Light and Dark Discrepancies in the Plot of the Heart of Darkness
“Heart of Darkness” is complex tale constructed through dichotomies of light versus darkness, a core of faith and belief versus hollowness, civilisation versus wilderness. Conrad, whilst purposefully introduces these contrasting binaries, he ultimately dismantles them, eliciting parallels between the civilised and primordial, bringing the duplicities of the colonial rhetoric to the foreground.
The Biblical allusion of a ‘whited sepulchre’ in Passage one acts as an allegory for the colonial enterprise. On the exterior, civilisation delivers the appearance of ‘real work [being] done’; the decadent, extravagant nature of the ‘frock-coat’ is symbolic of the rhetoric of imperialism and colonialism: offering lofty, splendid ideas of being “a beacon on the road towards better things” and a ‘forerunner of change’. However, within the interior of the ‘sepulchre’, behind the duplicities of the colonial rhetoric, lies a ‘dead silence’. The juxtaposition between exterior and interior evokes a sense of hollowness within the colonial enterprise; the deceitful outward show of running an ‘over-sea empire’ is rendered palpable as Marlow reveals the motive behind the enlightening, civilising mission as ‘mak[ing]…coin’; colonial discourse, as an apparatus of power, disavows its own motivations. Indeed, the light of the ‘whited sepulchre’ is filled with ‘narrow and deserted street in deep shadow. By incorporating darkness with light, Conrad hints at the deficiencies of the colonial rhetoric, subtly exposing the entrenched greed and baser instincts that lie beneath its façade.
The most salient irony in “Heart of Darkness” revolves around the figure of Kurtz. Kurtz, “a man all of Europe contributed to the making of”, acts as the embodiment of colonial rhetoric with promises of ‘eloquence’, intelligence and charm. However, the metamorphosis of Kurtz only reveals a critical and inescapable relationship between imperial decadence and savagery. His ‘pulsating stream of light’ is accompanied by ‘an impenetrable darkness’; this dichotomy of light and darkness is once again incorporated within one-another, ironically hinting at an interconnectivity between the civilised and the primordial. Thus, Conrad exemplifies the barbarism of colonialism, portraying the Belgian exploitation of the Congolese as man’s inhumanity to other men, rather than to ‘criminals’ or ‘savages’.
Outside of his ‘discourse’, Kurtz is revealed to be little more than a ‘voice’ offering ideas on enlightenment and progress. Nonetheless, Kurtz’s ‘ability to talk’ holds an inescapable and enticing pull on Marlow, symbolic of the pull colonial rhetoric has on the rest of Europe. This sense of blind faith, the willingness to listen and follow without question, is encapsulated by the description of the woman in the Company’s office as a ‘somnambulist’ as she sits outside, essentially guarding the door into the colonial rhetoric. Similarly, for Marlow, despite being confronted with images of wanton destruction and suffrage as a direct result of the colonial process(‘slaves who were left to die on their own’), he remains still mesmerised by the promises of a ‘talk with Kurtz’, albeit once placed outside the confines of civilisation, the realm of European cognition, Kurtz, and by extension the colonial rhetoric, loses all power, affirmed by the repetition of low in “he is very low, very low”.
Further, Marlow’s euro-centred view, made palpable by his cavalier indifference to Kurtz “[stealing]…ivory’, once more illuminates the duplicities of the colonial rhetoric. The repetition of ‘the point’ in ‘That was not the point, the point was…’ encapsulates the false sense of warrant and entitlement within the colonial enterprise as Marlow, just like the ‘whited sepulchre’, attempts to offer an inspiring justification for the workings of colonial enterprise. To Marlow, the reclamation of the Western moral (‘the point was in his being a gifted creature’) pointedly outweighs the consequences of ‘unsound method[s]’ and the ‘deceitful flow’ of the colonial enterprise. Thereby, the frame narrative helps to introduce a critical distance between reader and narrator, subtly undermining Marlow’s sentiments; despite his ability to recognise the ‘victorious corruption’, the lilting cadence and magnanimity of Marlow’s tone in describing Kurtz as a “remarkable man” reveals his own blindness to the hypocrisies of colonial rhetoric.
The novella, as a whole, subverts the colonial enterprise’s claim as an agent of civility and progress. The underlining voice of irony in the repetition of ‘jolly’ in ‘jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly larger-beer” manifests a sense of inefficacy within the colonial agents. The air of indulgence surrounding the description directly juxtaposes with the ostensible appearance of ‘progress’. The swollen, elongated vowels in ‘jolly’, ‘larger’ and ‘beer’ act to slow down movement within the lines, halting ‘progress’ to a standstill, conjuring a sense of lethargy. The failure on the manager’s part to be ‘consistently sorrowful’ regarding Kurtz’s mental deterioration once more reveals a façade of false civility, calling the motives of the colonial enterprise into question. By constructing such a character, Conrad purposefully shows the inherent darkness of our human inclinations, stripped of pretence, in the wilderness where those savage tendencies is provided a fertile ground, the greed for ‘lying fame and sham distinctions’ takes the place of moral and concern within colonial agents.
The subtle, underlining suggestion of an interconnectivity between the civilised, European imperialists and the primitive, Congolese natives exposes the reforming, enlightening, civilising mission as a veneer over systematic exploitation of Others, of man’s inhumanity to other men, and as a facade over an institution based on baser instincts and entrenched greed. Hence, by exposing the hollow core that lies behind the colonial conquest’s motivation for conquest and ‘progress’, Conrad ultimately illuminates the duplicities of the colonial rhetoric, rendering it’s ironic hypocrisies to be a ‘forerunner of change’ palpable.
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