Poor Assumptions and Flawed Conclusions of Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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The Poor Assumptions and Flawed Conclusions of Heart of Darkness

   During the period when Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness was written, a common theme in literature was the testing of the moral life through actual experience.  One could not realize an ethical principle without it being justified through the outcome of some practical conflict.  This idea of testing morality through experience is exactly what is presented in Conrad's novel as Marlow's journey results in a trial that not only defines his own beliefs but allows him to make a rather pessimistic conclusion on the morality of mankind.  This realization comes about through the author's double presentation of imperialism in which it is both glorified and criticized.  Marlow begins his narration with a vague position on the issue that appears to find justification for both sides.  As the story progresses and Marlow begins to play a more active role in his situation, the two sides of anti-imperialism and colonization become muted.  Slowly the two opposing beliefs are pressed together until the climax of the novel during Marlow's exchange with the dying Kurtz.  At this point, Marlow reaches the understanding that the differences between the two sides of the issue no longer exist for him, and although he is unwilling to continue the moral trial himself, he judges the grim outcome through the experiences of Kurtz.   


     Through much of the first half of the novel, Marlow attempts to remain an observer of the events around him and so he is able to offer his contradictory perceptions on the issue of imperialism.  Because he takes very little deliberate action, he can pass his judgement on what he sees without actually having to take a moral stand one way or another.  In fact, the journey itself, at first, began as nothing more than the entertaining of a childhood dream.  Marlow wished to satisfy a curiosity he had for unknown places, the "blank spaces on the earth," as he calls them.(pg.10) This trip has no greater interest for Marlow than the satisfaction that he will see a virtually unknown area of the globe.  He even admits that he tries to keep his distance from any real connection to one side.  He explains, "I had no time…when you have to attend to things of that sort (sailing the steamer), to the mere incidences of the surface, the reality…fades."(pg.61) He describes the violent death of his predecessor with very little opinion on the matter at all.  He states:


I couldn't let it rest though; but… what became of the hens I don't know

either.  I should think the cause of progress got them, anyhow.  However,

through this glorious affair I got my appointment…(pg.13)


To call this event a "glorious affair" appears rather cold, but it does demonstrates that Marlow had no real opinion on the conflict other than it provided him his opportunity.  Later, as Marlow prepares his ship for the journey, he surveys the men at the station and states, "I asked myself sometimes what it all meant."(pg.39) He may question the situation at first, but he does not truly make the attempt to understand it at that point.  Later he is forced to confront it.  Still, it is Marlow's distancing of himself from the action around him that allows him to make his general judgements about Imperialism and anti-imperialism.


    In the beginning, Marlow maintains his distance from any actual moral conflict, so he is able to offer his opinion of the imperialist attitude without much understanding of it.  Marlow propounds such European attitudes as social Darwinism, the ideals of civilization and efficiency, and Anglo-Saxon bigotry.  In the first few pages of the novel, Marlow refers to imperialism as "the cause of progress," "the noble cause," or "an unselfish belief in the idea - something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to."(pgs.12,13,8) These references reflect the European belief that their "conquest of the earth" has a righteous and socially scientific justification.  Marlow continues his praise of English imperialism by explaining, "What saves us is efficiency - the devotion to efficiency."(pg.8) Apparently, efficiency in domination is a cause for colonialism.  Marlow's respect for English order and his belief in civilization prove itself again by his respect for the Company's chief accountant. This deference is because, " in the great demoralisation of the land he kept up his appearance."(pg.30) The order of this man's attire and the neatness of his bookshelves amidst the disarray of the jungle is a sign of significant accomplishment for Marlow.   Also, throughout much of the narration the portrayal and the opinion of many of the natives prove extremely stereotypical.  All of these examples show Marlow's immature view of Imperialism in the beginning of the novel, but he does show a sympathetic perception as well.


    Although Marlow does not make a moral stand on his observation at first, he does feel a sense of empathy for the colonized peoples, also.  He understands that the underlying objective of imperialism is greed and that the natives have a certain connection to their land as well as their own cultural significance.  In Marlow's farewell to his aunt before his journey, despite the glorified perception of imperialism that she holds, Marlow claims that he, "ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit."(pg.19) He understands that the majority of exploration is founded in human greed.  This is the judgement he makes through much of the story, but only fully understands at his encounter with Kurtz.  He also sympathizes with the distinct culture of the native peoples.  He states:


Perhaps on some quiet night the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, a

tremor vast, faint; a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild - and

perhaps with as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian



Here, Marlow makes a parallel between European culture and that of this unexplored, presumably savage country.  In addition to their cultural identity, Marlow recognizes the natives' individual connection to their land. Marlow observes, "…they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, and intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast.  They wanted no excuse for being there."(pg.21) Marlow begins to realize that it is the Europeans who are intruding on the landscape.  It is an intrusion that Marlow later learns is a futile attempt at imperialist ideals.  Marlow begins the novel with these ideas of the native situation, but he gradually begins to blur the difference between the two sides as the story progresses.


