An Analysis of "Heart of Darkness"
Joseph Conrad, in his long-short story, "Heart of Darkness," tells the tale
of two mens' realization of the hidden, dark, evil side of themselves. Marlow,
the "second" narrator of the framed narrative, embarked upon a spiritual
adventure on which he witnessed firsthand the wicked potential in everyone. On
his journey into the dark, forbidden Congo, the "heart of darkness," so to speak,
Marlow encountered Kurtz, a "remarkable man" and "universal genius," who had
made himself a god in the eyes of the natives over whom he had an imperceptible
power. These two men were, in a sense, images of each other: Marlow was what
Kurtz may have been, and Kurtz was what Marlow may have become.
Like a jewel, "Heart of Darkness" has many facets. From one view it is an
exposure of Belgian methods in the Congo, which at least for a good part of the
way sticks closely to Conrad's own experience. Typically, however, the
adventure is related to a larger view of human affairs. Marlow told the story
one evening on a yacht in the Thames estuary as darkness fell, reminding his
audience that exploitation of one group by another was not new in history. They
were anchored in the river, where ships went out to darkest Africa. Yet, as
lately as Roman times, London's own river led, like the Congo, into a barbarous
hinterland where the Romans went to make their profits. Soon darkness fell over
London, while the ships that bore "civilization" to remote parts appeared out of
the dark, carrying darkness with them, different only in kind to the darkness
These thoughts and feelings were merely part of the tale, for Conrad had a
more personal story to tell, about a single man who went so far from
civilization that its restraints no longer mattered to him. Exposed to the
unfamiliar emotional and physical demands of the African wilderness, free to do
exactly as he chose, Kurtz plunged into horrible orgies of which human sacrifice
and cannibalism seemed to have formed a part. These excesses taught him and
Marlow what human nature was actually like: "The horror!" Kurtz gasped before
he died. Marlow's own journey from Belgium to the Congo and thence up the river
then took on the aspect of a man's journey into his own inner depths. Marlow
was saved from the other man's fate not by higher principles or a better
disposition, but merely because he happened to be very busy, and the demands of
work were themselves a discipline. The readers perceive, too, that other white
men on the Congo refrained from such excesses, if they did so, only because they
had lesser, more timorous natures which did not dare to express themselves
completely. Marlow felt that he had taken the lid off something horrible in the
very depths of man which he could not explain when he returned to the world
where basic instincts had been carefully smoothed over. Faced by a crisis, he
even denied what he had seen to Kurtz's Intended, though he was appalled by his
lie as bringing with it a betrayal of truth which was essentially a kind of
In "Heart of Darkness" the sense of human waste that pervaded the story was
best unfolded in the ivory itself. It was an object for the rich - in
decorations, for piano keys and billiard balls - hardly a necessary item for
survival, or even for comfortable living. In a way, it was evil, a social
luxury , an appurtenance to which people had become accustomed; and it was for
evil, for appurtenances, that the Congo was plundered and untold numbers of
natives were beaten and slaughtered brutally or casually. This view of evil was
part of Marlow's conception; a utilitarian object like copper or iron would have
had its own reason for being. Kurtz's evil propensities (he collected natives'
heads, he sought the "evil" ivory) made him so contemptuous of individual lives;
for evil and life have traditionally clashed. Beauty for the few was gained
with the blood of the many.
Where evil ruled, it was a form of power. The evil took on magical
significance, becoming a kind of totem and treasure. Perhaps consciously aware
of this, like the evil he had become, Kurtz gained his power, indeed his
identity and being, from the ivory he coveted. In a world of evil, the most
greedy collector was often supreme. Cruelty was indistinguishable from the
vision of Kurtz, a vision of power and control which the ivory provided for him.
Ivory, and thus evil, was merely a base on which he grew rich and powerful.
Kurtz had risen above the masses standing on his pile of ivory. Kurtz, evil,
and ivory were interconnected: he was ivory:
He [Kurtz] looked at least seven feet long. His covering had fallen
off, and his
body emerged from it pitiful and appalling as from a winding-sheet. I
the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving. It was
as though an
animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its
with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of cloth and glittering
The interconnection of Kurtz, evil, and ivory had far-reaching
ramifications in Marlow's tale. "Heart of Darkness," was ostensibly a journey,
Marlow's, to the source of evil and power up the Congo; and yet the reader
recalls mainly stagnation. Time and space were halted in that jungle outpost,
and Kurtz, that demon of energy, was ill, passive, awaiting death even as he
made plans. The scenes of his final hours were images of futility and apathy.
His evil impotence, the root of both his power and powerlessness, was
incorporated into both tone and theme.
Marlow's adventure in the Congo was an experience that led not only to
philosophical conclusions but to a physical and nervous collapse. Marlow's
health was ruined. He was profoundly shocked by the exploitation of the natives,
and the dark, primitive jungle chaos haunted his imagination. Witnessing the
evils in the jungle allowed Marlow to do what Kurtz had failed to do: he was
able to repress the evil side of his nature and force his mind into safer, moral
channels of thought. He kept his sanity by suppressing the sense of horror
which had dominated Kurtz and forced him to become evil. Marlow saw the
sickness in the whole account of the exploitation of the natives, and the
savagery he felt within himself, in the hypocrisy of men who wanted to both
improve the brutes and to exterminate them. Since everything that was necessary
to Marlow's sanity was parallel to Kurtz's, he could not crawl out of Kurtz's
mind for even a second. Hence the difficulty he had in putting down the heathen
in himself intensified.
It is evident that Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is a story of the
recognition of, in Marlow's case, the potential of evil corruption in himself;
in Kurtz's case, the recognition and acknowledgement of the evil he had become.
It is a tale of the acceptance of a hidden evil side in everyone. Marlow and
Kurtz were alike in their recognition of this evil, yet they differed in the
manner with which they dealt with it. Marlow peered over the brink of the abyss
that Kurtz opened before him. Marlow judged Kurtz a moral hero for his direct
stare into the heart of darkness, and for his candid judgment of its horror. As
Marlow found himself looking into the abyss, he was able to turn back, and
reject his own potential to become what Kurtz had become.
As he judge Kurtz's proclamation of; horror to be a kind of "affirmation,"
a "sort of belief" expressed with a terrible candor and "vibrating" with a "note
of revolt," so we might judge Marlow's expression of his indignation and
contempt to be a kind of moral heroism.