Friday, November 19, 2010

The Story of “Heart of Darkness”

Marlow and Kurtz, the Two Characters Indispensable to the Theme
Heart of Darkness is the story chiefly of two men, namely Marlow (an Englishman), and Mr. Kurtz (a German). Both these men belonged to the category of extraordinary or exceptional beings. The story of the novel is told by Marlow whom we meet at the very opening of the narrative.
As for Mr. Kurtz, he makes a personal appearance only towards the end of the narrative, though we come to know almost everything about him from other people including Marlow much before that time. In some respects, Mr. Kurtz is a more striking personality than Marlow, but Marlow is a more solid person. In any case, both men are almost equally important so far as Conrad’s treatment of the theme of the novel is concerned. The theme of the novel is the conditions prevailing in the Congo in the closing years of the nineteenth century when that country had not yet been fully explored, but which had begun to be visited by white men, individually or in groups, for various purposes including exploration and trade. The theme of the novel is the clash of two cultures, the clash between the civilization of the white people and the way of life of the black natives of a dark country. The theme is the impact of the white visitors upon the mode of life and the thinking of the savages of the Congo, and the reactions of the, white visitors to what they saw in the Congo. The theme is partly the futility of the white men’s endeavours in that dark country, the waste of their efforts to civilize the savages, partly the exploitation of the blacks by the whites, and partly the lessons which the thoughtful white visitors like Marlow could draw from their travels into the heart of darkness. Marlow is the narrator of the story, although there is one other narrator with whom, however, we need not concern ourselves for the time being.
Marlow’s Decision to Sail Upon the River Congo
Marlow had originally been a seaman, but having long cherished a desire to visit the dark Country called the Congo, and to sail upon the river Congo, he now decided to turn into a fresh-water* sailor. In order to go to the Congo, he found it necessary to get a job. Accordingly, through the efforts of an enthusiastic and influential aunt, he got a job as the skipper of a river steam-boat operated by a European trading company. Actually it was a Belgian trading company with its headquarters in the city of Brussels which Marlow describes as the “whited sepulchre.” He had first to travel to the Congo, and there take charge of a steam-boat the original skipper of which had been killed in retaliation for his slaying of the chief of a local village.
The Smiling, Frowning, Inviting Canst
Marlow left for the Congo by a French steamer which made a very slow progress because it had to stop at every port on the way. Marlow was only a passenger on this steamer, and he therefore had no work to do on it. He merely watched the coast as the steamer sailed onwards. The coast lay before Marlow, “smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering: come and find out”. Beyond the coast lay a vast jungle so dark and green as to be almost black. At one point in the course of the voyage Marlow saw a warship anchored in the sea and firing its guns. He could not understand why the warship was firing its guns and at whom. To Marlow, it seemed that the guns were being fired to no purpose pt all. Somebody on the steamer said that the warship was firing at the enemies who were hidden somewhere in the jungle.
The Next Stage of the Journey, and the Sights on the Way
After about thirty days, Marlow saw the mouth of the big river, namely the Congo river. The steamer cast anchor but Marlow was to continue his journey for two hundred miles more. He now got aboard a sea-going steamer which was to take him to a place thirty miles higher up. This steamer landed Marlow on a rocky cliff, from where he saw a number of houses built upon a hill. Marlow started walking towards the houses. On the way he saw a large number of natives, mostly naked, moving about like ants. In the distance, he saw the Company’s station which was his destination for the time being. On the way he also saw some machinery lying useless in the thick grass. He found some men busy blasting a rock with gunpowder. This blasting also seemed to Marlow to be a waste of effort because he could not see any purpose behind it. Next, Marlow saw six black men, each with an iron collar round his neck, and each linked to the others by means of a steel chain. They were under the charge of an armed guard. These men were criminals who had broken the law, but they were being held as if they were beasts, not human beings. The sight of these men aroused awful thoughts in Marlow’s mind.
At the Company’s Station: the Accountant’s Mention of Kurtz
Marlow now found himself in a sort of grove. Here he felt as if he had entered the gloomy circle of some inferno.* Black shapes lay on the ground huddled together. Some of them were dying slowly. They were dying of starvation and disease. On getting close to the Company’s station. Marlow saw a white man who was flawlessly and neatly dressed. This man was the Company’s chief accountant, and he was wholly devoted to his work. The account-books maintained by him were always in perfect order. However, everything else at this station was in a muddle. Marlow stayed at this station for ten days. During his stay here, the accountant one day spoke to him of a man by the name of Mr. Kurtz who was an agent of the Company and who was described by the accountant as a “remarkable man”. The accountant also told Marlow that Mr. Kurtz was sending to this station as much ivory as all the other agents put together. Ivory was the principal commodity in which the Belgian Company was trading.
