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Nihilism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

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Conrad’s Heart of Darkness explores the shadowy world of exploitation, imperialism, violence and moral bankruptcy. The shady characters and the enigmatic situations put the narrator to a severe test. The outlook of Kurtz, his use of violence and its justification by his admirers only highlight a nihilistic world which ends in death and despair. The dense and dark jungle is indeed a fitting milieu for the African natives and the cannibal crews of Marlow who is divided in his awe and disgust with this morbid world. Though Marlow finally emerges unhurt, no one is a clear winner. The final impression is that a world without sound moral values and law and order cannot benefit any one – not even the tyrant who oppresses the hapless tribe. The artistic purpose of creating such a world is to show the futility of Nihilism and imply its repudiation.

 In Heart of Darkness Marlow, being fascinated by the ideal, explores the dark world of what Conrad called ‘foggy’ ideas. The characters and the theme are essentially nihilistic. The moral and legal systems of the normal world are replaced by a new set of characters with their own value system.  Kurtz, the glorified Machiavelli, is seen through the eyes of Marlow and other followers. Then we have the Russian admirer whose mind is supposed to have been enlarged by Kurtz’s so-called magnificent ideas. Walter Allen aptly points out that the heart of darkness of the title is at once the heart of Africa, the heart of evil everything that is nihilistic, corrupt and malign perhaps the heart of man. The introspective sailor, Marlow who resembles his creator in experience and attitude to life, moves into this world of physical and mental darkness.

His search for the so-called idealistic character Kurtz finally ends in smoke, with his last abysmal utterance of ‘The horror! The horror!’(94) He tries in vain to suppress this truth so bitter and cynical by telling a white lie to his fiancée. From beginning to the end the novel is steeped in negation of all values cherished by the civilized world. The dark deeds of the protagonist takes it closer  to existential nihilism which rules out all positive values of life and makes life a meaningless affair. The wanton cruelty, and exploitation and plundering of nature’s fauna make the jungle devoid of morality and sensitivity. In such a world, a powerful but unprincipled man can become a demi-god, worshipped by the ignorant tribe of Congo. The sickness, death and horror of the protagonist only underscore the nihilism of this short novel.

Etymologically, the word ‘nihilism’ is derived from the Latin word  nihil which means ‘nothing’. From this we have the current philosophy which stands for rejection of all religious and moral principles and has the extended meaning that nothing has a real existence. We notice similar attitude to life in Kurtz and his Russian manager. Nihilism has many aspects: the philosophical concept of negation, rejection and denial of thoughts of human life, and its moral ramifications  the rejection of justifying or criticizing moral judgment as morality is regarded as a cloak for egoistic self-seeking and therefore a sham. For the purpose of analyzing this short novel, Heart of Darkness, we are concerned with philosophical, ethical and existential nihilism.  As a philosophical position, it is often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who defined it as an alternately lamentable and potentially fruitful condition as it rejects the real world around us and physical existence along with it and results in apathy toward life and a poisoning of the human soul.

A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence has no meaning; therefore all sorts of abnormal behavior may be indulged in and people may be influenced to accept them as normal. The protagonist of Heart of Darkness is a nihilist. He has a very negative view of life as he argues that the world, past and current human existence, is without objective meaning and purpose. His final instruction in the confidential document – ‘Kill the brutes!’ is a burning example of his unscrupulous and hypocritical life. According to the Nihilists, there is no reasonable proof of the existence of a higher ruler or creator, a ‘true morality’ is a questionable proposition; therefore, one course of action in life cannot claim to have more truth or value. Though the Russian talks about his mind being enlarged and enlightened, we see no evidence in the story.

 Kurtz resembles Bazarov, the nihilist protagonist of  Turgenev’s Father and Sons,  who acts for what is beneficial for the present and rejects everything that stand in the way of his interests. Conrad has portrayed a bleak world surrounded by conspiracy and violence; and the ignorance of the African natives is exploited  by the imperialist force. Their poverty and squalor all the more highlight the contrast with the white settlement which looks like islands. Albert Camus argued that if our age easily allows that murder can have its justifications, it is because of that indifference to life that is the mark of nihilism. Like Kurtz he created a sinister character in The Plague, Cottard, a man with secret criminal past who is delighted to find people living under the threat and punishment at the breaking out of the epidemic. In spite of his ill-gotten wealth, he goes berserk when the epidemic ceases and opens fire on people indiscriminately and is ultimately arrested.

