Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is an affluent, paradoxical, vivid and layered novella, which combines autobiography with travelogue, adventure story, political satire, black comedy and spiritual melodrama. The novel was written in the latter half of the 19th century and is regarded as one of the pioneer’s of the imperial art. . The plot deals with a journey into darkest Africa, a region recognized as the ‘Congo-free State’ by the Berlin Conference of 1885, the private possession of King Leopold II of Belgium. Conrad depicts in ‘Heart of Darkness’, the ways in which men in Africa served, and died ruthlessly for a remorseless organization. Through the skill of his writing and the power of his keen observation, he brings us a piece of work which tells us of a lot of things, mostly caliginous and gloomy which was the outcome of the Western impact in the continent. The author provides no voice to the native characters, instigating critics to question the freedom and rights of these people, who are silently victimized in the urban practices and exploitations. He portrays men dwarfed by the authority that they are meant to abide by and by an environment which is in disorder. Ambiguity, well balanced irony and symbolic multiplicity flows evenly within the narrative. The novel features an aphoristic iconography of modern unscrupulousness and echoes an antipathy to imperialism through its underlying absurdity. It is the story as narrated by a British cavalier to another gentleman of similar origins using the convention of the tale within the tale. Conrad was able to voice his paradoxes, relativism of perception, impediment of knowledge and conflicts between the codes of private and public, through irresolute images and many-faceted symbols.
The intricate detail of such imperialism that was practiced in these parts is carefully brought by the author in his novel. Marlow acknowledges the tragic predicament of all speech-that “it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence-that which makes its truth, its meaning-it’s subtle and penetrating essence.We live, as we dream alone”. Conrad himself is not exactly sure about a replacement for imperialism and because he seemed to imagine that European tutelage was a given, he failed to foresee anything succeeding it. The deck of a boat anchored in the river Thames is the backdrop for Conrad’s story. Marlow’s story indeed brings out aspects of such exploitation which was implicated upon the natives. The underlying tone of irony throughout the novel however brings to light the suffering but not its its entirety.
“Society saves us from corruption, yet society is corrupt.”(151) The customary associations of black and white, of dark and light are diversely exploited and subverted, the city is ‘sepulchral’-London is associated with ‘brooding gloom’. The very title of the novella does not just deal with the heart of the ‘darkest Africa’, but also Kurtz’s profanation, from tenebrous to obscure, physical and moral that can be imagined.”All Europe contributed to the making of KurtzHe won’t be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common.” (216)
The novel was prompted primarily by Conrad’s own expedition into the Congo in 1890. He noted that, ‘The vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience was witnessed there.’ Conrad journeyed to Brussels to gain employment with the Belgian company that organized trade in this part of Africa. In the story, Marlow travels here for his interview through the influence exerted by an aunt .Conrad makes the reader toil at discovering the Heart of this dark story, as he makes all referents point inward and outward simultaneously. In an incident mentioned in the manuscript version of the story, Conrad interprets Marlow’s arrival at the seat of Colonial Government within estuary of the Congo River. A sinister resonance is added as the ‘sepulchral city’ is linked to the ruinous-looking shores that support a high grey cube of iron. While ‘Heart of Darkness’ is the story of the story of Marlow’s venture up the Congo River towards Stanley Falls, Marlow’s interest is centered in Kurtz, hence it is Kurtz’s story that Marlow narrates before he or the readers are physically introduced to Kurtz. But Marlow’s story is the meditating story between in the inner one of Kurtz’s invasion of the so called Belgian Congo and the outer bit that Conrad is telling of Europe’s invasion of Africa. Throughout the author’s venture in Africa, he noted evidences of atrocities, exploitation, inefficiency and hypocrisy, and it effectively persuaded him of the disparity between imperialism’s rhetoric and the harsh reality. However, the author with the help of his symbolic and visionary intentions takes aid of satiric exaggeration. The incompetence and inefficiency displayed in the tale are so widespread as to make it seem unlikely that the Imperialists in Africa could ever inculcate viable railways, road systems or even towns. The novel is often attributed for being way ahead of its time. Perhaps the dubiety, skeptical boldness and symbolic suggestions make it such. The general augmentation of antipathy to imperialism gained new prominence in the light of historical events in the 20th century. “Imperialism maybe redeemed by an idea at this back of it, but imperialism irredeemably, is robbery with violence.”
The centre of the attraction from the beginning of the novel seems to be the figure of Kurtz whose name is highly heard of and who obtains an elevated platform amongst the employees in Congo who regard him in very high esteem. Marlow and his companions, alongside the readers as the result of this anxiously anticipate affronting the man. He was the pioneer behind this trade organization that was rapidly growing in Africa. As I mentioned earlier, that all of Europe had its contribution towards the making of Kurtz. The same Europe, which symbolizes of safety, civilization, literacy, masculinity and Christianity. With similarities to an European knight, Kurtz sets out on a crusade to win over the hearts of a lesser people, ignorant of the degree to which Africa is perilous, barbaric ,timeless, feminine, unfettered by letters or religion. The alteration between the two continents in Europe and Africa is the difference between two secondary symbols-the European woman, who has helped to puff up Kurtz’s pride and the African woman who has aided in deflating him. The intended, is exclusively protected, that is, considered helpless, rhetorically programmed and sexually repressed, living in black, in the wastelands of Modern Europe. She, much like Europe is fundamentally exterior, for the simple black garment conceals nothing. The native woman stands for Africa, all interior, in spite of her lavish mode of dress. While Kurtz is male, white, logical and unrestrained, the Native woman in context is female, black, stunningly coiffure, emotive and restrained. She walked with measured stepswith the slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments she was savage and superb, wild eyed and magnificent. Because the author chose not to provide words to the natives, it is impossible to absolutely understand out of what feeling the African ‘confidante’ of Kurtz ,did all that she was asked for. Was it the out of the evident, sheer compulsion or did she appreciate the authority she gained among the others involved by being closest to Kurtz. Later, when Kurtz’s is fatally ill, she takes care of him even though he doesn’t quite have the strength to enforce. Kurtz’s lustful exploitation is comparable to rape just as the ludicrous invasion of Africa was by the capitalistic West. Kurtz is a modern day Faust, who has traded his soul for power and gratification, just as Charlie Marlow owes a debt to Christopher Marlowe himself. Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on the divided self, on the striving and anarchic id seeking gratification despite the countervailing pressure of the super-ego, had been anticipated in the depiction of Kurtz’s ferocious fulfillment in the Congo regions of Africa. According to Cedric Watts, the Holocaust seemed to have been anticipated in the depiction of Kurtz’s charismatic depravity. Freud’s ‘divided self’ Jung’s ‘visionary mode of artistic creations’ and even Joyce’s concept of the futility and hostility in ‘Ulysses’ seemed to have been foreseen by Conrad.