A Long Journey on Foot
Marlow left this station with a caravan of sixty black porters and one white man. Marlow had now to cover a distance of about two hundred miles on foot. On the way, Marlow’s white companion fell ill and had to be carried in a hammock. But the black porters now quietly slipped away, leaving Marlow alone with the ailing white man. Thus Marlow had to undergo an ordeal which he had not anticipated.
At the Central Station; the Wrecked Steamer
After fifteen days of this journey, Marlow came in sight of the big river again and walked lamely into the Central Station of the Company. Marlow found the manager of the Central Station to be an inhospitable and discourteous kind of than. The manager talked to Marlow of all sorts of things. He too spoke of the man called Kurtz, saying that Kurtz was the best agent he had, and that Kurtz was a man of the greatest importance to the Company. But Marlow now also leant a very depressing fact from the manager. The steamer, of which he had been appointed the skipper, had sunk and lay at the bottom of the river. The manager said that Marlow’s first task would be to arrange to have the steamer pulled out of the river and set it afloat.
The Work of Pulling out the Steamer From the Bottom of the River
Marlow started working on the very next day, though he found his work handicapped by the lack of rivets which he could not obtain from anywhere. He had agreed with the manager’s estimate that the work of pulling out the steamer from the bottom of the river and then repairing it would take about three months. During the days which followed, Marlow saw tee manager’s white companions who were also the agents of the Company but who hardly had any work to do. Each of these white men carried a stick in his hands, and each simply idled away his time. They certainly talked among themselves, but the only subject of their conversation was ivory. For the rest, they spent their time backbiting and intriguing against one another. Marlow nicknamed these white men as “faithless pilgrims.”
The Brick-Maker’s Praise of Kurtz
During his stay at this station, Marlow also met the brick-maker who, however, made no bricks at all and whose real work was to serve the manager as the manager’s spy. The brick-maker also spoke to Marlow about Mr. Kurtz. The brick-maker told Marlow that Mr. Kurtz was the chief of the Company’s Inner Station, and that Mr. Kurtz was really a wounderful man. Marlow found that this brick-maker was an essentially hollow man. In fact, Marlow began to look upon this man as a “papier-mache Mephistopheles.*” Marlow was more impressed by the stillness of the scene around him and by the immensity of the surrounding . region than by the brick-maker’s talk. However, Marlow coult not help listening to the brick-maker’s description of Mr. Kurtz. The brick-maker had high praise for Mr. Kurtz whom he described as a “universal genius
The Shallow-Minded Members of an Exploring Expedition
At last the wrecked steamer was pulled out of the bottom of the river and repaired. In the meantime, the Central Station was invaded by a large group of white men who were members- of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Marlow was not much- impressed by, the members of this expedition, the leader of which turned o%- to be the uncle of the manager of the Central Statiom-Marlow found that the members of this expedition were shallow-minded persons whose talk was without any depth in it. In fact, it seemed that there was no moral purpose at all behind the endeavours of this expedition. Marlow also found the leader of this expedition to be a cunning man who kept talking to his nephew, the manager, about Mr. Kurtz. It seemed to Marlow that the manager had been feeling jealous of Mr. Kurtz’s growing popularity among the natives. The manager had, in fact, begun to feel that Mr. Kurtz might one day supersede him and occupy. an even higher position under the Company than the manager was at present occupying.
Marlow’s Curiosity About Kurtz: the Commencement of a Voyage
Although Marlow had not felt very interested in Mr. Kurtz in the beginning, he had by now become quite curious to know Mr. Kurtz better. So many people had been talking about Mr. Kurtz that Marlow had now begun to feel a strong desire to see that remarkable man and become acquainted with him. Soon Marlow’s voyage by the steamer, of which he was the new skipper, began over the river Congo. The manager accompanied Marlow on this voyage. Marlow felt that sailing over that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world when vegetation grew on the earth in great abundance, and when the big trees were the kings of the jungle. The forest on both sides of this river was so thick as to be impenetrable; and on the sandy bank of the river, Marlow saw hippos and crocodiles sunning themselves side by side. It set med to Mariow that his steamer was sailing deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.
