Heart of Darkness (Essay #3)


Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, relies on the
historical period of imperialism in order to describe its
protagonist, Charlie Marlow, and his struggle. Marlow's
catharsis in the novel, as he goes to the Congo, rests on
how he visualizes the effects of imperialism. This paper
will analyze Marlow's "change," as caused by his exposure
to the imperialistic nature of the historical period in
which he lived. 

Marlow is asked by "the company", the organization for whom
he works, to travel to the Congo river and report back to
them about Mr. Kurtz, a top notch officer of theirs. When
he sets sail, he doesn't know what to expect. When his
journey is completed, this little "trip" will have changed
Marlow forever! 

Heart of Darkness is a story of one man's journey through
the African Congo and the "enlightenment" of his soul. It
begins with Charlie Marlow, along with a few of his
comrades, cruising aboard the Nellie, a traditional
sailboat. On the boat, Marlow begins to tell of his
experiences in the Congo. Conrad uses Marlow to reveal all
the personal thoughts and emotions that he wants to portray
while Marlow goes on this "voyage of a lifetime". 

Marlow begins his voyage as an ordinary English sailor who
is traveling to the African Congo on a "business trip". He
is an Englishmen through and through. He's never been
exposed to any alternative form of culture, similar to the
one he will encounter in Africa, and he has no idea about
the drastically different culture that exists out there. 

Throughout the book, Conrad, via Marlow's observations,
reveals to the reader the naive mentality shared by every
European. Marlow as well, shares this naiveté in the
beginning of his voyage. However, after his first few
moments in the Congo, he realizes the ignorance he and all
his comrades possess. We first recognize the general
naiveté of the Europeans when Marlow's aunt is seeing him
for the last time before he embarks on his journey.
Marlow's aunt is under the assumption that the voyage is a
mission to "wean those ignorant millions from their horrid
ways"(18-19). In reality, however, the Europeans are there
in the name of imperialism and their sole objective is to
earn a substantial profit by collecting all the ivory in

Another manifestation of the Europeans obliviousness
towards reality is seen when Marlow is recounting his
adventure aboard the Nellie. He addresses his comrades who
are on board saying: 

When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere
incidents of the surface, the reality--the reality I tell
you---fades. The inner truth is hidden luckily, luckily.
But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious
stillness watching over me at my monkey tricks, just as it
watches you fellows performing on your respective tight
ropes for---what is it? half a crown a tumble---(56).
What Marlow is saying is that while he is in the Congo,
although he has to concentrate on the petty little everyday
things, such as overseeing the repair of his boat, he is
still aware of what is going on around him and of the
horrible reality in which he is in the midst of. On the
other hand, his friends on the boat simply don't know of
these realities. It is their ignorance, as well as their
innocence which provokes them to say "Try to be civil,
Marlow"(57). Not only are they oblivious to the reality
which Marlow is exposed to, but their naiveté is so great,
they can't even comprehend a place where this 'so called'
reality would even be a bad dream! Hence, their response is
clearly rebuking the words of a "savage" for having said
something so ridiculous and "uncivilized". 

Quite surprisingly, this mentality does not pertain
exclusively to the Englishmen in Europe. At one point
during Marlow's voyage down the Congo, his boat hits an
enormous patch of fog. At that very instant, a "very loud
cry" is let out(66). After Marlow looks around and makes
sure everything is all right, he observes the contrasts of
the whites and the blacks expressions. 

It was very curious to see the contrast of expression of
the white men and of the black fellows of our crew, who
were as much strangers to this part of the river as we,
though their homes were only eight hundred miles away. The
whites, of course greatly discomposed, had besides a
curious look of being painfully shocked by such an
outrageous row. The others had an alert, naturally
interested expression; but their faces were essentially
quiet. . . (67).