Marlow’s journey into the hostile world of Kurtz vindicates the hollowness of his dream. The dense fog is succeeded by violent attack on his steamer by the hidden natives.  Jean Paul Sartre highlights the absurdity of existence; nevertheless, he urges us to invent meanings for our lives through acts of freedom. The Russian attempts to idealize Kurtz though this turns out to be a make-believe idealism. Like the existential nihilist, Marlow makes desperate and futile search for a comprehensive meaning for the absurdity of human situation. He not only finds the superman sick, he also makes further discovery that the attack on his ship was launched at the behest of  Kurtz to stop his exploration of his murky world.  His adversaries are beheaded to adorn the fence. In the unrelieved gloom of  Heart of Darkness we do not have any character like  Dr.Rieux struggling in the face of natural and human calamities in The Plague.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s later works are associated with nihilism as he writes about human existence without meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. He denounces nihilism when it encourages men to resort to false belief and give up any hope of meaning in the world and invent some imaginary significance. The falsehood and illusion are created in Heart of Darkness by the Russian and other followers of Kurtz. Conrad cannot be criticized for making Kurtz the focus of all actions and conversations. The enigmatic jungle is full of myths. But the stark realism which is integral part of nihilism shows the gradual deterioration of Kurtz’s health as well as his power. The story begins with a halo around him but the progress of the story slowly uncovers the villainy that is masked as heroism. His ivory-poaching business which was  run with ruthless violence is exposed. His involvement in the attack on the ship is revealed to Marlow with shocking effect. Then the powerful hero is reduced to crawling on all fours after being deserted by his Russian fan. His growing illness and ultimate rescue by Marlow show his alienation. His parting scrawled message  is an anti-climax that proves his life  no better than   a bundle of contradictions.

In Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s quest for the idealist leads him to a new world of corruption, inefficiency and exploitation as he joins the Belgian company as a riverboat captain. According to Ernest Baker an indefinable moral shock is experienced, an unnerving “abstract terror, unconnected with any distinct shape of physical danger,” which stuns and subdues the ardent young fellow…where  Mr.Kurtz has his lair and where he exerts some monstrous influences over the natives. The heart of darkness is not the heart of Central Africa but the darkness into which Kurtz has descended.  The mystery of this impenetrable darkness is not revealed by Conrad: we encounter the protagonist, a white man living among tribe, only in flashes and through the impressions of other characters. Marlow admits,   ‘to this day I am unable to say what was Kurtz’s profession, whether he ever had any which was the greatest of his talents. He was a universal genius on that point I agreed with the old man.’ (89) Kurtz is surrounded by a halo that makes him a paragon of virtue and achievement to the native, but   Douglas Brown comments that Kurtz is both the instrument and the consequence of power at the service of greed. He personifies the exploiter’s disapproval of moral obligation toward the African community, whether in trade, law or financial probity.

            It is really a novel of anti-climax in which Marlow’s illusion of the ideal is gradually shattered by harsh realities. His first disenchantment begins with the discovery of widespread corruption, inefficiency and exploitation of natives by the Belgian company in the backdrop of the majestic jungle setting. His second disillusionment comes when his steamer is sunk in a violent attack by the agents of dark forces. But it is a shocking discovery for him when the Russian divulges the truth on vow of secrecy that the brutal act was engineered by the secret order of Kurtz, the idol worshipped by the natives. His third shock  comes with the discovery of  Kurtz as an ivory-poacher who goes on rampage for the booty in the surrounding jungle and does not mind adorning the fence posts with severed heads  a brutal action justified by the Russian who regards him beyond morality: ‘You can’t judge Mr.Kurtz as you would an ordinary man.

No, no, no!’ (72) The final blow, however, comes at the time of Kurtz’s death when he hands over a packet of personal confidential document and his pamphlet which argued that the whites from the point of development must necessarily appear to the savages in the nature of supernatural beings  ‘ we approach them with the might as of a deity’  and the final moving appeal:  “Exterminate all brutes!” (p.66) This dark message is as much shocking to Marlow as his  controversial prevarication before Kurtz’s fiancée is to us. When asked what the dying man’s last words were, a confused Marlow fails to speak up the truth ‘The horror! The horror! and concocts a lie that her name was last uttered by Kurtz. It is an irony of fate that the man who has lived by the sword dies in pitiable condition after suffering from illness.

