A Critical Appreciation of “Heart of Darkness”

A Critic’s View of This Novel
A critic* thus introduces Heart of Darkness to us: “Conrad’s agonizing Congo experiences of 1890 were re-worked nine years later into Heart of Darkness which is generally regarded as one of the greatest short novels in the English language.

It is a crucial work in the development of modem literature, in that it establishes the dominant theme of twentieth-century writing: fear and disillusion about the western man’s place in the world and the values by which he lives. The narrator and central character, Marlow, travels up the Congo to meet the demonic trader, Kurtz. He witnesses the violence and hypocrisy of his colonizing culture and his faith in the western world, and even his own sanity is threatened. T.S. Eliot indicated how influential he felt the novel to be when he used the paragraph ending in Kurtz’s famous summing up, “The horror! The horror!” as the epigraph to his great poem, The Waste Land (1922). The degeneration of the trader, to whom all Europe contributed, stands for Eliot as a model of modem man in a world the poet sees, in a phrase that recalls the trenches of World’ War I and the bone-strewn Congo of Heart of Darkness, as a “rats’ alley where the dead men lost their bones.”

The Documentary and Historical Value of This Novel
The above comment by an eminent critic on Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is highly illuminating indeed. The first point we have to note in the above comment is that Heart of Darkness was based upon Conrad’s own experiences of the Belgian Congo when he visited that country in the year 1890. Thus Heart of Darkness is a largely personal and autobiographical book. Being based upon what Conrad actually witnessed during his travels through what he calls the “heart of darkness”, the book has the stamp of authenticity. Knowing Conrad’s integrity as a writer, we have to accept Heart of Darkness as a truthful account of the conditions in which the savages of the Congo, a country of the dark continent of Africa, lived under the imperialist rule of the white man, and also a truthful account of the behaviour and the attitudes of the white men who went to that country as traders or as the agents of a trading company, or as explorers. The fictitious character called Marlow, who narrates the story, is Conrad himself in disguise. Most of the experiences of Marlow, and most of Marlow’s reactions to what he beheld in the Belgian Congo, were Conrad’s own experiences, observations, and reactions. Thus the book acquires special value because of its documentary and historical character, though the book possesses also the interest and the gripping quality which a work of fiction is expected to have.
The Themes of the Novel
As already pointed out above, the theme of Heart of Darkness is the conditions prevailing in the Congo under the imperialist rule of the Belgian King. (The King at the time was Leopald II). These conditions include the impact of the white traders and explorers on the life of the African savages, and the influence of the native way of life on the white men, with special reference to one man who is given the name of Kurtz. (Kurtz is a German word meaning “short”). But the book has another theme also, and that theme is equally important for the thoughtful reader. The other theme may be defined as reality versus dream. As Marlow voyages to the Belgian Congo by a French steamer, he observes closely the sights on the coast and falls into a meditative mood. The sights which he witnesses now, and those which he beholds subsequently, appear to him to be half real and half unreal. The unreality of these sights becomes the basic condition of Marlow’s experiences. Indeed, the description of Marlow’s journey is made to appear to us as an “eerie venture beyond the bounds of reality”, where one’s senses seem useless, where the physical world loses its solidity, and where one feels oneself to be strangely alien.
Symbolism in the Novel
Heart of Darkness is replete with symbolism. The very title of the novel has a symbolic meaning, in addition to its literal meaning, Literally, “Heart of Darkness” means the interior of a dark country, namely the Congo. Symbolically, the title means the depths of the human mind or the human consciousness. The book describes not only Marlow’s exploration of the Congo but also his exploration of his own mind and of the deeper layers of his mind. Then there are other symbols in the novel also. The women, knitting wool, symbolize the Fates of ancient classical mythology. Mr. Kurtz, who is the dominating character in the novel, is a symbol of the modem western man’s lust for power and pelf. The chief accountant of the Belgian trading company is as telling an image of modem man as _ the demonic Mr. Kurtz. And there are other symbolic suggestions in the novel also.
