Self-absorption in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Self-absorption in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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Self-absorption in Heart of Darkness  


The story Heart of Darkness is a study in the benefits , and

setbacks, of self absorption. Through out the story there is a constant

emphasis on the fact that self absorption will get you what you want and

help you to survive. At the same time there is the constant moral objection.

Almost the entire book is spent showing the positive aspects of self

absorption. The life it will give you and the ability to keep that life

going as long as possible. This type of thinking, however, can catch up to

you in the end.


The lesson that self absorption is the means of self preservation is

one that is taught to the reader, and more specifically to Marlow, gradually

as the story progresses. The very first lesson in this thought process comes

very early in the story. I occurs as Marlow is going over in his mind

exactly how he came to get the opportunity to be a river steamer captain.

It appears the Company had received news that one of their captains

had been killed in a scuffle with the natives. This was my

chance, and it made me the more anxious to go...However,

through this glorious affair I got my appointment,

before I had fairly begun to hope for it.(Conrad 13)


Right away Marlow begins to think about himself and what this mans death can

bring to him. He describes the incident, and every now and then throws in a

"The poor fellow" so that he is not completely devoid of any compassion.

This is Marlow's introduction into the way of the successful person in the

Ivory trade, or any business for that matter.


The next lesson that Marlow gets in self absorption he actually has

provided for him. As he is riding the french ship down to the belgian congo

there are several stops made to let off soldiers at various posts up and

down the shore.


We pounded along, stopped, landed soldiers; went on, landed custom-

house clerks to levy toll in what looked like a God-forsaken wilderness,

with a tin shed and a flag-pole lost in it; landed more soldiers to take care

of the custom-house clerks, presumably. Some, I heard, got drowned in

the surf; but whether they did or not, nobody seemed

particularly to care. They were just flung out there, and on we

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went.(Conrad 16)


The self absorbed attitude of Marlow is now even more advanced then it was

only a few pages back in the story. When he heard the news of the old steam

boat he at least expressed some type of remorse over his death. Not even

remorse, but he at least gave it some some thought. As the above quote

illustrates he barely even acknowledges the fact that large numbers of men

could be dying in the waves. As Marlow gets closer and closer to the congo

he is unconsciously starting to mold himself into the kind of person that

could survive there. He is beginning to shut out everything but what

concerns him directly.


While this sense of self absorption that Marlow displays seems

necessary for survival, it seems that later on, in someone that has been in

the congo for a while, this self absorption catches up with them. The

obvious example of this is agent Kurtz. For so long he had been exploiting

the natives so that he could move up in the ranks of the ivory business. He

has been separating himself from everybody else. The end result is that he

is so alone and so absorbed in himself that he loses himself and goes

insane. The best example of the complete sell focus Kurtz had on himself can

be taken from his changing views on the Africans. He went from a man who

said that some things could be learned and/or admired about them, to a man

who simply wrote, "Exterminate all the brutes."(Conrad 51) This is coming

from a man that has become so absorbed in himself that he really doesn't

give a second thought to the elimination of a race that he, at one time,

found extremely intriguing. Eventually Kurtz's self absorption and drive for

personal wealth drive him back to the ivory station and to his death.

Getting to the level of self absorption takes some time and

conditioning. Although Marlow is very accomplished in the field of self

admiration, he still has some cracks in his wall he has around himself."


The man seemed young- almost a boy- but you know with them it's hard

to tell. I found nothing else to do but to offer him one of my

good Swede;s ship biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers closed

slowly on it and held-there was no other movement and no

other glance.(Conrad 20)


Marlow does his best to lump all black people together and to make it seem

like he doesn't care. But there is still the suggestion that he has not

completely closed himself off. Many people would say that he is only

thinking of himself in this situation because he does nothing more than give

the starving man a cookie. He actually does more than that. Marlow does not

just throw a cookie at this person. He is noticing and taking note of all of

the details of this man's suffering. If he was completely hardened then he

would not even have given the man a cookie, much less devote a fair amount

of thought to the situation. Luckily, for Marlow's sake, he never gets

completely hardened. This is evident because he does not get consumed by his

work and by himself, as Kurtz did.


Survival in Heart of Darkness offers up and interesting paradox. On

one hand you have to harden up yourself against all other peoples feelings

and emotions in order to be successful and survive. In other words be

completely self absorbed. On the other hand if you wall yourself up from

everyone and become consumed with your own self then you will not be able to

survive. So basically this book is trying to get across that somewhere in

between caring and not caring there is a happy medium in which one can be

successful and survive. Marlow and Kurtz personified both ends of the

spectrum. Marlow wasn't able to be concerned enough with himself and Kurtz

was so concerned with his status that it killed him. Sandwiched between the

two is successful, happy ivory trader.


 Works Cited

Conrad, Robert. Herat of Dakness. W.W. Norton Company: New York, New York.1988


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