“The Heart of Human Nature” by Joseph Conrad
The journey in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad traverses not only the capricious waters spanning Africa but also the darkness which lies in the human heart. Through Marlow’s journey to the heart of darkness, it reveals the enigmatic human nature is a dark force. This voyage into the deepest aspect of the soul unveils the evils in man while questioning every aspect of their identity. Some characters surrender imperceptibly to the darkness without being able to restrain themselves from greed and power, while others realize it without being able to avoid being attracted by these powerful forces. Submission to darkness leads to a change of identity. Mr. Kurtz, the Russian, and Marlow all embody this metamorphosis towards a new identity.
Mr. Kurtz experiences a change of personality because of his life in the jungle. Upon entering the Congo, Mr. Kurtz’s makes his intentions clear; “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing” (29). He comes to Africa with the goal to shape the natives to suit the European world by spreading its ideas, religion, and culture, as suggested by Kurtz’s painting; “Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre—almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister” (21). This painting illustrates Kurtz’s intent to shine “light” upon the savages. However, Kurtz quickly realizes his naivety towards Africa and starts to comprehend that money is the real motivation of the white men. Going to colonize Africa is just a facade of the real intentions of Europeans exploiting primary resources, such as ivory, of foreign countries. On the painting, the blindfolded detail of the lady illustrates very well this hypocrisy. The lady is blinded by the blindfold as Europeans cannot see the horrid effect that they have implemented upon the natives. Like most Europeans, Kurtz is quickly overthrown by the desire to get ivory. Ivory is perceived as an object wealth and the more a person has ivory, the higher social position they have. Ivory is like gold to Kurtz. He is no longer the man that has left Europe to discover the dark continent, but the pure embodiment passion for ivory and power that is necessary to get it. This is seen through is persistent use of possession: “my ivory, my station, my intended, my career, my…” (44). He has lost his soul in the jungle which leaves him washed out with no moral compass left to guide him. Due to this, he nearly kills the Russian who had nursed through his illness because he had ivory. His unbounded need for ivory has corrupted his understanding of humanity and morals. His last words illustrate his understanding of this fact: “ the horror, the horror” (64). This demonstrates Mr. Kurtz’s epiphany showing his loss identity through the time spent in the jungle. He realizes that the darkness sucks out the character of every greedy person. The jungle has changed him into a corrupt man who took advantages of natives to get ivory. He realizes the effect of imperialism on him: blind him of the truth and becoming “”hollow at the core””(53). While he was full of hope going to Africa, Kurtz is only left in a deteriorated physical and mental state.
How it works
The Russian experiences a change of identity throughout the novel. Unlike most characters in the novel, the Russian is not interested in ivory. However, he is changed because of the darkness within Mr. Kurtz. Upon entering the jungle, one loses all perception of morals and left alone with emptiness. The Russian simply drifts until he is caught up in the magnetic force that is Kurtz. He has wandered into the jungle as innocent, with an open mind of the world and lacks an anchor to orient his decisions. Due to this, he is quickly attracted to the genius, and madness of Mr. Kurtz. When Marlow first meets the Russian, he describes him as: “ Suddenly I got it. He looked like a harlequin” (48). The Russian is the harlequin, or jester, to his king, Mr. Kurtz. He perceives this man as a god and has a perception of a good man; however, Kurtz is far from representing an ideal. Similarly to the natives, the Russian constantly praises him and does not want to see his flaws and faults. Marlow sees this: “tone of these words was so extraordinary that I looked at him searchingly. It was curious to see his mingled eagerness and reluctance to speak of Kurtz. The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions” (53). Kurtz controlled the Russian’s every thought. He has consumed the Russian as ivory has consumed the white men. In instance, Kurtz is ready to kill him for a piece of ivory: “Well, he wanted it, and wouldn’t hear reason. He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country”(51). Although this incident, the Russian is still in awe of this man. He will never see Kurtz’s faults: “”‘You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man”(52). The Russian cannot understand Marlow’s scorn at Kurtz’s savage actions. The naive Russian can’t see past Kurtz’s eloquence. Kurtz’s clouds his judgment, and constantly regards him as a god despite his discernible flaws.
Marlow experiences a metamorphosis through his time spent in the jungle. Marlow always dreamt to venture: “Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps” (5). He went to Africa in order to fill the blank spot on his map, and for his sense of adventure to discover the world. He enters this country unaware of the hidden truth of human nature which is revealed through the absence of laws in an “uncivilized” country. Marlow’s character is irrevocably changed because of his experience in the Congo where he realizes the materialistic life humans pursue. They live only for this and are left with nothing but their miserable lives and true corrupt nature. Upon understanding this, Marlow realizes the lack of values and dignity left within white men and quickly despises the hidden truth of their goal upon entering Africa. He realizes how Africa has taken the white men’s humanity in exchange for greed. Through his daily obligations, Marlow recognizes the reality of imperialism: “ 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”(36). He sees the saddening reality he lives in where the people around him do not realize the cruelty they inflict upon the natives; he is the only one to observe the horrendous reality he lives in. Upon returning to Europe he no longer has the same identity, then before because he has discovered the lie of society about the world. On realizing this truth, Marlow says: “They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew… I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance”(66). Marlow is appalled by the oblivious nature of people regarding the truth of Africa. To a certain extent, this prevents Marlow from re-entering society without frowning upon the careless life humans have. He realizes the lie that Europeans institutes regarding colonizing in Africa: the abuse of power and resources upon the innocent natives. Their disregard of the truth leaves Marlow speechless. Even though Marlow was ignorant before entering Africa, he is one of the few people to have seen the human condition in a place unconstricted by laws which allows darkness to be unveiled. Marlow finds himself in Africa.
While the Russian and Mr. Kurtz lose their identity in the jungle, Marlow changes because of it. Mr. Kurtz changes from being an innocent man to the evils of human nature to being consumed by them. The Russian is oblivious to the savage actions of Mr. Kurtz to realize his god has changed him. Unlike these characters, Marlow sees the effects of the the Congo on men and discerns that it reveals the dark aspect of their character. He realizes the lies that society imposes regarding the lack of humanity seen in the men in Africa. The jungle brings out the dark deeds and ideas in men. The jungle unveils the truth of human nature in an unstructured society.