Conrad’s Novel “Heart Of Darkness” Essay, Research Paper
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 withCharlie 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
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 themidst 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 youor 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
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.
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
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 Europeans apply the terms ‘enemy’ and ‘criminals’ to the natives. In
actuality, they are simply “bewildered and helpless victims…and moribund
shadows”(Berthoud. 46). Clearly, the injustice done by the simple misnaming of
someone is unbelievable. After witnessing all of these names which bare no true
meaning, as well as possibly degrade a person’s character, Marlow understands that he
can not continue in his former ways of mindlessly giving random names to something in
fear of diminishing the essence of the recipient. As a result, Marlow finds himself unable
to label something for what it is. While under attack, Marlow reefers to the arrows
being shot in his direction as “sticks, little sticks”, and a spear being thrown at his boat
“a long cane”(75–77). When Marlow arrives at the inner station, he sees “slim
posts…in a row” with their “ends ornamented with round carved balls”(88). In truth,
these are poles with skulls on top of them. Marlow can formulate a name even for the
simplest of things.
Taking a step back and looking at his voyage, Marlow realizes the insignificant,
mindless, meaningless ‘labels’ which the Europeans use to identify with something, and
he wants to be able to “give to experience, names that have some substance”. At this
point, he is similar to Adam in the Garden of Eden who is “watching the parade of
nameless experience” go by. However, Marlow is missing an essential thing which Adam
possessed. As opposed to Adam, who was delegated by G-d to name experiences,
Marlow lacked this authority to name. It is Kurtz who will become this authority, and
eventually teach Marlow the essence of a name(Johnson. 76).
Mr. Kurtz is the Chief of the Inner Station. He is a “universal genius, a prodigy, an
emissary of pity science and progress”(40-45). It is Kurtz who will teach Marlow what a
name is, for one simple reason…
“The man presented himself as a voice…of all his gifts, the one that stood out
preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his
words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating…(79).”
Kurtz was “little more than a voice”(80), but there was no one with a voice like his. He
could speak with remarkable eloquence, he could write with such precision… he could
name with true meaning! “You don’t talk with that man[Kurtz], you listen to him”(90)!
Marlow has heard enough about Kurtz, in this case from his devoted pupil, to know that
it is he who can provide Marlow with the authority to offer “correct and substantial
Indeed, Kurtz gives Marlow everything Marlow is looking for. However, he does it in a
very unconventional way. Kurtz teaches Marlow the lesson with his last words. “The
horror! The horror!”(118). These last words are Kurtz’s own judgment, judgment on the
life which he has lived. He is barbarous, unscrupulous, and possibly even evil. However,
he has evaluated at his life, and he has “pronounced a judgment upon the adventures
of his soul on this earth”(118). Marlow sees Kurtz “open his mouth wide—it gave him a
weirdly voracious aspect, as though he wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all
the men before him…”(101). Kurtz takes everything in. He takes his life, and puts it all
out on the table. “He had summed up— he had judged…The horror!”(119).
Kurtz’s last words is his way of teaching Marlow the essence of a name. A name is not
merely a label. It is one man’s own judgment of an isolated event. However, unlike the
Europeans who judge based on already existing principles which they have ‘acquired’,
Kurtz taught Marlow to look inside of himself and to judge based on his own subjective
creeds. While Marlow is recounting the story, he says to his comrades:
“He must meet that truth with his own true stuff—with his own inborn strength.
Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, prettyrags—rags that would fly off at the
first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish
row—is there? Very well; I hear; I admit, but have a voice too, and for good or evil
mine is the voice that can not be silenced (60).”
This is the lesson which Marlow has learned. Objective standards alone will not lead one
to recognize the reality in something. One can not only depend on anther’s principles to
find his reality in something because they have not had to bear the pain and
responsibility of creating it. Principles are usually acquisitions, which like other things
we acquire rather than generate, like clothes are easily shaken off. The power of
speech which will sustain a man is the power to create or affirm for one’s self a
deliberate, or a chosen belief (Bruce Johnson. 79).
This judgment must be from one’s own internal strengths. That is why Marlow says, “for
good or evil, mine is the speech that can not be silenced”. As Kurtz has taught him with
his own judgment, a judgment of truth overpowers morality. To find one’s own reality,
one must not rely solely on other people’s morality, others people’s ‘principles’ and he
must assess his own life. What Kurtz did is that he showed that regardless of whether
the truth is good or bad, one must face up to his reality. He must face up to his own
actions even when the conclusion is “the horror”, and by doing so, he will find his true
Marlow understands that being true to yourself is not following anther’s moral code, but
being able to judge one’s self honestly and uncover their own reality. It is because of
this understanding that Marlow claims that Kurtz’s last words is “a moral victory paid for
by innumerable defeats…”(120). Despite Kurtz’s immoral ways, he is victorious because
he didn’t run away from the truth; and that is his moral victory. He is true to himself.!
