Showing posts with label Heart of Darkness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Heart of Darkness. Show all posts

Friday, June 19, 2009

Conrad’s Use of Journey Motif in Heart of Darkness

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.

Picture of European Colonialism and Imperialism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

‘The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.’

-A Far Cry from Africa by Derek Walcott

The novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is not a critique of European colonialism and imperialism in the post-colonial term. Certainly when the novel was published the colonialism was an accepted matter all over the world. Nobody questioned the audacity of colonialism. As a novelist Conrad himself is much criticized by post-colonial thinker like Chinua Achebe for his anthropocentricism and Eurocentricism. In spite of all these the novel contains many elements that are definitely post-colonial in nature and can be interpreted as an attack on the ruthless colonial exploitation

Now let’s, like Marlow himself, make a journey into Heart of Darkness to see Conrad’s treatment of colonialism in Africa. Imperialism was not just the practice of the European acts of colonization of other lands and people; imperialism was a philosophy that assumed the superiority of European civilization and therefore the moral responsibility to bring their enlightened ways to the "uncivilized" people of the world. This attitude was taken especially towards nonwhite, non-Christian cultures in India, Asia, Australia, and Africa. This idealistic view of imperialism was represented by Marlow. But through the disillusionment of Marlow the novelist shows the false basis of this imperialistic philosophy.

Marlow as a device

In fact Marlow is a device through which the novelist shows the real picture of the colonialism. Marlow believes that European men truly represent the good of imperialism. But the truth is just the opposite. The reality of European imperialism in Africa is total greed and evil. Marlow begins outside of London then travels to Brussels, then to Africa, the Outer Station, the Central Station, and finally, the Inner Station (detailed below), where Marlow meets Kurtz and has his last remaining illusion shattered.

Picture of colonialism is same

The picture of colonialism is same all over the world. It knows no time and no boundaries. This picture of colonialism is given at the beginning of the book. ‘I was thinking of old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago’. ‘ … may it at last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday’. Marlow describes the struggles of the Romans with the weather, disease, savage inhabitants, and death while conquering the British Isles. He also states that the Roman explorers were "men enough to face the darkness." This reference to the early Romans' hardships and conquest in England is parallel to the hardships of the British in Africa. Marlow compares these ancient explorers to the modern European explorers, whom he regards as lesser men. For Marlow the only thing that "redeems" the "robbery" of imperialism is that there is a pure idea behind it. So we see that this is same thing that happens to the African people. This so-called bringers of light were themselves agents of darkness.

Marlow sings a contact with company

After he signs a contact with the trading company Marlow visits his aunt who supports the business of the company enthusiastically as if it were purely altruistic. She regards Marlow as "something like an emissary of light" and she talks of the Christian missionary goal of "'weaning those ignorant millions of their horrid ways.'" Marlow believes that his aunt's ignorance about the profit motive of the company arises from women's inability to deal with the reality of the world. Feeling like an impostor, Marlow sets sail for Africa, what he calls the "center of the earth," (which is also appropriately known as the location of hell).

Marlow’s first impression at the outer station

Marlow’s first impression of colonialism is horrible. At first he arrives at the Outer station. He watches the "sordid farce" of imperialism and begins to think that his trip is not a pilgrimage but a nightmare. Marlow himself sees the Outer Station as "a scene of uninhabited devastation."

As Marlow approaches the company offices, he sees the waste -- the discarded machinery laying about in disrepair, he hears "objectless blasting" of dynamite nearby, and he sees a chain gang of Africans who look starved and animal-like to Marlow. He descends further down the hill to get away from the chain gang and comes upon a gloomy place--what he calls a "grove of death"--where a number of Africans is dying. They are starving, wasted creatures gathered in "contorted collapse." Obviously, there is no sympathy on the part of the Europeans to the plight of the natives, as evidenced by the accountant's callused attitude and by the picture of death and destruction caused by the white man's greed for ivory and money resulting in the horrors of the "grove of death."

Marlow turns and quickly walks toward the station. When he is near the buildings, he sees a white man, the Chief Accountant, who is dressed in starched, neatly ironed and brilliantly white clothing; in total contrast to the dying black natives he has just seen. Marlow respects this man, in an ironic way, for keeping up appearances even though he looks like a "hairdresser's dummy." However, it is appropriate that the man who keeps the books for the ivory operation is perfectly dressed in white, with a perfectly ordered office, while all around him is found the dark chaos caused by the ivory trade.

