There are different communities and different cultures on the Earth.
Yet all of them consist of the same entities – human beings. Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness proves the point that respect for other cultures helps to keep the human self in the alien surroundings. Modern critical responses to the book show how valuable it is even nowadays, when the world seems to be more humanistic than in the 19th century. The story is called the “longest journey into self”, “a sensitive and vivid travelogue”, and “an angry document on absurd and brutal exploitation” (Guerard, 1987, p. 5).
I will try to prove the points stated above by analysing the attitudes, which the characters of the story demonstrated to the other culture. I want to comment specifically on Marlow’s reasons to start for Africa; on the significance of “darkness” in the story; and of Conrad’s perceptions of colonization. I argue that in The Heart Of Darkness we are taught that violating people and cultures, which are different to ours, may seriously damage a human soul.Marlow seems to travel to Africa for several reasons. First, he made his child dream alive with admiration of “all the glories of exploration” (Conrad, 1946, p. 52) and “many blank spaces on the earth” (ibid.
). Significant is his fascination with “a mighty big river”, on the African map, which resembled in his mind of “an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land” (ibid.). Marlow recalled that this snake-like river mesmerized him as if he was a bird.In the beginning of the narration, it is obscure why Marlow, first, refers to Africa among the places unexplored as delightful, and then, suddenly, speaks about “a place of darkness” (ibid.).
One critic assumed that Africa “functions in the novel as a ‘foil’ for Europe, constituting a negative, blank space onto which is projected all that Europe does not want to see in itself, everything that is abhorrent and abject” (Brown, 2000, pg. 2). In our minds, snake symbolizes danger and seduction. It seems that the image of mysterious continent seduced Marlow into “the night journey into the unconscious, and confrontation of an entity within the self” (Guerard, 1987, p. 9).Marlow was not a businessman to get ivory at the Belgian trade stations. He was a sailor of peculiar sort, “a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too” (Conrad, 1946, p. 48).
Marlow refers to the black continent as “the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience” (Conrad, 1946, p. 51). To him the desire to reach the river, which he has been dreaming about since the childhood, was somehow unreasonable. “I must get there by hook or by crook” (Conrad, 1946, p. 53), he explained to the listeners of his story about Mr. Kurtz.From the very beginning, the narrator underlines a strange uneasiness about the travelling obsession, as if “instead of going to the centre of a continent, I were about to set off for the centre of the earth” (Conrad, 1946, p.
60). The atmosphere of mystery and bad expectations is created by the author through the striking contrasts of dark and light, which are described in details by Marlow.At first thought, a reader thinks of the juxtaposition as natural distinction between England, where “the water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric” (Conrad, 1946, p. 46); and Africa with “colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf” (Conrad, 1946, p. 60). As Guerard puts it, “the introspective voyager leaves his familiar rational world” (1987, p. 10), where everything is seen through the light lens.
On the contrast, African river, the former fairy-tale snake, turns into the “streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair” (Conrad, 1946, p. 62). Guerard on the point of death references states, “And even Kurtz, shadow and symbol though he be, […] is sharply visualized, an ‘animated image of death,’ a skull and body emerging as from a winding sheet, ‘the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving’” (1987, p.
14), proceeding with the remark, “This is Africa and its flabby inhabitants” (ibid.). Thus, a negative conceptualization of Africa as a dark, mysterious and perilous place is evident here. There white men become shadows of death and repulsive in their change.Besides scenery-based references to dark and light, there is another important realm where this contrast plays a significant role. That is the relationships of different races on the African continent.
Marlow stresses that he is “not particularly tender” (Conrad, 1946, p. 65). Yet this mature and harsh man is beyond himself with bewilderment, sorrow, disgust and even terror at watching how hard native people were exploited by Belgian colonizers. The scene when he arrives at the trade station and meets the party of chained black starving ragged creatures doing unbearably hard work is striking. He speaks of devils there, comparing “the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire” (Conrad, 1946, p. 65) to “a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly” (Conrad, 1946, p. 65), evidently meaning colonization.The key to the understanding of genuine yet implicit motives the author held in mind when contrasting dark and light is Marlow’s reference to England as “one of the dark places of the earth” (Conrad, 1946, p.
