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Published: Thursday 31st of October 2013
During his stay in Great Britain (1898-1899), the famous writer Joseph Conrad wrote the widely-acclaimed novella Heart of Darkness. This outstanding piece of literature is set in Africa during a time when the European colonialism was at its peak. The story follows a steamboat captain called Marlow, who sails up the Congo River. The reason for which the captain goes to the African continent is to get away from the stringent societal boundaries that he had to face with in Europe. Seeing as his personality was governed by idealism, throughout his journey, Marlow seeks to demonstrate that the European imperialism was not an entirely bad thing for the Africans. However, the captain fails to discover any indication that colonialism also brings good things to Africa. His last hope is meeting Kurtz, a merchant conducting his business in Congo. The lead character is very anxious to talk to Kurtz, as he hopes that he will be able to show him that Europeans can also do good things in Africa. Nevertheless, as he sails up the Congo River and has several first-hand experiences of the harmful outcomes of colonization, Marlow understands that Europeans are genuinely up to no good and Africans have nothing to gain from their arrival. Eventually, he finds the same darkness that he has found in every European he has met in his very own heart.
When writing this novella, Joseph Conrad drew inspiration from the time he spent in Congo in the 1890’s. The main subject approached by the Heart of Darkness is the impact of colonization on the African continent throughout the 1890’s. Back in those days, that particular part of Africa was owned by King Leopold II of Belgium, who was confident that it was up to him to put an end to the savagery of the African populations by bringing the culture and refinement of the Europeans to Africa. The vast majority of European people thought of Africa as the Dark Continent, since Africans had a reputation of being primitive and vulgar. Moreover, Europeans believed that Africans had no real political organization and no culture whatsoever. As such, they thought it was their responsibility to bring culture and sophistication to Africa. This was how the colonization of the continent started.
The writer demonstrates what it means to have a heart of darkness through the endeavors of the main character. As the captain sails up the Congo and notices how cruel and monstrous the European colonization is, the reader becomes aware of the meaning of having a heart of darkness. The title of the novella symbolizes the soul of every human being, as we are all confronted with our genuine and sometimes innate malicious character. People often discover that they have a heart of darkness in the wake of their own unscrupulous decisions that enable them to acknowledge their real character. Throughout his travels, the leading character concludes that the entire European civilization has a heart of darkness. Marlow discovers that the European colonization is far from being a noble quest for bringing culture and refinement to Africa. Instead, imperialism represents a quest for exploiting the African population, driven by the avarice and the materialistic zeal of European people.
The main character travels to Africa because he can’t grasp the objectives of the colonization. In addition to that, he has heard a lot of bad things about the actions of Europeans in Africa. When he first sets foot in Africa, he has high hopes regarding European imperialism, in spite of what its critics claim. As his travels begin, the lead character becomes aware of the craziness of the European colonists when he comes across a French vessel that was persistently firing at a forest spread across the shoreline. At first, Marlow doesn’t understand what is happening and doesn’t know what to assume. However, in the end, he has no choice but to come to terms with the insanity of the situation. Marlow’s feeling of madness and darkness only increases when a member of the crew of the French ship tells him that he has nothing to worry about because they were only shooting at some natives, whom he refers to as “enemies.” As he proceeds with his journey, the main character notices death and destruction at a frightening pace. Marlow is shocked and devastated by all of the atrocities he observes. At this point, the leading character has his first-hand experience of the heart of darkness and gradually understands its meaning. As he arrives at the outer station of the European colonists, he comes across several Africans who have been chained and kept as slaves. This makes him aware of the devastating rate of death and destruction once more. Moreover, he notices that European colonists also face hardships on the African continent, such as illnesses, dangerous insects, or the dreadfully hot weather. The significance of the events at the outer European station is that the Africans aren’t the only ones who have to suffer the adverse outcomes of colonialism and that the European colonists also undergo terrifying experiences there. In essence, no one can truly benefit from the European colonization of the African continent. Throughout the ten days he spends at the station, the main character finds out the story of Kurtz. After finding out so much about the harmful impact of colonialism, Marlow now learns about someone who sincerely wants to help the Africans. After finding out about this, the leading character wishes to discover Kurtz’ location and have a conversation with him regarding the way in which he helps the native African people.