Marlow comes to know about Kurtz

Here the Chief Accountant tells Marlow of Mr. Kurtz, a first-class agent, a "very remarkable person,". This creates some hope about the idealism of European colonialism.And from now onwards Marlow will seek to know about Kurtz throughout the remainder of the story.

Marlow leaves for the central station

Marlow leaves the Outer Station in a walking caravan of sixty men for a difficult two hundred miles trip. He finds the population of the areas through which he walks totally depleted and guesses that the African people have been forced into work for the company or have fled in desperation. After fifteen strenuous days, Marlow again sees the Congo River and reaches the Central Station. He finds that the European men who run the station are faithless and unreal.

When Marlow meets the Station Manager, who is described in detail, he finds him to be poorly educated, disturbing, petty, and shallow. He suspects that "there was nothing within him." The Manager informs Marlow that the situation up river at the Inner Station is dangerous, but its chief, Mr. Kurtz, is his best agent and a very important man to the company.

The portrait of a woman and a positive view of Kurtz

Marlow is invited to visit the room of the brick-maker and sees a sketch in oils of an evil-looking, blindfolded woman carrying a torch. A picture that symbolizes the evil ivory company that is blind to the needs of the Africans. Marlow learns that Mr. Kurtz had painted it. A fact that indicates that Kurtz has an understanding of the horror of imperialism. To Marlow's questions about Kurtz, the brick maker replies that Kurtz is "an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else." He predicts that Kurtz will quickly rise in the company because he has ideas to justify the plunder of African resources. Marlow begins to meditate more and more on Kurtz, who in contrast to the Europeans around him, "had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort."

Kurtz is further idealized

As he finds himself surrounded by European men whom he finds morally repugnant, he begins to identify with Kurtz, the only European who seems to have come to Africa for idealistic reasons. However, stories of Kurtz are contradictory. Even though Kurtz is supposed to be against the Europeans' materialistic presence in Africa, he sends back more ivory than any other agent.
One night Marlow overhears the conversation between the Manager and his uncle.From their conversation he Marlow comes to know about Kurtz's idealism -- that "each station would be like a beacon on the road towards better, things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing."

Marlow for the inner station

Marlow finally begins his trip up the Congo toward Kurtz's station, a long, tedious voyage that takes two months to accomplish. He has only one goal in mind -- to push onward to the inner station in order to meet the mysterious Kurtz, about whom he has heard so much and with whom he already identifies.

He describes a group of twenty African workers on his steamer, who he says are cannibals, but who are fine men to work with. They do a good job of pushing the steamer off sandbars and keeping the boilers burning with wood. Marlow also considers the cannibals on board and wonders why, since they are paid by the Manager only in thin pieces of brass wire and are not fed, they do not attack and eat the Europeans. Perhaps the white men are not even appealing to starving natives, or perhaps they simply have more self-control than the white men display.

In "dark" Africa, with no policemen and no laws to prohibit certain behaviors, the natives act out of their sense of right vs. wrong and faithfulness to human goodness. Ironically, the white men, with their police and their laws to control their behavior, act in inhumane and brutal ways, forsaking the sense of right vs. wrong or human goodness.

The Manager, in particular, represents the inhumane European as he starves the Africans on the boat and as he starves Kurtz at the Inner Station by withholding supplies. The Manager's lies and inhumanity are repulsive to Marlow. The manager is a ‘common trader’ and symbolizes all the immorality of European colonization. His agents have also turned ivory into a god. So Marlow calls them ‘faithless pilgrims’ and that also shows that the cannibalistic appetite for material gain, and also the savage and dualism of colonialism.

The statue of Kurtz falls apart

But all his idealism about Kurtz falls apart as soon as Marlow reaches the inner station and meets a Russian. From the Russian, who is a devoted follower of Kurtz, Marlow learns that Kurtz is a dangerous man.

The savage policy of Kurtz

As the Russian speaks to him, Marlow scans the station with his binoculars and is startled to realize that the knobs on the upper ends of the poles are black human skulls, a symbol of the evil side of Kurtz. Marlow tells his listeners that the skulls indicated to him that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint, that he had something missing from his moral fiber in spite of all his eloquence.

Marlow speculates again that Kurtz was "hollow at the core."

The Russian explains that no one can remove the skulls, for Kurtz wants them there and he alone makes the rules and controls the place. He explains how the chiefs of the surrounding tribes would come to see Kurtz and crawl to him. Marlow abruptly yells for him to stop talking. Marlow tells his listeners that he cannot understand why he finds this information more intolerable than the sight of the skulls on the stakes, but he does. The Russian then tries to convince Marlow that the skulls are the heads of rebels, but Marlow does not believe him, remembering how the starving Africans on the chain gang near the Outer Station had been casually and falsely labeled as criminals. Even as the young Russian talks about the hideous skulls, he defends Kurtz and says that he has been shamefully neglected at the Outer Station, a fact that Marlow knows to be true.

