In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the main character Marlow continuously calls into question the modern assumptions that are made by his listeners as well as his readers, blurring the lines between inward and outward, civilized and savage and, most especially, dark and light. The bulk of the book concentrates on Marlowe’s telling of his adventures on the Congo River as a steamboat captain sent in to find a station master who has gone missing.
As he struggles to make his way up the river to the interior where this man is supposed to be waiting for him, Marlowe begins to gain a deeper understanding of what is actually occurring in the forest outside the realm of what he’s been told by the Company.
It is explained from the beginning of the book that Marlowe is different from most men in that he does not search for a great depth of meaning on the inside, as had been the tradition in everything from art analysis to psychology, but rather that he seeks meaning from the outside of things, by what can be seen and touched about a man and therefore proved to no false assumptions. However, what he sees in the Congo makes gaining meaning from the story difficult at best as nothing seems to be established in such dyadic certainty, a fact that is underscored as the story begins. Through the use of setting, Conrad illustrates the journey to the inner soul and its primitive nature, an approach that is also taken within the film Apocalypse Now.
Heart of Darkness begins in London, as several men are gathered together on the deck of a ship waiting for the tide to turn. As they watch the sunset over London, Marlowe begins to tell his story by linking it to the symbol of civilization he sees before him. In making his comments upon London, Marlowe, and Conrad, by extension, illustrates how the lessons learned in the jungle regarding society’s unreasonable dependence upon false cultural definitions are as applicable to the outside world as they were to the alien world of the Congo shown in the rest of the story.
As the narrator notices the sun setting over the Thames, a condition that most would view as the onset of darkness, the narrator notes that “the serenity became less brilliant but more profound” (Part 1). This in itself suggests that though the sky is becoming darker, the meaning of this darkness is becoming clearer. This consideration is echoed in Apocalypse Now as the opening scenes reveal hallucinatory images of the war, emphasizing the concept that outward impression and agreed-upon definitions do not necessarily indicate truth.
As the book continues, light and dark are also used to illustrate the difference between civilized and savage, with the light always referring to the civilized world. This is obvious as the other men sitting on the ship on the Thames at the opening to the story have been discussing how the great heroes, the knights-errant of the sea, have made their way in similar fashion down the Thames and out into the dark places of the world, suggesting they were bringing light to other places of the world and defending the light of England against the dark hordes of other nations.
In this, it is seen that bringing light to dark areas is a positive thing, always helping the savage people who are affected by it whether they know they want it or not. However, in this scene, as in the bulk of the novel, Marlowe tends to turn everything inside out, making dark seem light, in seeming out and civilized seem barbaric. Keeping in mind how the light tends to blind people to the truth, Marlowe suddenly breaks the reverie with a startling observation. “And this also … has been one of the dark places of the earth” (Part 1).
This concept is illustrated as Marlowe begins his journey into the Congo, and one of the first things he sees is a group of savages gaining not enlightenment, but hard unprofitable (for them) toil and miserable disease and death. These were people who, prior to the arrival of the ‘light bringing white man, were living relatively happy and carefree lives – perhaps at war with one another over territory, but capable of making their own decisions, working for the betterment of their people and dying nobly in pursuit of this cause.
The picture Marlowe paints on the steamboat is quite similar to the picture he encounters while he is in the Congo: “Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages – precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. … Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay – cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death – death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush” (Part 1).
Much of this description could be equally applied to the lands of the Congo, in which Europeans died in great numbers as they fell to the strange diseases and other hazards of an unfamiliar world. The Romans, like the younger Marlowe and his associates in the Congo, had no light to guide their way to the interior of a land defined by them as dark, but that operated well enough on its own with its own people. The Englishmen to whom Marlowe was speaking, both symbolically on the boat and literally through the pages of the novel, were well aware of the brutality of the Romans as well, knowing them as conquerors, who “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” (Part 1). Despite any claims to the contrary, Marlowe indicates throughout his adventurous story that the claims of imperialism are little more than an excuse to plunder and steal, blinding outsiders with the light they’re supposedly bringing to the interior, so little can be seen of the ravages occurring on the edges as the savages are brutally killed, and the civilized men profit from their spoils.
As Marlowe makes his way deeper and deeper into the Congo, these revelations illustrated in the very first chapter begin to unfold. He sees the ‘savages’ savagely misused and abused based upon the flimsy assertion of power the white men exert by virtue of their strangeness to the savages and through the use of their superior weaponry. This is blatantly done in the first camp, and he becomes more insidious as he moves deeper into the darkness.
As Marlowe chugs up the river, he begins to find evidence of civilization driven out by the darkness of the jungle, as well as to understand that the darkness of the jungle is really the light in the human soul. When he comes across the abandoned Russian trader’s cabin, the apparent hasty retreat in which the owner left behind a book, a rarity in the jungle, illustrates this attempt by the darkness to drive out the light offered them by the exterior men. This idea is further emphasized as Marlowe discovers that he cannot read the notes left in the margins by the then-unknown owner of the book, determining that it is some sort of cipher and emphasizing the inability of the various actors to fully communicate.
By the time he finally reaches Kurtz, Marlowe finds he has reached the deepest part of the jungle as well as the deepest element of the human psyche that he ever thought to reach. Kurtz has become a savage in his own right, fully embracing the darkness of colonialism and turning the natives to his own advantage. The human skulls ringing Kurtz’s cabin suggest the level of his brutality brought about not by the practices of the natives themselves but by the brutality of the invading force, the white men from the ‘civilized’ countries who have come to take control.
Thus, starting from the very first chapter, as Marlow challenges the assumption that London is the center of the civilized world, Heart of Darkness can be seen to challenge many of the assumptions regarding basic values as they relate to those who exist outside one’s personal cultural background. In making this opening speech, Marlowe sums up a great deal of what he has to say throughout the remainder of the novel.
By confusing the concepts of light and dark, civilized and savage, and inside and outside, he makes it clear that no single definition of such terms can be applied as universally good or bad when one is discussing the journey to the true nature of the human soul. Instead, through his London analogy as well as the inconclusive tale he tells regarding the Congo, he suggests that the actions of men, looked at from the outside and as objectively as possible, can only indicate where definitions fail and new understandings must be sought.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1902. The Literature Network (2006). Web.