Once again, we see the simple-mindedness of the Europeans,
even if they were exposed to reality. Their mentality is
engraved in their minds and is so impliable, that even the
environment of the Congo can't sway their belief that
people simply don't do the horrible things Marlow recounts.
The whites are dumbfounded and can not comprehend how
people, in this case the natives, would simply attack these
innocent people. That would just be wrong! The blacks,
however, who are cognizant of the reality in which they
live, are "essentially quiet". They feel right at home, and
are not phased by the shriek. 

Similarly, the difference of mentalities is shown when
Marlow speaks of the portion of his crew who are cannibals.
While in the midst of his journey, Marlow, quite casually,
converses with these cannibals; even about their
animalistic ways! As Jacques Berthoud said so accurately in
his Joseph Conrad, "what would be unspeakable horror in
London...becomes, on the Congo river, an unremarkable topic
of conversation..."(47). These "unspeakable horrors" are
hardly unspeakable in the Congo because they are normal
occurrences there. 

On the Nellie, Marlow explains to his comrades, the basic
difference between living in Europe, and being in the
Congo. He states: 

You can't understand. How could you? With solid pavement
under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to
cheer you or to fall you, stepping delicately between the
butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal
and gallows and lunatic asylums---how can you imagine what
particular region of the first ages a man's untrammeled
feet may take him into by the way of solitude---utter
solitude without a policeman---by the way of silence utter
silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be
heard whispering of public opinion(82)? 

In Europe, there are "kind neighbors" who are there to make
sure that everything is all right. The European lives his
life "stepping delicately between the butcher and the
policeman". Everywhere he looks, there is always someone
there who can "catch him if he is falling". On the other
hand, once a man enters the Congo, he is all alone. No
policeman, no "warning voice of a kind neighbor"...no one!
It is now when Marlow enters the Congo and begins his
voyage, that he realizes the environment he comes from is
not reality, and the only way he is going to discover
reality is to keep going up the river... 

There is one specific theme in Heart of Darkness in which
the reader can follow Marlow's evolution from the "everyday
European" to a man who realizes his own naiveté and finally
to his uncovering of his own reality. This evolution comes
about as a direct result of Marlow's observations of how
things are named. This sounds very unusual, that a man
would find his true reality by observing the names of
certain things. However, it is precisely these observations
which change Marlow forever. Marlow first realizes the
European's flaw of not being able to give something a name
of significance, in the beginning of his voyage, when he
has not quite reached the Congo, but he is extremely close. 

Once, I remember, we came upon a man of war anchored off
the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was
shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their
wars going on there-abouts. Her ensign dropped like a limp
rag; the muzzles of the long six inch guns stuck out all
over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up
lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the
empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was,
incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go
one of the six inch guns; a small flame would dart and
vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny
projectile would give a feeble screech---and nothing
happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of
insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery
in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on
board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of
natives---he called them enemies!---hidden out of sight
somewhere (21).
Conrad is teaching us something extremely important.
Berthoud points out that the "intelligibility of what men
do depends upon the context in which they do it." Marlow is
watching this occurrence. He sees the Europeans firing
"tiny projectiles" and their cannons producing a "pop". The
Europeans, however, see themselves fighting an all out war
against the savage enemies in the name of imperialism! The
Europeans feel that this is an honorable battle, and
therefore, all get emotionally excited and fight with all
they have. Marlow, however, sees it differently. He is now
in Africa where reality broods. It's lurking everywhere.
The only thing one has to do to find it is open his mind to
new and previously 'unheard' of ideas. He looks at this
event and reduces it from the European's image of a
supposedly intense battle, with smoke and enemies
everywhere, to a futile firing of "tiny projectiles "into
an empty forest. For the first time, Marlow recognizes the
falsity of the European mentality, and their inability to
characterize an event for what it is. At the end of the
passage, his fellow European crewmember is assuring Marlow
that the allied ship is defeating the "enemies", and that
they just couldn't see the "enemies" because they were
"hidden out of sight somewhere". In actuality, they're
shooting at innocent natives who have probably fled from
the area of battle already. Marlow is beginning to realize
that "what makes sense in Europe no longer makes sense in
Africa"(Berthoud. 46). 

