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An Analysis: The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Updated on December 7, 2017
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Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Asteriaa writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

The Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad is a novella that follows the protagonist, Charles Marlow. Marlow's journey is driven by his obsession with an ivory trader named Kurtz, who had many rumours surrounding him. On his way to figure out who is the true Kurtz, themes such as imperialism, heroism, racism, sexism, obsession, are explored.

The text has received mixed reviews, some claiming the text is racist and sexist, while others claim the story was created to raise these issues. It is also debated what is the heart of darkness in the text;


Imperialism?


Africa?


The Human mind?


Conrad leaves this up to interpretation.

Heart of Darkness - Thug Notes Summary and Analysis

Is Marlow a Traditional Hero?

Rather than being a traditional hero in terms of bravery, independence and adventurous spirit, Marlow is depicted as a romantic hero. A romantic hero is:


An outcast like Satan, Cain, or Prometheus … he retreated into his own world where he suffered long periods of melancholy: inner chaos, weltschmerz (a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness), disquietude, irritability, perpetual disenchantment …

— Knapp 1986, p.3

The romantic hero values self-knowledge more than physical strength with passions outside of individual control. The battle is more internal than physical. Romantic heroes have unconventional morals and are loyal to like-minded individuals. The “inner chaos” (Knapp 1986, p.3) that came from Marlow’s journey of katabasis reveals his self-centred nature rather than the bravery, independence and adventuring spirit found in traditional heroes.

Katabasis entails journeying into the Greek Underworld or into the depths of oneself. For example, Marlow projections of his feelings onto nature through metaphorical language, “[The wilderness] had taken him … and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation” (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.29).

However, during his katabasis, Marlow sees Kurtz as his destination, "Where the pilgrims imagined it crawled to I don't know. To some place where they expected to get something. I bet! For me it crawled towards Kurtz—exclusively…" (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.22). Akin to a romantic hero, he seeks knowledge about Kurtz because he believes Kurtz is "equipped with moral ideas" (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.19) about “the heart of darkness” (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.22).

The “the heart of darkness” (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.22) is a metaphor for how the wilderness and the horrors of imperialism is a figurative underworld. By losing his sense of self, receives psychological enlightenment about the horrors of imperialism.

Source

Marlow uses his acquired knowledge to for his own enlightenment, whereas a traditional hero would have attempted to take down what is shown to be corrupt. The obsession he experiences questions his independence, an obsession further shown by the way he visits Kurtz’s Intended (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.50).

The lack of bravery shown when he lies about Kurtz’s last words challenges the perception of Marlow being a traditional hero. Hence, Marlow’s actions stemmed from personal desires, not from the bravery, independence and adventurous spirit found in traditional heroes. Therefore, Marlow’s characteristics align him closer to a romantic hero than a traditional hero.

Why did Marlow lie to Kurtz’s Intended?

The reason Marlow has the reader to believe is that he lied to preserve the Intended’s innocence. He also uses the preservation of innocence as a defensive rationale for cutting off the world of women, "It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be" (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, pp. 44-46). This could be because Conrad wanted to portray the Intended’s nativity is a metaphor of the of blindness civilised society had towards the horrors of imperialism.

The lie could have also happened because he wanted to support his initial patriarchal ideology. Marlow’s power as the narrator of his story allows Marlow to reinforce his patriarchal ideology. Willow Carr states, “the female characters are not named in the novella and are only referred to by station or their relation to a male character—Kurtz’s Intended, Marlow’s Aunt” (2016, p.42). This implies the significance of female characters does not matter as individuals but matter in relation to men. By not giving female characters a name, clear “desires or purposes… to inspire further inquiry” (Carr 2016, p.42) or little to no narrative voices, he closes the reader off to them and presents them as unrelatable, flat characters. Thus, this lie could support Marlow’s ideological defence of masculine belief through claiming men are more grounded in reality.

HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad - FULL AudioBook | Greatest Audio Books

This lie could also have happened to make the reader question Marlow as a narrator. This is shown by the way his journey has changed him and caused him to betray his own character. For example, Marlow states he hates liars and lying, “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” (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p. 16).

Nonetheless, he lies to the Intended. However, he could have used the innocence of the Intended to hide his true intentions. Marlow’s lie could have been to preserve a false legacy that he and Kurtz had been heroic men. This suggests that another function of the lie was to highlight Marlow’s unreliability as a narrator.

The Role of Kurtz's Intended

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad represents women as otherworldly and as keepers of naïve illusions. Marlow’s subjective first-person narration supports patriarchal ideology by presenting women and men as binary opposites. He argues men “… must meet that truth with his own true stuff—with his own inborn strength” (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.22) while claiming, “It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be” (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.28).

The Intended’s nativity is representative of the of blindness civilised society had towards the horrors of imperialism. His interaction with the Intended highlighted Marlow’s unreliability as a narrator.

He uses the Intended’s innocence as an excuse to lie about the person Kurtz was (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, pp.44-46), despite stating earlier, “You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie” (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.16). This lie was a way for Marlow to change Kurtz and his own legacy to an ideal one (Carr 2016, p.46). Therefore, the naive characterisation of women is used for Marlow’s defensive rationale for cutting off the world of women.

Source

Marlow’s power as the narrator of his story allows Marlow to reinforce his patriarchal ideology. Willow Carr states, “the female characters are not named in the novella and are only referred to by station or their relation to a male character—Kurtz’s Intended, Marlow’s Aunt” (2016, p.42). This implies the significance of female characters does not matter as individuals but matter in relation to men. By not giving female characters a name, clear “desires or purposes… to inspire further inquiry” (Carr 2016, p.42) or little to no narrative voices, he closes the reader off to them and presents them as unrelatable, flat characters.

Additionally, he presents the Intended as the symbolic representation of white civilisation through the imagery of light, “I know that the sunlight can be made to lie, too, yet one felt that no manipulation of light and pose could have conveyed the delicate shade of truthfulness upon those features” (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.44).

In contrast, he presents the Native African warrior as a sexualised extension of the wilderness through words like “bared arms”, “desire” and “embrace” (Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, p.15). However, the fact the warrior seems to speak for all the native Africans suggests she is more than the literal and figurative darkness Marlow presents her as. Thus, Marlow’s control as a narrator allows him to portray women as flat characters shrouded with sexuality and naivety.

References

Knapp, Bettina 1986, ‘The Romantic Hero and His Heirs in French Literature’, American Association of Teachers of French, vol. 59, no. 5, pp. 787-788.

Carr, Willow 2016, ‘The Representation of Women in Heart of Darkness’, Sosland Journal, vol.11, no. 11, pp. 39-46.

Conrad, J., University of Virginia 1996, Heart of Darkness, Generic NL Freebook Publisher, Charlottesville. eBook version, retrieved 22 September 2017, from EBSCOhost.

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