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Heart of Darkness is the ultimate search for moral truth, and self-restraint. This novella explores the concepts of nature versus man, light versus dark, mortality, body and soul. Conrad chooses to relate this story through the eyes of the sailor Marlow, while placing the reader in the position of his shipmates who listen as he recounts his experiences as a young man, traveling up the Congo. With great accuracy we are able to get into the young Marlow's mind, and experience all that he feels, hears, and fears during his time in the heart of the jungle. Conrad's use of metaphors and imagery are what makes this relationship With Marlow possible.
The imagery of darkness, gloom, and death are present in every aspect of the story from the start of this novella to the finish, giving it an air of mystery, and despair, almost like a dream, or a nightmare. The reader automatically senses that something is not quite right, in setting of the tale, and as the haze drifts in and out of the pages, the reader is enlightened little by little.
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The empty souls in which Marlow encounters throughout his travels are a key aspect to demonstrating Conrad's theme. Florence H. Ridley, author of The Ultimate meaning of "Heart of Darkness" discusses the idea that the darkness, or hollowness in Marlow's white and black companions are due to their lack of moral restraint. The importance of restraint is one of the main themes Conrad explores throughout his tale. The theme of moral restraint is a necessity among civilized man, and without moral restraint, as Conrad reveals with Kurtz, we would all succumb to our desires, becoming nothing more then brutes and savages living in the dark, obsessed with our own desires. Characters such as Kurtz, who is at one point described as "belonging to the powers of darkness"(Heart of Darkness.2053) the accountant, (who is mainly just a pretty sight with nothing to offer on the inside), and the pilgrims, (who barely have a role except to appear as useless bodies, mindless fools who shoot at nothing), all play a role in what Conrad is trying to illustrate to the reader, Which is that we need moral restraint. Ridley, demonstrates in her article, that even many of the savages are hollow, and all must fill themselves up by succumbing to the darkness of the wild. Kurtz is the example of the civilized man, de-civilized by the darkness of the Congo.
Many critics argue that Conrad attempted to demonstrate the importance of moral restraint in another form. Garrett Stewart, in his article Lying as Dying in "The Heart of Darkness" Felt that Conrad, toyed with the idea that Marlow played the role of the ego, or super ego, while Kurtz was the subconscious, needing to be held in check, and restrained. (Lying as Dying in "The Heart Of Darkness."323) this is an interesting idea because Conrad was fond of doing this and demonstrated this effect in many of his other works. by giving Kurtz the title of the subconscious the reader has a deeper understanding of the need for moral restraint.
The need for moral restraint also brings to light another aspect of Conrad's main themes. The futility of man in the eyes of the natural world. Conrad was against the exploitation of the Congo, and voiced this opinion through his depiction of the hollow, dark, if not even evil men, exploiting the Congo. He justifies the deaths of the "civilized" men, and Kurtz's submission to the wild as natures revenge. He wants his characters to be afraid,and they are constantly reminded of the power of the Congo, from the mystery of the forest, to the vast darkness of the unknown . The Savages are the human embodiment of Conrad's emphasis of nature, wild and free. Nature takes on an important role in the novella and demonstrates just how miniscule civilized man really is in the untamed, unrestrained wild. At one point the characters "swore aloud together out of sheer fright"(Heart Of Darkness.2042) because of the power emanating from the forest behind them. The reader gets the sense that there are more powerful forces at work in the this story, and that the civilized world has no place trying to conquer the wild or it's inhabitants. This is a powerful message Conrad emanates.
The imagery used while describing nature, and darkness also symbolise death, and mortality. Marlow realizes how fragile human life is in the Congo and he re-evaluates his own mortality. He has many near death experiences and is fascinated by the deaths of those around them. The death of the helmsman as Stewart points out in his article, is important because Marlow is fascinated with the voice of death The helmsman dies without a word, but looks as though he is about to whisper some great meaningful words. The Helmsman of course does not whisper a thing, forcing death to "speak to him not through him." (Lying as Dying in Heart of Darkness.322). When Kurtz dies, He speaks to Marlow and perhaps death itself, "The Horror, The Horror."(Heart of Darkness.2068) .perhaps Kurtz had realized in death, the faults of living without moral restraint, and could not help but see the horror in it.
Conrad concludes the novel with Marlow Lying to the young woman who has enormous faith in Kurtz. She is idealistic, (much like all the women in the novel) and believes that Kurtz could do no wrong. Marlow cannot help but lie to her about Kurtz's last words, because he has to. Ridley' article points out that the woman has faith, and in order to keep her moral restraint in tact, she needs that faith..(Ultimate Meaning Of Heart Of Darkness.51) Marlow believes that the reason the men in the Congo, such as Kurtz, and the others where so empty, was because they had no faith, They were empty inside due to the lack of faith, and they had no hard work to occupy them in the wild. So they were idle, and idle hands do the devils work.
All in all Joseph Conrad enables the reader to identify with Marlow, and causes them to examine the nature of life and death, man versus nature and inner truth and restraint within themselves and others. Conrad may not give all the answers to these age old enigmas, but a glow does shimmer through the haze, Shedding light on the impossible questions he explores.