In his novel Heart of Darkness, published in 1902, Joseph Conrad explores the deepest reaches of the African continent, and at the same time, the innermost secrets of human nature. The novel is narrated mostly by Marlow, a seaman known for his "inconclusive experiences," who has, over the course of his travels, voyaged down the Congo in the service of ivory traders. His journey, in addition to investigating the ruthlessness of the ivory merchants and the deplorable exploitation of the African natives, delves into the nature of human civilization and European imperialism. As he travels further into the jungle, Marlow feels that he is also traveling back to the origins of humanity, to the predecessors of his countrymen, insulated by their fierce jungle from the rest of the world until now. Conrad seeks to examine the two antithetical extremes of human existence, the highly disciplined and organized structure of civilization, in the form of imperialist Europe, and the untamed, passionate liberties of the African continent. What Marlow and Conrad discover is that even men born into all the comforts of modern, civilized culture retain the darkness of primeval life, making the title of the book signify both the embodiment of Africa as the central location, the heart of the darkness within man, and the fact that man's heart, by definition, is created at least in part out of darkness. By the end of the novel, after his voyage is completed and he has encountered Kurtz's Intended, Marlow comes to realize that only by forging a very delicate balance of proof and faith, fact and illusion, can civilized life continue to exist despite the presence of the "immense darkness" within man.
[...] Marlow's irritation with her, however, fades when he realizes that her perception, her dogged commitment to the ideal of love and civilization, is precisely what keeps civilization in existence and the darkness of the human heart at bay. Were he to tell her the truth, that Kurtz's final words were a condemnation of his own life, without any mention of her, Marlow would shatter her protective faith and destroy the barrier between darkness and light. would have been too dark too dark altogether he says, unable to describe more clearly what he feels. [...]
[...] That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last When faced with the choice between loyalty to Kurtz or the Manager, Marlow chooses the “unsound methods,” the abandonment of civilization for the primitivism of the jungle, rather than the totally immoral exploitation, completely devoid of compassion, that the Manager and his type advocate. Kurtz's way, at least, is self-aware, which helps redeem it, thinking in terms of morals and above all, honesty, as Marlow must. Kurtz's demise serves to show Marlow that the coexistence of civilization and darkness is a frail one, and men subject to obeying both entities are hard-pressed to maintain their integrity. [...]
[...] Jacques Berthoud argues that this lack is what differentiates Marlow from Kurtz: essential difference between Kurtz and [Marlow] is not that Kurtz has been exposed to a different kind of temptation, but that, for all of his gifts, he has proved incapable of restraint, and thus of fidelity to the values he has professed.” Both men entered the jungle with notions of doing more than finding ivory; they wanted to make some impression upon the native peoples, but Kurtz, unable to adhere to his upbringing, has attempted to exchange European civilization for the primeval freedom and innocence he sees in the jungle. [...]
[...] His observations of the people he meets along the river agents, managers, enemies, criminals and so forth, explore the incongruities between identification in Europe and Africa. Words take on new meanings, and devoid of their ‘civilized' definitions, they can be employed with great liberty in this strange new place. Marlow seems constantly surprised when told what various people are called, particularly the natives identified as ‘enemies' and ‘criminals.' When the French warship is spotted pelting bullets into the bush, Marlow is told that they are firing at enemies, but no one can be seen, and the bullets have no visible effect at all. [...]
[...] Marlow hears of Kurtz early on in his travels, as a celebrated agent who is rising quickly in the company and should soon pass into the upper echelon of Company Management. His station, the Inner Station, feeds more ivory into the company than all of the other stations put together. Marlow, thanks to his aunt's influential acquaintances, is aligned with Kurtz as one of the new ‘gang of virtue,' which seems to be growing in the company. Along the river, Marlow hears at first only the best of compliments about Kurtz, but by the time he reaches the Central Station, where he is to collect his ship, things have changed. [...]
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