No Darkness, Please…We’re British: The Inner Darkness of the Soul in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

It has been said that in writing his novella Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad set out to create a difficult work; exceedingly difficult, in fact, to his contemporary Victorian audience, for whom a thin veneer of “surface-truths” constituted the fine line between civilization and primal darkness. In a swift, brilliant work of little more than 70 pages, Conrad unveils the inner darkness of the human soul, negating the notions of man as a civilizing agent that had fostered the feverish imperialism of the time. Conrad’s vague diction, images of the light of “civilized” culture and the darkness that hides behind it, and the use of a frame narrator all serve to show the difficulty of discovering the true nature of the soul. All of these devices suggest an entity that cannot be fully grasped initially; an entity that is always present, but incomprehensible in nature and magnitude. This entity is indeed the inner darkness of man. At its surface, Conrad delves into the African wilderness, but at the core (and thus, at the heart of the novel) he is delving deep into his own soul. Throughout the novel, Conrad suggests the existence of an entity that refuses to be discovered. In describing it, he uses grouped-together words that suggest a sort of “thwarted knowledge”. These are words steeped in the prefixes “un-” and “in-” and include words as “mystery” and “secret”. The language itself is used in conjunction with descriptions of darkness. Darkness, after all, is the absence of light, and without light, objects are obscured. For example, in describing the African wilderness, Marlow says, “it was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” The men are delving into territory they are unable to grasp completely; it can only be described in vague language. It is interesting to note that behind such negative language, there is always a positive connotation. You can’t spell “ingraspable” without “graspable”. Thus, the very fact that Conrad notes that there is an “implacable force” at work in the wild inherently implies the existence of such a force. In describing Kurtz, who seems to be the character most in touch with his inner darkness, he notes “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.” Marlow is not, however, able to articulate the exact nature of the forces at play. The force is “ubiquitous”, in the hearts of all humanity, and yet Marlow struggles to define it himself. The force is at play within his own soul, yet he cannot grasp its nature and magnitude. The journey of self-discovery thus becomes a difficult undertaking. Conrad continues in this vein, utilizing the contrast between light and darkness. In the speech of the frame narrator, European civilization is equated with “light”. Everything else segues into darkness. The African natives are figuratively and literally in the dark. Civilization implies the need to “enlighten”; after all, they are seen as “dark shapes” who resort to savagery in attempting to harvest a very popular item, ivory. Ivory is a driving force behind the novel. White itself, it drives the economic imperialism of the novel, yet comes out of a “dark” region. There is an irony here that Conrad continues to play upon. Dark is seen as uncivilized, while white symbolizes the civilized European world. However, white is also a veneer that obscures the darkness. Conrad creates a brilliant summary of this phenomenon by using a painting by Kurtz that depicts a blindfolded woman holding out a torch into the darkness. The work conjures up such phrases as “the blind leading the blind.” The darkness surrounds the woman in the painting, and in her blindness, the darkness is within herself. The lantern is helpless in the face of such immense obscurity. In an ingenious two-tiered metaphor, Conrad criticizes the urge to tame the darkness; this is manifest both in the imperialism of the time and the austerity with which Victorian society held onto notions of civilization. By having a blind woman in a setting of complete darkness, Conrad suggests that in setting out to civilize those “dark” lands, the Europeans themselves succumb to the dark nature of humanity. The light itself is blinding. Perhaps Conrad is suggesting that Marlow is unable to discover his true self because he is blinded by the light of white civilization. It is interesting to note that at the beginning of the novel, Conrad describes London as enveloped in a “haze” beyond which resides the “dark above”. The darkness is infinite; the light is thin. In fact, the sky itself is seen almost always as dark. Beyond Earth itself is the infinite darkness, and Conrad even concludes the novel by remarking on this. The “overcast sky” seems to “lead one into the heart of an immense darkness.” Conrad suggests that in order to find one’s own inner darkness, one must look beyond the superficial light, into the immense darkness that surrounds everything. However, light itself is seen as blinding. In the same way that darkness obscures the light, light obscures the darkness. Conrad’s use of the frame narrator throughout much of the novel serves to illustrate the difficulty in looking past the blinding light of European civilization. It is at once evident that the frame narrator is comfortable with the status quo and is assimilated into the imperialistic mindset of the times. Conrad is extremely deft at juxtaposing the imperialistic (and clearly European) narrator with words of the introspective Marlow. In the introduction itself, the narrator waxes poetic on the “greatness” of the Thames: a river tamed and put to use for the sufficiency of man. The narrator is firm in his belief that nature itself exists for the use of humanity; it is meant to be tamed and conquered. This is in direct contrast to the culture of self-discovery Marlow explores. In fact, this only serves to emphasize the profundity of Marlow’s first words. While the English have become imperialists themselves, civilizing agents who feel compelled to tame and squelch the wilderness of the world and within themselves, Marlow notes that England too “has been one of the dark places of the Earth.” While the narrator begins as an imperialist, he emerges towards the end of the novel acknowledging “the immense darkness”. Yet, darkness is still darkness: the narrator has not been enlightened in the ways of the human condition; namely, the darkness which dominates the soul. Whereas Marlow is seen in an enlightened state, almost as a Buddha figure deep in meditation, the narrator still has not grasped that this darkness which surrounds him is in fact the path to enlightenment. Conrad skillfully uses this to suggest the difficulty in looking past the haze of civilization. Even after having witnessed the darkness, the narrator remains in the gloom. Conrad wrote his novel in the context of a society which desperately tried to suppress any signs of an inner primal nature. Strict codes of etiquette and conduct emerged that served to further remove man from his true nature. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness delves into the primal desires that reside within all of us. Marlow’s journey to self-discovery is an arduous one, made even more difficult by European society’s insistence that they were in the light, the right, and the white. However, beneath the façade of “civilization” lies the thread of darkness, hostility, brutality, and the struggle for dominance.

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