The novella Heart of Darkness, written in 1899 by Joseph Conrad, explores the idea of self-discovery and can be considered as a story of initiation. Marlow, the protagonist of the novella, undertakes a boat ride up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, the chief of the Inner Station, however this journey, which can be seen as a journey into the self, one’s ‘inner spirit’. Conrad uses the journey both in its literal and figurative meanings. Most obvious is Marlow’s journey to discover Africa, and the effects of imperialism. On a deeper level, it seems as if Conrad uses the journey to cloak Marlow’s true journey into himself. Through the use of the physical journey in Heart of Darkness, the reader can see the inner journey that the characters in the novella undertake and the effects that their unconscious has on their thoughts and actions. Marlow’s journey from Europe, to the Outer Station and then to the Central Station also tests his ability to distinguish between good and evil since he witnesses such proceedings that draw out a moral judgment from him.
The journey in Heart of Darkness passes not only through the capricious waters that spanning the physical world, but also the paradoxical ocean which exists in the heart of man and all of mankind. Through Marlow's somewhat fanatical eyes we view the enigma that is humanity, and the blurred line between light and dark. It is a voyage into the deepest recesses of the human heart and mind (a voyage of self-discovery or, like Albert Guerard it can also be viewed as a ‘night journey’), leading to epiphany, enlightenment, and finally spiraling downwards into the crevices of a hell existing within each and every one of us, which is represented by the character of Kurtz. Although through Marlow Conrad depicts a journey into the Congo, his use of symbolism and wordplay divulge that it is something much more profound.
Almost every action, object, and character in Conrad's Heart of Darkness has a deeper, more relevant meaning behind it, serving to bring us ever closer to the conclusion that the voyage is indeed an inward one. The first major indication of this is the posture of Marlow as he recounts his journey into the Congo. According to the narrator, "he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower." This lotus position is one typically used for meditation, which is in fact defined as a spiritual journey promoted by a lucidity of thought. Successful meditation leads to a more discerning understanding of human nature and allows one to contemplate the innermost workings of the mind. Therefore Marlow's stance capitalizes on his true destination, insinuating from the very first pages that his journey is actually within himself.
From the start of Marlow's tale there are a myriad/countless of symbols relating to the unchartered places of the subconscious, and the journey intended to discover them. For instance, Marlow is lead to a room by two silent women spinning black wool (The women represent the Fates of Greek mythology, who spin a skein of wool which symbolizes a person's life. The fact that these women's thread is black creates an ominous sense of foreboding.). There his attention is drawn to a map and he finds himself enthralled by a large river coursing through the heart of Africa.He notices that the river resembled a snake, and that it was "fascinating." For some odd reason, this long, sinuous river tempted him, despite its reptilian connotations, which already alerts the reader to danger ahead. The river is akin to the serpent in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, offering the unwitting pair a forbidden fruit - wisdom, and a dark knowledge of oneself. Also, throughout the journey, there are repeated references to both life and death.
Uncannily,these two are always intertwined. For example, there is a theme of bones which is constantly recurring in Marlow's story. The Swede mentions a man who died, and whose skeleton was left sprawled on the ground until the grasses began to grow up through his ribcage. The grass represents life, and of course, the skeleton represents death. These two are woven together.Also, there is Kurtz's obsession with ivory (dental bone), and according to Marlow he has the appearance of the object of his fixation. From Marlow's description, Kurtz bears a skeletal resemblance even when he is alive. Conrad's frequent symbolic combinations of life and death is probably one of his numerous parallels to light and dark, echoing the fact that the two must exist stimultaneously - there cannot be without the other. Conrad's book is based on the presence of light and dark within everyone, and in Marlow's journey the question is often posed of which is predominant. There are times when darkness usurps the light, others when it is the opposite. However, the darkness (evil) usually tends to prevail.
