Heart of Darkness

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Marlow's Moral Ambiguity

In the novella, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad expresses the absurdity of European imperialism in Africa as well as the moral dilemma of a man in a godless world. The lack of Christianity or of any morally stable system is evident not only to the reader, but to the characters as well. Marlow's narrative explains man's instinctual desires (id) versus man's mortality (superego). He is disgusted at the brutality of the company and horrified by Kurtz's degeneration, but he claims that any thinking man would be tempted into similar behavior.

In the beginning, Marlow snakes down the river for the sole purpose of fulfilling his dreams of adventure. When he arrives he discovers mass destruction on the earth and people. He is repulsed at the white man's greed and brutality to the natives. Although he distances himself from these "pilgrims," he is highly critical of his surroundings. Throughout the novella, Marlow longs for the evidence proving that these men can display rational and benevolent dominance over Africa. In fact, who are we to say that we have a key to a civilization our hands? When dealing with the superego and the id, the theme of restraint comes into play. Marlow refers to the "cannibals" as restraining in that even though they are powerful men, they wouldn't attack even though they outnumber the white man. In contrast, he refers to the pilgrims and Kurtz as instigating, saying that their souls know no restraint. Marlow's moral ambiguity comes into play when his intermediary position results in his almost fatal illness. He will never see the natives as human beings because he cannot bring himself to condemn the imperialists. When he lies to Kurtz's Intended, he is not only participating in what he hates, but in something that says imperialism is just. By doing nothing to stop "the horror", he unknowingly accepts to "exterminate all the brutes" and allows it to flow through the heart of darkness. Because he has not...
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