Joseph Conrad Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, relies on the historical period of imperialism in order to describe its protagonist, Charlie Marlow, and his struggle. Marlow’s catharsis in the novel, as he goes to the Congo, rests on how he visualizes the effects of imperialism. This paper will analyze Marlow’s “change,” as caused by his exposure to the imperialistic nature of the historical period in which he lived. Marlow is asked by “the company”, the organization for whom he works, to travel to the Congo river and report back to them about Mr. Kurtz, a top notch officer of theirs.
When he sets sail, he doesn’t know what to expect. When his journey is completed, this little “trip” will have changed Marlow forever! Heart of Darkness is a story of one man’s journey through the African Congo and the “enlightenment” of his soul. It begins with Charlie Marlow, along with a few of his comrades, cruising aboard the Nellie, a traditional sailboat. On the boat, Marlow begins to tell of his experiences in the Congo. Conrad uses Marlow to reveal all the personal thoughts and emotions that he wants to portray while Marlow goes on this “voyage of a lifetime”.
Marlow begins his voyage as an ordinary English sailor who is traveling to the African Congo on a “business trip”. He is an Englishmen through and through. He’s never been exposed to any alternative form of culture, similar to the one he will encounter in Africa, and he has no idea about the drastically different culture that exists out there. Throughout the book, Conrad, via Marlow’s observations, reveals to the reader the naive mentality shared by every European. Marlow as well, shares this naivet in the beginning of his voyage.
However, after his first few moments in the Congo, he realizes the ignorance he and all his comrades possess. We first recognize the general naivet of the Europeans when Marlow’s aunt is seeing him for the last time before he embarks on his journey. Marlow’s aunt is under the assumption that the voyage is a mission to “wean those ignorant millions from their horrid ways”(18-19). In reality, however, the Europeans are there in the name of imperialism and their sole objective is to earn a substantial profit by collecting all the ivory in Africa. Another manifestation of the Europeans obliviousness towards reality is seen when Marlow is recounting his adventure aboard the Nellie.
He addresses his comrades who are on board saying: “When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality–the reality I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching over 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—(56).” What Marlow is saying is that while he is in the Congo, although he has to concentrate on the petty little everyday things, such as overseeing the repair of his boat, he is still aware of what is going on around him and of the horrible reality in which he is in the midst of. On the other hand, his friends on the boat simply don’t know of these realities. It is their ignorance, as well as their innocence which provokes them to say “Try to be civil, Marlow”(57).
Not only are they oblivious to the reality which Marlow is exposed to, but their naivet is so great, they can’t even comprehend a place where this ‘so called’ reality would even be a bad dream! Hence, their response is clearly rebuking the words of a “savage” for having said something so ridiculous and “uncivilized”. Quite surprisingly, this mentality does not pertain exclusively to the Englishmen in Europe. At one point during Marlow’s voyage down the Congo, his boat hits an enormous patch of fog. At that very instant, a”very loud cry” is let out(66). After Marlow looks around and makes sure everything is all right, he observes the contrasts of the whites and the blacks expressions.
It was very curious to see the contrast of expression of the white men and of the black fellows of our crew, who were as much strangers to this part of the river as we, though their homes were only eight hundred miles away. The whites, of course greatly discomposed, had besides a curious look of being painfully shocked by such an outrageous row. The others had an alert, naturally interested expression; but their faces were essentially quiet. . .
(67). Once again, we see the simple-mindedness of the Europeans, even if they were exposed to reality. Their mentality is engraved in their minds and is so impliable, that even the environment of the Congo can’t sway their belief that people simply don’t do the horrible things Marlow recounts. The whites are dumbfounded and can not comprehend how people, in this case the natives, would simply attack these innocent people. That would just be wrong! The blacks, however, who are cognizant of the reality in which they live, are “essentially quiet”. They feel right at home, and are not phased by the shriek.
Similarly, the difference of mentalities is shown when Marlow speaks of the portion of his crew who are cannibals. While in the midst of his journey, Marlow, quite casually, converses with these cannibals; even about their animalistic ways! As Jacques Berthoud said so accurately in his Joseph Conrad, “what would be nspeakable horror in London..becomes, on the Congo river, an unremarkable topic of conversation..”(47). These “unspeakable horrors” are hardly unspeakable in the Congo because they are normal occurrences there. On the Nellie, Marlow explains to his comrades, the basic difference between living in Europe, and being in the Congo. He states: “You can’t understand.