Characterization: The Two Major Characters
Conrad occupies a high place among the novelists who have written in the English language. One reason for his greatness is his capacity to create living characters. It is indeed a wonder that a great novelist should be able to create characters and to portray them in such a manner that they begin to throb with life and vitality. As we go through Heart of Darkness, we feel that we are coming into close personal contact with men like Marlow and Kurtz. Marlow’s powers of observation, and his capacity for reflection and philosophical commentary, simply amaze us; and we begin to feel that we are ourselves travelling in his company. Likewise, Kurtz is an, astonishing personality with whom we become personally acquainted. This man’s passion for ivory, his love for his fiancee, his power over the savages, and his eloquence in speech are the most striking qualities by virtue of which he actually lives through the pages of the novel.
The Minor Characters
The minor characters have been drawn with the same sure touch as the two major characters. Indeed, the novel contains several vignettes of persons who seem to live before us. Marlow, in the course of his narration, makes us think that we have actually met the neatly and flawlessly dressed accountant of the Company, that we have held an actual conversation with the scheming manager and his crafty uncle, that we have actually spent some time listening to the informative talk of the communicative as well as inquisitive brick-maker. And then, of course, there is the Russian who looks like a harlequin. This man has most vividly and convincingly been drawn. He is a highly educated man and a highly intelligent one too, but, despite his intelligence and education, he falls under the spell of Mr. Kurtz to such an extent as to turn into Mr. Kurtz’s worshipper and devotee. Finally, there is Mr. Kurtz’s intended, namely the girl whom Mr. Kurtz wanted to marry. This girl too has been made to live before our eyes. Marlow’s interview with this girl has been described by him in such a way that we feel as if we were present at the interview and were listening to the talk of both these persons. Indeed, we seem to participate in their talk, and we certainly share the girl’s feelings on this occasion.
Imagery
Heart of Darkness is a remarkable book by virtue of its imagery also. Conrad here gives us ample evidence of his descriptive powers. The imagery in this book is remote and wild; but it is described in such a graphic manner that we begin actually to visualize it. There are, first of all, the sights which Marlow witnesses along the coast as he sails by a French steamer. Then there are the sights which Marlow witnesses on landing from the Swedish captain’s sea-going steamer. These are memorable sights indeed. We can never forget the boiler lying uselessly in the grass, the steep path, the several pieces of decaying machinery and the rusty rails, the blasting of the rock, the clanking of the chain-gang criminals, and so on. Soon afterwards, Marlow feels as if he had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno. And here we are reminded of the description of hell as given by Dante in his famous poem, The Divine Comedy. This description includes the picture of people dying slowly, dying of disease and starvation. And thus the description and the imagery continue throughout the novel, punctuating the action and the dialogue and greatly enhancing the interest of the whole.
Many Philosophical Passages in the Novel
Heart of Darkness is a profound book. Part of its profundity is due to its philosophical character and to the writer’s psychological insight. There are a large number of philosophical passages in the book. Marlow is not only a man of action and an adventurer, but also a thinker and a kind of philosopher. He tends to reflect and meditate upon whatever he observes and beholds. At the very time of setting out on his voyage, he makes the remark that he felt for a second or two as though, instead of going to the, centre of a continent, he was about to set off for the centre of the earth Now, this is a philosophical remark, though not a deeply philosophical one. Soon afterwards, he makes the remark that, as he entered into a grove near the Company’s first station, he felt as if he had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno. But a more philosophical remark comes when he says that, at one point, in the course of his experience, he found it difficult to distinguish between reality and dream. When the brick-maker is talking to Marlow about Kurtz, Marlow feels that he does not at this moment see Kurtz. In fact, it seems to him at this time that he is seeing a dream and experiencing a dream-sensation. Then Marlow goes on to make the following philosophical observation: “It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence––that which makes its truth, its meaning, its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream––alone*.” Later still, Marlow makes the following philosophical comment upon the human mind:
The mind of man is capable of anything-because everything is in it. all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage––who can tell? ––but truth––truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder––the main knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff––with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags––rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief. (Page 69)
This is a key passage in the book. This passage and the one to which a reference was made a little earlier, the passage about dream and reality–both these are highly philosophical passages, and both these contain part of the significance and meaning of the novel as a whole.