Marlow’s attitude to Kurtz is ambivalent: while he is mesmerized by the indomitable character in the short run, he wakes up later to make a fair assessment of his strength and weaknesses. The bleak ending is described by Marlow, ‘It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle… But I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell her. it would have been too dark – too dark altogether….’(94) Like the ending of The Lagoon where the lonely protagonist stands searching in the scorching  sunshine with no future to look forward to, Conrad makes a bleak and nihilistic ending in Heart of Darkness: ‘The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under and overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.’ (95)

            The setting in Heart of Darkness is quite appropriate for its nihilistic portrayal of a life without values or any significance. As Marlow ventures into the dense and dark jungle of Congo he says, ‘I began to feel slightly uneasy. You know I am not used to such ceremonies, and there was something ominous in the atmosphere. It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy — I don’t know — something not quite right; and I was glad to get out.’ (25)

Marlow’s journey into the heart of a dense jungle with oppressive silence is aided only by the native ‘pilgrims’ and a crew of cannibals is indeed a futile attempt to bridge the normal with the abnormal. He describes: ‘We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the break of the day.’ (51) Such a perilous journey is made easier once by the offering of the firewood by the unknown Russian. In spite of his villainous schemes, Kurtz is glorified by the Russian as an extraordinary man beyond the morals of the ordinary mortals. ‘ He electrified large meetings. He had faith don’t you see?  He had faith. He could get himself to believe anything — anything. He could have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.’ (89)  His further defense of Kurtz’s uncanny abilities is expressed, ‘Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in darkness. He had summed it up he had judged. “The horror!” (87)

In another place he describes his sudden realization that Kurtz’s ivory face expressed somber pride, ruthless power, craven terror of an intense and hopeless despair.(86) That he suffers from physical pain as well as mental anguish is clear from his speech, ‘Close the shutter,’ said Kurtz suddenly one day;  ‘I can’t bear to look at this.’ I did so. There was a silence. ‘Oh, but I will wring your heart yet!’ he cried at the invisible darkness.’ (85) In the wild forest that ‘looked like a God-forsaken wilderness’ only wild justice can be expected. Marlow has much reservation about Kurtz’s reputation and his violent method, though his tribe adores him. The violent and illegal methods of Kurtz were glossed over by people who knew him as is evident from Marlow’s statement: ‘I did not betray Mr. Kurtz it was ordered I should never betray him it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.

I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone and to this day I don’t know why I was so jealous of sharing with any one the peculiar blackness of that experience.(81) And he goes on to describe the climax of his encounter with the lord of the jungle:‘He wanted no more than justice no more than justice and while I waited he seemed to stare at me  out of the glassy panel stare with that wide and immense stare embracing, condemning, loathing all the universe. I seemed to hear the whispered cry, “The horror! The horror!’ (91) Readers are left to their imagination as to why so powerful man like Kurtz has to experience the nightmare of horror. It is possible that it his subconscious mind or his conscience that strikes him back. The world of Kurtz is world devoid of faith. Without the bonds of faith and love life seems to fall apart and degenerate into anarchy. In spite of his psychological probe into the dark recesses of human soul, Conrad has failed to create a character with positive values with whom the readers can identify and enjoy the narrative.

            Though Russian writers, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky  introduced nihilism in literature under the influence of ideologist Pisarev, Conrad shows effectively in this short novel that merely revolting against the prevailing system and destroying them are not enough to achieve higher ideal. Such nihilism only paves the way for  the emergence of immoral and unscrupulous characters like the Kurtz and the Russian.  Conrad’s  world of exploitation, imperialism, violence and moral bankruptcy is shrouded in mystery. It may be seen as an encounter between the civilized world and the agents of evil who rule the wild nature and plunder its resources.

The shady characters and the enigmatic situations put the narrator to a severe test. The outlook of Kurtz, his use of violence and its justification by his admirers only highlight a nihilist world which can offer little beyond death and despair. The dense and dark jungle is indeed a fitting milieu for the African natives and the cannibal crews of Marlow who is divided in his awe and disgust with this morbid world. Though Marlow finally emerges unhurt, no one is a winner. The final impression is that a world without sound moral values and law and order cannot benefit any one – neither the tyrant nor the oppressed tribe. The suffering and the deplorable death of Kurtz show the futility of nihilism and imply its rejection.

Works Cited

Allen, Walter. The English Novel. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1984.

Baker, Ernest A. The History of the English Novel. Vol.x. N.York: Barnes & Noble. 1963

 Brown, Douglas. “From  Heart of Darkness to Nostromo: An approach to Conrad”.  The Pelican

     Guide to English Literature. Vol.7. Ed.Boris Ford. Harmondsworth: Penguin.1963.119-137

Conrad, Joseph. “The Lagoon”  The Modern Prose. Ed. Michael Thorpe. N.York: O.U.P. 1968

Murfin, Ross C. Heart of Darkness. Boston:  Bedford/St.Martin’s.1996

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