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Explore How Conrad Presents the ‘State of Mankind’ in Heart of Darkness

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Perhaps Joseph Conrad’s central thematic interest in his most famous novella, Heart of Darkness, is that of the condition of humanity, elements of which he believed to be inherent to mankind and others that he believed to be unusually prevalent in his contemporary society. I believe that his most interesting technique is the use of allegories, that become representative of groups within his society and which take on a symbolic significance, portraying both the individuals that comprise the group and the mindset of those that were opposed to it.

The character of Marlow in this story is clearly integral to the entire work as it is through his voice that the story of the journey into the “heart of darkness” is heard. Although Marlow consistently believes himself to be in complete control whilst telling the story the reader is at times incredibly aware of his inability to express himself and his memories and thus both his weakness and the insufficiency of language is exposed. An example of this is found on page 59, where Marlow’s rhetoric becomes hesitant and stilted, “ “and I heard-him-it-this voice-other voices-all of them were so little more than voices-and the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage or simply mean, without any kind of sense. Voices, voices-even the girl herself-now—” He was silent for a long time.” In this section Marlow loses his sense of drive and direction and this is either as a result of the confusion he felt and continues to feel because of the “voices” or demonstrates both his own, and language’s, inability to express the sense of fear, confusion and panic that the disembodied voices inspired.

I feel that in fact this section is intended to convey that it is Marlow’s mind’s inability as well as that of language that inhibits an accurate recreation of both the event and the feeling attached to it. Therefore the suggestion is that the cognitive engine of humanity and our communication skills are both naturally flawed, and rather than improving our status as the dominant species, they instead inhibit our progression, rendering humanity sterile and stilted, like the language we use and the thoughts we think. This reading is given greater strength by an occasion on which Marlow directly references the difficulty he was facing in recounting his experience when he describe the effort as like “trying to tell you a dream–making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams.” Here Marlow himself explains to the crew of the ship that he is struggling to accurately describe his experience, he states that in fact this is not entirely a failure on his part, but is more simply a result of the failure of language, and humanity as a whole, to fully express emotions through the mediums of communication that we use.

An interesting aspect of Marlow’s character is his pragmatism and the way he uses this to distance himself from situations that he either finds awkward, painful or just impossible to confront. When one of Marlow’s comrades is killed on page 57 he finds himself unable to deal with the situation and sweeps it aside by ignoring and “tugging like mad at [his] shoelaces.” I feel that Marlow subconsciously recognizes how this ability to monitor and limit both his physical and emotional involvement allows him to survive “the horror” of the “impenetrable heart of darkness.” The possibility that Marlow’s reason for distancing himself, stems from a belief that his presence in the jungle is a futile one, is irresistible to me as it seems to reflect an opinion of his that is only made apparent through his choice of words through the novella. His frequent descriptions of the Congo as “impenetrable” demonstrate perfectly his lack of confidence in the ideals of European colonialism and his disbelief that they are either correctly informed or capable of bringing about a beneficial change in the Congo.

It is for this reason that Marlow refuses to fully immerse himself in the jungle around him and unlike Kurtz never ventures beyond the “veils” of “fog” and “mist” that are so frequent in his immediate surroundings. This can be viewed as either a condemning or redeeming action. True, his lack of involvement does render him ignorant to the true extent of the damage that the Europeans are causing, and unable to experience a revelation like that that Kurtz undergoes at the end of the story, but it also delivers him safely home and prevents him from undergoing the same destruction of disease and regression that claims Kurtz. Therefore Marlow’s refusal to delve any deeper into the events that surround him, saves him from destruction but also leaves him void of complete understanding and continually unable to fully recognize, internally or externally, what is so horrific about the nature of European involvement in Congo.

Another reason for Conrad’s usage of a specific narrative character speaking in retrospect, is to make it unclear whether the wider significance that the allegories take on, are the impression of Conrad, or the character Marlow. This provided an element of safety for Conrad and allowed him to make a comment on European expansion and on the natives of the countries that were affected by it. Marlow’s use of language and his reflections throughout his account of his journey through the Congo make his opinion of the European invasion of the nation entirely clear. For example Marlow often describes the actions of the white men towards the blacks in a less than favorable manner. He is repelled by the chains that are used to restrain them and provides a haunting description of the movement of such a group of enslaved natives on page 18; “A slight clinking nehind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets of earth on the heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps-each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. This description is one that encourages pity towards the natives on the reader’s part, as it neatly demonstrates their passivity and acceptance.