The Self-Restraint of the Cannibals Serving Under Marlow
On many occasions the steamer simply refused to move forward. Or these occasions, the men on board had to get down into the river and push the steamer. There were about twenty natives on board the steamer to do this kind of work. These men constituted the crew of the ship. They were savages, but they were willing workers. They were cannibals, who craved for human flesh. The provisions, which they had brought with them, had already rotted and become uneatable. Now they would have welcomed the flesh of human beings. If they had been desperate fellows, they would have attacked and killed some of the white men on board the steamer, but they did not take any such reckless step. Indeed, it was surprising to Marlow that these men could exercise considerable restraint upon themselves. The white men on board the ship were Marlow, the manager of the Central Station, and a few traders to whom Marlow had inwardly given the nickname of “pilgrims”. The fellow who was working as the; fireman was a black native, and so was the helmsman.
An Attack Upon Marlow’s Steamer By Native Tribesmen
In a couple of days, the steamer managed to reach a place about eight miles from Mr. Kurtz’s station which was known as the Inner Station. Here the manager urged Marlow to exercise every possible precaution because there was a possibility of the savage tribe of the nearby jungle attacking the steamer. The manager’s apprehension was confirmed when a loud cry- from inside the surrounding forest was heard by those on board the steamer, This cry was more of a “mournful clamour” than anything else. Everybody on board the steamer was filled with a strange fear, though, the cannibals on the steamer welcomed the possibility of an attack by the hostile tribe in the jungle because the cannibals would, by killing some members of that tribe, get some human flesh to eat. Soon afterwards, the native tribe actually started an attack upon the ship. Marlow could see arrows flying everywhere around him. Evidently, the tribesmen were armed with bows from which they were shooting arrows. Now the white men on board the ship started firing their guns into the jungle in retaliation. The white men went on firing at random just as the tribesmen were shooting their arrows at random. None of them could really take an aim because of the fog, and because the tribesmen were attacking from behind the trees. A little later one of the tribesmen was able to attack the ship’s helmsman with a spear. Soon afterwards, the helmsman died of the wound, and Marlow himself had to attend to the steering of the ship.
The Character of Kurtz, and His Status in the Eyes of the Savages
Now it seemed to the manager that the Inner Station, which was under the charge of Mr. Kurtz, might also have been attacked by the hostile tribesmen and that Mr. Kurtz might have been killed. The manager’s fear about Mr. Kurtz greatly depressed Marlow who had by now developed a great desire to meet Mr. Kurtz and listen to his talk. Marlow had come to know from various reports about Mr. Kurtz that Mr. Kurtz was a very good talker and a very eloquent speaker. Of course, Marlow had also been told that Mr. Kurtz had been collecting more ivory than all the other agents of the company put together. But in addition to that, Mr. Kurtz also had a talent for expressing his ideas in a very effective and impressive manner. Ivory was Mr. Kurtz’s favourite possession; and effective speech was his special gift. Apart from that Mr. Kurtz was reported as having often talked about his “intended,” (that is, the girl whom he intended to marry). Marlow had been told that Mr. Kurtz used often to say: “My intended; my ivory; my station; my river; my everything.” Indeed, Mr. Kurtz talked as if everything around him was his own. But Marlow wondered if Mr. Kurtz himself belonged to anything. Perhaps Mr. Kurtz belonged to the powers of darkness which would one day claim him as their own. In other words, Marlow thought Mr. Kurtz to be essentially evil. Marlow had also come to the conclusion that Mr. Kurtz was hollow at the core. Marlow had, in addition, been told that Mr. Kurtz had been of the view that it was the duty and the destiny of the white men to civilize the natives of the dark continent of Africa. But now, according to the reports which Marlow had received, Mr. Kurtz had himself become a part of the backward and superstitious religion of the native black savages. Mr. Kurtz had begun to share the superstitious beliefs of the savages, and had been presiding at their midnight dances which always ended, with “unspeakable rites.” Mr. Kurtz seemed to have become a cult-figure among the natives. The natives now did not want to lose him. In other words, they did not want him to go back to his own country in Europe. They had now begun to regard him as part and parcel of their own country though they treated him as far superior to themselves. He was in their eyes a man-god, or a deity, worthy of their worship. It was by his magnetic powers of speech and by his ingenuity in dealing with them that he had risen to the status of a deity in their eyes.
