Marlows Catharsis in Heart of Darkness Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, relies on the historical period of imperialism to illuminate its protagonist, Charlie Marlow, and his struggle with two opposite value systems. Marlow undergoes a catharsis during his trip to the Congo and learns of the effects of imperialism.
I will analyze Marlow’s change, which is caused by his exposure to the imperialistic nature of the historical period in which he lived. Marlow goes to the Congo River to report on Mr. Kurtz, a valuable officer, to their employer. When he sets sail, he does not know what to expect.
When his journey is complete, his experiences have changed him forever. Heart of Darkness is a story of one man’s journey through the African Congo and the enlightenment of his soul. Marlow begins his voyage as an ordinary English sailor who is traveling to the African Congo to work. He is an Englishmen through and through. He has never been exposed to any culture similar to the one he will encounter in Africa, and he has no idea about the drastically different culture that exists there. Throughout the book, Conrad, via Marlow’s observations, reveals to the reader the naive mentality of Europeans. Marlow also shares this naivet in the beginning of his voyage. However, after his first few moments in the Congo, he realizes the ignorance he and all his comrades possess.
We first recognize the general naivet of the Europeans when Marlow’s aunt sees him for the last time before he embarks on his journey. She assumes that the voyage is a mission of weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways . .
. (line 16). In reality, however, the Europeans are there in the name of imperialism and their sole objective is to earn a substantial profit by collecting all the ivory in Africa. The reader can also see the Europeans obliviousness of reality when Marlow is recounting his adventure aboard the Nellie. He addresses his comrades: When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality–the reality I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching over me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight ropes for—what is it? half a crown a tumble . .
. . (36) While he is in the Congo, although he has to concentrate on the petty everyday things like overseeing the repair of his boat, he is still aware of what is going on around him and of the horrible reality he is in. On the other hand, his friends on the boat simply do not recognize this reality.
It is their ignorance and innocence which provokes them to tell Marlow to try to be civil (36). Not only are they oblivious to the reality that Marlow sees, but their naivet is so great that they can not even comprehend such a thing (Johnson 356). Quite surprisingly, this mentality does not pertain exclusively to the Englishmen in Europe. At one point during Marlow’s voyage down the Congo, he wakes to find his boat in an enormous patch of fog. At that very instant, a very loud cry is let out (41). After Marlow looks around and makes sure everything is all right, he observes the contrasts of the whites and the blacks expressions: It was very curious to see the contrast of expression of the white men and of the black fellows of our crew, who were as much strangers to that part of the river as we, though their homes were only eight hundred miles away.
The whites, of course greatly discomposed, had besides a curious look of being painfully shocked by such an outrageous row. The others had an alert, naturally interested expression; but their faces were essentially quiet. . .. (41-42) One can see the simple-mindedness of the Europeans, even though they were exposed to reality. An innocent mentality is engraved in their minds so deeply that even the environment of the Congo can not sway their belief that people simply do not do the horrible things Marlow recounts.
The whites are dumbfounded and can not comprehend how people, even the natives, would simply attack these innocent people. The blacks, however, who are cognizant of the reality in which they live, are essentially quiet. They feel right at home and are not phased by the shriek. Similarly, one can see the difference of mentalities when Marlow speaks to the cannibals in the crew. While in the midst of his journey, Marlow quite casually talks with these cannibals, even about their animalistic ways. How can a man from the refined world of England calmly and casually discuss eating human flesh with those who do so on a regular basis? One would think such a topic would be repulsive to Marlow, but he seems quite all right with the topic of conversation.
He would have never had such a conversation in London, but he is not in London. He is in the Congo, which is quite a different world. On the Congo River, the subject of cannibalism is an unremarkable topic of conversation. This atrocity is unspeakable in the Congo because it is a normal occurrence. Marlow explains to his comrades on the Nellie the basic difference between living in Europe and being in the Congo. He states: You can’t understand.
How could you — with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammeled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence — utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion. (49-50) In Europe, there are kind neighbours who are there to make sure that everything is all right. There is always someone to help when needed. On the other hand, once a man enters the Congo, he is all alone. He has no policeman and no kind neighbors. When Marlow enters the Congo and begins his voyage, he realizes the environment he comes from is not reality and the only way he is going to discover reality is to keep going up the river. Marlow’s evolution from an average European to a man who realizes his own naivet, and ultimately discovers his own reality, is evident in his observations of how things are labeled in the Congo.
It is these observations which change Marlow forever. Marlow first realizes the Europeans flaw of not being able to give something a name of significance at the beginning of his voyage, just when he is about to reach the Congo: Once, I remember, we came upon a man of war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on there-abouts.
