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Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, relies on his knowledge of history in order to describe its protagonist, Charlie Marlow, and his struggle. Marlow's feeling in the novel, as he goes to the Congo, rests on how he visualizes the effects of what is going on around him. Meaning that his attitude will be change during his experiences and his thoughts will change with everything that he learns. Marlow's "change" as caused by his exposure to the historical period in which he lived is important to his views of the situation, especially with his view of Kurtz. Marlow is asked by "the company", the organization for whom he works, to travel to the Congo river and report back to them about Mr. Kurtz, a top notch officer of theirs. When he sets sail, he doesn't know what to expect. When his journey is completed, this little "trip" will have changed Marlow forever.
Heart of Darkness is a story of one man's journey through the African Congo and the "enlightenment" of his soul. It begins with Charlie Marlow, along with a few of his comrades, cruising aboard the Nellie, a traditional sailboat. On the boat, Marlow begins to tell of his experiences in the Congo. Conrad uses Marlow to reveal all the personal thoughts and emotions that he wants to portray while Marlow goes on this "voyage of a lifetime".
Marlow begins his voyage as an ordinary English sailor who is traveling to the African Congo on a business trip. He is an Englishman who has never been exposed to any alternative form of culture similar to the one he will encounter in Africa, and he has no idea about the drastically different culture
which exists out there.
Throughout the book, Conrad, via Marlow's observations, reveals to the reader the naive mentality shared by every European. However, after only a short period of time in the Congo, he realizes the ignorance he and all his crew have. We first recognize the general naïve attitude of the Europeans when Marlow's aunt is seeing him for the last time before he embarks on his journey. Marlow's aunt is under the assumption that the voyage is a mission to "wean those ignorant millions from their horrid ways" (Conrad 760).
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Suspense picks up when Marlow becomes closer to meeting Kurtz. He hears Mr. Kurtz being refereed to as "that man". Although Marlow hasn't met Kurtz yet, he has heard of his greatness from the people who were in "the company" back home. He now realizes that by these men calling him "that man", they strip him of all his attributes. When one hears Kurtz, they think of a very remarkable person. These men are now, by not referring to him by his name, denying Kurtz's accomplishments. Marlow lacked this authority to name. Mr. Kurtz is the Chief of the Inner Station. He is a "universal genius, a prodigy, an emissary of pity science and progress". It is Kurtz who will teach Marlow what a name is, for one simple reason.
"The man presented himself as a voice...of all his gifts, the one that
stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words---the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating..." (Conrad 760).
Indeed, Kurtz gives Marlow everything Marlow is looking for. However, he does it in a very unconventional way. Kurtz teaches Marlow the lesson with his last words. "The horror! The horror!" (Conrad 795). These last words are Kurtz's own judgment, judgment on the life that he has lived. He has evaluated his life, and he has "pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth" (Conrad 795). Marlow sees Kurtz "open his mouth wide---it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him..." (Conrad 795). Kurtz takes everything in. He takes his life, and puts it all out on the table. Kurtz's last words are his way of teaching Marlow the essence of a name. A name is not merely a label at all. However, unlike the Europeans who judge based on already existing principles which they have acquired, Kurtz taught Marlow to look inside of himself and to judge based on his own morals.
This is the lesson that Marlow had learned. Objective standards alone will not lead one to recognize the reality in something. One can not depend only on another's principles to find his reality in something. This judgment must be from one's own internal strengths. That is why Marlow says, "for good or evil, mine is the speech that can not be silenced" (Conrad 797). As Kurtz has taught Marlow with his own judgment, a judgment of truth overpowers morality. Sometimes individual morals are not always correct, but are just personal beliefs. To find one's own reality, that person must not rely on other people's morals and people's principles; he must evaluate his own life. What Kurtz did is that he showed that regardless of whether the truth is good or bad, each person must face up to their own reality. He must face up to his own actions even when the conclusion is "the horror" and by doing so, he will find his true reality.
On his voyage, Marlow notices at one of the stations, a picture that Kurtz had drawn when he was there. It is a sketch on a panel representing a woman draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. Marlow didn't really know what it meant. However, this was a perfect representation of Kurtz himself. Firstly, the background was black and totally dark. This was something similar to Kurtz because his life is full of darkness. He kills, he steals, and he is worshipped as a god. Kurtz cannot be without blackness and survive. Eventually Marlow realizes that Kurtz's picture was in essence, a self-portrait. The same thing which Kurtz conveyed with 'the horror', he conveyed with this picture.
Marlow learns the essence of naming and understands what it means to 'be yourself'. However, Marlow has encountered two extremes. The European mentality, which is completely opposite to reality, and Kurtz, a man who has found his reality, but it is one of horror and no restraint from any wrongdoing. Marlow was then returning to his home to deal with his former world, however, afterwards he possessed his new understanding. Marlow cannot return to his previous 'European ways' simply because he has been changed by all of the events leading up to and around the Congo with Kurtz and the whole trip.
Marlow is repelled from joining Kurtz for several reasons. Kurtz had denied any sort of moral convictions in order to be worshipped as a god. Because of this uncontrollable power, Kurtz lost all sense of restraint and became the savage that he was. Marlow, however, has not lost his sense of morality.
It is because of Marlow's rejection of both the Europeans, who Marlow claims are full of "stupid importance" and of Kurtz's inability to establish his own moral code. The first time the reader witnesses Marlow's choice is when he first gets back to Europe. Marlow finds himself resenting the way the Europeans went about their life, "hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other..." He basically thought that their lives were meaningless because of their blindness.
Despite this act of judgment, the reader doesn't know exactly where Marlow stands. However, Marlow does something that is the act of affirmation that he has chose the middle of the two extremes. While aboard the Nellie, Marlow tells his comrades that "I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie...simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies..." (Conrad 782) Towards the end of the novel, Marlow is invited by Kurtz's fiancée to come to her house to speak of her beloved Kurtz. Upon her asking Marlow what Kurtz last words were, Marlow responded "The last word he pronounced was---your name" He lies to her. He does something he utterly detests. This is the event that convinces the reader of Marlow's taking of a middle position. He does look inside himself and use his own personal ability to judge this event. He does what Kurtz had told him. Despite all of his lies, he judges this situation and decides that it was right to lie. However, he is different from Kurtz. Regardless of Marlow's decision, he will always incorporate some principles into his judgment. Marlow now creates his 'alternative reality' and achieves his truth.
When Marlow was exposed to the environment of the Congo, it had a tremendous effect upon him. The protagonist of Conrad's novel undergoes a drastic change in response to his environment, common only to that specific time period. Kurtz showed Marlow the flaws in the Europeans imperialistic ideals and changed his life forever.