Comparing Heart of Darkness and Freud's Totem and Taboo
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Parallels Between Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Freud's Totem and Taboo
The force of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness lies in the strange relationship between Marlow and Kurtz, and the responses of Marlow to what Kurtz has evoked in him. Ultimately, the novel functions as a subjective account of one man's experiences with what he believes to be a more essential and more pure state of man. That much of the novel consists of Marlow's attempts to understand, define, and redefine his opinion of Kurtz points to this man's importance in Marlow's views of the primitive state of humanity. Kurtz functions as a European who has crossed the line from European civilization to African barbarism. Thus he becomes emblematic of the European experience in this environment, and his fate looms as a possibility for Marlow. What emerges as more interesting, however, are the parallels between Marlow's understanding of Kurtz and the primal family in Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo. Marlow's attitudes toward Kurtz develop in the same pattern as Freud's description of the original dynamic between father and son; this parallel consequently implies the connection of Kurtz to the primitive and the inability of Marlow to escape society.
The first point of similarity between Conrad's account of Kurtz and Freud's theory of the original father appears in the granting of absolute power to both figures. Freud's description of the paternal role in primitive society rests upon Darwin's theory of the primal horde. Freud puts forth the essential features of this society as "a violent and jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away his sons" (175). The characterization Freud uses here deliberately implies a kin...
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... The primitive, demonstrated by both Kurtz and the primal father, defines through action. Civilization, however, leaves definition indeterminate in its lack of action. The quest for the primitive becomes a search for the definition of an undefined present.
Works Cited and Consulted
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness, New York: Dover, 1990.
Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard U. Press, 1958.
Freud, Sigmund. "Totem and Taboo." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey: 1913
Tessitore, John. "Freud, Conrad, and Heart of Darkness." Modern Critical Interpretations." Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 91-103.
Spivack, Charlotte. "The Journey to Hell: Satan, The Shadow, and the Self." Centennial Review 9:4 (1965): 420 - 437.