Friday, November 19, 2010

Would you say that the exploration of evil is one of the leading themes in Heart of Darkness? Give reasons for your answer.

The Evil of Military Conquest
Evil has a tangible reality in Heart of Darkness. Indeed, this theme dominates the novel. Evil here manifests itself in several ways. At the very outset Marlow refers to the ancient Roman conquest of Britain. In this connection, Marlow says that the ancient Romans were conquerors who used only brute force.
They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just “robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blindly.” Marlow then says that the conquest of any territory by any nation on the earth means the taking that territory away from those who have a different complexion from, or slightly flatter noses than, the conquerors. What can possibly redeem conquest is the idea only, an idea at the back of it and an unselfish belief in that idea. This talk by Marlow pertains to the evil of conquest, and to the brutality and the slaughter which any military conquest necessitates. Conquest of other people’s territories has been a recurrent feature of the history of mankind; and conquest has always been associated with cruelty and brutality.
A Hint of Evil in Some of the Remarks Made By Marlow
There is a hint of evil in Marlow’s reference to the city of Brussels as a “whited sepulchre.” The phrase “whited sepulchre” means a place which is outwardly pleasant and righteous but which is inwardly corrupt and evil. The evil character of this city is emphasized by Marlow when he points out that the Belgian conquerors were running an over-sea empire in the Congo, and making no end of coin* by trade. Here the evil of imperialism and the colonial exploitation of the ignorant and backward natives of the conquered territories is clearly indicated. Then there is a hint of evil in Marlow’s description of the two women who are busy knitting black wool in a feverish manner. These knitting-women remind us of the mythological Fates who kept constantly busy, spinning the yarn of human destiny. Marlow says that, even when he had gone to the Congo, he used often to think of these two women who seemed to him to be guarding the door of darkness and knitting black wool as if to make a shroud. When, at last, Marlow is about to set out on his voyage, he feels that, instead of going to the centre of a continent, he is going to the centre of the earth. A remark of that kind sends a chilly feeling through us, and such a remark also hints at the evil which exists in this universe.
A Suggestion of Evil in Marlow’s Descriptions of Natural Scenery
Marlow’s many descriptions of the natural scenery which he witnesses in the course of his voyage over the sea, and subsequently over the river Congo, have a strong suggestion of evil in them. Indeed, the wilderness and the thick forests, which Marlow sees on the way, seem to us to be the abode of evil. For instance, Marlow sees a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black. The sun is fierce, and the land seems to glisten and drip with steam. Later in the story, Marlow says that going up the river Congo was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world. He speaks of the empty stream, the great silence, and the impenetrable forest in which the air is warm, thick, heavy, and sluggish. There is no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine here. Marlow’s steamer penetrates deeper and deeper into the “heart of darkness,” and the very earth seems unearthly. Such descriptions in the course of Marlow’s narration heighten our sense of evil which, it seems, is lurking in the forest, behind the millions and millions of trees.
Evil Behind the Other Sights Witnessed By Marlow
The other sights which Marlow sees in the course of his journey also suggest the existence of evil. For instance, at one point, he sees a warship anchored off the coast, and firing its guns without having any target in view. Marlow feels that there is a touch of insanity in what the warship is doing. In other words, the firing seems to be absolutely aimless and futile. He sees several trading posts where “the merry dance of death and trade” goes on “in a still and earthy atmosphere” resembling that of an over-heated tomb. After getting down from the Swedish captain’s steamer, Marlow sees some awful and grim sights. He sees a lot of people, mostly black and naked, moving about like ants. He sees a boiler lying useless in the grass; and then he sees more pieces of machinery lying unused. At one place, a rock is being blasted with gunpowder even though this rock does not stand in the way of the railway line which is to be laid. Then he sees the horrible sight of a chain-gang. He is told that the men in this chain-gang are criminals who have been sentenced to hard labour. Here Marlow remarks that he had previously seen the devil of violence, the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire, but that now he was seeing another kind of devilry altogether. He was seeing the “devil of rapacious and pitiless folly.”
The Evil Represented By the White Agents of the Trading Company