How could you? With solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammeled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion(82)?” In Europe, there are “kind neighbors” who are there to make sure that everything is all right. The European lives his life “stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman”. Everywhere he looks, there is always someone there who can “catch him if he is falling”. On the other hand, once a man enters the Congo, he is all alone. No policeman, no “warning voice of a kind neighbor”..no one! It is now when Marlow enters the Congo and begins his voyage, that he realizes the environment he comes from is not reality, and the only way he is going to discover reality is to keep going up the river..
There is one specific theme in Heart of Darkness in which the reader can follow Marlow’s evolution from the “everyday European” to a man who realizes his own naivet and finally to his uncovering of his own reality. This evolution comes about as a direct result of Marlow’s observations of how things are named. This sounds very unusual, that a man would find his true reality by observing the names of certain things. However, it is precisely these observations which change Marlow forever. Marlow first realizes the European’s flaw of not being able to give something a name of significance, in the beginning of his voyage, when he has not quite reached the Congo, but he is extremely close. Once, I remember, we came upon a man of war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush.
It appears the French had one of their wars going on there-abouts. Her ensign dropped like a limp rag; the muzzles of the long six inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.
There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere (21). Conrad is teaching us something extremely important. Berthoud points out that the “intelligibility of what men do depends upon the context in which they do it.” Marlow is watching this occurrence. He sees the Europeans firing “tiny projectiles” and their cannons producing a “pop”. The Europeans, however, see themselves fighting an all out war against the savage enemies in the name of imperialism! The Europeans feel that this is an honorable battle, and therefore, all get emotionally excited and fight with all they have.
Marlow, however, sees it differently. He is now in Africa where reality broods. It’s lurking everywhere. The only thing one has to do to find it is open his mind to new and previously ‘unheard’ of ideas. He looks at this event and reduces it from the European’s image of a supposedly intense battle, with smoke and enemies everywhere, to a futile firing of “tiny projectiles “into an empty forest. For the first time, Marlow recognizes the falsity of the European mentality, and their inability to characterize an event for what it is.
At the end of the passage, his fellow European crewmember is assuring Marlow that the allied ship is defeating the “enemies”, and that they just couldn’t see the”enemies” because they were “hidden out of sight somewhere”. In actuality, they’re shooting at innocent natives who have probably fled from the area of battle already. Marlow is beginning to realize that”what makes sense in Europe no longer makes sense in Africa”(Berthoud. 46). With that passage, Conrad informs the reader of Marlow’s realization.
From that point on, Marlow is looking to corroborate if in actuality, the mentality instilled upon him in Europe is similar to this, or if those are atypical Europeans who are living in a dream world. As the novel continues, Marlow recognizes that this flaw of not being able to see something for what it is, and in turn, not being able to give it an accurate “label”, is indeed “the European way”. There are some names given by the Europeans that simply don’t fit the characteristic of the object being named. Marlow points out that the name ‘Kurtz’ means short in German. However, at Marlow’s first glance at Kurtz, he remarks how Kurtz appears to be “seven feet long”(101).
Conrad shows us, through Marlow’s observation, how Kurtz’s name is just a blatant oxy-moron. Marlow recognizes yet another obvious misrepresentation. Marlow meets a man who is called the”bricklayer”. However, as Marlow himself points out, “there wasn’t a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station”(39). During his voyage, however, Marlow doesn’t only observe this misnaming, but realizes the importance of a name. While overhearing a conversation between the manager of the station and his uncle, he hears Mr. Kurtz being refereed to as “that man”(53). Although Marlow hasn’t met Kurtz yet, he has heard of his greatness.
He now realizes that by these men calling him “that man”, they strip him of all his attributes. When one hears Kurtz, they think of a ” very remarkable person”(39). These men are now, by not referring to him by his name, denying Kurtz’s accomplishments. This same idea of distorting a person’s character by changing his name is displayed elsewhere. The Europ …