Professor Dr. Carmen-Adina Ciugureanu/ Lecturer Dr. Florian Andrei Vlad Romanian-English, Second Year
13 May 2014
Notes on the title of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
It makes good sense to suggest that a title is conventionally chosen to represent the main idea of a novella, to correlate with a theme or motif. Heart of Darkness is no exception. Published in 1902, the novella illustrates the mentality and the culture of the white people at that time. They were confident in themselves and in their superiority as a breed. Mrs. Kurtz is the most representative character in this regard. The title of the novella can be interpreted in two different ways, literally and symbolically, especially because the author, Joseph Conrad, used it more as a metaphor. Literally, “darkness” refers to an inhospitable and unpleasant place such as Africa which has its heart in Congo. The explorer and writer Henry Morton Stanley also gave Africa the name of “the dark continent” because of its unexplored wilderness. Although Henry Morton Stanley and Joseph Conrad lived in different times and many parts of Africa had been explored and shown on the maps in Conrad’s time, the continent was still known as “the dark continent”. This name is somehow linked to the exploration, so it is but natural to propose it as one of the main themes of Heart of Darkness. The novella equilibrium is given by the beginning of this exploration in the heart of Africa, in Congo and the end of it. Both the beginning and the end are placed outside of the dark continent of Africa. The rest of the events take place in “heart of darkness” described as an impenetrable jungle with natives hidden all along the river Congo. The descriptive passages are meant to introduce the reader into the atmosphere of the book: We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair. (Conrad 20) The nature is personified using the term “ward off intruders” to illustrate the virginity of nature, the untouched nature, pure in its wildness without any intruders that might desecrate its sanctity. The metaphor “streams of death in life” sketches a part of the world that seems dead, uninhabited, undisturbed by anything, shrouded by a morbid silence. This stillness was not necessarily a pure one, but surely one with a mysterious purpose, with an impetuous force of rejection and revenge on the human being. I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the boulders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty rails. To the left a clump of trees made a shady spot, where dark things seemed to stir feebly. (22) From what Marlow says, the frightening part about nature is what makes even the manmade objects appear as extensions of the nature, such as the similarity between the railway-truck lying on its back with the wheels in the air and the carcass of a dead animal. Conrad used this comparison to highlight the superiority of nature over man and its creations which do not last. Eternity is found in nature, while manmade objects disappear in time. This idea is resumed in the final chapter when Marlow sees the secular trees, the eternal land clearly separated from civilization. This distinction makes civilization equivalent to change. While the Dark Continent is seen as a source of endless life (but still death lies in its tranquility and its wildness) - the civilization is seen as a life cycle, where no one and nothing lasts into eternity: The long reaches that were like one and the same reach, monotonous bends that were exactly alike, slipped past the steamer with their multitude of secular trees looking patiently after this grimy fragment of another world, the forerunner of change, of conquest, of trade, of massacres, of blessings. (115) Gradually as the narrative unfolds, Mr. Kurtz becomes a part of the darkness of Congo. He is the one who disturbs the African tribal rituals with an indigenous culture and a strong sense of spirituality. Kurtz represents the part of civilization equivalent to change, which was already mentioned above; therefore once he stepped into the wild world of Africa, he introduced a different attitude than the native’s beliefs. Conrad permits readers to see an Africa in which wildness is still preserved and there were not dozens of European colonies. (Said 25) So, we are witnesses to the construction of Africa, the wilderness and the beauty of the nature in its virginity in that environment hostile to civilization. At the same time, we are witnesses to its deconstruction by violating every untouched part by the hand of the white men and their black souls. The white man represents a threat to the African tribes, to their customs and their beliefs. Although there were not European colonies, the presence of Kurtz is symbolically linked to the wilderness and the beliefs of the natives. Their whole world slowly begins to disintegrate. At first sight, Kurtz treats them like children that need punishment or education, but he becomes dissatisfied with this approach and he decides that the situation in Africa can be improved only by killing all the people that cannot be fixed. The best solution that comes to his mind is: “Exterminate all the brutes!” (83). What is even more terrifying for Marlow is clearly the fact that Mr. Kurtz has a penchant for dark primitive rites. Even if the native’s rituals involve death and dismemberment, Kurtz’ acts are different because of its purpose. He made these crimes as acts of hate over their breed, while the natives have their rituals to connect with the energy of earth and with the power of the nature. This is the reason why Mr. Kurtz has become a barbarian. The helmsman of the steamer is killed by a lance thrown by a native, but the native only listened to Mr. Kurtz’ instructions. Step by step, Kurtz has come to identify himself with the natives and to participate at their ceremonies. This is the moment when he truly integrated himself in the primitiveness and becomes part of the heart of darkness, Congo. Symbolically, on the other hand, Heart of Darkness may represent not only a place where the darkest things had happened, but also a psychological journey. Through the novella, Marlow has many gleams. For example, he said that he hates lies, because he has found a mark of death in lies or he argues that no one can experience an action or a feeling which were recounted by another man. Every feeling is individual and everyone experiences it in their own way: “No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes it truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream -– alone.” (43) Throughout the novel, Marlow exposes his thoughts and tries to explore his subconscious. Thus Marlow says that the human mind can be viewed as a mystery, because in it we can find all the past and all the future. In order to face the cruel world, man ought to have a strong belief in its own powers and an inner strength. Later, Marlow describes his thoughts about Kurtz’ leaving the boat and venturing into the jungle. We can still feel his presence and determination when he starts thinking about several people that come to him and ask for the packet of papers and the photography that Kurtz entrusted to him. Many voices have commented on Conrad’s racism especially because the entire novella takes place under the eyes of a single character, Marlow. The readers have no alternatives and they need to take the words as they come considering it the truth. (Achebe 174-75, 177) Africa is shown as a totally different world contrasting with a refined and civilized Europe. Racism appears again when Marlow refers to Africans as specimens and he comments that one African is an improved specimen because he can fire up a vertical boiler. (Achebe 172) However, it would all be a fiasco without a dash of racism, because Conrad did not want to put the Africans in an inferior light, but he wanted to emphasize a different world as it is. Conclusively, Heart of Darkness represents the unknown, the nature in its wildness, the subconscious and Mr. Kurtz’s wickedness. But above all this, Heart of Darkness is mystery: mystery of spiritual life and mystery of man’s heart.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Australia. Planet EBook. Web. 13 May 2014.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1783-1794.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.