In his moral parable, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conradcautions against the darkness underlying humanity.
He reveals theomnipresent vulnerability of human nature to negative primal emotions such ascruelty, avarice and self-preservation through his depiction of social andindividual regression. Additionally, he comments on the increasing fragilityand mutability of one’s morals as they are further removed from societalstrictures. Darkness is an ever-present theme throughout Marlowe’s journey,both metaphorically and descriptively. It serves to represent variouscomponents of human nature, political corruption as a means of acquiring powerand Marlowe’s experience of the Congo itself. Effectively comparing civilized brutality with primitive savagery, Conradparallels the political turmoil of “Scramble for Africa” with the impact it hadon a personal level. From1881 to 1914, the systematic exploitation of Africa provided a politicallybenevolent façade through which European Imperialists could disguise their lustfor power and greed. The prevailing propaganda generated by the government atthe time was that of generous Europeans bestowing “enlightenment” upon the”savages” of the Congo. The chief of the Inner Station was in “want of theguidance of the cause entrusted to us by Europe …higher intelligence, widesympathies, a singleness of purpose” (30).
These noble ideals are quicklycalled into question. When asked by Marlowe his intention for coming to Africa,a travel companion remarks “to make money of course. What do you think” (24).Even King Leopold II of Belgium engaged in the collective lust for ivory — in asense falling victim to his darker desires through the “vilest scramble forloot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience”.i Itis important to consider the parallels between Joseph Conrad and hisprotagonist, Marlowe.
Having travelled to the Congo himself, Conrad employs Marloweas the literary representation of his own experiences and realizations. Bothmen’s sense of boyish adventure was sparked through early adolescent discoveryof world maps. Both men began their journey naively, filled with wonder anddiscovery.
Both men became increasingly disillusioned with the moral failingsof humanity as they journeyed further into the Congo. Conrad’s use of Marloweas the silence breaker of the atrocities he witnessed is founded on actualevents, imbuing both the book and his claims with the veracity of his ownexperience. As they journey further into the Heart of Darkness, both men areintroduced to shifting and multiple hearts of darkness grappling to obtaincontrol and power. Thoughhe only makes a brief appearance in the novel, the Accountant personifies theCompany’s intended disguise and self-preservation fed by an immense lack ofempathy.
Amidst chaos and dying natives,the Accountant is presented as a “vision” of white dressed in “a high starchedcollar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers and a clear silknecktie” (21). His external cleanliness suggests a desire to retain a semblanceof morality and reflects the Company’s desire to project their high-minded ideals.Further, the Accountant’s chief concern is maintaining an illusion of purposeand order amidst the “muddle” that is the Inner Station. Upon hearing the “groans”of a dying native, he complains of the distraction causing “clerical errors”(22). He represents the ultimate non-acting bystander, remaining unmoved by theuncivil acts within the Inner Station and rather concerning himself with thenative women’s proper pressing of his shirts. TheManager, whom Marlowe meets at the Central Station, is “commonplace…in features,in manners and in voice” (25).
He is, in every aspect, average, inspiring “neitherlove nor fear, not even respect”; yet he possesses the most “remarkably cold”eyes and an attitude of avarice and sabotage (25). He has no redeemingcharacteristics and remains manager only because he is immune to junglesickness. Obsessed with corporate advancement, he is representative of greedand power-hungry bureaucracy. Acknowledging that, “anything can be done in thiscountry” (40) he feels no shame in sabotaging Marlowe’s boat, thus servingKurtz a death wish by purposely delaying delivery of necessary supplies. The Manageris a moral vacuum and exemplifies the degradation that occurs when one isremoved from society and concedes to underlying obsessions. The Russian, a simple-minded sycophantwho accompanies Marlowe for much of his journey, represents the dangers ofblind, unquestioning idolatry. His hero worship of the morally misguided Kurtzis akin to cult members who blindly follow a charismatic leader even to thepoint of darker actions. Marlowe comments upon the Russian’s adoration forKurtz stating, “I did not envy him his devotion to Kurtz…I must say that to meit appeared about the most dangerous thing in every way he had come upon so far”(69-69).
