"Restraint! I would have just as soon expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battle," comments Marlow as he questions why the hungry cannibals aboard his steamer hadn't gone for the white crew members (Conrad 43). "The glimpse of the steamboat . . . filled those savages with unrestrained grief," Marlow explains after recalling the cries of the natives seeing the steamer amidst a brief fog lift (Conrad 44). "Poor fool! He had no restraint, no restraint . . .a tree swayed by the wind," speaks Marlow of a slain helmsman amidst an attack by tribal savages (Conrad 52). "Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts," says Marlow a few moments after he tells of his first glimpse of severed human heads fixed atop posts at the Inner Station (Conrad 58).
Restraint. The word is used time and time again throughout the text. Acknowledging restraint and the lack thereof in characters as the story progresses in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is paramount to any understanding of the work. The storyteller Marlow first believes that restraint is what separates civilization from chaos and society from savagery. As his journey into the heart of darkness progresses, however, he learns that such a conclusion is rash, and that there is far more to the matter than simply that.
Literary critic Cedric Watts comments upon the ambiguity of the title of Heart of Darkness. In Watts' view, the phrase can mean both "the center of a dark" and "the heart which has the quality of being dark (54).
This question regarding the title's meaning can have an answer when one considers restraint. Restraint goes hand in hand with rationality, which is associated with the brain. Lack of restraint can, in turn, be coupled with irrationality, which is associated with the heart--the source of human passion, aspirations, ardor, etc. But if one accepts the title as meaning, in essence, "the heart which has the quality of being dark," one has to consider the associations of "darkness." Though darkness ordinarily connotes evil, Conrad brings still more ambiguities about light and dark into the mix as the novel progresses. Ivory, a constant presence in the novel, gains associations with the horrors of European colonialism and human materialism. The whiteness of ivory, therefore, cannot denote the positive, pure associations normally used by writers. Most critics believe "the story is set in light and dark polarities" (Ong 61), but clearly, there is vagueness and ambiguity throughout the novel. If one attempts to answer any such questions, still more arise. Watts validly concludes that the title offers "a certain disturbing mysteriousness through the immediate possibility of alternative glosses" (55).
The mysteriousness of the title is the first indicator of the mysteriousness of Marlow's journey into Africa. Seemingly no one--Marlow, Kurtz, the reader--is quite certain if any conclusions he draws over the course of...