Friday, November 19, 2010

To what extent is the novel Heart of Darkness a record of Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo?

Many of Conrad’s works are based upon Conrad’s own experiences in life. Heart of Darkness definitely, belongs to the category of autobiographical works. This novel is actually a record of Conrad’s own experiences in the course of his visit to the Congo in 1890. As a boy Conrad had shared his father’s romantic temperament, and dreamed of travel and adventure. In a work called A Personal Record, Conrad clearly describes the fascination which the continent of Africa had exercised upon him as a boy. Conrad was only nine years old when, looking at a map of Africa of the time, he said to himself.
“When I grow up, I shall go there.” In Heart of Darkness the fictitious character, Charles Marlow, also tells his friends on the deck of a steamboat that, in his boyhood, he had been greatly attracted by the African country known as the Congo, and that the river Congo flowing through’ that country had exercised a particular fascination upon him.
Conrad’s Interest in the Congo, Stimulated By Stanley’s Discoveries
In 1890, Conrad actually travelled to the Congo. As a grown-up man, Conrad felt even more interested in going to the Congo because of the exploits of the explorer named Henry Morton Stanley who had found the missing missionary Dr. Livingstone in 1871, and who had explored the jungles of Central Africa and penetrated right into the heart of the dark continent. Stanley’s exploration of the dark continent had led to the Belgian King Leopold II taking control of the region to which was given the name of the Congo Free State. As a result of Stanley’s exploration, certain trading stations and administration centres were also established by Belgian Companies. Conrad’s interest in Africa was greatly increased by Stanley’s exciting experiences and discoveries. By the time Conrad reached the Congo, it had almost become the private property of King Leopold II and it had begun to be exploited by the Belgian trading companies in the name of Christianity and civilization. In other words, the colonial exploitation of the Congo had begun. Conrad, in one of his essays, described this exploitation as the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.
Conrad’s Unpleasant Experiences
In order to go to the Congo, Conrad had to take the help of an aunt who was by vocation a writer of novels. Through her influence, Conrad obtained a job with a trading company as the captain of a steamboat which was to take an exploring expedition led by Alexandre Delcommune to a .place called Katanga in the Congo. Conrad felt very pleased with the prospect of being able to visit the region of his boyhood dreams. However, Conrad’s pleasure was greatly marred by a quarrel which he had with Alexandre Delcommune’s brother who was functioning as a manager under the same trading company at a trading station on the way. Conrad formed a very adverse opinion about this manager whom he blamed for the many things which went wrong with his voyage on the river Congo, especially the delay in his arriving at his destination. Conrad had many other unpleasant experiences as well. Most of Conrad’s experiences in the course of this visit were recorded by him in a diary to which he gave the name of the Congo Diary. One entry in this diary informs us that hardly sixty per cent of the Company’s European employees stayed in the Congo for more than six months because of the diseases which overtook them. Hardly seven per cent of the Europeans could withstand the climate of the Congo for more than three years. Thus Conrad began to feel disillusioned with this region in the very early part of his visit. He felt also disappointed to find that most of the Europeans spoke ill of one another, and had very little else to do. In the course of his visit, Conrad had to walk over rocky territory in the scorching sun, camping at night in the damp and cold, and facing threats of mutiny from the porters. Finally, Conrad arrived at a station where the company’s ships were assembled or repaired.
An Agent Called Klein, the Original of Mr. Kurtz
Conrad’s main duty now was to bring one of the Company’s agents whose health had been failing. The name of this agent was Klein. This man had arrived in the Congo late in 1883 and had been placed in command of the Company’s station at Stanley Falls in 1890. He subsequently died aboard Conrad’s steamship by which he was being brought. It was this agent, by the name of Klein, who is transformed into Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. During this time Conrad’s own health began to be damaged by the unwholesome climate and environment. Hence he decided to give up his job and return to Europe. However, he stayed on as long as he could; and, by the time he returned, he was a broken man. In fact, he never afterwards regained his normal health. And it was as a consequence of this permanent impairment of his health that he gave up voyaging altogether, and turned to writing as a profession.
“Heart of Darkness,” Largely a Record of Conrad’s Own Experiences
