Friday, November 19, 2010

“In Heart of Darkness, Conrad takes his deepest look into the human condition and comes to his most pessimistic conclusions on the pressures that can be imposed on the human spirit.” Explain and illustrate.

Conrad’s Emphasis On the Dark Side of Human Life
Conrad’s general attitude to life was one of pessimism. A pessimist is a person who tends to look at the dark side of life only.
A pessimist generally ignores the bright side of life, and concentrates on the dark and depressing side. Next to Thomas Hardy, Conrad is the most pessimistic of English novelists. Very rarely does Conrad speak about the joys of life and about man’s victories and triumphs in this world. Of course, Conrad is aware of the grandeur of human nature. But he chiefly dwells upon the short­sightedness, corruption, egotism, and fanaticism which govern human life. The general trend of his thinking is pessimistic, and he feels especially troubled by the mystery of fate. Almost all his novels and stories lay stress on the numberless varieties of human suffering. The weaknesses of human nature everywhere dominate his novels. Conrad is of the opinion that the fundamental selfishness of man turns him into a wolf. He is certainly aware of the virtues of loyalty, fidelity, and integrity which are found in human beings; but the emphasis in his novels is upon the misery and the misfortunes which afflict human life.
An Oppressive Book
Heart of Darkness is a sombre and grim novel. Some evidence of Conrad’s gift of humour is surely available to us in this novel. But the touches of humour in this book are very occasional. The title of this book is Heart of Darkness, and the book deals with the dark continent. But the story itself is also essentially dark and bleak. There is very little in this book to relieve the darkness which prevails. After reading this novel, we rise from our seats with very heavy hearts; and for days together we find ourselves unable to recover from the sadness which had begun to oppress us.
Marlow’s Opening Remarks
Marlow’s very opening remarks about the Roman conquest of Britain centuries ago have a touch of sadness about them. He tells his listeners that all conquest is “robbery with violence,” and that violence in this context means “aggravated murder on a great scale.” Powerful nations and communities strive to grab whatever they can get by attacking the weaker nations. Marlow is here undoubtedly hinting at the imperialist rule of the modem western nations also. In this context, we must remember that Marlow’s voice is essentially the voice of Conrad himself. When Marlow criticizes and censures the ancient Roman conquest of the backward countries like Britain, it is Conrad who is censuring the Belgian, the Spanish, and the British conquerors who had established their own empires in modem times. These opening remarks by Marlow bring before us scenes of the reckless slaughter of the backward people and the establishment by the invaders of their own governments in the conquered territories.
The Sight of the Knitting-Women, and the Talk of the Doctor
Marlow’s comments upon the two women who sit knitting black wool in the Company’s office also have -a tinge of sadness in them. These knitting-women appear to Marlow to represent the Fates who keep busy spinning the yarn of the destiny of human beings on this earth. After seeing these women, Marlow speaks in terms of shrouds and dead bodies. They bring to his mind the spectacle of gladiators getting killed in the arena where bloody contests used to take place for the amusement of emperors and commoners. Thus the sight of these women is ominous and suggests dark thoughts. Even the Company’s doctor, who examines Marlow and who is by nature a jovial man, says something which has a hint of tragedy in it. The doctor says that he, as a scientist, would very much like to study the changes that take place in the mind of a white man who goes into a dark and unexplored country like the Congo. Evidently, the doctor is aware of the fact that a white man would almost go crazy in a country where he meets only savages and has to deal with them. Subsequently we learn that no white man has been able to spend more than three years in the Congo. Everyone, who went there, fell ill and had to be sent back to Europe. The manager of the Central Station is, of course, a man with an exceptional stamina; and he can withstand the rigours of the climate of the Congo; but most of the white men have been unable to do that.
The Sights of the Suffering and Misery of the Natives of the Congo
