Analysis of `Heart of Darkness`
Heart of Darkness (1900) is one of Conrad’s most ambiguous and difficult stories, a tale which has captivated critics with its profuse imagery and philosophical and psychological suggestiveness. Heart of Darkness has its important public side, as an angry document on absurd and brutal exploitation. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad takes his deepest look into the human condition, and comes to perhaps his most pessimistic conclusions on the various and incompatible pressures that can be imposed on the human spirit. Many have argued that The Nigger of the “Narcissus” treats, in microcosmic terms, the threat to social equilibrium implicit in a recognition of the ultimate futility of life. Heart of Darkness focuses on a similar problem (the image of “darkness” echoing the resonance of “blackness” in the previous story), although here what is threatened is not only the group, but also the individual. Whereas Conrad had conveniently circumvented the difficulty of his inadequate protagonists in choosing, for the hero of The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, the entire crew of a ship, in Heart of Darkness the problem is solved—not once, but twice: we not only have the figure of Mr Kurtz, the “universal genius,” but also that of Marlow, in a more complex and morally dynamic role than he previously played in “Youth.” We cannot, in fact, adequately understand Heart of Darkness if we do not begin by considering in structural terms the relationship that it establishes between Kurtz and Marlow.
We must begin by recognizing that the story is as much about Marlow as about Kurtz. We are made aware of Kurtz’s symbolic role through the recurrent dream-imagery, which locates him as a phantom in Marlow’s dream, as a “nightmare” from which Marlow only barely manages to awake. This is clear in several places in the story, particularly in the passage in which Marlow turns in frustration to his sceptical audience aboard the ship moored quietly in the Thames:
“I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I had a notion it would somehow be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see—you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible, which is of the very essence of dreams” (82).
Insofar, then, as Heart of Darkness is to attempt the impossible—to render the meaning of a dream—we have to remember the context in which the dream is placed. The tale unfolds in layers: first, we have the anonymous “I” who serves as narrator aboard a ship in the Thames; inside this outer frame there is Charley Marlow himself, telling another of his “inconclusive” stories; within Marlow’s tale, too, there are several recognizable layers, for his trip to Africa is framed at the beginning and end by important visits to Brussels, and even his time in Africa is spent on that essential voyage—the trip up the river to pick up Kurtz, and back again. Like a concentric series of ripples caused by a stone thrown into the water, we are presented with an interrelated series of personal and social contexts, all of them affected by the impact of the central agent, Mr Kurtz.
One of the two possible assertions of the title is this: the “darkness” has a “heart”; a reader penetrates the unknown and the partially known to the known. Marlow suggests throughout the story that at the center of things there is meaning and that he is pursuing this meaning. And yet the intensity of Marlow’s inquiries serves only to emphasize the inconclusiveness of his findings. Again and again he seems about to declare the truth about Kurtz and the darkness, but his utterances most often take form in a thunderous contradiction. In this manner we are left with the second and possibly the dominant assertion of the title in particular and Heart of Darkness in general: it is the “heart,” above all, that is composed of “darkness,” there that the real darkness lies, and our progress must be through the apparently or partially known to the unknown.
Marlow declares that in confronting the wilderness, the “truth” of it, a man must “meet that truth with his own true stuff—with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief” (97). At this point Marlow’s conception of restraint sounds fine indeed. He continues, asserting that when the wilderness appealed to him—as it must to every man—he had a “voice” of his own. Immediately following his testimonial to his own “voice,” however, he admits that what prevented him from going “ashore for a howl and a dance” was only that he was too busy keeping his steamboat in one piece.
Marlow suggests that at certain moments—in struggling with death or, perhaps, with a wilderness—it is most difficult for a man to see any reality in a connection between moral “rights” and his experience; a man’s most severe challenges are necessarily encountered in an “atmosphere of tepid skepticism.” When Marlow himself struggles to keep the steamer afloat, struggles for his life, he replaces his own “tepid scepticism” with work; he is forced to do so by his physical danger. Kurtz’s situation has by no means been so simple. Like Marlow, he had no dominating or saving “idea,” but neither did he have Marlow’s physical danger with its consequent activity—the work that luckily hides the reality.
Several phrases—“a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low,” “There was nothing either above or below him,” “He had kicked himself loose from the earth,” and particularly,” “He was alone”—suggest that Kurtz cannot be taken simply as a symbol of transcendental evil; it is now clear that Kurtz’s fate is of general interest because it is a consequence of his isolation, of his absolute freedom. He is a fully autonomous man, attempting to generate and enact his own moral truths, confronting the results of his freedom. In this passage we find the germinal “idea” of the story (to which Conrad had referred in his letter to Cunninghame Graham) most clearly embodied: that “safety” and “value” are illusions that can only be generated and preserved within a given society, while any attempt to place oneself outside these artificial, but necessary, moral structures will drive any man into a perilous condition of “excited imagination.” The manager of the Central Station and the other “fools” of the story can never descend to the “heart of darkness” because they have no “imagination.” What makes Kurtz remarkable is not only that he has lived in the darkness, but also chosen to leave it. It never leaves him, nor any man who has confronted it. We are never told the grounds on which Kurtz makes his final choice, and we may perhaps be left wondering why it is that Kurtz, who had been described as “hollow at the core,” could suddenly become capable of his final, remarkable, victory.
And so Heart of Darkness ends with the suggestion that truth is unendurable in the context of everyday life, that what one needs in order to maintain an assurance of safety and comfort is some sustaining illusion to which one can be faithful. The story closes with the anonymous narrator—his voice recognizably muted and chastened—looking over the quiet reaches of the Thames, and assuring us that it, too, “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” (162).
Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness” and Other Tales, ed. Cedric Watts, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990.
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