As his journey unravels, the steamboat captain comes across more and more situations of brutality and viciousness and discovers more of the heart of darkness that appears to be a trait by which every European colonist is tainted. For instance, the leading character catches glimpses of a discussion between the leader of the company and his uncle regarding Kurtz’ situation. The two men are planning to hang Kurtz, and they are talking about the manner in which they can do it. The conversation reveals that they want Kurtz to die because they see him as a competitor that they need to eliminate. According to their own words, there is nothing that one cannot achieve in Africa. Although they seem to be sophisticated when Marlow first encounters them, these people have some wild and ferocious inherent instincts. When discovering this, the main character once again learns about the heart of darkness that characterizes people. The writer provides an outstanding portrayal of the barbarism and primal tendencies that human beings possess through Marlow’s description of the uncle’s behavior while talking to the manager of the company. He points out the uncle’s “treacherous appeal to the lurking death,” which he later refers to as “the profound darkness of its heart.” As the captain keeps on sailing towards Kurtz’ location, the manifestations of the European culture get substituted with a darker and wilder atmosphere. In my opinion, this represents a very apt metaphor for the darkness that one can find inside every human being. Although someone may seem cultured and well-mannered at first glance, as you learn more about them, you start to understand that their soul is, in reality, dark and savage.
As the leading character arrives at Kurtz’ known location, he stumbles upon a young man who explains to him how Kurtz has the habit of exploring the forest by himself, storming the settlements in the area in the hope of finding ivory and winning the trust of the locals. The young man also tells the main character that Kurtz once nearly killed him over some ivory. He explains that Kurtz threatened to shoot him unless he handed over the ivory he found and left the state. The young man reveals that Kurtz enjoys killing people and that no one can stop him from murdering whoever he wants. After learning this about Kurtz, Marlow gives up his dream of discovering some goodness in the European colonization of the African continent. The fact that the main character initially hears good things about Kurtz and thinks of him as a good person, and then learns that he is also corrupt and unscrupulous and has performed horrible deeds in Africa represents yet another metaphor that symbolizes evil and the heart of darkness by which everyone is tainted.
Eventually, the leading character meets Kurtz and has a conversation with him on the steamboat. When Marlow runs into Kurtz, he was looking at some tribal ritual. The main character attempts to convince Kurtz to return with him to the ship. However, as he studies Kurtz’ behavior, Marlow understands that the man has been driven insane by the time he spent in the wilderness all by himself. Moreover, the main character concludes that he has the same feeling of loneliness in his heart. This makes him understand that he also possesses a heart of darkness. One day later, as the two men travel down the Congo in the steamboat, Kurtz dies. His very last words are “The horror! The horror.” In my opinion, these words point out to the horrible actions that people can perform when all societal limitations fade away. In what regards Kurtz’ situation, people were inclined to turn a blind eye to his evil and wicked deeds, provided that he offered them ivory. When Kurtz utters his last words before dying, he refers to the horrific deeds that human beings are willing to perform when the limitations imposed by society disappear.
When Marlow first sets foot in the African continent, he is very hopeful about discovering some goodness in the actions of the European colonists. However, as his journey unravels, the main character finds out the heart of darkness – a wild innate tendency that everyone has but only reveals it under the right circumstances. While he sails up the Congo River, the steamboat captain’s confrontations with this horrible darkness become more recurrent and stronger. As the plot progresses, Marlow struggles with his own heart of darkness. Finally, he has no choice but to come to terms with it. When he witnesses Kurtz’ death on the steamboat, Marlow hears his last words: “The horror! The horror!”. By saying this, Kurtz reveals a sad truth about human nature. As a result of his encounter with Kurtz, the main character has the possibility of scrutinizing the heart of darkness to which the man succumbed. Marlow undoubtedly learns a lot from the unforgettable events that he witnesses in Congo. However, we cannot for sure whether this was an advantageous or a damaging experience for his personality.
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