The Heart of Darkness: The Ultimate Choice of Man A single word holds the potential to have multiple connotations. Stringing these subjective words into a novel may have a catastrophic effect on the readers. However, a story’s ability to comprise of several different interpretations provides deeper insight and depth. In Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness, there are various viewpoints one may take throughout the main character Marlow’s journey.
But Conrad’s artful use of dualistic symbolism is arguably the most crucial because it highlights the underlying theme, which stresses the dual nature of man and his choice to control his actions. During the entirety of the book, dualism is constantly utilized to contrast separate entities, such as wilderness and civilization. Some may argue the two are merely classifications of environments but in actuality, they represent the effect that order or lack of can have on people. Civilizations consist of laws and rules to uphold man’s morals to ensure a working and efficient society.
But as mentioned in the novel, Marlow says, “And [London] also…has been one of the dark place of the earth…I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here…Oh yes – [they] did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt and without thinking much about it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps. They were men enough to face the darkness”(67-69). London, a symbol of enlightenment, is also once a “dark place of the earth” until Romans force civilization upon the land. The city is an example stressing how civilization is a learned habit and is not an innate characteristic of humanity.
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To maintain a stable and harmonious community, it appears necessary to establish a code of ethics to enforce stability on its people. But if defined in this sense, imperialism is clearly a hypocritical attempt to justify exploitations of the indigenous and primitive states of man and nature alike. The Company in The Heart of Darkness insists it will colonize the people, but this reasoning is extremely ironic because the damage that the jungle has on the white man’s soul exceeds the physical pain of the black men’s toil.
Near the beginning of the trip, Marlow distinguishes the feeling of the jungle and says, “In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had close round him – all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men… He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him”(69). Even if the wilderness is constantly described as dark and savage, it holds a fascination upon civilized men.
This is partly due to the incomprehensibility of the wilderness that imposes itself as an ominous, omnipotent force testing one’s ability to hold onto sanity. Once people enter the wild, their primitive impulses are revealed since they are free to do as they desire without fear of consequence. The jungle is referred to as “the heart of darkness” not because it unleashes the evil of civilized men, but because it mirrors the darkness already apparent in every being. As Marlow progresses deeper into the jungle, he says, “The earth seemed unearthly.
We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman…but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness… Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags – rages that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief”(108-109). Society may restrain savage tendencies, yet it cannot eliminate them.
Primeval tendencies are always lurking, and the superficial morals of civilization are much more unstable than it seems at first glance. The acquisitions and material possessions mentioned are considered to be valuable requirements to live an accomplished and successful life. Greed fuels the expedition and it is what overcame Kurtz, who represents what man can become if left solely to his inner desires. On the other hand, Marlow is a civilized soul who is left mostly unscathed by the darkness. In the lawlessness of the wilderness, it is up to the individual to either abide to his morals or sacrifice his soul to the darkness.
When men are confronted with the boundless opportunities for sin in the wilderness, they can choose to restrain their internal greed or to accede to their temptations. Conrad uses these two intangible contrasts to stress that man does indeed have a choice in his actions. Even the “savage” men who are natives of the jungle are primary examples of restraint in the novel. During the expedition, Marlow characterizes the natives and says, “Yes; I looked at [the natives] as you would on any human being with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities, weaknesses, when brought to the test of an inexorable physical necessity.
Restraint! What possible restraint? "(116). Desires and impulses of humanity can often fuel their ambitions. At the same time, desires can bring ruin to a man because they may compel him to commit treacherous and evil deeds. However, they cannot be an excuse for man to brush aside his wrongdoings for they do not force him to make any actions. A person’s actions must be judged accordingly, regardless of his or her intended motives or societal status. One’s lack of restraint is exemplified when Marlow says, “[The helmsman] had no restraint, no restraint-just like Kurtz-a tree swayed by the wind"(129).
Before, the helmsman is a native of the Congo, but he becomes accustomed to the white man’s ways after accompanying the sailors on their journey. The native men of the Congo are both physically and mentally stronger because they are not enticed by material temptations. Association with proud civilized men causes the helmsman to be careless, leading to his untimely death. Instead of upholding his original ideals, the man’s absence of self-control indicates his newfound weakness.
Kurtz, a man of great power and wealth, is ironically the ultimate representation of a man blinded by temptation, which deteriorates his willpower and produces a weak and unstable mentality. In his final moments, Kurtz cries out, “The horror! The horror”(154). These final words are Kurtz’s recognition of the “horrors” he has committed by allowing temptation to overtake him. In Kurtz’s situation, temptation triumphs and concludes in his death, basically suggesting that succumbing to one’s temptations results in the ultimate punishment.
Restraint and temptation are dualities implying that everyone possesses a good and evil nature, but the choice to uncover the restraint required to preserve humanity is ultimately left to the discretion of each person. Both wilderness and civilization along with temptation and restraint comparisons symbolize the good and bad within human nature, which is exemplified the most generally by portrayal of light and dark. Conrad twists the usual denotation of light and its common interpretations because light often portrays ignorance and narrow-mindedness in the novel.
The dark is ever present in the jungle; hence the title The Heart of Darkness, but it is also strongly characterized by Kurtz. One of the descriptions of Kurtz says, “The point in his being a gifted creature, and that all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words--the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness"(124).
During this specific moment, light is symbolized as a force used to enlighten, while darkness represents the “impenetrable” evil. Again, it is ironic that the two are juxtaposed together because Conrad clearly states the light cannot pierce the dark, yet Kurtz is evidently a man who wields the power to speak truth and wisdom. Although Kurtz is a man who embodies the darkness of the jungle, he affirms the understanding that all humans have good and evil coexisting within them. Conrad’s abandonment of the traditional connotation of light is noted when Marlow says, "I know that the sunlight can be made to lie too... "(151).
Surprisingly, the light which is previously portrayed as truth has evolved into the complete opposite. Since his contradiction blurs the line between good and evil, Marlow loses the confidence in his previous ability to judge between the two. As a result, both Marlow and the readers realize that nothing and no one can be totally good or evil, and there are no restrictions to which the concept applies to. Perhaps the most controversial statement about light and dark is when Marlow notices a work of art and says, "Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blind-folded, carrying a lighted torch.
The background was somber--almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister"(94). The painting can have a multitude of meanings, ranging from the hypocrisy of imperialism, to the unwillingness of any individual to admit his or her wrongs. Many are quick to endorse the wrongs and flaws of others but refuse to defer to their own, as portrayed by the blindfold of the woman.
This is the reason why a majority of people live in a false reality of a black and a white perspective on the world, in which there are only two outcomes to a situation. If everyone could concede to an understanding that all entities have a balance between one another, light and dark would be totally different concepts than what they are today. The three major dualities all contribute to highlight Conrad’s fundamental theme, which asserts that all men are composed of both good and evil and have the choice to maintain an optimal balance.
Marlow and Kurtz are not as different as they once appeared in the beginning of the book. Each character struggles with the temptation of the darkness, but only Kurtz is totally consumed. The two characters embody two common choices that occur in reality; to either find a balance between good and evil or to be pushed into the extremity of one side. However, it is important to acknowledge that one entity cannot exist without the other, and in the end, only the individual can control his or her fate.
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