He possesses a naivety that is blind to the cruelty and corruptness ofKurtz’s actions. Though the Russian himself is not malevolent and is one of thefew white men who does not directly inflict brutality on others, his loyalty toKurtz perpetuates the cycle of Imperialistic savagery. Upon meeting him Marlowestates “never before did this land … appear to me so hopeless and so dark”(69). As another example of a bystander, he is not unprincipled, but he acceptsthe atrocities that take place without issue. Kurtz, arguably the most immoral andpower crazed character in the novel, is a by-product of the prevailing Europeanmindset. It is through his demonstrated hunger for power and lack of empathythat Conrad presents his assault on European imperialism. Acknowledging that “allEurope contributed to the making of Kurtz” (61), Marlowe consistently commentson his self- absorption, reversed morality and lust for a material object (ivory).It is Kurtz’s metamorphoses that convey a sense of omnipresent vulnerability toand shifting of Conrad’s multiple ‘hearts’ of darkness.
First made knownthrough hearsay and rumor, Kurtz is presented as a genius and revered ivoryhunter. It is later in the novel, when Kurtz has metamorphosed into a voice, thatthe reader is introduced to his greed — for not only is he introduced as avoice but also as the object of his own lust. Conrad writes, “he was verylittle more than a voice…and, behold, it was like a ball — an ivory ball” (59).Finally, when Marlowe meets Kurtz in the flesh, the reader recognizes thedepravity of the actions he has taken to become worshipped by the surrounding natives.It is in these final pages of the novel that Conrad uses Kurtz to make a statementabout greater humanity. The heads on stakes under Kurtz’s windows depicts hisexcessive brutality and cruelty.
Conrad utilizes the jarring image to displaythe “lack of restraint” that Kurtz possesses regarding the “gratification ofhis various lusts” (72). Conrad alludes to the larger allegation that all ofmankind wrestles with the gratification of such lusts that developed societyrepresses to leave simmering beneath our civilized façade. He exemplifies thedepravity of behavior when one is “without a policeman … where no warning voiceof a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion” (60).Representing the ultimate departure from his upbringing, Kurtz finds himself ina solitary impermeable darkness. Kurtz is a threat to the Company becausehe has openly embraced his darker urges and makes no attempt to conceal his rapaciousmethods for obtaining ivory. This contradicts the Company’s attitude ofconcealing true motives under the guise of good intentions. This supports theidea that society acts to repress the fulfillment of negative primal urges.
Europedisplayed this repression in the generation of exaggerated reports, publishingof false photos and creation of unnecessary committees to justify their presencein Africa. As the novel progresses, and with each character Marlow meets, he isfurther removed from Europe and travels closer to the “heart of darkness” ofhumanity. He also goes from a predominately passive character to one that becomesincreasingly involved and panicked at the state of humanity. Traveling awayfrom the Inner Station and towards the wilderness, he simultaneously journeysto the center of his disillusion and eventual truth. Marlow realizes that byunfocusing himself on minutiae and mire of daily European life, he can nolonger avoid the ultimate knowledge of self. This transformation is reflectedin the final scene between Marlow and the Intended.
Upon the Intended’s requestfor Kurtz’s final words, Marlow realizes that he cannot reveal the horrors ofhuman nature that he discovered in the Congo. Acknowledging that, for her, therevelation would be “too dark—too dark altogether” (96) Marlow opts to upholdher vision of Kurtz before he traveled to the Congo — a man filled withnobility and purpose. In sustaining her false and outdated image of Kurtz,Marlow is confirming the likeness of the Intended to Europe as a whole, as bothwish to believe in the magnanimity of the imperialists while turning a blindeye to the “darker” and crueler aspects of their disposition. i Last Essays, in Dent’s Collected Edition of the Works ofJoseph Conrad, 22 vols, p.17