The philosophy of Kurtz

Marlow then describes a report that Kurtz gave to him for safekeeping. It was written for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs and is an eloquent argument that whites must appear to "savages" as superhuman beings and that whites can very easily exercise great power for the good over the natives. Scrawled at the bottom of the last page, Marlow reads Kurtz's last instruction, apparently written much later: "Exterminate all the brutes!" Marlow is horrified at these words, but tries to explain them away by telling his listeners that Kurtz went insane in the end and participated in "midnight dances ending in unspeakable rites."

Finally Marlow admits that he learned more from Kurtz that he ever wanted to learn, for Kurtz does not live up to his pure philosophies. Kurtz has power over the natives and his charmed them into submissiveness while elevating himself to a godlike position.

The Manager ,more evil than Kurtz

As a sort of moral relief, Marlow turns to an idealized image of Kurtz as a sort of ally.Marlow is repulsed by the Manager's callous pettiness, and sees him as totally vile. He feels he is in the midst of unspeakable secrets, vast corruption, and the darkness of impenetrable night. By contrast to the horrid Manager, Marlow is again drawn to Kurtz as the lesser of two evils. He admits that he has a "choice of nightmares," and he chooses Kurtz, telling the Manager that Kurtz is a remarkable man (and, in truth, he is remarkable to have survived this long when the evil Manager has been trying to cause his death.). Marlow then assures the Russian that he is Kurtz's friend and will safeguard Kurtz's reputation.

Unnecessary bloodshed by the pilgrims

The next day Marlow guides his steamer away from the Inner Station. A large crowd of natives, estimated to be close to two thousand and including the magnificent black woman who is Kurtz's mistress, comes out of the bush to the shore to watch the departing vessel. They call to Kurtz in their native tongue, which Marlow calls "some satanic litany." To avoid trouble from them, Marlow blows the loud whistle on the steamer, which startles and disperses the crowd except for the beautiful black mistress. She walks down to the edge of the river and stretches her arms after the boat that is taking her lover away. As she watches sorrowfully from shore, the Europeans on board the boat take out their guns and fire away, probably needlessly killing the black beauty.

The horror, symbol of colonialism

One night, when Marlow enters his cabin with a candle, he finds Kurtz conscious and with a look full of pride, terror, and despair. He mumbles that he is ready to die. Then at the moment of Kurtz's death, Marlow hears the man softly cry out, "'The horror! The horror!" as if summarizing the whole of imperialism in Africa. Here "the horror" refers to the abominable deeds he committed out there in the jungle. Marlow blows the candle out and leaves the room to join the Europeans in the dining room. Momentarily, he hears the announcement from the Manager's boy, "'Mistah Kurtz--he dead." He is buried the next day in a hole by the river.

Conrad's last chapter contains the end of all of Marlow's illusions and his decision to act in complicity with the ideological supports of European imperialism. Contrary to Marlow's beliefs, Kurtz does not turn out to be the great white hope. Instead, he is totally ruthless. Kurtz, just like the other Europeans that work for the company, has used the ideas of white supremacy and the technology of progress to subdue the Africans in mind and body and to take their natural resources without payment.

Though Marlow feels repugnance for the white man's greed and his brutal inhumanity to his fellow man, yet he longs for evidence that Europeans can display pure purpose, rational power, and benevolent dominance over Africa and Africans. He retains notions of the supremacy of Europeans from his own education and even when he sees evidence which refutes that supremacy, he wishes to retain a belief in it.

Marlow can never see the Africans as fully human and he can never bring himself fully to condemn the imperialist project in Africa. When he lies to the Intended, he participates in the lie that says imperialism is justly supported by sound ideals. By doing nothing to stop the devastation caused by the imperialism in Africa, he tactfully accepts the inhumanity of mankind to its fellow man and allows it to continue on the Dark Continent.

Thus the novel emerges as the first major work on colonialism. Being colonized as a young boy in a Poland under Russian occupation, Conrad had also bitter experience of colonialism. He relays these experiences through the eyes of his character Marlow who is a riverboat captain as well. In his Heart of Darkness he attacks colonialism directly throughout the book. Obvious and scathing statements are made telling of the horrors of colonialism.