Conrad is implying that a sense of evil resides in the core of every human, and therefore reigns at the centre of humanity, however veiled by morals, civilization and refinement. This is one of the main facts Marlow ascertains on his journey, for he sees darkness everywhere, even when there is light. Just as the line between light and dark is indistinct, the barrier segregating civilization from savagery is equally obscure. In Africa, Marlow repeatedly encounters natives, and his crew is comprised of twenty cannibals. As they progress deeper into the heart of the forest, we can take note that black people are dehumanized. They are perpetually referred to in animalistic terms,and are treated as such. However, it is these "savages" who survive and thrive in the heart of darkness, and whose ways eventually engulf Kurtz. There is also the indication here that technology, civilization, and refinement have been rendered useless.
Every character thought to be at the pinnacle of cultivation and etiquette either dies or becomes corrupted by his surroundings (Kurtz, Fresleven). It is apparent that civilization is utterly futile in such surroundings. Kurtz serves as a prime example of a civilized gentleman who capitulates to his barbaric side due to his environment. Regardless of the respect and admiration showered upon him by his peers, not to mention the jealousy, he was at heart a hollow man, consumed by his greed for ivory. This is probably why he gave in so readily to his primitive instincts, partaking in the horrendous rituals of the natives, and letting his dark essence become the hub of his actions.
Kurtz is also symbolic of the evil within our society, for people saw him as the "emissary of science and progress." He represents the person found deep within the recesses of our subconscious, the core of darkness ever-present beneath the gauzy layers of refinement and civility. "One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, 'I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.' In this quote we can see that, symbolically, Kurtz is so overcome by darkness that he is blind to light. This is also embodied in an oil painting done by Kurtz, depicting a blindfoldedwoman surrounded by darkness but carrying a torch which casts a sinister light over her face. The blindfolded woman can be taken as a common Western symbol of justice and liberty, things that man has created to differentiate himself from the beasts and savages. The fact that the woman is enshrouded in darkness with only insufficient torchlight to guide her says a lot about the nature of our society.
The culmination of Marlow's journey leads into the heart of darkness, or in a more worldly sense, Hell. Heart of Darkness fosters the allusion that hell is within us, that it is the evil existing deep inside our souls. Marlow visits this place when he finally encounters Kurtz, and his innocent morals are challenged. He views firsthand the inhumanity man is capable of, and the journey begins to take on all the properties of a nightmare. When Kurtz himself is lying on his deathbed, he sees into his own heart, looks his personal hell in full view, and utters things which give Marlow a grim revelation as to what lies within that black abyss. Kurtz's final words, as he ends his voyage into his bitter core, are "The horror, the horror!" referring to what he sees inside himself.
The journey Marlow undertakes is seemingly in our own world, something which we reside in yet know so little about. We delude ourselves into believing that we can tame and subdue it, and that it will readily succumb and be molded to our good intentions. However, just as trying to harness the dark and primal nature within ourselves is impossible, this is an equally unattainable fantasy. Conrad's world is an embodiment of humanity, its ocean is its heart, and its impenetrable forest is its mind. Through Marlow's epiphany it is revealed that at the mouth of every river, at the core of every grove, subsists a perpetual darkness encased in light.
Thus, what makes Heart of Darkness more than an interesting travelogue and shocking account of horrors is the way that it details — in subtle ways — Marlow's gradual understanding of what is happening in this far-off region of the world. Like many Europeans — including his creator — Marlow longed for adventure and devoured accounts such as those offered by Stanley. But once he arrives in the Congo and sees the terrible "work" (as he ironically calls it) taking place, he can no longer hide under the cover of his comfortable civilization. Instead, all the horrors perpetrated by European traders and agents — typified by Kurtz — force him to look into his own soul and find what darkness lies there. In the first half of the novel, Marlow states, "The essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface, beyond my reach" — but by the end of his journey, he will have peeked beneath "the surface" and discovered the inhumanity of which even men such as the once-upstanding Kurtz are capable.