On his voyage, Marlow notices at one of the stations, a picture that Kurtz had drawn
when he was there. It is a “sketch in oils on a panel representing a woman draped and
blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre—almost black”(40).
At the time, Marlow didn’t really know what it meant. However, this is a precise
representation of Kurtz himself. Firstly, the background was “sombre—almost black”.
This is a manifestation of Kurtz because his life is full of darkness. He kills, he steals,
and he is worshipped as a god. Kurtz cannot be without blackness and survive. In
addition, the picture displays the lesson itself. It is a picture of the lady of justice
holding a torch. This is Kurtz’s role. Unlike Europe, which imposes their principles upon
others, he is merely there to “illuminate”(79). Kurtz is there to expand the peoples
minds, to introduce them to a broad new spectrum of reality. However, he does not
impose his own reality upon them. Hence, he is blindfolded in the picture. To him, they
make a subjective decision and they find their own truth, regardless of what that truth
may be. That is his lesson.
Eventually Marlow realizes that Kurtz’s picture was in essence, a self portrait. The same
thing which Kurtz conveyed with ‘the horror’, he conveyed with this picture. Marlow’s
realization is evident with this remark. “I don’t like work—no man does—but I like
what’s in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not
Marlow learns the essence of ‘naming’ and understands what it means to ‘be yourself’.
However, Marlow has encountered two extremes. The European mentality, which is
completely oblivious to reality, and Kurtz, a man who has found his reality, but it is one
of horror and no restraint from any wrongdoing. He is now returning to his home to deal
with his former world, however, he now possesses his new ‘understanding’. Marlow
cannot return to his previous ‘European ways’ simply because he has ‘been enlightened’
and lost his naivet?.
However, why can’t he adapt Kurtz’s ways and live the other extreme? At one point,
Marlow had “peeped over the edge”(119). Why didn’t he ‘jump over’? Marlow is repelled
from joining Kurtz for several reasons. Firstly, Kurtz had “kicked himself loose from the
earth…he had kicked the earth to pieces. He was alone, and I[Marlow] before him did
not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air”(112). Kurtz had denied
any sort of moral convictions in order to be worshipped as a god. Because of this
unmonitered power, Kurtz lost all sense of restraint and became the savage that he
was. Marlow, however, has not lost his sense of morality. What Marlow rejected in
Kurtz was the “complete absence in Kurtz of any innate or transcendental sanctions”
It is because of Marlow’s rejection of both the Europeans, who Marlow claims are full of
“stupid importance”, and of Kurtz’sinability to establish his own moral code, that Marlow
chooses an “alternative reality”(Berthoud. 60). The first time the reader witnesses
Marlow’s choice and becomes a centrist, is when he first gets back to Europe. Marlow
finds himself resenting the way the Europeans went about their life, “hurrying through
the streets to filch a little money from each other…”(120).Not only did he find their
lives meaningless, but he mocked them to himself. “I had no particular desire to
enlighten them, but I had some difficulty restraining myself from laughing in their faces
so full of stupid importance… I tottered about the streets…grinning bitterly at
perfectly respectable people. I admit my behavior was inexcusable…” (120). Although
Marlow looked down upon these Europeans, he says something remarkable. He judged
his own actions and found them ‘inexcusable’. This is his manifestation of breaking away
from Kurtz’s extreme. Unlike Kurtz who lacked all restraint and would never find looking
down on people bad, Marlow realized that he couldn’t hold it against them simply
because they didn’t know better. Clearly, Marlow is edging toward a ‘middle ground’.
Despite this act of judgment, the reader doesn’t know exactly where Marlow stands.
However, Marlow does something that is the quintessential act of affirmation that he
has chose the middle of the two extremes. While aboard the Nellie, Marlow tells his
comrades that “I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie…simply because it appalls me.
There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies…”(44). Towards the end of the
novel, Marlow is invited by Kurtz’s fiancee to go to her house to speak of her beloved
Kurtz. Upon her asking Marlow what his last words were, Marlow responded “The last
word he pronounced was—your name”(131). He lies to her. He does something he
utterly detests. This is the event that convinces the reader of Marlow’s uptaking of a
middle position. He does look inside himself and use his own personal ability to judge
this event. He does what Kurtz had told him. Despite his abhorrence of lies, he judges
this situation and decides that it was right to lie. However, he is different from Kurtz.
Kurtz did judge every event independently, however, he does it solely based on his own
whims. He could not incorporate any objective principles whatsoever in making his
decision. Marlow does judge every event independently, however, he can not rely
solely on his own creeds. Regardless of his decision, he will always incorporate some
objective principles into his judgment. Marlow now creates his ‘alternative reality’ and
achieves his truth.
When Marlow was exposed to the imperialistic environment of the congo, it had a
tremendous effect upon him. The protagonist of Conrad’s novel undergoes a drastic
change in response to his environment, common only to that specific time period. Kurtz
shows Marlow the flaws in the Europeans imperialistic ideals. Kurtz sees the
meaninglessness of European standards of the time, and therefore changes his entire
perception and behavior.