In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the main character Marlow continuously calls into question the modern assumptions that are made by his listeners as well as his readers, blurring the lines between inward and outward, civilized and savage and, most especially, dark and light. The bulk of the book concentrates on Marlowe’s telling of his adventures on the Congo River as a steamboat captain sent in to find a station master who has gone missing. As he struggles to make his way up the river to the interior where this man is supposed to be waiting for him, Marlowe begins to gain a deeper understanding of what is actually occurring in the forest outside the realm of what he’s been told by the Company, thus exposing the darker elements of colonialism. It is explained from the beginning of the book that Marlowe is different from most men in that he does not search for a great depth of meaning on the inside, as had been the tradition in everything from art analysis to psychology, but rather that he seeks meaning from the outside of things, by what can be seen and touched about a man and therefore proved to no false assumptions. However, what he sees in the Congo makes gaining meaning from the story difficult at best as nothing seems to be established in such dyadic certainty, a fact that is underscored as the story begins. In making his comments upon London, Marlowe, and Conrad by extension, illustrates how the lessons learned in the jungle regarding society’s understanding of colonialism fosters an unreasonable dependence upon false cultural definitions which are as applicable to the outside world as they were to the alien world of the Congo shown in the rest of the story.
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Many generations of Africans have endured life essentially as 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 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 a people of limited intellect. Certainly these sub-humans, according to typical ruling-class methodology in colonized Africa, could not think in abstract, introspective ways much less formulate philosophical postulations. Words from a missionary working in the Congo in the 1930’s still ring true today. “To declare that primitive peoples are completely lacking in logic, is simply to turn one’s back on reality. Every day we are able to note that primitive peoples are by no means just children afflicted with a bizarre imagination” (Stenger, 2005). Wisdom is universal and the level of literacy is not a boundary to critical thought, as is consistently being proven upon the ‘Dark Continent’ today, but in Conrad’s time, there was still a widespread belief that the only ‘right’ way was the European way, which was considered the way of light, civilization and upstanding behavior.
The concepts of inward and outward, civilized and savage and light and dark are recurrent themes throughout the novel, introduced at the novel’s beginning and illustrating how each of these words are actually defined by cultural rather than actual standards. They are brought forward in a variety of ways beginning with Marlowe’s observations on the Thames River and his comparison of same with his experiences on the Congo. As the narrator notices the sun setting over the Thames, a condition that most would view as the onset of darkness, the narrator notes that “the serenity became less brilliant but more profound” (Part 1). This in itself suggests that though the sky is becoming darker, the meaning of this darkness is becoming clearer. The picture that immediately springs to mind is that of an individual squinting into the sunlight to make out a shape on the horizon. When the brightness is suddenly dimmed, plunging things into a greater darkness, the individual is able to now recognize the shape as something intimately familiar to them. This image is at the heart of the story and is illustrated so eloquently now as a means of bringing this concept to the attention of the reader and the listener so it perhaps will not be lost in the greater telling.
Light and dark is also used 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, in this scene, as in the bulk of the novel, Marlowe tends to turn everything inside out, making dark seem light, in seem out and civilized seem barbaric. Keeping in mind how the light tends to blind people to the truth, Marlowe suddenly breaks the reverie with a startling observation. “And this also … has been one of the dark places of the earth” (Part 1). In this line, he could as easily be talking about the blindness of his comrades in not seeing past the propaganda of the trading companies regarding the effects of their activities in the darker regions of the world as he is discussing the distant past history of England.
To make his point clear regarding England’s own experience with light, Marlowe explains himself by illustrating how this lead-gray, bleak land was once the savage, dark place visited by the Romans. Despite finding a flourishing society on these islands, the Romans felt lost in the darkness themselves. “Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages – precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. … Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay – cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death – death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush” (Part 1). Much of this description could be equally applied to the lands of the Congo, in which Europeans died in great numbers as they fell to the strange diseases and other hazards of an unfamiliar world. The Romans, like the younger Marlowe and his associates in the Congo, had no light to guide their way to the interior of a land defined by them as dark, but that operated well enough on its own with its own people. The Englishmen to whom Marlowe was speaking were well aware of the brutality of the Romans as well, knowing them as conquerors, who “grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness” (Part 1). Despite any claims to the contrary, Marlowe is indicating here, as he will throughout his adventurous story, that the claims of imperialism are little more than an excuse to plunder and steal, blinding outsiders with the light they’re supposedly bringing to the interior so little can be seen of the ravages occurring on the edges as the savages are brutally killed and the civilized men profit from their spoils.
The concept of the ‘other’ as it was developed through colonialism took on a new direction with this novel by comprising these conflicting ideas within a single individual in the form of Kurtz. Rather than concentrating on the individual who does not belong based upon his appearance or physical presence, the idea has moved underground. Throughout the novel, it has been shown that no one has a clear concept of Kurtz, 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 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 portrays him as an empty shell of a man who nevertheless deserves tremendous respect and honor because of his ability, at the end, to face his own reality in the final words he utters, “The horror! The horror!” Thus, Kurtz is a collection of the impressions of others, never fully shown as himself and never honestly understood, the perfect product of a colonial mind.
Thus, starting from the very first chapter as Marlow challenges the assumption that London is the center of the civilized world, Heart of Darkness can be seen to challenge many of the assumptions regarding basic values as they relate to those who exist outside one’s personal cultural background. In making this speech, Marlowe sums up a great deal of what he has to say throughout the remainder of the novel. By confusing the concepts of light and dark, civilized and savage and inside and outside, he makes it clear that no single definition of such terms can be applied as universally good or bad. Instead, through his London analogy as well as the inconclusive tale he tells regarding the Congo, he suggests that the actions of men, looked at from the outside and as objectively as possible, can only indicate where definitions fail and new understandings must be sought.
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Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1902. The Literature Network (2006). Web.
Stenger, Fritz. African Philosophy I: The Time Has Come to Take Ourselves Seriously. Stenger, 2005. Web.