Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Updated: Mar 25, 2021
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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad essay

The fun secret behind my advisory’s Christmas Door Decorating Contest is that the cartoons were vague enough for people to make assumptions. For example, one illustration that received the most diverse array of responses was one in which Santa Claus was dressed in a burglar outfit, standing behind the door with a bag full of presents in an attempt to hide from a police officer. Because creating these by hand were time-consuming, our illustrators decided to only color the statement pieces in the cartoon; the chosen statement pieces for this specific drawing were the burglar mask in black and the police uniform in blue.

Among the many clever, funny captions we received, it was evident that some students and faculty viewed the coloring of the burglar mask signified a black (or African-American) Santa, and therefore contained implications of racism. This was both unintended and unexpected, but it reinforced the idea that interpretations are often left up to the audience, and their presumptions can widely differ in accordance to their background, experience, or belief. Reader-Response Criticism is a lens that likewise acknowledges the power of active reading; meaning of the work is created between the interaction of the text and the reader. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is the perfect piece of literature to be analyzed with such school of criticism, because much is kept in obscurity and thus left up to the reader to decipher for themselves. It’s almost as if Conrad expected and preferred a thinking reader, as he once said his goal is to simply tell more than a story, but “to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.” Through close examination, it is possible to presume the author’s stance on concerning topics of debate, as well as his purpose in incorporation of deliberate motifs. Imperialism is unmistakably dealt with in this novella, as the tale of Marlow guides his audience through his journey in “a blank space of delightful mystery” (5) – Africa.

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Conrad’s opinion on this forceful practice of the past, however, is not so plainly evident. Thorough and relentless usage of the derogatory term “savages,” in addition to the characterization of both Marlow and Kurtz as deities in midst of the “uncivilized,” has led many to argue that Conrad was, in deed, in support of the time’s European perspective. However, much textual evidence begs to differ. Marlow, the main narrator, mockingly muses on his visit to London, in which he says “I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you” (5).

Through Marlow, who is famously regarded as a persona of the author himself, the Eurocentric excuse for invasion and exploitation of the “uncivilized” societies is utterly ridiculed. Such nonchalant yet mocking tone continues as Marlow encounters several white men working in the heart of darkness. In his description of the General Manager, his unremarkable abilities and appearance are extensively noted, emphasizing the mediocre, if not insufficient, potential of the individual in charge of the Central Station, in comparison to the uneasy tension he uses to his advantage in manipulating those around him. Similarly, Marlow includes a comprehensive commentary on the Accountant’s well-kept appearance; such fixation on outwardly impression nudges the reader to believe finely pressed linen to be an attempt to cover up his flaws as an incompetent leader. Such contempt of imperialism is also clear through Conrad’s imagery. Marlow’s unrestrained confusion of the “bit of white thread” (12) tied around the neck of a dying black man has twofold implications – the brutal constraint of the white people on the natives and the white flag surrender of the slave.

Moreover, the psychological investigation of the human unconscious as Marlow depicts Mr. Kurtz is significant in understanding Conrad’s opposition to the divine mission of enlightenment. With incessant obsession, Marlow continues to seek this rumored white man who possesses all power and ivory of the area. However, when he is finally introduced to his icon, Marlow quickly realizes the corruption, self-destruction, and the infatuation that consumed this once-adored figure. Kurtz, who in every aspect embodies European imperialism, is thoroughly criticized and exposed of the unpleasant reality through Marlow’s careful descriptions and moral repulsion.

As a cherry-on-top, Conrad becomes visual with his imagery as he portrays the “heads on the stakes” (42) or Kurtz’s mental instability in effort to the lead his readers to the conclusion without explicit expression. As the novella travels up the serpentine Congo River, Conrad also reveals his attitude on racism. In his famous critique, Chinua Achebe passionately asserts that the demoralizing nature of the book testifies of the author’s racist stance, and thus should not be celebrated as a great work of art (Achebe 176).

Although this may seem true through the referral of Congolese slaves as “black shadows of disease and starvation” (Conrad 11), Conrad only does so to accurately portray the thought process of the upper middle class white European society. Charlie Marlow’s complete obliviousness about Africa can be explained by his very first account of seeing Africans out in the river: “they had… a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was … natural and true… They were a great comfort to look at. For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts” (9). This organic reaction, untainted by the sense of superiority given to Europeans merely through a lighter skin color, proves of Conrad’s intentions to suggest a fresh outlook on the different, but equally captivating race. Such affirmative narration persists, when Marlow is seen to comment on the savage woman to be mysteriously beautiful, magnificent, and all the while soldier-like (44).

Observation of a black female at the time period of this novella to be so commending must indicate the author’s aim to express the equality that he perceives between the two races. Lastly, Conrad utilizes the motif of light and dark, as well as narrative gaps, to effectively illustrate the ambiguous nature of truth. Heart of Darkness is told by a narrator whose account of events is often open to question, which immediately signals the reader to be active in analysis and examination. The contrast between light and dark is used across the entire novella in a convoluted way, not only connoting on the indisputable difference in the skin color of the races and the corresponding treatment, but also shedding light upon the uncertainty of truth. Light, in which the context most often signifies power, superiority, and security, is juxtaposed when Marlow says “I know that the sunlight can be made to lie, too” (53). Having seen and experienced the obscure actuality, the narrator realizes that even sunlight can misguide him, just like how seemingly good people (i.e. Kurtz) may not turn out as expected. Similar contrasts is evident for darkness as well; dark, generally used to label the African natives as well as the surrounding wilderness of mystique, has continual implications of inferiority, unsophistication, and death as Kurtz announces that he is “lying here in the dark waiting for death” (51), despite the proximity of light. His inability to distinguish light from dark illustrates the extreme level of corruption and moral degradation, insinuating his eternal doom of anguish, addiction, and sin.

However, such fatalistic symbolism is battled when Marlow comments on the clear night sky lit by starlight, in which the unknown is rather calm and shiny. Such conflicting imagery of light and dark present throughout this novel helps Conrad probe the darkness that resides within each individual and further accentuate the opportunity for close speculation. The subjective quality of Heart of Darkness has allowed for the novella to stay relevant ever since its publication, because not only can it spark scholarly debates about imperialism, racism, sexism, and other momentous topics, but more importantly, engage its readers with its narrative gaps, always spurring new perspectives with the constantly changing culture. As Joseph Conrad said, “books hold a fascination for mankind because they act as mirrors, reflecting their readers within their pages and changing alongside them.” A reader’s distinct interpretation of the text is crucial in that it finally completes the work of art with drops of imagination.

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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. (2021, Mar 25). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/heart-of-darkness-by-joseph-conrad/