The Immortality and Blindness to a Dark Continent
Length: 1683 words (4.8 double-spaced pages)
Joseph Conrad’s s novel “Heart of Darkness” portrays an image of Africa that is dark and inhuman. Not only does he describe the actual, physical continent of Africa as “so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness”, (Conrad 2180) as though the continent could neither breed nor support any true human life. Conrad lived through a time when European colonies were scattered all over the world. This phenomenon and the doctrine of colonialism bought into at his time obviously influenced his views at the time of “Heart of Darkness” publication. Very few people saw anything amiss with colonialism in Africa and the African people. From a Eurocentric point of view, colonialism was the natural next-step in any powerful countries political agenda. The colonizers did not pay heed to the native peoples in their territories, nor did they think of the natives as anything but savages. In the “Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad uses Marlow to contradict the acts of man and the destruction they brought forth to Africa and their people. Conrad shows, through fiction, that the blindness and lack of morality in Africa allowed for the release of the darkness from the hearts of the colonists.
In the opening of his novel, “Heart of Darkness”, Conrad, through Marlow, establishes his thoughts on colonialism. He says that conquerors only use brute force, "nothing to boast of” (Conrad 2143) because it arises, by accident, from another's weakness. Marlow compares his subsequent tale of colonialism with that of the Roman colonization of Northern Europe and the fascination associated with such an endeavor. In comparison to Marlow thoughts on European colonizing, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the writer of “Manchester Chamber of Commerce”, states that “No part of Africa, look where I might, appeared so promising to me as this neglected tenth part of the continent” (Stanley 2201) which seem to me that he was fascinated in colonizing and retrieving money for his findings, with no moral thought with the people who colonized there. Stanley goes on and states, “but unfortunately the European nations will not heed this cry” (Stanley 2201), which clearly shows a careless act of taken over a country that doesn’t want to be touch. Marlow challenges this viewpoint by painting a heinous picture of the horrors of colonialist ventures as we explore deeper into the recesses of the novel.
Here we find that Marlow sees colonization as "robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind - as it is very proper for those who tackle darkness” (Conrad 2143). Further, he sees such conquests as taking land and materials away from those people who "have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses” (Conrad 2143). As he understands it, colonization is only successful if there lays within it a "devotion to efficiency" (Conrad 2143) and a creation of civilization.
Throughout “Heart of Darkness”, Conrad uses images of darkness to represent the blindness of seaman traveling for ivory in Africa. Darkness is demonstrated as anything unknown to man, primitive, evil, and mysterious. To Conrad, Africa is the very representation of darkness. Marlow often uses the phrase, “We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness” (Conrad 2165), to describe his progress on the Congo with a feeling of the unknown coming towards Marlow and his men. By traveling farther and farther down the Congo, Marlow and his crew get closer and closer to the epicenter of this foreboding darkness, and the hell of immorality. The unknown continent of Africa look and feel was dark and unknown to the naked eye, “Beyond the fence the forest stood up spectrally in the moonlight, and through the dim stir, through the faint sounds of that lamentable courtyard, the silence of the land went home to one’s very heart its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life” (Conrad 2158). The portrayal of Africa is explained as both a romantic frontier and a foreboding wilderness; which portrays Marlow’s love and sadness of a land that has been rape and disrespected repeatedly by man. In contrast to my statement, Chinua Achebe, a modern writer of “An Image of Africa”, sees Conrad’s description of the character Marlow, as a point of racism towards the people in Africa and not a positive message of that time. Achebe said, “A novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No” (Achebe 2207). Achebe, in my opinion failed to see the point Conrad was trying to make in his novel, which is that Conrad is not telling the story of the jungle, or of Africa, or even of nature in general, but rather is writing about the human being and his capacity for evil. Conrad is only trying to reveal to the world about how natives were mistreated, and opening the eyes of the world.
Conrad depicts Africa as a land where the prehistoric has been preserved. The people are still primitive and blind to the unknown acts of people outside their continent. He describes the journey up the Congo as something similar to a trip on a time machine: “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings . . . There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” (Conrad 2164).
In Conrad’s eyes, Africa is a land where the past is sustained, in which by the end of the story Marlow tells the story of Kurtz over and over to his sailors on The Nellie in hopes of a change. As Marlow goes deeper into the continent, Conrad’s depiction of Africa is infused with a sense of fear and loathing, a sense that there is some darker, unknown evil at work; an evil that involves a person to be inhuman to carry on the ghastly acts that has been taken place. Once again the colonization of a dark humanity was being strip of their self being and civilization, “a wilderness rendered more strange, more incomprehensible by the mysterious glimpses of the vigorous life it contained” (Conrad, Selected Stories 5).
Conrad’s illustration of Africa does not center only on the continent, it carries over to his characterization of African natives. Conrad describes Marlow’s first encounter with an African ceremony as, “a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling . . .” (Conrad 2165). He goes on to portray Marlow’s reaction to this frenzy of natives “as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse” (Conrad 2165). Conrad’s description of these people shows them as crazed, frenzied, out-of-control savages, not an image any turn-of-the-century Westerner could warm up to. Nor could his English speaking readers understand these people to be anything more than beasts, as they only had the written word to go on.
Conrad depicts Africans as though they are “the other”, not a part of normal humanity, which in reality of that time, Africa was not known to be like any other countries. In response to Conrad’s novel, Chinua Achebe shows that the Africans are especially apparent in the first several descriptions of black people. Conrad's words in these two paragraphs are very important, as Achebe states "Conrad is a romantic on the side” (Achebe 2205), who Achebe seems to think that he chooses words with utter care. This is to make the reader believe that he is not actually racist, in Achebe’s opinion, but that he is just describing the situation from the point of view of the character of the manager. By providing a story of an ordinary tribesman who leads an ordinary, respectable life until colonists invade his territory, Achebe humanizes what Conrad has dehumanized in his opinion the Heart of Darkness.
The central theme around which this story revolves is civilization versus wilderness. The symbolism that represents this theme is the opposition of light versus darkness. As in much of European art and literature, the imagery of “light” is associated with Western culture, civilization, knowledge, and the conscious mind. The imagery of “darkness,” on the other hand, is associated with Third World cultures (such as Africa), the “primitive” or “savage,” the unknown or mysterious, and the psychological unconscious. Many of the themes in Conrad’s story are based on this set of oppositions. Thus, European culture is contrasted with African culture, where African culture is seen to represent the primitive, unconscious mind of the white European man. Marlow’s narrative of his journey down the Congo River, and his encounter with Kurtz, expresses the anxiety of the white man who is tempted by his foray into the “wilderness” to “go native,” lose the trappings of civilization, and revert to a more “primitive” state of mind. Through Marlow's state of mind of the introduction to a darkness state, he develops a light within his own soul. Instead of being blind to the rape of the unknown and undeveloped continent he overcomes a battle with himself, which in turn, successfully overcomes battles with his savage side and comes out the darkness a changed man. It shows that no matter how perfect something seems to be, there is always a heart of darkness deep within souls of man. Colonialism, the journey of the inner-self, the theme of immorality and blindness compared to light and civilization, indicates an understanding that Marlow's voyage into the deepness of the Congo, is symbolic of the journey he had to take into the deepest side of himself.