Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Disguise of Civilization

Critical Thoughts on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

(Conrad's novel was loosely adapted in 1979 into the major motion picture Apocalypse Now that takes place during the Vietnam War. But such a movie deserves its own critical essay and that would be another post for another time).

Joseph Conrad, though Polish by birth, grew up in 19th century Russia. He did not learn English until his sea voyages during his teenage years. After sailing on several English ships, he decided to become a naturalized English citizen in 1886 at the age of twenty-nine. Five years later, he left the sea and took up writing as a career. Even though English was Conrad’s third language (he learned French as his second), he soon became one of the most prominent English novelists of the 20th century and was even offered a knighthood. T. E. Laurence exclaimed that Conrad was “the most haunting thing in prose that ever was.” Nowhere does his genius shine more vividly than in his most famous novella, The Heart of Darkness.

The story describes the adventures of a seaman, Christopher Marlow, during his journey down the Congo to find an ivory trader, Kurtz. Symbolism plays an integral part in the story, especially in the conclusion. Indeed, one of the most controversial literary discussions centers on the closing pages where Marlow lies to Kurtz’s fiancée about Kurtz’s last words. If a close reading of the text is taken, however, his motives are obvious. The entire story revolves around the theme of darkness – darkness being Africa, the uncivilized world. When Marlow deceives Kurtz’ fiancée, it is his attempt to protect the civilized world from this darkness.

To understand the importance of this deception, however, it is necessary to see how the symbolism of darkness develops throughout the story. The first several paragraphs open on a scene on the deck of a cruising yawl anchored on the Thames River. Several of the members of the board are sitting about, watching the sun set. It is Marlow who breaks the silence by exclaiming suddenly, “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth” (2330). He explains,
I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago -- the other day. . . . Light came out of this river since — you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. (2331)
What does Marlow mean by “darkness”? The word seems have two distinct meanings throughout the novel. In this first part, it represents an absence of civilization. Before Marlow begins to speak, the sky “without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light” (2329). This symbolizes the England of Marlow’s day, glorious and powerful and dominating much of the world. Yet, he warns that it was not so long ago that England was inhabited only by barbaric tribes. It was Rome, and not England, that was the center of civilization. Subtly, he begins to compare these conquering Romans to the people of his own civilized world, remarking sardonically, “They [the Romans] were no colonists …. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force” (2332). Though he says that the Romans were different from the Europeans because they were conquerors, he is ironically implying that the civilized nations of his day are conquerors, too, and not mere colonists. Indeed, he scornfully remarks, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much” (2332). Later on in the novel, when he relates his adventures in Africa, he points out the death that the colonists have brought to the Africans, describing a heart-rending picture of the black laborers,
They were dying slowly — it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom (2339-2340).
The other symbolism of darkness is an inability to see things clearly. As Marlow starts to tell his story, darkness begins to cover England. It symbolizes the civilized world’s failure to understand the violence and cruelty that are going unpunished in Africa; and, also, their refusal to view the Africans as fellow human beings. When Marlow pilots his steamboat down the Congo River, he catches glimpses of the Africans dancing in the villages. His impression is one of revulsion and he exclaims,
It was unearthly and the men were …. No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you, was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar (2354).
It is not in darkness that Marlow faces this realization, but in the full light of day. He remarks, however, that “there was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine” (2352). Faced with the truth, he can only think of “the long stretches of waterway that ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.” He is traveling away from this light into the heart of darkness – away from the civilized world and even the truth in Africa – into the darkness of an uncivilized world where no one can be certain of what is true and what is a lie. Indeed, when he reaches his destination, his steamboat is shrouded in fog. “The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere. Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind” (2357).

This is where Marlow is confronted by Kurtz: the ivory trader who displayed the decapitated heads of natives on poles outside his hut, who took his ivory by force and violence, who exclaimed in an essay “Exterminate all the brutes!” Kurtz is a symbol of what the civilized world is really doing in Africa.
…Your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind--as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness (2332).
Kurtz is the embodiment of the ultimate extent of a Nihilistic philosophy. Without any true God, Kurtz becomes god, ruling his ivory trading post with fear and horror. He cuts off the heads of those who refuse to submit to his will. Thus, Conrad overturned the belief of the Romantics. Man in a state of nature is not essentially good. In fact, it is society that serves as a disguise to the evil in man's heart.

Marlow brings Kurtz back up the river on his steamboat, but the trader begins to die. “One evening coming in with a candle I [Marlow] was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, ‘I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.’ The light was within a foot of his eyes” (2379). It is here that all of the symbolism in the book reaches its culmination. Kurtz is trying to hide in the darkness of the uncivilized world even while the light of truth – the truth of all his despicable practices – is burning before his eyes. As Marlow watches his face, it seems as if a veil has been rent.
I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror -- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “The horror! The horror!”(2379)
When Kurtz dies, it is left to Marlow to decide whether he will tell this great secret to the world, or keep it hidden in darkness as Kurtz has done. His test comes when he visits Kurtz’s fiancée. She is a symbol of the civilized world, of the naïve blindness to what is going on in Africa. Even she cannot understand who Kurtz really was though she says she knew him best. Declaring “Men looked up to him -- his goodness shone in every act,” (2384) she proves that she has no knowledge of his barbarous actions. Then she begs Marlow to tell her Kurtz’s last words. If he tells her the truth, he will shatter all her blind trust and innocent belief.
I was on the point of crying at her, “Don't you hear them?” The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. “The horror! The horror!” (2385).
Yet, Marlow keeps the truth in darkness and says instead, “The last word he pronounced was -- your name.”

And here is the great question: why does he lie? He answers it in the next breath,
It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape …. But nothing happened. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark -- too dark altogether. . . .
By refusing to reveal Kurtz’s last words, Marlow is refusing to reveal what really happened in Africa. He does not wish to darken the light of the civilized world by exposing the cruel European practices that have until then been shrouded in secrecy. Marlow is a symbol of Europe because he turns a blind eye toward what is going on in Africa. At one point in the novel, he finds a sketch that Kurtz had drawn. It depicts a blindfolded woman bearing a torch, but the effect of the light “on the face was sinister” (2346). This woman embodies the European world. The torch she holds symbolizes the customs and civilized practices Europe is bringing to Africa. Her eyes are blindfolded, however, because she refuses to see the violent practices they have also brought. Thus, her face is threatening. Because of its blindness, the civilized world is just as much a horror as all of Kurtz' inhuman actions. This is the main message of The Heart of Darkness: the contrast between dark and light, barbarity and civilization, blindness and the ability to see.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Gen. Ed. New York, W. W. Norton & Co. 2006.

Labels: , ,

Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 11:24 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home

Related Posts with Thumbnails