With that passage, Conrad informs the reader of Marlow's
realization. From that point on, Marlow is looking to
corroborate if in actuality, the mentality instilled upon
him in Europe is similar to this, or if those are atypical
Europeans who are living in a dream world. As the novel
continues, Marlow recognizes that this flaw of not being
able to see something for what it is, and in turn, not
being able to give it an accurate "label", is indeed "the
European way". 

There are some names given by the Europeans that simply
don't fit the characteristic of the object being named.
Marlow points out that the name 'Kurtz' means short in
German. However, at Marlow's first glance at Kurtz, he
remarks how Kurtz appears to be "seven feet long"(101).
Conrad shows us, through Marlow's observation, how Kurtz's
name is just a blatant oxy-moron. Marlow recognizes yet
another obvious misrepresentation. Marlow meets a man who
is called the "bricklayer". However, as Marlow himself
points out, "there wasn't a fragment of a brick anywhere in
the station"(39). 

During his voyage, however, Marlow doesn't only observe
this misnaming, but realizes the importance of a name.
While overhearing a conversation between the manager of the
station and his uncle, he hears Mr. Kurtz being refereed to
as "that man"(53). Although Marlow hasn't met Kurtz yet, he
has heard of his greatness. He now realizes that by these
men calling him "that man", they strip him of all his
attributes. When one hears Kurtz, they think of a " very
remarkable person"(39). These men are now, by not referring
to him by his name, denying Kurtz's accomplishments. 

This same idea of distorting a person's character by
changing his name is displayed elsewhere. The Europeans
apply the terms 'enemy' and 'criminals' to the natives. In
actuality, they are simply "bewildered and helpless
victims...and moribund shadows"(Berthoud. 46). Clearly, the
injustice done by the simple misnaming of someone is

After witnessing all of these names which bare no true
meaning, as well as possibly degrade a person's character,
Marlow understands that he can not continue in his former
ways of mindlessly giving random names to something in fear
of diminishing the essence of the recipient. As a result,
Marlow finds himself unable to label something for what it
is. While under attack, Marlow reefers to the arrows being
shot in his direction as "sticks, little sticks", and a
spear being thrown at his boat "a long cane"(75--77). When
Marlow arrives at the inner station, he sees "slim
posts...in a row" with their "ends ornamented with round
carved balls"(88). In truth, these are poles with skulls on
top of them. Marlow can formulate a name even for the
simplest of things. 

Taking a step back and looking at his voyage, Marlow
realizes the insignificant, mindless, meaningless 'labels'
which the Europeans use to identify with something, and he
wants to be able to "give to experience, names that have
some substance". At this point, he is similar to Adam in
the Garden of Eden who is "watching the parade of nameless
experience" go by. However, Marlow is missing an essential
thing which Adam possessed. As opposed to Adam, who was
delegated by G-d to name experiences, Marlow lacked this
authority to name. It is Kurtz who will become this
authority, and eventually teach Marlow the essence of a
name(Johnson. 76). 

Mr. Kurtz is the Chief of the Inner Station. He is a
"universal genius, a prodigy, an emissary of pity science
and progress"(40-45). It is Kurtz who will teach Marlow
what a name is, for one simple reason...
The man presented himself as a voice...of all his gifts,
the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a
sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his
words---the gift of expression, the bewildering, the
Kurtz was "little more than a voice"(80), but there was no
one with a voice like his. He could speak with remarkable
eloquence, he could write with such precision... he could
name with true meaning! "You don't talk with that
man[Kurtz], you listen to him"(90)! Marlow has heard enough
about Kurtz, in this case from his devoted pupil, to know
that it is he who can provide Marlow with the authority to
offer "correct and substantial names"(Johnson. 76). 

