The Literal Meaning of the Phrase “Heart of Darkness”
The phrase “Heart of Darkness” has two meanings: one is the literal meaning, and the other is the symbolic meaning. Literally, the title refers to the dark continent ofActually it was the famous explorer and writer, Henry Morton Stanley who, having travelled through Africa, gave the name of “the dark continent” to it; but thereafter this phrase became current and began to be widely used for Africa The phrase “heart of darkness” means the inmost region of the territory which was, in those days, still in the process’ of being explored, and the inhabitants of which still led primitive lives. Today every bit of the continent of
Africa, especially the territory known as the . Congo
Descriptions of Wild Scenery
There are other features of the novel too, justifying the title “Heart of Darkness.” One such feature is the many descriptions of the wild scenery of the thick, almost impenetrable jungle, and the suggestive pictures of the natives not fully visible to the white men’ sailing over the river
. The natives peer at the intruders from behind the trees in a furtive, stealthy, and suspicious manner, and even’ attack them when occasion demands. The passages containing descriptions of this wild scenery are among the most striking in the novel, and these passages make a substantial contribution to the atmosphere of the book. The atmosphere is certainly characteristic of the “heart of darkness.” For instance, at one point in the novel Marlow says that sailing up the river Congo was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted’ on the earth and the big trees were kings. He then refers to the great silence of the, impenetrable forests where the air was warm, thick, heavy, and slaggish. Marlow perceived no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine in that region. The long stretches of the water-way ran on into the gloom of overshadowed distances. The g waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands. One could lose sway on that river as one might lose one’s way in a desert. The stillness, which prevailed there, was not the stillness of peace. It was the stillness of a relentless force brooding over some mysterious purpose. This stillness looked at a man with a revengeful aspect. Now, a description of this, kind certainly conveys to us the heart of darkness. A similar piece of description occurs later when Marlow tells us that the night came suddenly and seemed to strike him blind. Then, about three in the morning, Marlow heard a loud splash as though a gun had been fired. When the sun rose, there was a white fog, very warm and damp, and more blinding than the night. The fog remained there like something solid. A little later in the morning the fog lifted as a shutter lifts. Marlow then had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense jungle, and of the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it, all perfectly still. And then the white fog came down again. There are other descriptive passages of the same kind in the book, too. Congo
The Natives and Mr. Kurtz, an Essential Part of the Darkness
The barbarism of the natives reinforces the effect of these descriptive passages and intensifies the atmosphere of mystery and fear which marks much of the narration. Reading about the natives, we get an even stronger impression that we are in the midst of darkness and that, in fact, we are in the very heart of darkness. On one occasion, the natives, seeing Marlow’s steamer sailing up the river, draw near the river-bank in order to launch an attack upon the intruders. Marlow on this occasion hears a muffled rattle, then a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation. The cry is like a clamour. This cry gives rise to a feeling of terror in the hearts of all the white men on board the steamer, and they have to get ready to meet the attack. Then the attack by the natives actually begins, and Marlow find’ a countless number of arrows flying about the steamer. The white men then retaliate by firing their rifles. In the fighting, the helmsman of the steamer is killed with a spear hurled at him by a native. But it is not the attack by the natives which creates the effect of darkness. It is the backwardness and the ignorance of the natives which creates that effect. They do not have the least notion about why this steamer is sailing up the river. The natives have merely attacked the steamer because they have received instructions to do so from their supremo, Mr. Kurtz. And, in this context, the personality of Mr. Kurtz is very important because it is he who sums up the whole essence of the barbarism and the savagery of the natives. Marlow has conveyed to us the demonic character of Mr. Kurtz by the use of highly suggestive phrases so as to create upon us the impression that, instead of civilizing the natives, Mr. Kurtz has himself become a barbarian. Mr. Kurtz has begun to identify himself with the savages. He has begun to participate in their customs and their ceremonies. He has been presiding over their dances which always end with “unspeakable rites.” In Marlow’s opinion, Mr. Kurtz has become wholly evil and has, indeed, taken a high place among the devils of the land. Mr. Kurtz has been giving a free outlet to his monstrous passions; and his primitive instincts have fully been aroused in the company of the savages. He has been experiencing “abominable satisfactions,” and he has been gratifying without restraint his “various lusts.” In short, Mr. Kurtz has, become, part of the darkness of the
