limited intellect. These ideas are proven by the words from a missionary working in the Congo in the 1930s: “To declare that primitive peoples are completely lacking in logic, is simply to turn one’s back on reality. Every day we can note that primitive peoples are by no means just children afflicted with a bizarre imagination” (Stenger, 2005), something Marlow intimately realized.

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Through its various methods of conveying information, this passage finally introduces a deep sense of dramatic irony in that the lady can continue to believe in Kurtz as the wonderful man she envisions even as Marlow and the reader realize the deep extent of his depravity and his own harsh reflection upon it as he lay dying. While she believes Marlow is reticent about these words as a token of gallant respect for her feelings, the knowledge of what these words were imbued the scene with its own brand of darkness. While she believes Kurtz’s last words will provide her with something to live with, it is known by the reader and by Marlow that these last words are instead something to terrify and torment. While she believes she knew her lover better than anyone else, it has become abundantly clear that she did not know anything about his life in the African jungle. While she believes his final words were her name on his lips, it is clear that Kurtz, reflecting upon his life clearly and honestly, pronounced his own judgment on it. While Marlow watches her weep, he realizes that the darkness will continue to haunt him and the reader begins to understand that the only true and real path to self-realization lies within this darkness and the willingness to face it. And while she weeps at Kurtz’s tragic loss, it remains for Marlow and the reader to feel the haunting memory of a man consumed by the imperialistic desires of his age.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. The Heart of Darkness. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Rimon-Kenan, S. Repetition / Linearity. (2009). Web.

Stenger, Fritz. African Philosophy I: The Time Has Come to Take Ourselves Seriously. Stenger, 2005. Web.

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