Indeed, Kurtz gives Marlow everything Marlow is looking
for. However, he does it in a very unconventional way.
Kurtz teaches Marlow the lesson with his last words. "The
horror! The horror!"(118). These last words are Kurtz's own
judgment, judgment on the life which he has lived. He is
barbarous, unscrupulous, and possibly even evil. However,
he has evaluated at his life, and he has "pronounced a
judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this
earth"(118). Marlow sees Kurtz "open his mouth wide---it
gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he wanted to
swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before
him..."(101). Kurtz takes everything in. He takes his life,
and puts it all out on the table. "He had summed up--- he
had judged...The horror!"(119). 

Kurtz's last words is his way of teaching Marlow the
essence of a name. A name is not merely a label. It is one
man's own judgment of an isolated event. However, unlike
the Europeans who judge based on already existing
principles which they have 'acquired', Kurtz taught Marlow
to look inside of himself and to judge based on his own
subjective creeds. While Marlow is recounting the story, he
says to his comrades:
He 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. An appeal to
me in this fiendish row---is there? Very well; I hear; I
admit, but have a voice too, and for good or evil mine is
the voice that can not be silenced (60). 

This is the lesson which Marlow has learned. Objective
standards alone will not lead one to recognize the reality
in something. One can not only depend on anther's
principles to find his reality in something because they
have not had to
bear the pain and responsibility of creating it. Principles
are usually acquisitions, which like other things we
acquire rather than generate, like clothes are easily
shaken off. The power of speech which will sustain a man is
the power to create or affirm for one's self a deliberate,
or a chosen belief (Bruce Johnson. 79).
This judgment must be from one's own internal strengths.
That is why Marlow says, "for good or evil, mine is the
speech that can not be silenced". As Kurtz has taught him
with his own judgment, a judgment of truth overpowers
morality. To find one's own reality, one must not rely
solely on other people's morality, others people's
'principles' and he must assess his own life. What Kurtz
did is that he showed that regardless of whether the truth
is good or bad, one must face up to his reality. He must
face up to his own actions even when the conclusion is "the
horror", and by doing so, he will find his true reality. 

Marlow understands that being true to yourself is not
following anther's moral code, but being able to judge
one's self honestly and uncover their own reality. It is
because of this understanding that Marlow claims that
Kurtz's last words is "a moral victory paid for by
innumerable defeats..."(120). Despite Kurtz's immoral ways,
he is victorious because he didn't run away from the truth;
and that is his moral victory. He is true to himself.! 

On his voyage, Marlow notices at one of the stations, a
picture that Kurtz had drawn when he was there. It is a
"sketch in oils on a panel representing a woman draped and
blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was
sombre---almost black"(40). At the time, Marlow didn't
really know what it meant. However, this is a precise
representation of Kurtz himself. Firstly, the background
was "sombre---almost black". This is a manifestation of
Kurtz because his life is full of darkness. He kills, he
steals, and he is worshipped as a god. Kurtz cannot be
without blackness and survive. In addition, the picture
displays the lesson itself. It is a picture of the lady of
justice holding a torch. This is Kurtz's role. Unlike
Europe, which imposes their principles upon others, he is
merely there to "illuminate"(79). Kurtz is there to expand
the peoples minds, to introduce them to a broad new
spectrum of reality. However, he does not impose his own
reality upon them. Hence, he is blindfolded in the picture.
To him, they make a subjective decision and they find their
own truth, regardless of what that truth may be. That is
his lesson. 

Eventually Marlow realizes that Kurtz's picture was in
essence, a self portrait. The same thing which Kurtz
conveyed with 'the horror', he conveyed with this picture.
Marlow's realization is evident with this remark. "I don't
like work---no man does---but I like what's in the
work---the chance to find yourself. Your own reality---for
yourself, not for others"(47). 