Her ensign dropped like a limp rag; the muzzles of the long six inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere. (17) Marlow is watching this occurrence. He sees the Europeans firing tiny projectiles (17) and hears the pop of the cannons.
The Europeans, however, see themselves fighting an all out war against savage enemies in the name of imperialism. The Europeans feel that this is an honorable battle, so they are excited and fight with all they have. Marlow, however, sees it differently. He is now in Africa where reality broods. It is lurking everywhere. The only thing one has to do to find it is open the mind to new ideas. He looks at this event and reduces it from the European’s image of a supposedly intense battle, with smoke and enemies everywhere, to a futile firing of tiny projectiles into an empty forest.
For the first time, Marlow recognizes the falsity of the European mentality and their inability to characterize an event for what it is. At the end of the passage, his fellow European crewmember assures Marlow that the allied ship is defeating the enemy, and that they just could not see them because they are hidden from sight. In actuality, they were shooting at innocent natives who had probably fled from the area of battle already. Marlow is beginning to realize that what makes sense in Europe does not make sense in Africa. With that passage, Conrad informs the reader of Marlow’s realization. Marlow begins to wonder if the mentality instilled upon him in Europe is similar to the reality he sees in Africa, or if he is surrounded by atypical Europeans who are living in a dream world.
As the novel continues, Marlow recognizes that the flaw of not being able to see the true essence of things and thus, not being able to identify things and events, is the European way. There are some names given by the Europeans that simply do not fit the characteristic of the object being named. Marlow points out that the name Kurtz means short in German. However, after Marlow’s first glance at Kurtz, he remarks how Kurtz appears to be seven feet long (59). Conrad shows us, through Marlow’s observation, how Kurtz’s name is a blatant oxymoron. Marlow recognizes yet another obvious misrepresentation. Marlow meets a man called the bricklayer.
However, as Marlow himself points out, . . . there wasn’t a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station (27). During his voyage Marlow not only observes misnaming, he realizes the importance of a name. While overhearing a conversation between the manager of the station and his uncle, he hears Mr.
Kurtz being referred to as that man (34). Although Marlow has not met Kurtz yet, he has heard of his greatness. He now realizes that when these men call him that man, they strip him of his attributes. These men , by not referring to him by his name, deny Kurtz’s accomplishments. This same idea of distorting a person’s character by changing his name is displayed elsewhere. The Europeans apply the words enemy and criminal to the natives. However, they are no threat.
The natives are confused and helpless victims being exploited by ignorant and greedy invaders. The injustice done by misrepresenting someone is catastrophic. After observing these names which bare no true meaning, as well as degrade a person’s character, Marlow understands that he can not continue in his former ways of mindlessly giving random names to things for fear of diminishing the essence of the subject. Therefore, Marlow finds himself unable to label something for what it is. For example, while under attack, Marlow refers to arrows being shot in his direction as sticks, little sticks, and a spear protruding from a man as a long cane (45,47).
When Marlow arrives at the inner station, he sees slim posts . . . in a row with their ends ornamented with round carved balls (52). In truth, these are poles with skulls on top of them. Marlow can not comprehend the reality of these things.
Looking back on his voyage, Marlow realizes how mindless and meaningless the labels the Europeans use to identify things are. He wants to be able to identify properly everything he encountered on his voyage. Kurtz is the chief of the Inner Station. He is a universal genius, a prodigy, an emissary of pity science and progress (28). Kurtz teaches Marlow how significant labels are: The man presented himself as a voice. . . of all his gifts, the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating .
. .. (48) Kurtz was . . . little more than a voice (48), but there was no one with a voice like his. He could speak with remarkable eloquence, he could write with such precision, and he could name with true meaning.
You don’t talk with that man Kurtz— you listen to him (53). Marlow has heard enough about Kurtz to know that he can give Marlow insight into the nature of the world. Indeed, Kurtz gives Marlow everything he is looking for, but in an unexpected way. Kurtz teaches Marlow the lesson with his last words: The horror! The horror! (68). These words are Kurtz’s judgment on his own life. He is barbarous, unscrupulous, and possibly even evil. However, he has evaluated his life and pronounced judgment.
Marlow sees Kurtz open his mouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him… (59).
Kurtz takes everything he has done in his life into himself and pronounces a judgement upon it. He had summed up— he had judged . .
. the horror! (68). Kurtz’s last words are his way of teaching Marlow the essence of a name. A name is not merely a label. It is one man’s own judgment of an isolated event. However, unlike the Europeans who judge based on principles they acquired through social conditioning, Kurtz teaches Marlow to look inside himself and judge based on his own subjective creeds.