The Natives, Driven Away by Means of the Ship’s Whistle
The attack from the native tribe upon the steamer continued, and the retaliatory firing of guns by the whites on board the steamer continued also. Eventually Marlow was able to drive away the natives by means of a clever trick. He blew the engine whistle several times in quick succession. The effect of the loud screeching of the whistle was to create a panic among the natives who started fleeing from the coast into the thick of the jungle. Thus it again became possible for Marlow to continue his journey to the Inner Station which was now hardly two miles away.
Mr. Kurtz’s Great Authority Over the Natives
On arriving at the Inner Station, the manager and Marlow learnt that Mr. Kurtz was seriously ill. In fact they had already heard about Mr. Kurtz’s illness, and they had come to the Inner Station only to take him away from here and send him to Europe. The manager, accompanied by a few of his white companions went to Mr. Kurtz’s office and brought the ailing man to the ship on a stretcher. Marlow, who had remained behind on the steamer, now happened to meet a Russian who told him that he was a great admirer of Mr. Kurtz. The Russian further said that he bad come into intimate contact with Mr. Kurtz and that, in fact, he had nursed Mr. Kurtz through two illnesses. Subsequently this Russian had become a great devotee of Mr. Kurtz. While talking to die Russian, Marlow also at this time observed that outside Mr. Kurtz’s residence-cum-office, there was a long row of poles on the top of which hung human heads and skulls. The Russian explained that these were the leads and skulls of those natives who had been executed under Mr. Kurtz s orders because they had rebelled against Mr. Kurtz’s authority. Actually Mr. Kurtz was a kind of monarch governing the natives according to their own traditions and customs. Even now the natives did not want that Mr. Kurtz should go away with the white men. But Mr. Kurtz at this time ordered the natives not to stop the white men from taking him away. Marlow also saw at this time a majestic-looking native woman who had been greatly devoted to Mr. Kurtz and who also did not want him to leave this region or the people living here under his authority.
Mr. Kurtz, Not Inclined to Leave the Natives
Mr. Kurtz himself was also not inclined to leave this place. He had established a close relationship with the natives. Besides, his plans would be upset if he were to go away from here. However, he said that he would come back to this place and carry out his plans after a time. And yet, on the way, Mr. Kurtz tried to slip away from the ship in order to re-join his native followers. It was with a great deal of effort that Marlow succeeded in bringing Mr. Kurtz back to the ship from the thick growth behind which he had hidden himself after slipping away from the steamer. The natives on this occasion also had to be driven away from the coast by means of the loud sound produced by the ship’s whistle.
Mr. Kurtz’s Death; and His Last Words
The steamer had now started its return voyage. Mr. Kurtz’s life was ebbing rapidly. Evidently, he could not be saved. One day, he handed over to Marlow a packet of papers and a photograph. The packet contained his ideas which he had wanted to propagate; and the photograph was that of the woman whom he had wanted to marry. Then one evening he told Marlow that he was now waiting only for his death. Suddenly then he uttered a cry, and spoke the following words : “The horror! The horror!”. After a little while, Mr. Kurtz died. His dead body was buried by the manager and his white companions in a muddy hole. The manager and the other whites had never liked Mr. Kurtz. In fact, they had all been jealous of Mr. Kurtz’s popularity and Mr. Kurtz’s power over the natives. However, Marlow had become a great admirer of Mr. Kurtz even, though he had also become aware of Mr. Kurtz’s faults and failings. Marlow had become almost as great an admirer of Mr. Kurtz as the Russian was, though Marlow did not worship Mr. Kurtz as the Russian did. In Marlow’s opinion, Mr. Kurtz’s last words had shown his victory over the evil within himself and over the evil in the world outside. Mr. Kurtz had at last succeeded in realizing that the evil within him was something horrible.
Marlow’s Meeting With Mr. Kurtz’s Fiancee
On his return to Europe, Marlow paid a visit to Mr. Kurtz’s fiancee. He gave her the papers and the photograph which Mr. Kurtz had handed over to him before his death. The woman asked Marlow what Mr. Kurtz’s last words were. Marlow replied that her own name was the last word which Mr. Kurtz had spoken; but this was, of course, a lie because Mr. Kurtz’s last words had been: “The horror!” But Marlow told the woman that Mr. Kurtz’s last words were her own name because Marlow wanted that the woman should continue to cherish Mr. Kurtz’s memory. Marlow had found that this woman too was a great admirer of Mr. Kurtz, and he now wanted that her devotion to that man should continue.

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