Meaning In Heart Of Darkness By Joseph Conrad

A search for meaning in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Finds a thread of social commentary and work ethic to unite this novel and gives it meaning, instead of being merely an exercise in cynicism.

NOTE: All citations refer to the 1950 Signet Classic edition of Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer

Searching for continuity in Heart of Darkness can be a challenging task. One wonders whether Conrad is a social critic, scrutinizing western civilization, or merely a vivid pessimist, condemning mankind to a helpless dichotomy of facade and brutality. Upon close inspection, one recurring idea seems to sew a common thread through the darkness of Kurtz and Africa and the ignorance of the Intended and the European facade. This motif lies in Marlowe's work ethic. Although Marlowe often seems to contradict his own analysis of his story, these contradictions arrive at a consistent value emphasizing integrity, frankness, and intelligence.

Conrad uses Marlowe's imagery and objective observation to establish a criticism of "civilized" society. The very opening paragraphs create a dark image of London, the center of civilization during Conrad's time. "A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth" (Conrad 65). The dichotomy of dark imagery paired with the implication of "light" which civilization and London represent begin an extended Blakian contrary of light and dark with civilization and brutality. After further explication of the gloominess and "lurid glare" of London, Marlowe speaks his first words. "'And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth'" (67). Although it does not seem obvious at first, corroborative descriptions of civilization create a distasteful and critical depiction of it. The sun changes from "glowing white" to "dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men" (66). Here again the contrary of light and dark surfaces as London, which typically spreads the "light" of civilization, extinguishes the light of the sun in a fit of darkness. Although this continually contradicting imagery of light and dark seems somewhat erratic at first, it serves to perpetuate the connected idea that civilization, or light, contains an intrinsic element of the savage, or the dark.

The French ship at war with a camp of natives in the jungle produces the first example of this extension to the savagery of civilized society. Marlowe describes the situation as follows: "In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent" (78). Indeed, the random shelling of a few natives armed with spears and arrows with mortars from a man-of-war certainly seems to be overkill. The treatment of the natives at the Company's station increases the barbarity of the "civilized" whites. First Marlowe sees a chain gang of several natives who seem starved and nearly worked to death. As they pass by, they seem to have the blank stare of death, unconscious to Marlowe's presence even though they pass within six inches of him. Again in the grove of death, Marlowe sees the effect of the civilizing light of Europe upon the natives. "They were dying slowly . . . nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation . . . lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest" (82). Marlowe implies in this passage that the natives were abused, used relentlessly for labor until they were spent, at which point they were "allowed" by the civilized whites to crawl into the grove of death to die. Truly a barbaric and dehumanizing view, using the natives only for their labor power, with no concern for their health or even their existence.

The comparison between the pilgrims and the cannibals on Marlowe's ship yields another example of the savagery of civilization. The pilgrims parallel the French man-of-war by "simply squirting lead into that bush" (117). In an amazing lack of intelligence, the pilgrims attack the jungle, creating a cloud of smoke which blinds Marlowe's navigation. In another incident, the pilgrims throw the cannibals' only source of food overboard in what "looked like a high-handed proceeding." The cannibals, however, maintain a measure of self-restraint, facing the pangs of hunger rather than eating the whites who they outnumbered thirty to five. Marlowe strikes down possibility after possibility in trying to comprehend the restraint of the cannibals.

"No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don't you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It's really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of ones soul . . ." (113).

Here Marlowe not only emphasizes the savagery of the pilgrims by comparison with the "nobility" of the cannibals, extending the contrary of light/dark and civilization/savagery, but he also begins to indicate what it is that deserves some measure of respect. The nearly impossible feat of withstanding hunger is accomplished by the savage cannibals through some inexplicable integrity. Although this integrity has no moral, religious, or philosophical foundation, Marlowe seems to emphasize the importance of integrity as an end in itself.