    As Marlow continues his narrative and he is forced more and more to deal with moral confrontations, his original European notions of imperialism begin to decay.  He sees more clearly the corruption and inefficiency of the English presence, he begins to recognize a connection with the "savages" that he encounters, and he exposes the futility of the ideal of civilization.   Marlow's sarcasm at the English trader's grows as he sees more of the methods used to suppress and civilize the new land.  At one point he explains the idiocy of the Company's copper wire payments to the hired natives.(pg.74) The men are starving on the ship for lack of supplies but they are regularly paid their three pieces of copper wire.  In addition to this, Marlow notes many other situations of imperialist failure and disorder such as the chief accountants office or the drainage pipes in the quarry.(pgs.30,27) This bungling of the job, causes Marlow to reconsider his ideals of imperialism, especially when he must endure the difficult trial of steering the steamboat up the river.  He seems to be the only capable individual on board.  Marlow also sees some of the futility of the European presence.  He watches the ridiculous cannon-fire of French ships onto the unmoving shore of the continent in order to repress native uprisings.  Finally, the distance between Marlow and the natives begins to fade as he recognizes a certain bond with them.  He greatly regrets the loss of his helmsman after his death.(pg.95) A certain kinship had formed between them, and a once "savage" poor sailor had become a trusted ally to Marlow.  He also explains the strange connection that he feels to the natives on shore.  He suggests:


…what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity - like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar…but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise.(pg.65)


This quotation proves how Marlow began to actively acknowledge the similarities between him and his not-so-foreign surroundings.  These examples show how the disintegration of Marlow's imperialistic notions began to dissolve the differences between the two opposing positions.


    As Marlow abandons some of the imperialist notions of the Europe he also begins to recognize the limitless harsh realities of the primitive continent. No longer is his journey a quest to satisfy his own curiosity of a foreign and unexplored territory, but it is a discovery of the savagery of the unknown.  Immediately, upon his arrival he discovers a sense of trepidation at his encounter with the new land.  He states:


Odd thing that I, who used to clear out for any part of the world at twenty-four hours notice, with less thought than most men give to the crossing of a street, had a moment - I won't say of hesitation, but of startled pause…I felt as though, instead of going to the center of a continent, I were about to set off for the center of the earth.(pg.19)


From the very begin of his trip, he realizes that his traditional view of the unknown territory is about to be challenged.  As Marlow travels up the river his sense of amazement of the confrontation he is about to experience continues to grow.(pg.23) He can never decipher whether he hears the forest whispering him to continue or threatening him to retreat.  The ever-present lure of "ivory" forces them on however.  At a certain point, of frustration at the difficulty of his journey, Marlow realizes the irrelevancy of his will in the darkness of the jungle.  He believes of himself that, "the essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface, beyond my reach, and beyond my power of meddling."(pg.70) Marlow begins to understand his powerlessness and the limitlessness the jungle affords to the imagination of man.  These examples illustrate how any glamour or glory that Marlow previously felt for the unexplored becomes a shadow of what it starts out as.


    Finally, with the encounter and understanding of Kurtz, Marlow comes to the realization that there really are not two positions on the issue of imperialism.  It is here that he comprehends the moral conflict that Kurtz has thrown himself into.  Kurtz embodies the interests of both the Europeans and the natives.  These interests are the same.  He has not been thrust out into an uncorrupted, virgin territory, but into the vast limitless region of the lawless imagination and desire of man.  As Marlow states, "out there there were no external checks."(pg.37)  There was simply no regulation on the greed of mankind in this new expanse.  Kurtz gives himself the ultimate freedom of his ambition and faculties in this undeveloped country and the moral conflict ends in complete failure.  He has become a mere extension of the greed and corruption of Europe, a realization that Kurtz makes in his dying exclamation, "the horror!".  Marlow explains:


I tried to break the spell…that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions… There was nothing either above or below him…he had kicked the earth to pieces…but his soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone Mad.(pg124)


At this point, Marlow believes that it was the exposure to this vast wilderness and the savagery within it that causes Kurtz' moral degradation, but as Marlow later realizes, he is unsure that any man would react differently, that any man had reacted differently.  This calls into mind the comparison that Marlow makes at the beginning of his tale between Africa and England before it was conquered by the Romans.(pg.8) Later, when Marlow returns from the interior of the continent he finds it difficult to live within "civilized" society again.(pg.133)  We also see the final symbol of The Nellie, the boat form which the story is being told, faced towards the heart of England at he end of the book.  The realization is that the "heart of darkness" is a conclusion on the morality of man, and its center is found in the middle of civilization.  


    So as Marlow is forced to play a more active role in his confrontation with imperialism, the differences between the two sides of the issue become blurred, leaving Marlow to discover an understanding not only of himself, but also on the morality of man.  The further Marlow travels into the center of Africa, the closer he comes to realizing that the jungle only provides an expanse into which the greed and corruption of man can grow.  Still, Marlow is unwilling to put himself through the great moral test, as Kurtz has done, and abandon himself to the freedom of the jungle.  He states: True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot.  And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible.(pg.133)


It is through the final test, as Marlow explains above, that allows one to make a justified moral conclusion.  Marlow uses the experiment of Kurtz to decide the outcome of any man, and although he is too afraid to discover the truth for himself he believes he knows that the outcome would have been the same.  While this is a pretty grim realization for the novel to reach, as Marlow states earlier observers, "can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means."(pg.51) Marlow never actually takes the final step, he remains an observer, and so his conclusion can never really be justified.


Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph.  Heart of Darkness:  Backgrounds and Criticisms.  New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1960.

Meyers, Jeffrey.  Joseph Conrad.  New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991.

Conrad, Joseph.  Heart of Darkness 3rd ed.  Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York:  Norton Critical, 1988.

Williams, George Washington.  [A Report upon the Congo - State and Country to the President of the Republic of the United States of America.]

 Heart of Darkness.  By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough.  New York:  Norton Critical 1988. 87.

Tripp, Rhoda Thomas.  Thesaurus of Quotations.  New York:  Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970.

Achebe, Chinua [An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.] 

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