Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a famous novel about the darkness that pervades both the outer world as well as the inner mind of humans. This is a short, dense novella that is full of ideas. Though the narrative is relatively straightforward, it is a story that is full of symbolism as well as philosophical and psychological musings.
Charles Marlow tells the story in first-person narration. The protagonist is a steamboat captain hired by a company that is involved in the ivory trade in the Congo during the late nineteenth century. Marlow is taking a steamboat up river. His ultimate destination is a remote trading station headed by Station Manager, Mr. Kurtz. The mysterious Kurtz is admired by the various people that Marlow encounters in both England and in the Congo. Both early and late in the story, Kurtz is portrayed as man of enormous talents and charisma who elicits near worship in people.
As he proceeds with his journey, Marlowe is exposed to the horrors of Colonialism that include slave labor as well as indigenous people starved, beaten and worked to death. All in one passage, the European passengers of Marlowe’s steamboat unleash murderous gunfire upon a mass of helpless Congolese who have conglomerated on shore.
When Marlow reaches Kurtz’s station, he discovers that the Station Manager has developed a messianic following among the locals. There are indications that Kurtz has led his followers to commit atrocities in their quest for ivory. Both the Europeans and the Congolese present at the station seem to worship Kurtz as a kind of god.
The writing conveys a sense of ominousness. The story and themes of this work are fairly well known and have been written about extensively. It is an examination of the darkness within humankind. As is often the case with literary journeys, Marlowe’s trek up the river is symbolic of a journey into the worst aspects of the human soul. The themes of cultish personality, death and Colonialism are also explored within this work.
So much has already been said about this book. I want to write a few words on a specific and particular aspect of it. Throughout the novella, images of jungle and natural world are common and play an important part that relates to the story’s themes.
Within this tale, the natural world plays a constant and ominous presence. It clearly reflects the darkness and near impenetrability of the dark angle of human nature. At times, it almost seems like a character in and of itself.
When Marlowe first arrives in the region he observes the coast of West Africa. As he sails alongside it he observes,
“Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you— smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there grayish-whitish specks showed up, clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps. Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than pin-heads on the untouched expanse of their background. “
Coasts, as they are observed from ships, are given human characteristics here. They sometimes are smiling, frowning, mean, savage, and they even whisper. The particular coast that Marlow is observing exudes “monotonous grimness.” What I think is most important here is how human settlements are described as ”specks” and “pin – heads.” The symbolism seems to play a key part here. If the landscape represents the darkness and grimness in human existence, our efforts at building the pieces of civilization within it seem like insignificant specks.
Later on, the forest takes on even more menacing characteristics,
The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not.
Here we have the contrasting image of nature that is unmoving, but at the same time, a “riotous invasion.” Perhaps this is how Conrad sees the evil in the souls of people. That evil is quiet and unchanging, but it affects the world like a “rioting invasion.” “Little men” are swept out of existence before it.
The above quotations are just two examples, among many, of a threatening landscape that is capable of crushing humanity. Such a landscape seems to be a mirror upon the worst aspects of the human psyche.
There is so much more to this short tale than I have touched on above. The images and symbolism relating to the jungle are only a small part of a very rich piece of literature. This book was surprisingly dark for its time. Within its pages, it still has a lot to tell us about the darker nature of human beings.