Psychological Analysis in the Novel
There is also plenty of psychological analysis in Heart of Darkness. In the course of his narration, Marlow gives us a peep into the minds of the various characters, at the same time making it possible for us to look into his own mind as well. Much of the interest of this book lies in its psychological studies of the various characters. For instance, Marlow gives us a penetrating portrayal of the chief accountant of the Company. That man is able to maintain a neat and tidy appearance even in the midst of the chaotic conditions around him. Everything at the station is in a muddle, but the accountant’s clothes and his account-books are being excellently maintained. And therefore Marlow comments on the man by saying that his capacity to dress well in that environment and to maintain his account-books in apple-pie order was an achievement of character on his part. Similarly, Marlow gives us a penetrating portrayal of the manager of the Central Station. He makes a significant remark when he says that perhaps there was nothing “within” the manager, and that, after commenting upon the effect of the climate on the white visitors to this region, the manager smiled in a manner which showed as if his smile had been a door opening into a darkness which the manager had in his keeping. Again, Marlow enables us to look into the working of the brick-maker’s mind. Marlow quickly perceives that the brick-maker wants to know exactly where Marlow stands in relation to the higher officials of the Company which has sent him to the Congo. But it is in his descriptions of Kurtz that Marlow shows his real psychological insight. Although Marlow leaves several points about Kurtz vague and ambiguous, yet he is able to throw a lot of light on the working of Kurtz’s mind. Marlow skillfully, subtly, and effectively brings to our notice Kurtz’s passion for ivory, Kurtz’s passion for power, Kurtz’s influence over the savages, Kurtz’s secret ambitions, Kurtz’s surrender to the rites and customs of the savages, Kurtz’s love for his “intended”, and so on. Indeed, we are able to form a comprehensive picture of Kurtz’s moral character and his mental make-up’ though Kurtz still remains a mysterious figure to us. And then, of course, there are Marlow’s own mental attitudes which we are enabled to know and understand in the course of his narration of -his experiences. There is nothing vague or ambiguous about Marlow’s mind except that we do not understand the precise grounds for Marlow’s admiration for Kurtz, especially when Marlow has first clearly stated that Kurtz was hollow at the core. Towards the end, Marlow speaks like a devotee of Kurtz, even though the evil in Kurtz has been brought by Marlow to our notice in a most striking manner. There is some sort of contradiction in Marlow’s thinking here. Can a man redeem the evil in his nature merely by recognizing the evil within himself and speaking the words “The horror” in token of that recognition, but without in the least expressing clearly any regret or repentance over what he has been doing? Marlow speaks about Kurtz in the end as if Kurtz had cleansed himself of all the evil within him merely by uttering those two words. We do admit that those two words show Kurtz’s terror at the thought of the evil which had been raging within him, but this mere recognition does not exonerate Kurtz of that evil and does not entitle him to the kind of tribute which Marlow pays to him by saying that he would never waver in his loyalty to that man. There is certainly a flaw in Marlow’s psychological analysis here.
