Spiritual Journey in Heart of Darkness
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad may be a narrative about colonisation, revealing its drawbacks and corruption, but it may also be understood as a journey into the depths of one’s psyche, if taken at a symbolic level.
At the beginning of the novel the reader is informed that Marlow is “not typical”, that he, contrary to stay-at-home-minded seamen, is a “wanderer”. He has no home, in a psychological sense of the word. He simply “follows the sea”. This may evoke an interpretation that the man is disturbed, that he attempts to find out about the secrets of his soul, to get to know himself. Since boyhood he had been interested in unexplored lands and especially in a long winding snake-like river with the “head” in the sea and the “tail” plunging deeply into the land, which, as Marlow admits, “charmed” him. This image resembles a map of a journey from the dark lands of the soul, the unconstrained, uncivilised core, which may be called a Freudian Id, towards light, that is Superego. Marlow desires to follow this path in the opposite direction to explore the depths of himself.
If the uncivilised land is a dark Id, then Superego is presented as the civilised world, full of light, knowledge, awareness of the self. The light came upon the gloom of London with the Roman conquest, which introduced discipline by force and formed the savages into an orderly society. The Roman conquest symbolises the eternal battle between the Id and the Superego, the latter always struggling to impose rules on the former. This is what is taking place in Congo. The aim of the colonists is to bring Christianity to the black people, but in the end it turns out that it is not the civilisation which wins, but the Id. It rots the soul with corruption, stealing money from the natives. When there is no watch from the society over one’s doings, one can do anything they please, like Kurtz, whom Id overtook completely.
What saves Marlow from losing his constraints is that he maintains psychological balance between the two drives. His position is in the sphere of Ego; he sails the grey sea (middle colour between light and darkness) along the shore, occasionally going inland, but never plunging too deep, thus securing himself from the influence of the darkness. He attempts to get to know the primitive, unconscious part of his soul by grasping bits and pieces of it, and finds there a figure of Kurtz who fascinates him but also terrifies by his unpredictability, capability of killing people if he pleased, the danger he poses to his mates. Kurtz had mingled with the natives and the forest too much, and by meeting Kurtz Marlow was able to see what would happen if Id totally possessed him. In fact, Kurtz may be a dark side of Marlow, a projection of his psyche personifying the instinctive drive of human beings.
Having experienced the “darkness” of the soul, Marlow stands out, becomes a different person; he is grey, which indicates that by exploring the instinct he gained some of the darkness of it.
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