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Heart of Darkness: The Journey As a Metaphor

Updated on November 2, 2016

You fellows know there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence.

— Youth, Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness Book Cover
Heart of Darkness Book Cover | Source
  • In Conrad's novella, society is fundamentally questioned and notions of certainty and truth are thrown into doubt. The doubts and disruptions of the time (late 19th century - early 20th century) are echoed in Marlow's tendency to self-questioning. These questions are not necessarily answered, with only Kurtz's final cry, 'The horror! The horror!' providing some sense of final response. Thus we, like Marlow, are left with a sense of bewilderment and alienation.
  • Even before Marlow has left Europe we are alerted to the implications of his journey, the doctor warning that 'the changes take place inside'. Thus the novel can be read as an 'inward' journey, an examination of the human self (either in terms of the soul or the psyche).
  • The Director of Companies observes that the Thames leads 'to the uttermost ends of the earth.' Marlow feels as if he is 'travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world', penetrating the unknown, 'travelling in the night of first ages'. There is a sense of a journey into something mysterious and primordial (the descriptions of the jungle setting often echoes this). The dark continent whispers to Marlow to 'come and find out.'
  • In a world of uncertainty, the stillness of the jungle seems to represent some sort of essential truth - the truth of nature. It is a land of 'mystery ... greatness ... (and) amazing reality'. The continent stands before him, 'smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage'. Man is dwarfed beneath its immensity. The 'joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour (and) rage,' represents 'truth stripped of its cloak of time.' ( A similar sentiment is echoed in Marlow's descriptions and observations of the native inhabitants - consider the scenes with Kurtz's 'mistress'.
  • As the 'myth' of Kurtz grows (follow the way the enigmatic figure is constructed within the text), Marlow's goal is clear, penetrating 'deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness,' with Kurtz lying at its core.
  • To face this truth, one needs 'inborn strength' and a 'deliberate belief'. It is the restraint the cannibals display; the restraint Marlow himself is capable of; the restraint Kurtz is unable to master as he takes 'a high seat amongst the devils of the land'. Tempted by the wilderness and what it represents (or even the temptations of the ivory in terms of the European imperialists), there '(are) no external checks' out there. As Marlow asks, 'Could we handle that dumb (i.e. silent) thing, or would it handle us?' Work, to Marlow, serves as a way in which he can 'keep ... hold of the redeeming facts of life.'
  • Amongst the wilderness Marlow senses a 'lurking death ... (a) hidden evil ... the profound darkness of its heart.' Marlow's sense of restraint, his own innate strength and his capacity for faithfulness prevent him from deserting the boat and engaging in a 'song and a dance'. As he journeys deeper and deeper, Marlow feels 'cut off from the comprehension of (his) surroundings'. A sense of the unreal, the incomprehensible, begins to pervade Marlow's narration: things are unearthly; things seem dream-like; the recognisable world, the world of 'straightforward facts', is left behind; and Marlow experiences a sense of floating, unable to find an anchor in anything known. The further he journeys, the further he is from society's safeguards and structures - the butcher and the policeman who serves as protection.
  • Kurtz has broken from the hold society's structures had upon him. He has turned his back 'on the headquarters ... on thoughts of home ... setting his face towards the depths of the wilderness'. He has given into the 'heavy, mute spell of the wilderness ... awakening ... forgotten and brutal instincts'. Kurtz has 'kicked himself loose of the earth.'
  • Whilst this breaking free from society's structure is not, in itself, dangerous, Marlow observes that Kurtz 'lacked the restraint in the gratification of his various lusts.' The man struggles internally, right up to his death, believing he will 'wring' the wilderness' heart yet. But, ultimately, his soul 'had looked within itself, and ... had gone mad.' Marlow's response to this man is not simply one sided; Marlow's own contradictions echo the contradictions in Kurtz himself. Kurtz is a remarkable man, possessing a singleness of purpose; a man of learning and sophistication; an 'emissary of pity, and science, and progress'; an eloquent figure whose report expresses altruistic ideals; and a man who is worshipped as a god. But he is also a man who has given in entirely to his lusts and the call of the wilderness; who revels in the satanic litany of the tribesmen; whose actions contradict the wonder of his voice; and whose scribbled note 'Exterminate all the brutes!' reveals the ugly truth. Marlow admires the eloquence yet recoils with contempt, faced with the man's actions - seeing 'in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of (Kurtz's) heart.'
  • The contradictions are clear just before Kurtz's death: pride and ruthless power twinned with terror and hopeless despair. His final cry is a 'commingling of desire and hate.'
  • Marlow perceives Kurtz's final words as 'a judgement upon the adventures of his soul on this earth', but the 'horror' Kurtz acknowledges has multiple and, some might say, frightening meanings. It has, for Marlow, 'the appalling face of a glimpsed truth'. He notes Kurtz's stare and its universal significance: 'his stare ... was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness.' It can be hard to accept Marlow's judgement that Kurtz's words represent some sort of moral victory, but it appears a victory in that he has perceived some essential truth.
  • Marlow's narration charts his gradual understanding, and we, the reader, join the audience on the boat as we listen and try to make sense of the story. Of those in the boat, it seems to be only the company director who acknowledges some understanding of what he has heard whilst they wait for the tide to turn. Marlow also acts as observer, guiding our own response to what is narrated (consider, for instance, the focus on imperialism). He displays moral discriminations, yet is also contradictory: in serving imperialism, believing himself 'an emissary of light', he is tainted by it; he both admires and abhors Kurtz; and he detests lying, yet will lie if necessary.
  • As Marlow observes, he is showing us what we are capable of. Marlow knows that he is being subjected to a trial and is trying to come to terms with the experience. His self-control and inner strength is put to the test.
  • Despite his protestation - 'I don't want to bother you much with what happened to me personally' - his journey and meeting with Kurtz are as much about himself as they are about Kurtz: 'It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me.' The journey's effect is profound: '(the everyday people) could not possibly know the things I knew.' Indeed, upon his return to the sepulchral city, all else seems superficial and insignificant, and Marlow is angered by the population's general complacency.
  • Kurtz is, in many respects, Marlow's shadow: 'If anybody had ever struggled with a soul, I am the man.' Kurtz's soul has 'looked within itself, and ... gone mad. I had ... to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself.' (Note how both figures are master orators.) Thus Marlow's journey in search of Kurtz becomes a journey in search of self (or the possibilities of self).
  • In the relatively safe (yet deathly) environment of the Intended's home, Marlow is incapable of telling her the truth. He protects not only her, but all that she represents. In telling her what she wants to hear, he tells the society she represents what it wants to hear. As Marlow says, 'I could not tell her. It would have been too dark - too dark altogether ...' At the end of his tale, the 'inner truth' remains hidden - 'luckily, luckily.'


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