The white men, whom Marlow encounters during his exploration of the Congo, by no means provide any relief to Marlow. These men, outwardly civilized, are actually degenerate fellows who have been prompted by sheer greed to come to this place so distant from Europe. The way, in which Marlow describes these men, clearly shows that there is no goodness in them at all. Taken together, these white men represent a huge amount of evil. They represent imperial exploitation of the backward countries which the white men had conquered by force of arms. The manager of the Central Station is a despicable fellow who can inspire neither fear, nor love, nor respect, and who can inspire only uneasiness. Marlow says that there was “nothing within” this man. It is only his hope of promotion and of making more money which sustains the manager and keeps him going. The white agents of the Company are seen loitering about the Central Station, carrying staves in their hands, but doing nothing. These men spend all their time in malicious talk and in intriguing and scheming against one another. The brick-maker is the manager’s spy who keeps a watch upon the other white men at the Central Station, and he reports to the manager whatever he sees or overhears. Marlow describes this man as a “papier-mache Mephistopheles,” meaning that this man is a veritable devil, but a hollow kind of devil. Marlow further says that, if he had poked his finger into this man’s body, he would have found nothing but a little loose dirt inside. All this means that the white men, who have come all the way from Europe to this place’ ostensibly to civilize the natives and to ameliorate the conditions of life for them, are only exploiters who have absolutely no regard whatsoever for the welfare of the savages. Marlow has hardly any word of praise for any of these men.
The Evil Symbolized By Mr. Kurtz
Evil is the keynote of the latter portion of the novel in which Marlow records his impressions of Mr. Kurtz. He has been told that Mr. Kurtz is a “remarkable man,” a man who is expected to rise very high in the service of the. Company because he has been collecting more ivory on behalf of the Company than all the other agents taken together. So far so good. But soon Marlow learns that ivory has become a passion and an obsession with Mr. Kurtz, and that, in fact, ivory has become a mania with this man. This obsession with ivory shows the man’s extreme greed. Subsequently we learn that Mr. Kurtz would like to keep all the ivory for himself instead of allowing the Company to take it away from him. But greed is only a small example of the evil in this man. In certain other respects, he has become the very embodiment of evil. He has begun to identify himself with the native savages and has; in fact, become’ one of them. He is participating in their life, in their activities, and in their customs. He presides over their midnight dances which always end with “unspeakable rites.” This means that he has begun to take pleasure in human sacrifice, in the shedding of the blood of human beings, in sexual orgies, in sexual perversions, and in similar other practices. Marlow tells us that Mr. Kurtz had begun to gratify all his various lusts and all his monstrous passions, and that Mr. Kurtz had begun to occupy a high place among the devils of the land. In short, Mr. Kurtz has become evil incarnate. Even when Mr. Kurtz is being taken away by the white men in order to be sent to Europe for medical treatment, he slips away from the ship’s cabin into the jungle in response to the call of the wilderness. It is thus made clear to us that all the primitive instincts, which lie dormant in a human being, have, in the case of Mr. Kurtz, risen to the surface because of his continuous contact with the savages, and have now begun to control his actions. When Mr. Kurtz is dying, he utters the words: “The horror! The horror!” These words sum up the evil in Mr. Kurtz, and show his horror at what might happen to him after ‘death when he goes to hell. The portrayal of Mr. Kurtz, is perhaps even more important in this novel than the depiction of the imperial exploitation of the backward people by the white invaders; and this portray ,of a civilized man, who became a devil, is meant to convey to us Conrad’s own ideas about evil. Conrad evidently believes that there is much evil in the savages. Conrad certainly does not hold up the savage as being free from the taint of evil. He does not believe in the existence of the “noble savage.” The barbarian customs of the savages are certainly horrifying to him. It is because of his prolonged contact and association with the savages that Mr. Kurtz has been dehumanized, and has become a devil. What Conrad seems to be saying in this novel is that the western man should beware of falling a prey to the barbarism of the savages whom be conquers. A civilized white man should not remain cut off from civilized society for long periods of time which he is compelled to spend among the savages. Of course Conrad depicts the savages (the cannibal crew, for instance) in a favourable light too, but he is fully alive to the obnoxious customs of the savages and therefore warns the western white men against the menace of those customs. Conrad’s other message, a complementary one, is that the white man should civilize the savages instead of exploiting them to fulfil his own greed. In this novel, the white man is depicted as a greedy monster out to suck the blood of the backward people of the earth and hardly giving any evidence of realizing what has come to be known as the white man’s burden.


* Making no end of coin––making unlimited money.

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