While Marlow is recounting the story, he says to his comrades: He must meet that truth with his own true stuff—with his own inborn strength. Principles? Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No. You want a deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish row—is there? Very well. I hear, I admit, but I have a voice too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced. (38) Marlow has learned that objective standards alone will not lead him to recognize the reality of life.
One can not depend on another’s principles to find reality because they have not had to bear the pain and responsibility of creating it. Principles are acquisitions, which, like other things we acquire rather than generate, are easily shaken off. A judgment must be made from one’s own internal strengths. That is why Marlow says, for good or evil, mine is the speech that cannot be silenced (38). As Kurtz taught him with his own judgment, a judgment of truth overpowers morality.
To find ones own reality one must not rely solely on other people’s morality or principles; one must assess his own life. Kurtz shows Marlow that regardless of whether the truth is good or bad, one must face his reality. He must face his own actions even when the conclusion is the horror. By doing so, he will find his true reality. Marlow understands that being true to you is not following another’s moral code, but being able to judge one’s self honestly to discover a true reality. Because of his newfound understanding, Marlow claims that Kurtz’s last words serve as .
. . a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats..
. (70). Despite Kurtz’s immoral ways, he is victorious. Because he did not run away from the truth, he won a moral victory (McLauchlan 382).
Marlow learns the essence of naming and understands what it means to search for the truth within himself. Marlow encounters two extremes while on his search: the European mentality, which he finds completely oblivious to reality; and Kurtz, a man who has found his horrible and unrestrained reality. With this extraordinary knowledge of the two extremes of mankind, he returns to England. Because of his knowledge, he has a new understanding. He knows it is impossible to revert to his former mentality because he has been enlightened and, thus, lost his naivete.
Perhaps he could adopt Kurtz ways and live in the other extreme. At one point, Marlow had peered over the edge (68). Why did he not jump? Marlow is repelled from joining Kurtz for several reasons. First, Kurtz had kicked himself loose of the earth.
..he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone — and I Marlow before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air (65). Kurtz had denied any sort of moral convictions in order to be worshipped as a god.
Because of this unmonitored power, Kurtz lost all sense of restraint and became the savage that he was. Marlow, however, has not lost his sense of morality and, thus, has not become a savage free of societal hindrance. It is because of Marlow’s rejection of both the Europeans, who he claims are full of stupid importance (70), and Kurtz’ inability to establish his own moral code, that Marlow chooses another avenue. The first time the reader witnesses Marlow’s choice to find a middle ground is when he first gets back to Europe.
Marlow finds himself resenting the way the Europeans go about their lives, hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other . . .
(70). Not only did he find their lives meaningless, but he also silently mocked them. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty restraining myself from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance.
I tottered about the streets . . . grinning bitterly at perfectly respectable persons. I admit my behaviour was inexcusable . . .
(70). Although Marlow looked down on the Europeans, he judged his own actions and found them inexcusable. This is evidence of Marlow rejecting Kurtz’ extreme. Unlike Kurtz who could not fault others because he lacked any restraint, Marlow realizes that he can not fault them because they do not know the truth he knows. He seems to be searching for a middle ground between Kurtz enlightened madness and the Europeans egocentric stupidity, but the reader does not know exactly what Marlow feels. By looking back to Marlows voyage, the reader can see an act of affirmation for the middle of the two extremes. While aboard the Nellie, Marlow says, I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie .
. . simply because it appalls sic me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies… (29). However, near the end of the novel, he acts in away that is diametrically opposite of his assertion.
Marlow visits Kurtz’ intended to speak of her beloved fianc. She desperately wants to know what his last words were. Marlow says, The last word he pronounced was—your name (75). He lies to her. He does something he previously claimed to detest. Marlows lie to the intended is an indication that he has found a middle ground between the two extremes of human nature (Stewart 369).
Her question forced Marlow to look inside himself for the truth of his reality. He found an instance where a lie was better than the truth. Like Kurtz, Marlow judged the situation independently, but unlike Kurtz, he used reason and reality. He rejected Kurtz values, which were based on whims and void of any objective principles.
Marlow successfully used both personal creeds and objective principles to decide what answer to give the desperate intended. Marlow found a middle ground and discovered his own truth. Marlow saw the suffering imposed by the imperialistic environment on the Congo and its natives and it had a tremendous effect on him. He underwent a drastic change in response to the hostile environment that was so different from his homeland. Kurtz showed him the flaws of European imperialistic ideals. Marlow came to understand European principles of his time and it changed his entire perception and behavior.