Darkness Revealed Through an Ill-omened Voyage
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Heart of Darkness, a novel par excellence, was written by Joseph Conrad in 1902. It is a voyage through the murky essence of the mankind. The narrator (name not divulged) of the story is not of much significance excepting the fact that it is through him that we know about Charles Marlow (the main character) and his perilous voyage. The story begins aboard a boat wedged on the river Thames, due to an inundation, and is based on Marlow’s brief narration of his childhood and his stint as a river-boat captain in Africa. “Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration…” said Marlow about his childhood. There were four other men on the boat, but none was named by Conrad. As they waited for the tide to subside, the change in the skyline from bright to gloomy is what corresponds to the storyline. Basically, Heart of Darkness explores the murky Congo wasteland, the brutal conduct of the Belgians towards the natives of Africa and the obscurity of human beings.Marlow has been described as a man of short stature, with bent shoulders and bowlegged. Joseph Conrad and Michael Matin mentioned in their book, Heart of Darkness and selected short Fiction as follows, “He had a nut-cracker face - chin and nose trying to come together over a sunken mouth - and it was framed in iron-gray fluffy hair that looked like a chin-strap of cotton-wool sprinkled with coal dust. And he had blue eyes in that old face of his…” (Conrad et al, 8). Another man on the ship has been described as having a Roman nose and a silvery long beard. This man had a bad luck throughout his life. If we observe the activities of Kurtz and his reputation in the jungle, it will be clear that he had spread so much terror that people had started revering him as a Godly figure. He is portrayed as a man who crosses the boundaries of sanity and sinks into the darkness of insanity. The General Manager is also not of good qualities or character. He and Kurtz share some immoralities. He is only concerned about him and his success and controls of the people with his muscle power. Then there is this brick maker who holds a grudge against Kurtz because due to his arrival, he lost the opportunity of becoming the assistant manager. On the other hand, the pilgrims (soldiers) are on the lookout for a chance to get appointed as agents, so that they are able to make a fortune by trading ivory. They have bitterness with the natives. Likewise, we see that the darkness these people have inside their hearts is revealed by their actionsWhen the boat is anchored at the Thames and as night begins to fall, the scene is described by the narrator as follows, “And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over as crowd of men.” This makes us understand the mindset of the speaker. He is surrounded by despair and so he describes his surroundings in a similar manner. On the contrary, sun-set is a beautiful view. It shows us the brightness, serenity and coolness of colors. The view appeases our eyes and calms our souls. However, the narrator seems to be a desolate person. Then, before Marlow starts speaking, it is mentioned that the sun was setting and dark clouds hung over the river. This again shows the gloominess surrounding the narrator.
On another occasion, Marlow saw two women who were knitting black wool and that too feverishly. Now in normal circumstances, if we see women knitting wool, we don’t raise our eye-brows. A cat was resting at the feet of the older woman who was sitting on a chair. Now this is also normal because people have cats as pets. Nevertheless, Marlow interprets the situation in a rather hysterical way. He refers to the two ladies as guarding the door of darkness.
In fact, I counted the number of times the word “darkness” has been used in the novel. It was surprising to note that the number is twenty five. This fact alone is enough to establish my topic’s idea that the voyage is ill-omened, but still, I shall give some more examples and explanations to prove my point of view.
It is mentioned in the novel that the jungle on the sides of the river that Marlow sailed was awfully gloomy and threatening. Someone should ask what else a jungle will look like. Due to the dense trees, the sunlight cannot enter the jungle hence it is dark. It’s so simple, but our Marlow describes it in a gloomy way. It’s the way you look at things. Similar was the case when the manager’s uncle pointed towards the jungle that was full of “profound darkness”.
While on the course of his voyage, Marlow described his ship’s course as moving straight and profoundly into the heart of darkness. If we think logically, while sailing on a river that has dense jungle on both sides, the river will seem to be disappearing into the jungle at a far off place. This again is a normal happening which has been exaggerated by Marlow.
Another instance of Marlow’s depiction of his mindset is visible when he tells his fellow members of the boat that Kurtz was from the powers of darkness. Supposedly, Marlow said this because the natives of the jungle revered Kurtz as a Godly figure. The fact was that the natives were terrorized by Kurtz, hence out of fear came the feeling of reverence.
One day at midnight Marlow woke up and heard chants being recited. The chants seemed to be coming out of the “black, flat walls of the woods”. In fact, the pilgrims who were accompanying Marlow in the boat were chanting the religious mantras. They chose to recite the mantras in the night and in the jungle because there was no one to distract them at that time of night and in that part of the jungle.