48). He proved his point by reconstructing the behavior of the Romans during the colonization of the British Isles. However, Marlow does not call them colonizers. Neither does he give such name to the Belgian pilgrims in Africa, which means that he “establishes certain political values” (Guerard, 1987, p. 14). Brown assumes that “in Marlow’s account of his journey […] there can be observed an obscure vacillation between the horror as an effect of colonial intervention and the location of the horror’s cause as the environment itself” (2000, pg. 6).
The negative attitude to colonization, therefore, is implicit in the story, when “colonial intervention […] loses its possible critical edge by remaining an account merely of atrocious things happening in the colonies. This contrasts to the perversion of the West’s self-image”, as Brown proves (2000, pg. 6).Africa became a suitable territory for “the devotion to efficiency” (Conrad, 1946, p. 50) with its rich natural resources.
There any man of white skin was regarded as “an emissary of light” (Conrad, 1946, p. 50) regardless of his personal qualities. And native people were seen as black ants in the fierce sun whose destiny was to carry loads and do dirty job.
The living symbol of darkness in its specific sense which Conrad creates in the story is Mr. Kurtz, the most successful trading agent of the Company. Marlow is sent to pick him up from the farthest station with his loot of ivory. It appears that speaking about “heart of darkness” (Conrad, 1946, p. 95), Marlow did not mean the dark tint of African rivers or the dark color of the bush. Instead, he spoke about “the triumphant darkness” (Conrad, 1946, p.
159) of a white ruthless colonizer like Mr. Kurtz.In the end, Marlow recalls “the colossal scale of [Kurtz’s] vile desires, the meanness, the torment, the tempestuous anguish of his soul” (Conrad, 1946, p. 156). A poor man who was unable to marry the woman he loved, Kurtz became a successful trader who served at his best for the Company but never forgot his own promotion.
In his strive to be an honoured member of the high and prosperous society, Kurtz stomped over all human virtues of respect, morals, servitude and humanism. The dry heads, which surrounded his last camp in the African wilderness, symbolize the dryness of his human nature. Kurtz was a gifted and charismatic leader. However, he embodies the “triumph for the wilderness, an invading and vengeful rush” (Conrad, 1946, p. 156).
Marlow refers to him as a “soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power” (Conrad, 1946, p. 147).’My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—–‘ everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him–but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. (Conrad, 1946, p.
116)“Marlow’s temptation is made concrete through his exposure to Kurtz, a white man and sometime idealist who had fully responded to the wilderness: a potential and fallen self”, Guerard assumes (1987, p. 9). Marlow calls Kurtz devil because no human being is allowed to be so atrocious and reckless in his desire to suppress people who are different than he, a white dominant male. His blindness to diversity – of cultures or human values – drives him to death and creates the atmosphere of darkness dominating.
The idea of dominance is criticized by Marlow and Conrad as the author:The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. (Conrad, 1946, p. 50-1)Now we can recall once again the discourse about the Romans colonizing the Britons. Then, Marlow spoke of the warriors amidst the alien tribes who spoke different language, awful climate and etc. “They were men enough to face the darkness”, he admits almost admiringly (Conrad, 1946, p. 49), meaning that they faced difficulties and performed their duties well.
However, closer to the end of the story the narrator seemed to be more indignant with “the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires” (Conrad, 1946, p. 47). Those germs, which remind us of some contagious disease, makes one man suppress the other, who is no less unique or significant. The detailed depictions of starving natives aim at teaching the lesson of tolerance and acknowledging the diversity. Kurtz, a white colonizer, in his obsession with power, appears to be more barbarous than the people he suppressed. Though energetic and charismatic, Kuntz dies as well as the idea of colonization in the modern world.
This proves the initial argument about ominous results cultural and human violation brings to human soul and body.