Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness does not explicitly deal with a struggle between war and peace: the conflict is a psychological, moral one; however, the text's implications that society is a thin veil over our innate savagery, the darkness at the roots of Western civilization, reveals disturbing truths about the peaceful, orderly lives we take for granted. The key to understanding Conrad's novella lies in ascertaining the metaphorical significance of the "heart of darkness," a search which may yield an answer as complex and obscure than any geographical, sociological or psychological solution.
Since its publication, several critics have categorized Heart of Darkness as a travelogue, or, at the least, a seaman's tale mixed with autobiographical elements from Conrad's life, yet the story itself refutes such interpretations:
The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be expected), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze
. (Miller 68) Conrad's story is obviously about more than a bad trip into the jungle. In several respects, it is a "study on the effects of man's isolation from the civilized world, represented by Kurtz" (Miller 129). The title "Heart of Darkness" the name itself implies a sense of unknown evil, and invokes thoughts of secrecy and mystery. It paints paradoxes of seemingly clear concepts and states, such as the mental condition of central character Kurtz, an enigmatic ivory trader deep in the heart of the "Dark Continent." The setting indeed takes place in a region remarkably like the Congo that has led many scholars to automatically label it as such.( Lackey ) For the purposes of this essay, I will acknowledge such connections while keeping in mind that we are dealing with a work of literary fiction, which places its ultimate basis outside the realm of real-life locales. Unlike Lord of the Flies and other works, Heart of Darkness is not relegated to a singular, primeval location removed from the rule of law. It includes Brussels and London, though not directly stated, places within the confines or "heart" of civilization. This does not necessarily mean the "heart of darkness" exists throughout all the places described. Before reaching that conclusion, the imagery and diction employed to depict each setting must be looked at. At the start of the novel
[use of "dark"]
also at the end
[use of "shadow", "blackness"] After evaluating these examples, it is possible to assume with little doubt that Conrad considers the very bastions of Western civilization breeding places of a dark malady. It may be an overgeneralization to extend the reaches of this "darkness" to mankind as a whole since the areas "afflicted" with it are considered civilized, limiting it essentially to the Western world.
The Congo in Africa is home to dark native peoples that are portrayed with a natural, primal quality, a stark contrast to the civilizations in Europe. This is the setting for British imperialism at work. It is therefore the setting where the supposed sophistication of civilized men is deconstructed, and all men are revealed to share a common darkness. Africa and its inhabitants show an external darkness, while it is revealed that the colonizers contain darkness within. Heart of Darkness is a criticism of imperialism that uses the metaphor of darkness in the human heart to show the similarity between cultural groups perceived as different; elements of racism are used inside the darkness metaphor to emphasize anti-imperialism. Darkness and its opposite, light, are contrasted in Heart of Darkness to reveal the irony of imperialism. Traditionally, light and darkness represent civilization and the uncivilized world, respectively. In some cases, the description of darkness appears...
Cited: Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer. New York: New American
Conrad, Joseph. "An Outpost of Progress." The Experience of Literature. Ed. Gene
Montague. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970. 59-81.
Lackey, Michael. "The moral conditions for genocide in Joseph Conrad 's Heart of
Darkness". College Literature Wntr 2005: Vol. 32 il p20(22). Detroit:
Gale Research, Feb. 2005. Infotrac. Gale Group. 15 Mar. 2005 .
Miller, J. Hillis. Others. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
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