When Marlowe meets the Company's chief accountant, he expresses his immediate respect for the man. Even here, in the dark places of the earth, the accountant manages to keep his hair oiled, his collar starched, and his boots varnished, despite the unnecessary inconvenience it causes. In a place where everything else is in a muddle, dusty, splayed with rubbish, "this man had verily accomplished something" (83). Marlowe's respect for the accountant derives from this accomplishment, this integrity. When faced with the repair of his ship, Marlowe goes to work immediately, stating, "[i]n that way only it seemed to me I could keep hold on the redeeming facts of life" (89). Here Marlowe begins to explicate his emphasis on work and integrity as having value in themselves. In order to prevent becoming a part of the dusty muddle of the station, Marlowe decides that he must rely on physical labor. The other men in the station "[strolled] aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard." Marlowe continues to scrutinize the meaning of this apparent vagrancy, with their "absurd long staves" and the "taint of imbecile rapacity" accompanying the word 'ivory' (89). Marlowe's extended call for rivets so he could "get on with the work," again emphasizes his priorities. After an extended conversation with the brickmaker of the Central Station about Kurtz and the "gang of virtue," the only real question on Marlowe's mind is when he will get his rivets (95). Marlowe then expands upon his philosophy about work. "I like what is in the work -- the chance to find yourself. Your own reality -- for yourself, not for others -- what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means" (97). Paired with the aspects of other men in the novel which Marlowe identifies with, this element in the work is a kind of work ethic or integrity -- a sense of accomplishment and a testament to oneself that defines existence on another level than the dusty, aimless vagrancy of the company men.

Marlowe also exhibits a resolution of frankness and truth. Throughout the novel he emphasizes his contempt for shallow, materialistic men (and "civilized" society) and his value on honesty. When confronted with the primal beating of the drums in the jungle, Marlowe discusses the facade of inhumanity attributed to the natives by the whites as a deceptive self-defense mechanism. "No, [the natives] were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it -- suspicion of their not being inhuman . . . but what thrilled you was just the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar" (105). Marlowe condemns the dishonesty of attributing the natives with an inhuman savagery simply as a means of self-deception. "Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise" (105-6). Marlowe even criticizes the professions of his friends to whom he is narrating, implying the futility of self-deception and even civilized behavior itself. "I felt often [the inner truth's] mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for -- what is it? half-a-crown a tumble" (103). In response to the protestations of one of his listeners, Marlowe replies: "I beg your pardon. I forgot the heartache which makes up the rest of the price. And indeed what does the price matter, if the trick be well done?" (103).

Here we come to the heart of Marlowe's philosophy. He realizes the futility of any "purpose." Why is he boating down the river into the heart of Africa? To get rich? To civilize the brutes with a civilization he sees as corrupt? No, Marlowe simply captains the boat because the boat needs a captain, and, as a captain, Marlowe needs a boat. This is not to say that Marlowe in any way accepts separatism, pessimism, or a selfish rejection of society. The very fact that Marlowe continues a path of struggle disproves these assertions. Marlowe chooses a strenuous philosophy by choosing to realize his own "heart of darkness" and the brutality of civilization. Ignorance could have provided him a paved road, but Marlowe rejects this option; it provides no integrity. At the same time, Marlowe could have rejected society and its facades by following in the path of Kurtz. Kurtz has rejected the facades and deceptions of society in favor of not only a recognition of his "heart of darkness," but a surrender to those dark temptations. In Kurtz' final moments, Marlowe describes the changes that came over him. "It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre 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?" (147). Kurtz then proceeds to judge his life, unrestrained violence, rampant greed, unconditional surrender to his "heart of darkness," in his final phrase, "The horror! The horror!" Marlowe meets the penultimate example of the deceptive facade of society, embodied in the Intended, and the extreme rejection of civilization, Kurtz. Marlowe rejects both of these paths, the Intended's being too smooth in ignorance, and Kurtz' being too smooth in complete surrender to primal urges. Marlowe's path, one of realization, acceptance, and a constant struggle to maintain integrity, provides a real continuity within Heart of Darkness.

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