The Light and Dark Forces in Heart of Darkness
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, explores something truer and more fundamental than a mere personal narrative. It is a night journey into the unconscious and a confrontation within the self. Certain circumstances of Marlow's voyage, when looked at in these terms, have new importance. Marlow insists on the dreamlike quality of his narrative. "It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream - making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream - sensation." Even before leaving Brussels, Marlow felt as though he "was about to set off for center of the earth," not the center of a continent. The introspective voyager leaves his familiar rational world, is "cut off from the comprehension" of his surroundings, his steamer toils "along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy." As the crisis approaches, the dreamer and his ship moves through a silence that "seemed unnatural, like a state of trance; then enter a deep fog." In the end, there is a symbolic unity between the two men. Marlow and Kurtz are the light and dark selves of a single person. Marlow is what Kurtz might have been, and Kurtz is what Marlow might have become.
Much of the meaning in Heart of Darkness is found not in the center of the book, the heart of Africa, but on the periphery of the book. The story that Marlow tells centers around a man named Kurtz. However, most of what Marlow knows about Kurtz he has learned from other people, many of whom have good reason for not being truthful to Marlow. Therefore Marlow has to piece together much of Kurtz's story. We slowly get to know more and more about Kurtz. Part of the meaning of Heart of Darkness is that we learn about "reality" through other people's accounts of it, many of which are, themselves, twice-told tales. Marlow is the source of our story, but he is also a character within the story we read. Marlow has always "followed the sea", as the novel puts it. His voyage up the Congo river, however, is his first experience in freshwater travel. Conrad uses Marlow as a narrator in order to enter the story himself and tell it from his own philosophical mind. When Marlow arrives at the station, he is shocked and disgusted by the sight of wasted human life and ruined supplies. The manager's senseless cruelty and foolishness overwhelm him with anger and disgust. He longs to see Kurtz, a fabulously successful ivory agent who is hated by the company manager. More and more, Marlow turns away from the white people (because of their ruthless brutality) and to the dark jungle (a symbol of reality and truth). He begins to identify more and more with Kurtz- long before he even sees him or talks to him.
Kurtz, like Marlow, originally came to the Congo with noble intentions. He thought that each ivory station should stand like a beacon light, offering a better way of life to the natives. Kurtz's mother was half-English...