Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad was published at the dawning of this century. Found within its pages though was an accurate foreshadowing of what was destined to play out in its time. Inside one would also find one of the narrators Charlie Marlow as well as the enigmatic, powerful, driven, insane and dying Mr. Kurtz. Their relationship was one of the paramount aspects in the book. This relationship was one of opposites, drawn to while repulsed by the other. To aid this Conrad placed within this book his view of the dawning century: locked in darkness that was brought down from its own civilization.
All we were told of Marlow by the narrator of the story was “He was the only man of us who still ‘followed the sea.’ The worst that could be said of him was that he did not represent his class. He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express, a sedentary life.” (pg. 62) And in meeting Marlow and hearing him talk we saw his grim look at what the world had become. We saw Marlow and saw, in a way, an idol of the pending century. We also hear him being very ironic throughout the story while he saw himself beneath everything. A good example was him admiring the accountant “Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character.” (pg. 72) Marlow admired him for what he must have seen as a great waste to hold to the illusion of civilization. Still, later he said: “You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies,--which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world” (pg. 78) set the stage to see most of civilization itself as a grand lie and a veneer to contain the savagery that is shown everywhere else that was untouched by civilization. This was show cased in Mr. Kurtz and his conversion to a savage egoist. The greatest irony in the story was that throughout the story Marlow was anxious and curious to meet Mr. Kurtz and in the end found himself with only distaste and a threat to throttle the man. Marlow was put into the heart of savagery, a form of the “Heart of Darkness”, and returned as something civilization couldn’t quite accept. This was defined through Marlow’s interaction with Mr. Kurtz’s intended “I was on the point of crying to her, ‘Don’t you hear them?’ The dusk was repeating them all around around […] ‘The horror! the horror!’/ ‘‘his last word-to live with,’ she murmured […] I pulled myself together and spoke slowly/ ‘The last word he pronounced was-your name.’” (pg. 114) In this act of lying Marlow was taking on the mantle of someone who had truly fallen low. This allowed him to live inside the civilization that had taken over and infected so much; in a lie he killed the part of himself that felt for that way of life. Marlow was damned to live in obscurity while the one he sought, at least for a while, lived in the full graces of civilization.
While not immediately obvious the reader was lead through the trip with increasing expectations of the man, Mr. Kurtz. Time and time again we hear of his greatness, of his idealism, the perfection of someone of his class. We are introduced to Mr. Kurtz with “[his] sketch in oils,[…] representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber--almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister.” (pg. 77) This painting encompassed Mr. Kurtz’s ambitions being the one to take light, civilization, into the darkness of the unexplored. “‘He is a prodigy, […] an emissary of pity, and science, and progress […]. To-day he is chief of the best station, next year he will be assistant-manager, two years more and…’” (pg. 77). Throughout, even after his death, we heard tell of Mr. Kurtz’s talents: columnist, painter, politician. In this we saw a picture that did show Mr. Kurtz as the pinnacle of civilization. For the short while we truly heard Mr. Kurtz speak he was filled with nothing but his own desires, “My Intended, My Ivory”. We learned so much about Mr. Kurtz and his visions only to see him die as civilization pulled him out of savagery, his own form of godhood. In this also was imbued the fall of Mr. Kurtz: that he himself saw this culmination and exclaimed it with his last words, “the horror, the horror”. He saw that he had failed to achieve his desired godhood and was condemned to the muddy depths of the land that he had sought it on. He had risen high being the pinnacle of European breeding and on his own merits. He had lived high, far above a great many others.
Conrad repeatedly used light and dark in the story. Buried within that was his view of the pending century. Almost immediately we see light fading from the world and the darkness of night setting in “the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men” (pg. 61). Conrad saw the 20th century to be one filled with darkness and little else. The narrator having told the reader about the sun in this way gives the reader some insight to the failing light Conrad saw in the rapidly advancing society; rending the sun itself from the sky. Civilization itself was pulling all the light from the then untouched sky, man was pulling all the light away. “The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.” (pg. 62) tell of a duality, the aspirations of many. It was in these elements that empires had spread like a vast contagion across the planet leaving nothing untouched. The spread of the empires left nothing untouched and sought only to spread further. “The dreams of men and the seed of commonwealths” can only be the corrupting and infecting elements that Empires let loose. Conrad saw through all this the world beginning to tear itself apart. Seeing what was to come in the 20th century it was only too accurate. The world did tear itself apart, hiding it all within the darkness inside the human soul as it did in Marlow. Another example would be the protégé who failed to stave off the darkness inside and was consumed by the savage within his civilized exterior. While the 20th century was destined to be a time of glorious insight and development Conrad saw the truth of it. The savagery that civilization was covering and taming was about to break loose and fight the infection of civilization.
Conrad did see the pending darkness looming over the world with the turn of the century. He let his characters Marlow and Mr. Kurtz showcase for all his readers the pending nightfall. Marlow would live as a shade removed from society by his experiences and his fall. Conrad also set-up the story to show the readers the deathly illness of civilization by its efforts to bring light to all the world through Mr. Kurtz. Conrad put the truths of the world in a book, a series of magazine articles. The world was never the brightest place.
The Longman Anthology of World Literature Vol. F Ed. Damrosch, David et al. New York. Longman Pearson. 2004.