I. Marrow’s First View of
Marlow first seesHis view of the “almost featureless” continent is closely associated with the absurdity of the white man’s activity, and he feels that his condition keeps him “away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.” A sound comes as a relief: “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.” This is Marlow the seaman speaking, and this impulse is extended to the sight of the natives! vigorously paddling their boats: they “gave one a momentary contact with reality.” The energy of these men was “as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They were a great comfort to look at. For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts.” His recognition of their reality does not allow him to solve the enigma of the mysterious coast, but helps him distinguish himself from the colonialists.” ––Richard Ambrosini
Africa from a French steamer: “I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you always mute with an air of whispering, come and find out.”
II. Civilization Versus Wilderness
The contrast between the common humanity Marlow recognizes with the natives and the absurdity of the whites’ presence is radicalized during the two-hundred-mile tramp to the Company’s Central Station. This is his first contact with the wilderness. But the landscape is not yet the absolute. Other he will face while he is approaching Kurtz’s Inner Station. The traces of the white colonists have covered the entire forest with a hallucinatory grimness. Again, Marlow uses a sound to convey his recognition of his solidarity with the blacks. At night he hears “far-off-drums, a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild ––and perhaps with as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country.” As he proceeds on his journey, however, he introduces a motif which will later allow him to convey a sense of the presence of wilderness itself, its silence. Wilderness persists, in daylight, as silence. The silence motif starts as a notation of the positive or “natural’ presence of the wilderness as distinct from the white men’s “fantastic invasion.” It will then become the salient feature of the descriptions as well, until it will come to appear as the dominant note in the tale’s “continued vibration.”
The description of the Central Station and the traders whom Marlow calls “a lot of faithless pilgrims” enriches the conflict between the sounds of civilization and the silence of the wilderness with a destructive vehemence unequalled in Conrad’s writing. A new word is added to the ideological repertoire characterizing the conquest: “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it……By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life.” No detail could be more effective than the evocation of an uncanny silence, throbbing with life, surrounding the ivory-worshipping camp: “through the faint sounds of that lamentable courtyard, the silence of the land went home to one’s very heart –– its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life.” Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in Marlow’s efforts to express the effect of what he saw. ––Richard Ambrosini
III. The Unspeakable Rites In “Heart of Darkness”
I suggest that Kurtz’s unspeakable rites and secrets concern (with whatever attendant bestiality) human sacrifice and Kurtz’s consuming a portion of the sacrificial victim. Further, these sacrifices were established in the interest of perpetuating Kurtz’s position as a man-god. My assumptions rest upon Sir George James Frazer’s analysis of primitive man’s anxiety about the continuance of the world and about the mortality of the man-god, and of the methods used by him to allay the anxiety and to circumvent the inevitability of the man-god’s ageing and dying.
The poignant concern of the natives about the possible death or departure of Kurtz is one of the most striking things in the story. As Marlow’s boat approaches the Inner Station, he hears a cry from the shore––a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation.” In the skirmish, very close to the Station, Marlow blows the steam whistle:
“The tumult of angry and warlike yells was checked instantly, and then from the depths of the woods went out such a tremulous and prolonged wail of mournful fear and utter despair as may be imagined to follow the flight of the last hope from the earth.”
There is no doubt whatever that the natives’ mournful fear concerns the fact that the steamer may remove Kurtz. The Russian makes this explicit:
“Why did they attack us,” I pursued. He (the Russian) hesitated, then said shame-facedly, “They don’t want him to go”.
Kurtz’s position as a man-god, however, is significantly different from the usual one described by Frazer. That is, he comes from the outside, and is, naturally, unwilling to play the game of submitting to death when his strength fails. And thus we have the anomalous situation of the prolonged and acute anxieties of the natives (as Kurtz grows older and suffers severe illness), and of Kurtz’s continued power. To account for this anomalous situation, I believe that Kurtz had been able to establish the ritual which would allay the anxieties of the natives and therefore maintain his own position. This ritual––the sacrifice of a young and vigorous man, and the consuming of a portion of his body––has sufficient precedence, as Frazer demonstrates, to give it credence.
The assumption that Kurtz’s rites involved human sacrifice, and that they were for the purpose of maintaining Kurtz’s power as a man-god, clarifies several otherwise inexplicable passages. Two such passages are those concerning the agitation of the proud native woman in Kurtz’s hut, and Marlow’s blank horror at seeing the empty cabin (after Kurtz has slipped away with the object of rejoining the natives)
–– Stephen A. Reid
IV. Kurtz’s Immense Plans
“I had immense plans”, he muttered resolutely. “And now for this stupid scoundrel––” (Page 107 of the novel)
What are Kurtz’s immense plans? Kurtz’s plans cannot have been other than dominion over the world. The ivory was the means to that end, just as the sacrifices* were the means to the continued flow of the ivory. We can say, also, what type of domination Kurtz hoped to exercise: a benevolent tyranny. We know, in general, of Kurtz’s accomplishments in the arts. (According to a cousin of his he had been essentially a great musician); and we know in particular Kurtz’s extraordinary public magnetism. (According to a journalist, he “electrified” large meetings). As Kurtz lies dying on the steamer, his sense of omnipotence is still intact. Any precise plans, Kurtz of course could not have. The precise plans centred on the ivory, and on the means for obtaining ivory.