Marlow learns the essence of 'naming' and understands what
it means to 'be yourself'. However, Marlow has encountered
two extremes. The European mentality, which is completely
oblivious to reality, and Kurtz, a man who has found his
reality, but it is one of horror and no restraint from any
wrongdoing. He is now returning to his home to deal with
his former world, however, he now possesses his new
'understanding'. Marlow cannot return to his previous
'European ways' simply because he has 'been enlightened'
and lost his naiveté. However, why can't he adapt Kurtz's
ways and live the other extreme? At one point, Marlow had
"peeped over the edge"(119). Why didn't he 'jump over'? 

Marlow is repelled from joining Kurtz for several reasons.
Firstly, Kurtz had "kicked himself loose from the
earth...he had kicked the earth to pieces. He was alone,
and I[Marlow] before him did not know whether I stood on
the ground or floated in the air"(112). Kurtz had denied
any sort of moral convictions in order to be worshipped as
a god. Because of this unmonitered power, Kurtz lost all
sense of restraint and became the savage that he was.
Marlow, however, has not lost his sense of morality. What
Marlow rejected in Kurtz was the "complete absence in Kurtz
of any innate or transcendental sanctions"(Johnson. 99). 

It is because of Marlow's rejection of both the Europeans,
who Marlow claims are full of "stupid importance", and of
Kurtz's inability to establish his own moral code, that
Marlow chooses an "alternative reality"(Berthoud. 60). The
first time the reader witnesses Marlow's choice and becomes
a centrist, is when he first gets back to Europe. Marlow
finds himself resenting the way the Europeans went about
their life, "hurrying through the streets to filch a little
money from each other..."(120).Not only did he find their
lives meaningless, but he mocked them to himself. "I had no
particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some
difficulty restraining myself from laughing in their faces
so full of stupid importance... I tottered about the
streets...grinning bitterly at perfectly respectable
people. I admit my behavior was inexcusable..."(120).
Although Marlow looked down upon these Europeans, he says
something remarkable. He judged his own actions and found
them 'inexcusable'. This is his manifestation of breaking
away from Kurtz's extreme. Unlike Kurtz who lacked all
restraint and would never find looking down on people bad,
Marlow realized that he couldn't hold it against them
simply because they didn't know better. Clearly, Marlow is
edging toward a 'middle ground'. 

Despite this act of judgment, the reader doesn't know
exactly where Marlow stands. However, Marlow does something
that is the quintessential act of affirmation that he has
chose the middle of the two extremes. While aboard the
Nellie, Marlow tells his comrades that "I hate, detest, and
can't bear a lie...simply because it appalls me. There is a
taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies..."(44).
Towards the end of the novel, Marlow is invited by Kurtz's
fiancee to go to her house to speak of her beloved Kurtz.
Upon her asking Marlow what his last words were, Marlow
responded "The last word he pronounced was---your
name"(131). He lies to her. He does something he utterly
detests. This is the event that convinces the reader of
Marlow's uptaking of a middle position. He does look inside
himself and use his own personal ability to judge this
event. He does what Kurtz had told him. Despite his
abhorrence of lies, he judges this situation and decides
that it was right to lie. However, he is different from
Kurtz. Kurtz did judge every event independently, however,
he does it solely based on his own whims. He could not
incorporate any objective principles whatsoever in making
his decision. Marlow does judge every event independently,
however, he can not rely solely on his own creeds.
Regardless of his decision, he will always incorporate some
objective principles into his judgment. Marlow now creates
his 'alternative reality' and achieves his truth. 

When Marlow was exposed to the imperialistic environment of
the congo, it had a tremendous effect upon him. The
protagonist of Conrad's novel undergoes a drastic change in
response to his environment, common only to that specific
time period. Kurtz shows Marlow the flaws in the Europeans
imperialistic ideals. Kurtz sees the meaninglessness of
European standards of the time, and therefore changes his
entire perception and behavior. 


Quotes: Search by Author