Nihilism in Heart of Darkness
In Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness (1899), Conrad explores existential nihilism, which defines a belief that the world is without meaning or purpose. Through Marlow, Conrad introduces a story for civilization, for those on board the Nellie that are unaware for their own meaninglessness. The voyage through the African Congo depicts the absurdity of man's existence and human ideals disintegrate in the immensity of the Jungle atmosphere. The ominous Jungle is the setting which Conrad uses to develop the reader's consciousness of man's falseness in contrast to an obscure world. Any sense of restraint against the darkness that habituates in the natural world of man's uncivilized makeup is futile. Those that demonstrate restraint only emphasize existential nihilism as their actions result in meaninglessness. Through the characterization of Kurtz, the reader can witness a man who lacks restraint due to his acknowledgment of purposelessness, thus becoming a nihilistic hero. Marlow's search for such a man is the ultimate goal of the novel. It is then Conrad's goal to lead the reader through vagueness and pessimism to a conclusive void. The novel's conclusion ultimately portrays existential nihilism, where Kurtz's last words confirm the world's meaninglessness and Marlow becomes more like the pessimistic Kurtz by the lie told to Kurtz's Intended. Although Conrad himself may not essentially be nihilistic, his novel contains a dark nihilistic truth: the world is without meaning or purpose.
The Jungle setting through which Marlow travels is as ominous as the events of the novel. Marlow's exploration of a blank space (22) turns out to be a place of incomprehensible darkness containing monotonous grimness (29) and gloom. Even the brilliant sun contains no joy (59). The enormousness of the wilderness in contrast to man displays human insignificance. The Jungle broods over man's inscrutable intentions (60) as Marlow comes to realize that the Jungle has it's own intention:
The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, . . . was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, . . . ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. (54)
The gloomy environment sets the stage for Conrad to explore his pessimism of the world. "Conrad regards life as a spectacle in which the forces of Nature sometimes play a symbolic part" (Gillon, 99). Humanity in the novel is senseless, when compared to the Jungle's immensity. The nihilistic viewpoint assisted by Crosby, a philosophy professor, who writes, "The existential nihilist judges human existence to be pointless and absurd. It leads to nowhere and adds up to nothing" (Crosby, 30). Marlow's own senseless journey of inconclusive experiences (21) begins as he replaces a captain killed over a dispute of two hens (23). The incomprehensible situation of the man-of-war...