Kurtz descended into bestiality, but always with an awareness of what to him was the high purpose of his return to
Europe. Throughout the story Conrad provides us with a sense of pity for the exploited natives. Kurtz is not untouched by this. At the very end he one day cries at the invisible wilderness: “Oh, but I will wring your heart yet!” Kurtz is at this time sharply aware of two things: the natives’ helpless dependence on him, and the methods he employed to maintain his ascendancy. It is ironic but true that both the natives and Kurtz were at one in wishing Kurtz’s domination to continue. It is on the question only of the sacrifices that the natives and Kurtz differed. To the natives, the sacrifices were necessary and proper acts: without them, the world would be annihilated. Therefore, they felt no moral repugnance. To Kurtz, however, these acts cannot have remained anything but morally reprehensible, because he could never feel the particular necessity for them felt by the natives. For him, they were only tricks to maintain his power. I do not, of course, intend to deny the sadistic satisfactions Kurtz obtained from them. Plainly, he could not have carried them through had he not derived intense pleasure from them. But this pleasure only intensified his moral awareness. That Kurtz remains morally aware of his actions is certainly the case. He remains sharply aware of his cold-blooded exploitation of the natives’ trust. What other meaning-can his desperate cry––“Oh, but I -will wring your heart yet!”––have but this ? It is an expression of extreme guilt. Kurtz is saying to the natives: “When you will understand that I had to exploit you––when you understand the unequalled cause (the ‘immense plans’) that necessitated my actions-you will forgive and pity me.
––Stephen A. Reid
V. Conrad’s Deepest Look Into the Human Condition
Heart of Darkness is one of Conrad’s most ambiguous and difficult stories, a tale which has captivated critics with its profuse imagery and philosophical and psychological suggestiveness. It seems almost deliberately constructed in order to provide employment to teachers, critics, and editors of literary case-books. There are as many “readings” of the story as its Mr. Kurtz has tusks of ivory––many of them gained by similarly “unsound method*”. Its imagery has been described in detail, resonances from Dante, Milton, the Bible, the Upanishads, invoked; its philosophical position is argued variously to be Schopenhauerian, Nietzschian, nihilist, existentialist, or Christian; its psychology, Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, or Laingian. That the story has been so comprehensively understood, would have surprised Conrad who was concerned that it might prove elusive even to his most sympathetic readers; he wrote to Cunninghame Graham at the time the story was being serialized:
“There are two more instalments in which the idea is so wrapped up in secondary notions that you––even you!––may miss it”.
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad takes his deepest look into the human condition, and comes to perhaps his most pessimistic conclusions on the various and incompatible pressures that can be imposed on the human spirit. The readings that the story has given rise to are a testimonial not only to the power and range of its concerns but to their elusiveness. ––R.A. Gekoski
VI. Some Scenes of Horror
Consider as a sequence the scenes and impressions that follow immediately upon Marlow’s arrival at the trading station. If there is a connecting thread, it is his instant reflection as the chain-gang moves by: “I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby pretending weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.” First, a scene of desultory mess––the half-buried boiler, the railway truck with its wheels in the air, the dilapidated machinery. Then the sound of blasting (quite purposeless, it soon appears) recalls the warship pouring out its shells. The chained gang of forced labourers comes very close, in one of the most incisive and pitiful paragraphs anywhere in our fiction. The eye fastens again on material disorder: a heap of broken drainpipes, “a wanton smash-up” in a quarry dug for no purpose and abandoned. Then, to draw these sights and sounds into the larger web of the novel, comes an extraordinary impression simultaneously of violent motion and infernal stillness in the African scene. Next, the pity owing to the human victims of this wanton smash-up is summoned by a painful closeness of vision to sick African labourers cast aside to die. Sounds of the objectless blasting go on. As the eye accustoms itself to the gloom of the grove, the “black shadows” define themselves poignantly as individual human beings. To complete the sequence, there comes into sight the absurd, immaculate figure of the Company’s chief accountant: “I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a pen holder behind his ear.”