When Kurtz goes on to say, “the horror! The horror!”(314) it’s almost like the collision of Europe and Africa, both nightmarish. Why Kurtz chooses to say these as his last words is not clearly stated by the author, which leads the readers to imagine numerous possibilities behind such an outrage of horror and trauma. It might be that insanity made him fumble those words or maybe for the last moment he witnessed the ‘horror’ he had inflicted upon these people throughout his reign in these parts. The debate seems endless but the fate of the natives was certainly decided by Kurtz till the last moment that he drew breath. This is echoed by T S Eliot in ‘The Wasteland’ to signify the intensity of the evil and damnation that modern life has to offer. Kurtz’s impact evil or professional can be questioned but his presence remains unquestionable. He stands tall as a symbol a representative of an oppressive continent that applied the weapons of persuasion and dominance to exploit Africa and similar continents. He sees Marlow as a successor, somebody capable or able enough to take the responsibilities he held. But Marlow holds ground, possibly because he’s unsure of the responsibility and magnitude it comes with or possibly he stands disapprovingly towards this Western attitude. However, the exact impact and outburst of the natives towards this behavior remains obscure because of their mime role in this novel. In a very careful and ironic tone the author pens the suffering inflicted upon these people who seem to tolerate all of it without sparing any word to shed light on their situation. Conrad was definitely skeptikal on racial matters although the narrative provided satiric accounts of the colonialists. Marlow seems willing to endorse belief in supernatural evil- and that evil is specifically associated with the people living in the shades of the African jungle.
According to Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, ‘Heart of Darkness’ depicts Africa as ‘a place of negations’. The Africans are de-humanized and degraded, seen as grotesques. They are denied speech, or granted on occasions only to condemn themselves out of their own mouths. We see Africa as a backdrop, which eliminates the African as human factor. Marlow’s tale which is interrupted by dissenting comments by his hearers is being reported by an anonymous character. Marlow himself has explicitly drawn attention to the difficulty of seeing truly and reporting correctly and therefore cannot be entirely reliable. According to feminist critic Johanna M Smith, the tale reveals the collusion of imperialism and patriarchy. Marlow, at the end of the novel has been transformed by his experience of Africa, what his eyes witnessed and mind sensed in his presence in these parts of the world left him a different man strangled in his own cloud of thoughts yet obscure from simple understanding, and is still being changed through various interpretations. Marlow makes the text precarious with his patronizing views of women, negotiating alternative viewpoints and psychological conflicts. Meditating on his own brush with death, Marlow wonders if he could have reached the insight and traversed the journey of self discovery that Kurtz obtained through his exposure to this timeless world. Marlow knows that the Intended could not stand up to understand the Native Woman.” I tried to break the spell-the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness.”(211) at the end of the novel, Marlow fails to indicate to the intended. The way Kurtz lived and died as it would have been to carry out the same violence, slaughter and terror that he had experienced in Africa.
‘Heart of Darkness’ can be considered progressive in its criticism of imperialist activities in the continent of Africa. Joseph Conrad was writing at a time when the majority of the British population including socialists would have regarded imperialism as an admirable enterprise. He was also helping the cause of Africans in the Congo by drawing much needed attention to the ill-treatment inflicted upon them. Considering the political frailty of that era, it was preposterous for a European author to be explicit and truthful about the prevalent situation. Yet the use of irony and the careful handling of words bring out the deplorable aspects of Africa at that time. The author has to be given a lot of credit for bringing out to us many aspects of imperialism that remained camouflaged, like many of it still is in the shadow of the west, obscure from human knowledge. Acknowledging the political and social turmoil and fragility of that time, ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a very courageous writing that really earned the importance and attention it deserved. It really takes a hefty chunk of courage and steady hands to pen a novel like this. The boundary stricken description of the situation these natives found themselves in is commendable. Achebe says that it marginalizes the Africans, but Marlow gives them prominence when he describes, with telling vividness, the plight of the chain-gang and of the exploited workers dying in the grove. As the novel repeatedly implies a value judgment in logic, cannot be deduced from a statement of fact. The narrative is partly about the struggle and conflict to maintain a humane morality when that morality no longer seems to have any efficacy.
“Civilization can be barbaric. It is both a hypocritical veneer and a valuable achievement to be vigilantly guarded.”(289)
Harold Bloom. “The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad”. 3 April, 2013.
Cedric Watts. “Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, A Critical and Contextual Discussion”. 3 April. 2013.
Gene M. Moore. “Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, A Casebook (Casebook in Criticism). 3 April, 2013.
Joseph Conrad. “Heart of Darkness”. 2 April, 2013.
Daniel Moran. “Cliffnotes on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer”. 3 April, 2013.