In Heart of Darkness the character named Marlow is largely Conrad himself. Alexandre Delcommune’s brother becomes the manager of the Central Station in Heart of Darkness. In the novel, Marlow makes very unfavourable comments on the manager of the Central Station because Conrad had formed an adverse view of Alexandre Delcommune’s brother with whom Conrad had quarrelled. Similarly, in Heart of Darkness, Marlow says that the white men at the Central Station had very little work to do and spent much of their time plotting and intriguing against one another. Marlow, like Conrad, experiences a strong sense of disillusionment and disappointment after observing the behaviour of the white traders and also the conditions of life of the natives. The colonial exploitation of the dark continent by the white traders in ivory, as witnessed by Conrad himself, is described by Marlow in scathing terms. Marlow also records the disastrous effects of the climate of the Congo upon the white traders and agents who were sent by the Belgian Companies to this region. Only the manager of the Central Station has the stamina to withstand the rigours of climate here, while most other agents had to go back to Europe after spending a short period of time here (in the Congo). Furthermore, Marlow experiences the same sense of enlightenment and the same process of maturing through disillusion and defeat which Conrad himself underwent during his travels in the Congo. It has therefore to be recognized that Heart of Darkness is, to a large extent, an autobiographical book because, in most of the essentials, Marlow’s experiences and feelings are very much the same as Conrad’s own had been. There is a lot of resemblance between Conrad’s Congo Diary and the contents of the novel Heart of Darkness to justify such an assumption. Conrad’s experiences in the Congo have been described by a critic as exasperating, frustrating, and humiliating; and Marlow’s experiences in his contact with most of the white men in the Congo are of the same kind. Marlow undergoes an extreme personal crisis; and this crisis is very much the same through which Conrad himself underwent in the Congo. Thus, both in externals and in terms of the inward mental life, Marlow meets the same fate which Conrad had met.
The Difference Between Marlow and Conrad
However, the autobiographical character of the novel should not be over-emphasized. There are certain substantial differences between Conrad’s personal experiences and Marlow’s experiences as described in the novel. Conrad’s own experiences have served only as the raw material for the story of the novel. Marlow’s development from idealism to disillusion and his greater understanding of life is very much the same as that of Conrad himself had been during his exploration of the Congo. But the differences are also noteworthy. Marlow is presented in the novel as being sceptical from the very beginning, as we see in his hesitation and his suspicion of the enterprise in Brussels, while for Conrad the opportunity to go to the Congo was the idealized reality of a boy’s ambition. In other words, Marlow is doubtfully and apprehensive in the very beginning, while Conrad had been full of idealistic and romantic notions at the time of his departure for the Congo. Marlow at the very outset feels that he is not going to the centre of a continent but to the centre of the earth itself. Conrad, on the other hand, had gone to the Congo with bright expectations.
The Difference Between Mr. Klein and Mr. Kurtz
But more important than this fact is Marlow’s portrayal of the character of Mr. Kurtz, which does not correspond to anything that Conrad had actually witnessed and experienced. The character of the agent called Mr. Klein does not much resemble the character of Mr. Kurtz as portrayed in the novel. Conrad had not, in the course of his travels, met anybody who can be compared to Mr. Kurtz. Mr. Klein can be regarded only as a starting-point for the subsequent portrayal of Mr. Kurtz in the novel. During his personal travels through the Congo, Conrad had certainly gone to rescue the ailing Mr. Klein, but Conrad had not found in Mr. Klein that embodiment of evil which Marlow fords in Mr. Kurtz. Conrad in his diary does not dwell upon the character of Mr. Klein at such great length as Marlow does in the novel while speaking about Mr. Kurtz.
Marlow, the Mouthpiece of Conrad
In conclusion, we may add that Marlow’s outlook upon life or his philosophy of life is very much the same as Conrad’s own was. Marlow appears as a pessimist in the novel; and Conrad himself was a pessimist too. Marlow recognizes the existence of certain virtues in human beings just as Conrad himself did. But, on the whole, Conrad had formed certain depressing ideas about life in general, and Marlow too expresses similar ideas about life. Marlow’s reactions to most people, whom he meets in the course of his travels, are unfavourable and disappointing; and so were Conrad’s own reactions to the people whom he met in the course of his voyage. Besides, we can read Conrad’s own mind in Marlow’s in such utterances as Marlow’s declaring that he hates and detests a lie not because he is straighter than other people but simply because a lie appals him. Similarly we can read Conrad’s own mind in such remarks as the following: “We live, as we dream––alone.” Marlow is more or less a lonely, isolated figure despite the presence before him of four of his associates to whom he tells his story; and Conrad himself was a lonely figure too.

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