A Mixture of the Traditional and the Modern
Heart of Darkness is an interesting mixture of the traditional and the modem in several ways. The Company’s doctor, who examines Marlow before Marlow leaves for the Congo is, for instance, very much a modem figure. This doctor is something of a psychiatrist, having an interest in analyzing the mental changes of individuals. The sciences of psychology and psychiatry are modern sciences which were being developed in Conrad’s own time. And Marlow, in the course of his narration, himself shows a keen interest in tracing the mental processes of the various persons with whom he comes into contact. At one point in the story; Marlow speaks of the mental change going on within himself. Here he remarks that he was becoming a fit subject for scientific study by a psychologist. Furthermore, Marlow experiences a feeling central to the literature of modernism. He experiences the anarchy and the futility of modem life. He keenly experiences the truths of the modern western world whose products include its colonialism and a sense of racial superiority. The “powers of darkness” to which Marlow refers at one point are the powers of European culture to which Kurtz belongs, and which Kurtz had imbibed. In this context Marlow says that Kurtz would be claimed by the powers of darkness to whom he really belonged. These powers of darkness, according to one interpretation, are the influences of European culture on Kurtz: “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” The trader Kurtz is a demonic person who writes and speaks with inspiring eloquence but who yet performs rites of unspeakable savagery. Here then is the influence of the dark continent upon a western man whose high-sounding language has now become completely divorced from his actual deeds. Kurtz is also the embodiment of the colonial appetite for possessions and power. Such are the modem elements in Heart of Darkness. At the same time this story has to be read as a myth. The mythical elements in it belong to tradition. There are the two ominous women knitting black wool who suggest the Fates of classical mythology. There is Marlow’s journey through a certain region of the Congo which resembles Dante’s Inferno. Here we are reminded of the visit of Virgil and Dante to the inner circle of hell in the famous medieval poem, The Divine Comedy. Such elements in the novel suggest that it should be read as we read a myth. Thus looked at, the novel would seem to be a statement on the timeless problems of mankind in its existence on the planet known as the earth.
Complex Structure; and a Want of Design
Heart of Darkness has an unusual kind of structure. Conrad was an innovator so far as the structure of most of his novels was concerned. The structure of Heart of Darkness is very complex. In the first place, there are two narrators in this novel. The first narrator appears before us at the very beginning of the book. It is this first narrator who tells us about the boat “Nellie”_ lying anchored in the river Thames and about the men on the deck of this boat. It is this first narrator who introduces to us the second narrator. While the name of the first narrator is not given to us, the second narrator’s name is given as Marlow or Charles Marlow. Now, the real story comes from the lips of this second narrator; and yet the first narrator also, intervenes occasionally in the course of the novel. This mixing up of the two narrators confuses the average reader. It is not really necessary for a novelist to adopt a device of this kind except as a point of departure from the traditional way of telling a story. It is really puzzling, and also irritating, that the first narrator should soon himself become one of the listeners of the second narrator, and yet speak at intervals when the second narrator has to pause for breath or to brood over something he has said. Secondly, there are shifts in time, and these shifts also confuse the reader. In the course of his narration, Marlow suddenly speaks of an incident about which he himself comes to know in the future but which he begins to describe now, thus interrupting the sequence. For instance, Marlow tells us about the circumstances under which the captain of a ship belonging to the Belgian trading company had met his end in the Congo; and Marlow tells us about this incident in advance when he has yet to set out on his journey to the Congo. In other words, Marlow here takes us back to an incident about which he would himself learn the details long afterwards. (Such shifts in time occur even more frequently in Conrad’s novel Nostromo). Finally, even the division of this novel into chapters is arbitrary. There is no planning or design in the division of the novel into three chapters. For instance, the first chapter ends with the information that an Exploring Expedition has arrived at the Central Station of the Company. Actually this arrival should have taken place at the beginning of the second chapter in which further details about this expedition have been given. Similarly the third chapter begins a little after Marlow has met the Russian. Actually it should have begun at the point where Marlow meets the Russian who, in Marlow’s words, looks like a harlequin (or a clown wearing motley or multi-coloured clothes). Thus we cannot claim that Heart of Darkness is a well-organized novel.
A Masterpiece of an Unusual Kind
Heart of Darkness is a marvellous book. It is a fascinating book. It is a haunting book. It is a profound book, and it is at the same time a starkly realistic book. It is a book which excels both in respect of external description and imagery, and in respect of its analysis of the mental processes of its characters and its probing of the conscious and the sub­conscious mind. This novel is a brief, compact masterpiece written in language which is, by turns, sensuous, cerebral, vague; concrete, suggestive, definitive, mystical, elusive, and tangible. The novel is also an exquisite mingling of fact and fancy, of what can happen any day and what is fantastic and almost incredible. At the same time, it is a grim and frightening book which leaves us staring into the vacancy in front of us when we have closed it.
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