. Having lived in the heart of darkness, Mr. Kurtz has become a dark, sinister person who would eventually be claimed by the powers of darkness. It is the conversion of Mr. Kurtz from a civilized and enlightened man into a superstitious and brutal individual which lends emphasis to the literal darkness of the Congo . In this sense, then, darkness means superstition and evil. Mr. Kurtz has become an embodiment of that superstition and that evil. At least in the company of the savages, Mr. Kurtz behaves exactly like one of them; and he has impressed them so much by his identification with them that they have begun to regard him as a man-god. Such is the veneration which they feel for him that even their chiefs come crawling to pay their homage to him. Congo
An Exploration of the Sub-Conscious Mind
The phrase “heart of darkness” has yet another meaning. Marlow’s exploration of the dark country known as the
is accompanied also by an exploration of the depths of his own mind or soul. The human mind may also be regarded as a kind of dark continent. The exploration of this dark continent is perhaps even more difficult than the exploration of a dark country like the Congo . The book called Heart of Darkness may be treated as a journey by Marlow into his own sub-conscious mind or into the subconscious mind of all mankind. Marlow’s journey into the Congo is metaphorically a psychological and anthropological night journey. The book called Heart of Darkness is symbolically the story of an essentially solitary journey involving a profound spiritual change in the voyager. In its classical form, this journey is a descent into the earth, followed by a return to light. Marlow prepares us for such a journey at the very outset when he says that he had been able to arrive at the furthest point of navigation and the culminating point of his experience. The book certainly describes a physical journey or a physical adventure as already pointed out above. But it is, at the same time, a psychological and mystical journey. Marlow also tells us indirectly at one point that, by paying close attention to the surface reality of the story and its external details, we would be able to arrive at an inner meaning. Thus Conrad is here able to blend morality and adventure in a unique manner, as he has done in some of his other novels as well. Congo
A Probe into the Darkness of the Sub-Conscious Mind
There are many passages in the course of Marlow’s narration in which he gives us glimpses of his own mind. At one point he tells us in explicit terms that he has always hated and detested lies because he has always found a taint of death and a flavour of mortality in lies. ‘In the same context, Marlow also says that it is not possible for any man to convey to others the life-sensation of any period of his existence. “We live, as we dream––alone,” he says. At another point Marlow says that the mind of man is capable of anything because everything is in it, because the past as well as the future is in it. In order to endure the stark realities of human life, a man should possess an inner strength. What a man needs is a deliberate belief. At yet another point in the novel, Marlow tells us of the effect on his own mind of the savage sight of human skulls banging from the tops of the posts fixed to the ground outside Mr. Kurtz’s residence. Later, Marlow tells us of the effect on his own mind of Mr. Kurtz’s arguments defending his action in slipping away from the ship’s cabin into the jungle. Towards the end of the novel, Marlow tells us the working of his own mind when several persons come to him, one after the other, claiming the packet of papers and the photograph which, Mr. Kurtz had given him for safe custody; and he also reveals to us the working of his mind when he goes to meet Mr. Kurtz’s intended. In all these cases, Marlow tells us not only about his conscious thoughts but also tries to probe his sub-conscious mind. This sub-conscious mind is also the heart of darkness which Marlow (or Conrad) tries to explore.
The Exact Nature of the “Darkness”
A critic, commenting upon the title of the novel, says that the “darkness” here is many things: it is the unknown; it is the sub-conscious; it is also a moral darkness; it is the evil which swallows up Mr. Kurtz and it is the spiritual emptiness which he sees at the centre of existence; but above all it is mystery itself, the mysteriousness of man’s spiritual life.