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Books

The Wilderness In Heart Of Darkness By Joseph Conrad

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

While the main storyline of Heart of Darkness focuses on Marlow’s adventure to central Africa in pursuit of Kurtz, the jungle played an essential role as one of the major themes in the novel. Not only does it serve as the geological setting, but Conrad also uses the wilderness as a symbol to convey various underlying thesis. Similar to other novels that share the same element of man versus nature, the wilderness if Heart of Darkness has an abstract connotation. Due to the broad definition of nature, many symbols in the novel can be included in this category; the fog, the river, or even the African natives are all examples of the elements of nature. However, through the characters’ interactions with nature in numerous scenarios, there are three qualities of the wilderness that can be reasonably inferred by the readers: danger and uncertainty, savagery and barbarism, plainness and naïvety. During Marlow’s adventure in the African wilderness, threats were practically everywhere. As the employees of a Belgian company, Marlow and other steamers entered Congo with high expectations and ego. Clearly, Marlow and his crew possessed a certain degree of knowledge of the harsh conditions in Africa; whether it is realizing the only way to succeed in this primitive continent was to “…stand the climate, you last them all” or acknowledging that they were “on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet”, the steamers were confident in their judgment. However, Marlow and his crew did not recognize the impending danger and were still excited to explore this colossal, prehistoric wilderness. Their morals were soon destroyed as one of their crew members got pierced by a spear when the cannibals attacked their steamer. As they are entering the fog, Marlow expressed his insecurity: “The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned… Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind”. Marlow was right, as the fog swallowed them whole, the crew entered an outlandish world. Here, there is no law; there is no protection; there is no god. Conrad used the fog as a tool to create an eerie atmosphere. Due to the effect of the fog, Marlow was uncertain of what lies ahead of him, symbolizing the European’s unfamiliarity towards the magnificent African wilderness. Interestingly, Marlow at referred to the cannibal’s arrows as “they might have been poisoned, but they looked as though they wouldn’t kill a cat”. That is the scariest element of nature; threat often approaches one during the most unexpected occasion. While the fog served as a perfect mixer of threat and uncertainty, the Congo river acted as a steady resistance for Marlow and his crew. Despite being fully aware of the fact that the river will slow down their progress tremendously on their journey to the inner station, Marlow and his crew cannot find an adequate solution for this problem. “The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress…”. By creating this vivid imagery, Conrad has shown that it is inevitable for Marlow and his crew to be flushed out of Africa as they are not a great fit for this primitive environment. Evidently, the Congo river can be seen as a barrier for the intruders of this land, as its steady and turbulent current made it incredibly difficult for Marlow and other explorers to reach the central parts of this continent. In fact, Marlow recalls a memory from his childhood when he compared the Congo river to a snake: “But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land”. By alluding to the snake – one of the oldest symbols for danger and deception – Conrad foreshadowed the series of events that would happen to Marlow and his crew even before they were physically present in Africa. When Marlow and the manager disagreed on whether to push on the journey or not, it is once proven again that Marlow’s journey upriver was a challenging and tedious task. Other than the ecological threats that were directed towards the poor Europeans, the savagery and barbarism displaced by the native Congo residents were also quite remarkable. In some ways, the cannibals in this novel are no different from other animals in the jungle as they all belong to the primordial natural environment. By portraying Congo as an “Outpost of progress”, Conrad effectively presents his view that like every other organism in this eco-system, the savages acts on their fundamental instinct of surviving. Due to the longtime isolation leading to minimal exposure to scientific and philosophical advancements, the native residents Congo do not have much demand besides food, water, and shelter. Just like the brickmaker said to Marlow: “That animal has a charmed life… but you can say this only of brutes in this country. No man — you apprehend me? — no man here bears a charmed life”. Evidently, the savages lack aspiration towards elements that provide mental satisfaction such as love and self-actualization, making them practically indifferent from other animals in the wilderness. Comparing to the European’s steamer and rifles, the savage’s campfire and arrows may seem pathetically insignificant. However, these savages have the jungle as their barrier from intruders, and nature itself is a much more powerful existence. Mr.Kurtz is a vivid example of how humanity and moral restraint can diminish at an expeditious rate when one is exposed to the wilderness without connection to the human civilization. Despite conquering the savages at first and being the powerful, influential figure that he was, Kurtz would soon become a savage himself. When Marlow went to search for Kurtz who was missing, he discovers that “He (Kurtz) can’t walk — he is crawling on all-fours — I’ve got him”. By drawing the parallel between Kurtz and an animal that move on all of its legs, Conrad suggests that Kurtz is indifferent from a beast. As once the most powerful character in the novel, Kurtz has enslaved and conquered many native tribes. However, his strength seems miserably microscopic comparing to the might of the jungle; “But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion”. Frankly, the wilderness does not care about one’s accomplishments or social status, even though Kurtz may be one of the most influential characters for the company, the wilderness decimated with the snap of a finger. Presumably, the destruction of Kurtz symbolizes the downfall of humanity, which is proven quite fragile in the African jungle. Although the African wilderness symbolized great danger, it can also be viewed as plainness or even naivety. When Kurtz conquered the native tribes with violence and brutality, the cannibals soon accepted their fate of being enslaved and demonstrated a high level of obedience towards Kurtz. In the graphical climax of the novel where Marlow discovers that Kurtz has attached the skulls of the savages to sticks in an attempt to establish his authority, the cannibals did not rebel against Kurtz. Evidently, the cannibals demonstrated strong hatred towards Kurtz’s ferocious actions, “Her (a savage) face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir…”. Despite the animosity, the cannibals had no intention to seek vengeance, as they follow and respect the law of the jungle. Although anarchic and unpredictable, the jungle and its residents have their own rulebook: “Traditional ways of seeing nature recognize that there are times of dearth and that small creatures serve as food for large ones”. By comparing Kurtz with the predator and cannibals with the prey, Conrad effectively conveyed the message that the savages abide by the law of the jungle. Some may even argue that the wilderness itself possesses a much more candid and unbiased set of laws comparing to human society, as it treats every organism with fairness and has been followed since the beginning of time. Unlike the European explorers who seek power and fortune, the native African residents are much more naïve and simple-minded. When the young savage killed the European captain – Fresleven – in the scuffle about the hens, the tribe evacuated the village and never returned due to their belief that the Europeans are a superior being comparing to them. As a symbol for the jungle itself, the savages demonstrated stronger fear and fewer signs of aggression comparing to their European counterparts. When entering the mysterious fog on the river, Marlow’s crew chose to fire blindly into the trees nearby, attempting to scare away whatever threats there are before them declare their dominance. As the result, the civilized Europeans often become much more atrocious individuals when entering an uncivilized environment, “But the theme of what the jungle and its primitive forces do to a man is analogous in the interaction of the civilized and the primitive… the civilized becoming more savage, more barbaric than the primitive world of river, jungle, and native”. Evidently, Kurtz is a prime example of a civilized individual exposed to the wilderness; as a result, he became more violent, unrestraint, and have conflicting opinions regarding his moral values. Like the book itself, the jungle and wilderness in Heart of Darkness have much to offer. Conrad successfully demonstrated his perspective on Africa during the era of imperialism by giving examples of how the wilderness interacted with the characters. Much like many other figures in this novel, the jungle itself possess multiple conflicting qualities. From bowing down to furtively conquering Kurtz, from unseen threats and violence to the plainness of rules and naïvety, the wilderness has a broad definition. By exploring this fantastic wilderness, both the readers and the characters in the novel found a sense of bewilderment and a stockpile of enigmatic, unattainable exuberance.

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