There are some more examples which force us to believe that the voyage is full of such nefarious acts where people’s gloomy thinking is visible. Just to wind up my reasoning, here is another example: When Marlow goes to meet Kurtz’s fiancé; she was in a black (symbol of bereavement) dress. As they proceeded with conversation, the room is said to have become darker and darker. Obviously, after dusk comes night and the surroundings start becoming darker. The last but not the least, the novel ends with a gloomy note as follows, “…by a black blank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” The misery is clearly noticeable in these words.
Marlow’s such behavior is explained by the Lit Bitch, an online critic site, as follows, “The wickedness is present in both Marlow and Kurtz because the Congo lacks reasonable, authoritative society. Here man must survive and the id is responsible for that survival, for Marlow in the jungle the motto is: ‘kill or be killed’.” (The Lit Bitch, 2011)
“Throughout his fiction, Conrad explicitly – sometimes with numbing tedium – labels events, things and people ‘unspeakable’, ‘indefinite’, ‘inexpressible’, ‘imperceptible’, ‘inexplicable’, ‘difficult to imagine’, ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘inconceivable’, and he structures his narratives in ways that further diminish any appearance of certainty or reliability.” (Rodwan)
According to the story, Marlow was employed by a company to transport ivory and to stealthily sneak out Kurtz, another ivory trader. Kurtz, by the virtue of his management tactics, was able to earn a reputation and had collected huge quantities of ivory. During his stay in Africa, Kurtz gradually got inclined towards the corruption and made himself a demigod. The boss of the company felt threatened by Kurtz’s existence and wanted to collapse his reputation. So, Marlow was entrusted the job of bringing back Kurtz.
Marlow was not happy with his fellow white workers, because they considered him as being trivial and deceitful. In the course of his assignment, Marlow reached the Central Trading Station that was managed by a manager who has been depicted as nasty and malevolent. Marlow’s suspicion on the manager was augmented when one day he found that his ship had sunk. He was sure that the manager had something to do with it. Poor Marlow had to toil and wait for a couple of months to get his ship repaired. It seems Kurtz was ill and this was one of the reasons for the delay because Marlow had to take him along. This was the period when Marlow came to understand that the manager was deadly against Kurtz and wanted to get rid of him. However, the show must go on. That’s what Marlow thought and he set out on a tedious voyage along with the manager, some white negotiators and a crew of black cannibal tribesmen. “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings…” While on their way up river, they fell into a trap. For the need for firewood, they stopped to collect some that were laid on the river bank with a note, “When deciphered it said: ‘Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously’”. As soon as they resumed sail, the ship was surrounded by a thick fog and was trounced by a gang of concealed inhabitants, who shot arrows from the forest. Marlow was saddened by the death of one of the crew members (black) in the encounter. By now, he was sure that the same inhabitants might have killed Kurtz and his people as well. His assumption was proved wrong when they reached the Kurtz’s post, which seemed to be unscathed. A Russian greeted Marlow and his crew. He was a simple trader when he came in contact with Kurtz. Since then he became a sort of disciple. The Russian relieved Marlow by informing that everything was fine and under control. He, being honest and straightforward, acquainted Marlow with the fact that it was Kurtz who had ordered the attack on their ship. It was the Russian who had left the firewood near the river bank. As per the Russian’s statement, Kurtz stooped to this mean act because he was afraid of being taken back.
Since Kurtz was feeble and weak due to his illness, Marlow and his men helped him board the ship. Mission accomplished, Marlow and his men set sail. Although Marlow was not impressed by the way Kurtz dealt with people, yet keeping in mind his reputation, he lodged him in his pilot house. During their return voyage, Kurtz was doubtful about the manager’s intentions. So he handed over some important documents and a photograph to Marlow. “One morning he gave me a packet of papers and a photograph – the lot tied together with a shoe-string. ‘Keep this for me,’ he said. ‘This noxious fool’ (meaning the manager) ‘is capable of prying into my boxes when I am not looking’”. The photograph, as per Kurtz, was of “his intended”. Then the night of death (Kurtz’s) arrived. Marlow was with Kurtz when he spoke his last words, “The horror! The horror!” These words can be interpreted in different ways, but Marlow thought that these words were of Kurtz’s remorseful soul, repenting for his iniquitous deeds.
Marlow didn’t intend to break the news of Kurtz’s demise instantly but the manager’s child servant, who had been a veiled spectator, disdainfully told all the crew members about the incident. “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”
After reaching Europe and after a year of confrontation with people in quest of Kurtz’s stuff and beliefs, Marlow went to meet Kurtz’s fiancée. When he saw her mournful state, instead of telling her the truth, he told her that Kurtz died uttering her name. “The last word he pronounced was – your name.”