This is contrasted starkly, therefore, to the whites who are responsible for this injustice and thus the reader finds themselves opposed to the colonialists and favoring the natives who are being suppressed. Another particularly powerful, although more subtle comment on his beliefs about European idealism is on page 46, where a book, that I take to be representative of the white man’s obsession with intellect and their ideals, is described. The book “had lost all its covers, and the pages had been thumbed into a state of extremely dirty softness”, suggesting that the principles and beliefs that are the integral reason for colonial expansion, are ragged and expiring.

The second half of the description of the book shows that a man has tried to restore it, “the back had been lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread, which looked clean yet.” The attempt at restoration is clearly insufficient as Marlow first recognizes the decrepit and exhausted nature of the book and therefore he implies that the Europeans are clinging to their ideals out of sense of obligation rather than the rational thought, which they praise so highly. The use of the word “yet” at the end of the sentence is interesting, as it makes it clear that Marlow believes that the attempt to rectify the worn out ideals of Europe is futile and bound to be unsuccessful. Later the book is described as being one that has “a singleness of intention” and thus Marlow also suggests through this metaphor that the ideals are not only misinformed but are also stubborn and ignorant of any alternative viewpoint.

It is these ideals and opinions, of which Marlow is so skeptical, that were central to Kurtz’s motivation for entering the Congo. Kurtz enters the country a normal European man, and becomes obsessed with both ivory, like all the others, and with the jungle, and it is the combination of these interests that contribute to his tragic fall. When Kurtz arrives he is modest but assured by his ideals and felt compelled to improve the lives of the natives at the same time as returning valuable resources to the white men down river. Kurtz believed that “each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving and instructing.” And this clearly demonstrates the arrogance of the Europeans, who have blinded themselves of their greedy materialistic interests, with the pretence of making an attempt to humanize, improve and instruct the black men of the Congo, albeit through enslaving them. The white men’s ideals are therefore fatally flawed as they are totally self-absorbed and fail to register the damaging effect this has, not only on the natives, but also on the men they station there.

Kurtz, like Marlow, is allegorical and comes to represent both a side of Conrad and the nature of many European colonialists. The key differences between Marlow and Kurtz are the latter’s greater sense of ambition and drive, and his desire to become fully immersed in the voices by which the former is repelled. It is this acceptance, on Kurtz’s part, that allows him to get on the other side of the “haze and mist” and see without obstruction the flaws in the ideals that he held, and which most of Europe continues to possess. However, although Kurtz does experience an epiphany of sorts, it must be realized that this only occurs when he is on the verge of death. This is interesting as it could so easily suggest many things, and I have no doubt that the intention is that the reader feels that Kurtz’s decline into madness, is a direct result of the clash between his former ideals and the resonance that the disembodied voice of the jungle has with him. Kurtz is left with a multi-faceted dilemma, in which he is forced to side with either his natural sense of attraction to the “wild vitality” of the jungle, or with the ideals, inspired by his upbringing and his “intended”, with which he enters the central station.

The pain and impossibility of this choice ultimately drives Kurtz to insanity, as he regresses to savagery but clings to the materialism of Europe, through his attainment of “ivory”. He is unable to make the decision and thus is left in a middle ground, which provides him with a clarifying revolution at the moment of his death. However it is only partially expressed to Marlow, due to the insufficiency of language and Kurtz’s lack of time in which to express his newfound understanding. Therefore the revelation that is unveiled to Kurtz as a result of his actions dies with him, and thus is useless, as it is unable to rectify the awful situation in Congo and Africa as a whole. Kurtz is used to reflect upon whether a single man can ever truly change a larger group and also demonstrates the shifts in mindset, that are so characteristic of humanity. He is unable to make different thoughts and motivations find a united sense of direction, and is ultimately driven mad by his inability to consolidate his own thoughts. It is this helplessness which prevents Kurtz from being able to save the natives, and in doing so the whites, from the corrupted and torn “heart of darkness.”

In conclusion, Heart of Darkness, presents a world in which man’s thoughts and desires are integral to the environment he inhabits, and where differences between races are impossible to reconcile as the greed of imperialism, renders the men blind to the damage they are causing in the world around them. It is the shortsightedness, perhaps even the pure ignorance of the Europeans to which Marlow, and possibly Conrad, are so opposed. Marlow sees the corrupt nature of all men within the Congo and although he is unable to rectify the situation he saves himself through his pragmatism, thus demonstrating the fact that self-preservation and promotion is central to all human motivation and conscience in the jungle. Be it in the mind of the whites, the blacks, Kurtz or Marlow, almost all the individuals in the novella have an acute awareness of the ills around them and how they could rectify them, but instead the individuals look only inward, and pour effort into endeavors of self-preservation and/or promotion.

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