The horror out in the grove gives place to an equal horror indoors, where the impeccably kept trading accounts deflect in turn every human claim. The scenes have the same quality of significant series. The emergence of that accountant, and all that transpires in his office, point up Conrad’s creative relationship with Dickens, at the same time as they exhibit a sensuous animation, a rendering of the external, that seem uncanny. Appropriately, it is on this accountant’s lips that Marlow first hears Kurtz’s name. Kurtz seems to emanate from trade distorted into crass lust of gain; from “the work of the world” distorted into a perfect accountancy of predatory spoliation; and from the presence there, in that room, of a dying agent. The later and more shameful horrors that gather about him adhere to his function, agent for the Company, who “sends in as much ivory as all the others put together.” The manager’s account of him comes next, and adjoins Marlow’s finding the steamer he should command, wrecked and half-submerged. The effect is to locate Kurtz in this crassness* that smashes pipes and over-turns trucks and abandons steamers and dissolves human solidarities. He is both the instrument and the consequence of power at the service of greed. He personifies the exploiter’s disavowal of moral obligation towards the African community, whether in trade, law or financial probity. ––Douglas Brown
VII. The Essence of Conrad’s Contribution to Fiction
The slow voygage down the
“crawled towards Kurtz, exclusively,” towards “this Kurtz grubbing for ivory in the wretched bush.” When Marlow comes upon Congo ’s Manual of Seamanship** and feels “its singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work which made these pages luminous with another than a professional light,” the “delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real” can only be enjoyed in a moment’s oblivion of “the jungle and the pilgrims.” At once he catches sight of the manager and traders, puts the book in his pocket, and “started the lame engines ahead,” now and again picking out a tree” to measure our progress towards Kurtz by.” Towson
So energy takes more grotesque and irrational forms, activity becomes more sluggish, as the ulterior purposes they serve loom clearer. The superb movements of Africans paddling their boats from the shore; the merry dance of death and trade; the chain-gang; the jig Marlow dances with the foreman in the hope of rivets; jungle-dwellers capering wildly, fighting crazily; and at last the orgy round Kurtz at dead of night. Even navigation becomes (in Marlow’s grim phrases) “monkey-tricks” and “performing on a tightrope.” As we approach the shrine, the last trading station, we experience many penetrations at once: into a distinct and fearful African territory; into the darks of time; into mingled social forms, neither barbaric nor civilized but profoundly disordered and spoiled; into the darks of moral anarchy; and into the darks of the self that the sense at once of repulsion and fascination disturbs. We could take for close reading in this light the pages immediately following the finding of the Manual,** and leading to that wild cry of despair with which the jungle-dwellers greet the approaching traders and which they take to be the war-cry of attacking savages. Such subtly organized sequences, with their questioning ironies, their variety of vocal nuance, their tentative hints at the protagonist’s instability and suffering and his disintegrating confidence ––above all, with their discomposing particularity––have no superior in Conrad’s work, and may stand as the essence of his contribution to our fiction. Inevitably, this experience of penetration, of absorption, this loss of moral clarity and of certitude, feels sluggish; the very voyage a kind of paralysis. —Douglas Brown
VIII. The Implicit Larger Meanings of the Tale
Since Marlow’s narrative is a tale devoted primarily to a journey to the mysterious dark continent (the literal heart of darkness, Africa), a superficial view of the tale is simply that it is essentially an elaborate story involving confrontation with exotic natives, treacherous dangers of the jungle, brutal savagery, and even cannibalism. But such a view ignores larger meanings with which the work is implicitly concerned: namely, social and cultural implications; psychological workings of the cultivated European left to the uncivilized wilderness; and the richly coloured fabric of symbolism that emerges slowly but inevitably from beneath the surface.
Heart of Darkness can also be examined for its social and cultural commentaries. It is fairly obvious that a perverted version of the “White Man’s Burden” was the philosophy adopted by the ivory hunters at the Inner Station. Kurtz’s “Exterminate the brutes!” shows the way a white man can exploit the helpless savage. The futile shelling from the gun-boat into the jungle is also vividly portrayed as a useless, brutal, and absurd act perpetrated against a weaker, more uncivilized culture than the one that nurtured Kurtz.
