Inherent Darkness

March 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Africa is described as the “dark continent” not merely because its inhabitants are dark of complexion, but because it is a place regarded as trapped in primordial darkness. In search of Mr. Kurtz, the character of Marlow says, “Going up that river was like traveling back from the earliest beginnings of the world… you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had once known” (Conrad 30). Here there reader is presented with the idea that the whites in Africa are separated from everything they view as “civilized.” Many of the whites in the novel believe that Africa’s darkness stems from the savagery of its native inhabitants. However, perhaps the conflict arising from the stereotype of the licentious, idolatrous, and duplicitous black does not explain the events of the novel half as well as that of the white man gone wild. In his novel, Conrad shows us that in colonial societies the superego of the individual has the dangerous potential to be ignored and perhaps even permanently suppressed in favor of the id.It has been argued that nations throughout history have justified imperial conquest by dismissing subjugated peoples as degenerate members of savage races. However, in Heart of Darkness, the character of Marlow observes that in the case of conquerors, “…strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others” (Conrad 4). Marlow recognizes that the world’s distribution of power did not arise as a result of Europeans or any other group of peoples’ moral right to rule over “lesser beings” in foreign lands. Yet, he also says that “those who tackle a darkness” can be redeemed by an “idea” (Conrad 4). This idea is that of the moral obligation of Europeans to act as emissaries of light bringing civilization to the savages. Therefore, although environmental conditions of the European continent that allowed for rapid technological advancement were all that separated the Caucacasian peoples from the rest of the world, by claiming that brutal conquest was motivated by divine purpose, they were able to maintain their moral high ground. In recognizing this truth, Marlow, unlike the other white men of the novel, is able to see the hypocrisy inherent in the mission to civilize.Marlow’s “company is run for profit,” as he is tempted to tell his aunt, and once he arrives in Africa he realizes that this fact creates a moral cesspool where the seven deadly sins are cultivated (Conrad 10). One character who exemplifies some of these is the “papier-mch Mephistopheles.” As one of pilgrims, he shows avarice in wanting to be appointed to an ivory trading post and sloth in doing nothing about his appointed task, brick making. Furthermore, envy and anger are displayed when he intrigues against the other pilgrims and pumps Marlow for information. Finally, his silver dressing case is an example of his pride. Marlow, who is devoted to efficiency, is disgusted by the pilgrims’ utter lack of initiative, and so he is fascinated by the stories of Mr. Kurtz, who is described as “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress” (Conrad 22). Perhaps there is at least one man who takes seriously the mission of “weaning those ignorant masses from their horrid ways” (Conrad 10).Nevertheless, Marlow begins to realize that although ostensibly on a moral mission, the white man does much to exacerbate the plight of the “poor savages.” Coming across a chain gang on his way to the first station, Marlow describes them as “black shadows of disease and starvation” (Conrad 14). It is significant that these men are criminals in the eyes of their colonial overlords. Their crimes have not been enumerated, and it is a “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil if a rapacious and pitiless folly” who has brought what used to be “strong, lusty, red-eyed devils” to such a state (Conrad 13). Later, on the steamboat it is revealed that the cannibals are being paid with nine-inch pieces of brass wire rather than anything readily convertible to food. This ridiculous state of affairs is at once amusing, grotesque, and inspiring. The cannibals, although haunted by “the gnawing devils of hunger” show remarkable self-restraint despite the fact that they are starving (Conrad 37). In contrast, their white companions care only about saving their own skins, and have no scruples about their native helpers dying in the line of duty. In this way the anti-imperialist spirit of the novel comes through, as the reader sees that rather than helping the blacks to become more civilized, the whites selfishly take advantage of Africa’s natural resources and exploit its people.As the novel progresses, Marlow comes to the further realization that although Mr. Kurtz was originally thought by him to be a redeemer, the very embodiment of civilization, is a sham. In the Congo, free from such social restraints as “scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums,” Kurtz was free to “take a high seat among the devils of the land (Conrad 44). Overtaken by his greed for ivory, Kurtz engages in unspeakable savage rituals, takes a native mistress, and impales the heads of his enemies on stakes. Therefore, Kurtz is in fact the man with a heart of darkness. He exemplifies the wild state that every man, no matter his culture, is capable of reverting to. This is the truth that Marlow has realized when he says that life in the Congo was characterized by “…fascination of the abomination- you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate” (Conrad 4). It is ironic however, that Kurtz, who supposedly realizes his folly on his death bed when he exclaims, “the horror, the horror” has actually set up a primitive form of empire around the inner station (Conrad 64). He rules the native through fear, and they respect and obey him. Is it not significant then to point out that perhaps Kurtz’s fall does not represent the potential to revert to savagery when isolated from civilization, but rather the savagery inherent in civilization itself?In society a sort of collective conscience exists in the form of codified laws. Yet, laws are often broken, and like the painting of Lady Justice at the manager’s station, they are often blind and indiscriminate. Overall, civilization, which Marlow initially believes to be good, is ultimately considered irrational and evil. Mr. Kurtz, who is its greatest product, exploits in the name of progress and subjugates through fear. He is no better than the cruel conquerors that originally took over the African continent, and the hardest thing to accept is, maybe his actions were not unnatural at all. Freud said that the id represents the biological forces acting upon an individual that motivates them to seek pleasure in a selfish way. If all the individuals in society have such a complex, then it is only natural that we take our pleasure at the expense of others. What Marlow realizes at the end of the novel however is that the illusion of civilization is what holds society, and ultimately the individuals of which is it comprised, together. This is why he tells Kurtz’s Intended that he died with her name on his lips; he realizes that the truth he has been seeking lies in the darkness, that fallibility is what defines human existence

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