Marlow’s feeling of isolation is conveyed to us very effectively when he is sailing towards the Congo by a French steamer. In this context, Marlow tells us that he was a lonely man on that steamer because he had no point of contact with any member of the crew, and also because he had no duties to perform. The sights which Marlow witnesses on reaching the Company’s very first trading post are of a kind which would depress and sadden any visitor. Marlow sees a number of black men held together by means of a chain, and each wearing an iron collar around his neck. This chain-gang of criminals gives rise to awful thoughts in Marlow’s mind. The other sights, which Marlow sees here, make him feel that he has entered the gloomy circle of some inferno. He finds large numbers of black men sitting in groups, close to the tree-trunks, and dying slowly of starvation and disease. These sights are intended by Conrad to convey to us the white man’s total indifference to the needs of the black natives of the Congo, and the white man’s self-centeredness. The white man was supposed to ameliorate the conditions of life for the savages; but the white man is absolutely unconcerned with the indescribable sufferings and misery of these black men. The white man evidently makes full use of the labour and toil of the backward and ignorant natives but pays no attention to their uplift.
Depressing Portrayals of the White Men Working in the Congo
Conrad also shows his pessimism in the manner in which Marlow portrays the white men whom he meets at the Central Station. The manager is described by Marlow as a man who could inspire neither love nor fear nor respect but who could certainly inspire “uneasiness.” There was “nothing within him.” In other words, the manager was a man with a barren soul. Conrad’s purpose here is to convey to us the spiritual emptiness of the white men who went to the backward countries for purely trading purposes. The manager’s chief anxiety is to collect as much ivory as possible, though at the same time he feels jealous of Mr. Kurtz who is achieving an enormous success in collecting ivory. The white agents, who are seen by Marlow loitering about the Central Station, seem to be idlers who have no work to do and who merely spend their time in talking ill of one another and in hatching intrigues. These men are described by Marlow satirically or ironically as “pilgrims”. Then there is the brick-maker who earns Marlow’s strong disapproval by his cunning. This man talks a lot, but there is little meaning in his talk. Marlow describes him as a “papier-mache Mephistopheles.” Naturally we feel greatly depressed by Marlow’s sketches of these men who have come to the Congo as the ambassadors of progress and enlightenment but each of whom is cutting a sorry figure.
The Most Pessimistic Part of the Novel
The most pessimistic part of the novel, however, is that which deals with the character and deeds of Mr. Kurtz. This man had at one time given evidence of possessing a highly progressive and liberal outlook. In the prime of his life, he had believed in the great benefits which the white men could confer upon the backward peoples of the earth. But, after having stayed among the savages, this man has himself become a savage. Instead of civilizing the beasts, he has himself become a beast. He certainly retains his identity as a civilized man, but he gives evidence of that identity only when he is spending some time at his headquarters at the Inner Station. When he goes into the interior to collect ivory, he begins to participate in the life of the savages and to share all their activities. He has now become a powerful man and is worshipped by the savages as a kind of deity. He now presides over their midnight dances which always end with “unspeakable rites.” He has now begun to gratify his various lusts without restraint, and he is now giving a free outlet to his monstrous passions. Marlow frankly says that Mr. Kurtz has now taken a high place among the devils of the land. Such is the effect of a savage environment on a civilized man when he is cut off from civilized society. Mr. Kurtz has now become a barbarian, giving a free vent to his primitive instincts which have risen to the surface under the influence of the savages. Outside his residence are a large number of posts fixed to the ground; and on the top of each post there is a human head or skull. These heads and skulls are of those natives who had incurred Mr. Kurtz’s displeasure and who had been executed under his orders. In short, the spectacle of an enlightened man falling a prey to the evil influence of barbarism has an intensely depressing effect on us. We begin to feel that civilization is only a thin veneer which wears off soon under adverse conditions of life. Beneath his refinement and culture, a human being continues to be essentially a primitive. In fact, a change has begun to occur even in Marlow; and, if Marlow had stayed among the savages in the Congo for any length of time, he too would have morally degenerated and become a savage.

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