Hear of Darkness is one of literature’s most sombre fictions. It explores the fundamental question about man’s nature: his capacity for evil: the necessity for restraint; the effect of physical darkness and isolation on a civilized soul; -and the necessity for relinquishing pride for one’s own spiritual salvation. E. M. Forster’s censure of Conrad may be correct in many ways, but it refuses to admit that through such philosophical ruminations Conrad has allowed generations of readers to ponder humanity’s own heart of darkness. ––Wayne E. Haskin
IX. Marlow’s Role as Narrator
Whether his subject is a sea captain who at the risk of his own career shelters a killer in his cabin because he “understands” (The Secret Sharer), or an English lady who has got herself involved beyond her depth in the transcendental projects of anarchists (The Informer), or the black soul of an ivory trader gone worse than native in the Belgian Congo (Heart of Darkness), the story is told us directly by one who participated in the action, or passed on to us by the author (an original audience) from the lips of some informed narrator––the inscrutable Mr. X, the anarchist; the imposing old ruffian in the smoking-room who is so scornful of professional writers and wants to know: “Would truth be any good to you?” The most famous of these imaginary narrators is Captain Marlow, who is responsible for several of the novels as well as of the tales; the most effective instance of his intervention is Heart of Darkness. This is also the most impressive of all the tales in point of patterning and the building up of an atmosphere of horror and mystery. It illustrates well the function of the narrator in giving naturalness to the tone (where romantic spookiness a la Poe is the substance) and in dramatizing that penchant for psychological interpretation which is at the same time the strength and the weakness of Conrad. It serves to tone down the baroque extravagance of his “oriental” style. And it enables him without pedantry to give to his sensational story that touch of the “moral” or human which is so lacking in the eerie productions of Poe. ––
X. “Heart of Darkness”, as Apocalypse
Marlow’s auditors* can only learn indirectly, through Marlow, whom they see. They therefore know more than he did. Marlow could only learn through Kurtz, when he finally encountered him face to face. The reader of Heart of Darkness learns through the relation of the primary narrator, who learned through Marlow, who learned through Kurtz. This proliferating relay of witnesses, one behind another, each revealing another truth further in which turns out to be only another witness corresponds to the narrative form of Heart of Darkness. The novel is a sequence of episodes, each structured according to the model of appearances, signs, which are also obstacles or veils. Each veil must be lifted to reveal a truth behind which always turns out to be another episode, another witness, another veil to be lifted in its turn. Each such episode is a “fact dazzling, to be seen, like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma,” the fact for example that though the cannibal Africans on Marlow’s steamer were starving, they did not eat the white men. But behind such enigmatic fact is only another fact. The relay of witness behind witness behind witness, voice behind voice behind voice, each speaking in ventriloquism through the one next farther out, is a genre of the apocalypse. The Book of Revelation, in the Bible, is the paradigmatic example in our tradition, though of course it is by no means the only example. In Revelation God speaks through Jesus, who speaks through a messenger angel, who speaks through John of Patmos, who speaks to us. ––J. Hillis Miller
XI. The Theme of Death in Conrad’s Fiction
Conrad’s works place heavy emphasis on death and isolation, on inadequate understanding between people and on the bitterness of experience. In his first novel, the protagonist dies a drug-addict’s suicidal death; in the second, the protagonist is shot; in The Nigger of the Narcissus, the nigger dies, while patriarchal Singleton comes to recognize his own impending death; in Heart of Darkness, Kurtz dies, while Marlow gains bitter knowledge; in Lord Jim, Jim is killed by the natives he had tried to help; in Nostromo, Nostromo is shot, Decoud commits suicide, and Mrs. Gould comes to disillusionment; in The Secret Agent, Winnie stabs her husband and subsequently drowns herself. Even in his later works, which are less bleak and uncompromising, death enjoys wide privileges: in Victory,
Lena is shot dead, and Heyst throws himself into a burning building to perish; in The Rover, old Peyrol sacrifices his life in a fatal voyage. In the shorter works, murder and (more frequently) suicide are just as common. Frequently the death comes as a coup de grace to those who have been misunderstood, frustrated, or disillusioned. The isolation Conrad depicts is not merely the physical isolation of individuals or groups on ships surrounded by sea or in outposts surrounded by jungle; more tellingly it is the covert loneliness that occurs within crowds or within marriages when seeming mutuality has been rotted inwardly by egotism. ––Cedric Watts
XIII. The Hollowness of Mr. Kurtz
Kurtz seems to be the ultimate in a long line of hollow men who, though nominally civilized, lack moral backbone; and the emphasis on his apparent virtues, his idealism, his energy, his eloquence, is to show that even a seeming exception only proves the rule about the vacuity at the heart of civilization. (The emphasis on his eloquence should remind us of the maxim that empty vessels make most noise). Yet, on the other hand, Marlow has also presented him as the intense contrast to the long line of hollow men: a being who, in contrast to the “flabby devils,” has at least, for all his corruption, lived vividly, violently, spectacularly; and, if he has sold his soul, he has at 1 had a soul to sell. As the end of Heart of Darkness approaches, Conrad is under an obvious pressure of convention: the convention that a must offer final clarification, final resolution of its mysteries and paradoxes. Now Conrad is happier to generate and dramatize paradoxes than to resolve them: he is resistant to the idea of final simplification. So what he offers is a pseudo-resolution: a dramatic statement* by Kurtz which seems to promise that grand finale of revelation but which, on closer examination, proves to be itself a compressed paradox, an oxymoron: a statement which mirrors, and does not reduce, the extreme ambiguity of the characterization. ––Cedric Watts