Individuals are often bittersweet apples that are yet to ripe on the tree of society. Through this tree are they interconnected and influence one another, all of their ripeness and growth being largely determined by the tree itself. As a result, one can either rot from it or grow healthy. Nevertheless, whether one is the former or the latter, both can eventually fall from it due to the reality of gravity.
Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness does not use such an analogy, but his emphasis on light and darkness is just as efficient in elucidating the evils man can possess within himself. Rarely do people ever stop to think if they have the capacity to commit acts of brutality that goes beyond all social conventions. The British, which during Conrad’s time as a sailor was at the climax of its Empire’s halcyon days, thought it was too civilised to fall from its own high standards. But as Conrad knew from his experiences as a sailor, anyone could fall prey to barbarity.
Heart of Darkness is set within the brutal days of the Belgium Congo, which Conrad had himself visited. It is more than likely that the protagonist of the novel, Marlow, is based on Conrad himself, especially through the character’s narration (the name ‘Marlow’ is also implied to be a reference to the playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, his works being translated into Polish by Conrad’s own father). Kurtz, the “universal genius” that is highly admired amongst the trade company that both he and Marlow work for, is debated amongst critics as to who the inspiration for the character was. He is probably an amalgamation of several individuals, particularly Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer who famously said “Dr Livingstone I presume?” upon meeting the missionary; later being employed by King Leopold II of Belgium and embarking on his own failed expedition into the “darkest” depths of Africa.
Throughout the novel does Marlow have a obsession for Kurtz, which he explains through his monologue to his fellow sailors on the ‘Nellie’ docked in the River Thames, an appropriate comparison to the Congo’s natural and barbaric “darkness” to London’s own civilised yet industrialised “darkness”. Because of the strange and somewhat blunt language Conrad uses to show the contrast between white and black characters, revisionists within post-colonial studies such as Chinua Achebe have denounced the book, calling Conrad a “bloody racist” who played “the role of purveyor of comforting myths” (Watts 1983, p. 196). Such claims however remain unjustified when considering Conrad is hardly propagandising the novel through his implicit criticism of colonialism and the psychological vulnerability whites and blacks alike are exposed to in the Congo jungle.
His representation of Kurtz is the epitome of this, a man who is praised throughout by those who are aware of him, whether or not they have met him yet. Supposedly the quintessential civilised European man, Kurtz is described to Marlow as the following:
“He is a prodigy …. He is a emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else. We want …. for the guidance of the cause entrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose …. Some even write that and so he comes here, a special being, as you ought to know.”Heart of Darkness, p. 30.
The mysticism of Kurtz drives Marlow to become more determined to find Kurtz to the point of obsession. What Achebe describes as “comforting myths” is above all a oxymoron, especially when Marlow sees for himself what Kurtz has done in his own little barbaric, mad paradise; which is so harrowing that it is implicitly suggested that Marlow is scarred by it still when retelling the story on the Thames, through his gaunt appearance and his pauses in speech in the midst of darkness. Henry Morton Stanley, who Kurtz is possibly based off, was not immune to boasting about killing blacks unnecessarily when he was supposedly leading a mission for Christianity and civilisation, a noble cause to men such as Kurtz.
The Heart of Darkness, despite its criticisms, will always remain a classic in English literature through its description of man’s capacity for evil when in certain circumstances. The author Graham Greene found Conrad’s influence on him so harrowing “because his influence on me was too great and too disastrous”, the Heart of Darkness also being a clear inspiration for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocolypse Now (Conrad 2012, p. 121). It is a constant reminder that no one is above committing heinous acts and that all individuals have hearts of darkness within them if the tree that connects them decays.
Featured image credit: “Joseph Conrad drawing and books” by Ben Sutherland is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Conrad, Joseph (2012) Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Books.
- Watts, Cedric. ‘A Bloody Racist’: About Achebe’s View of Conrad. The Yearbook of English Studies, 13 (Colonial and Imperial Themes Special Number) (1983): 196-209.
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