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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness is a novel told through the eyes of Marlow, who, while on a vessel, recalls his travels into the heart of Africa where he meets Kurtz, a successful ivory collector for an imperialist company. As Marlow tells his story, Kurtz’s inner self is revealed through his malevolence actions towards the natives in his quest for wealth and fame. The inhumanity and lack of inner strength of the human race becomes evident through Kurtz’s self realization at his death and Marlow’s realization through Kurtz. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad creates an allegory, an archetypal story of journeys of characters Kurtz and Marlow: through hell, back in time, and to the core of the psyche- the Heart of Darkness.
The archetypal journey through hell begins when Marlow first enters the office where an official hires him as a captain of a vessel. When Marlow arrives at the office, he signs some papers, explaining that “there was something ominous in the atmosphere” (Conrad 15). While leaving, Marlow becomes very fascinated by two old women, knitting. These women see the men out of the office, and they appear as fates that “[guard] the door of Darkness” (Conrad 16). These women, just as the demons in The Inferno, send the men joining the company into Hell and guard the gates of Hell. These references to The Inferno parallel Dante’s journey through Hell to the journey Marlow makes. Before the company permits Marlow to make his trip into the heart of darkness, he must also see a doctor. This doctor explains that he never sees the men who go into the jungle come out, and even says to Marlow when their appointment draws to a close, “Du calme, du calme. Adieu” (Conrad 18), meaning goodbye, we will never see each other again. This simple farewell shows that usually, those who enter Hell never make it out, just as in The Inferno. After reaching the shores of the jungle, Marlow begins to “[descend] the hill, obliquely, towards the trees [he] had seen,” passing savages with an indifference of unhappiness and commanded by “strong, lusty, red-eyed devils” (26). In The Inferno, Dante explains in almost every circle of Hell the punished suffering horrible evils commanded by wicked monsters and villains. This plot corresponds to Marlow, as he elucidates that he “[penetrates] deeper and deeper into the Heart of Darkness” (63), or Hell, and witnesses the condemned, the natives, being persecuted by the evil imperialists. Once Marlow fully enters the shaded jungle area, he feels as though he “has stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno” full of “pain, abandonment, and despair” (27), words written on the gates of Hell. Marlow parallels his penetration into the jungle with the dissension into Hell, for while in the jungle, Marlow experiences the horrible treatment of the natives by the company and Kurtz as they try and make a profit off ivory. When Marlow and Kurtz finally leave Hell, Marlow explains that “the brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress” (127). Marlow and Kurtz’s departure parallels to Dante’s flight out of Hell for Dante’s departure is much faster than his entry after he learns the way to heaven, making Marlow’s “journey … a mythic initiation, a ritual of descent and return” (Loe)
As Marlow travels farther and farther into the heart of darkness, he explains that “going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings” (Conrad 60), and that he and his men felt like “wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet” (63). Marlow and Kurtz, when they enter the Heart of Darkness, become surrounded by a world unknown to them, a world that corresponds to the beginnings of the earth, when the first humans roamed an unknown land. The jungle gives Marlow an overwhelming sense of darkness and absolutely no sense of civilization or restraint. As Marlow’s vessel moves down the river, he explains that passing “the prehistoric man” parallels to “traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that [no longer remain], leaving hardly a sign” (64). Marlow has lived much of his life in civilization, with the restraints and morals of refinement. Now, however, he has traveled into the heart of Africa, where the natives still live unsophisticated lives, much like the humans who would have inhabited the earth first. Marlow sees that these natives, still savages, represent what all humans once were. Civilization has made the polished men feel “remote from the night of the first ages” (65), as they smell “the smell of the primeval mud” and see the “high stillness of primeval forest before [their] eyes” (46). When Marlow and men from the company enter the Heart of Darkness, they enter the first day of earth, when no commandments dictated actions, and the law of the land was nature itself. Marlow explains that “we live in a flicker… but darkness [existed] yesterday” (6), showing that the savagery Marlow sees in the natives has existed since the first men.
Only days from journeying to the heart of darkness, a doctor tells Marlow that to “watch the mental changes of individuals” as they live in the jungle of Africa would fascinate him (34). This foreshadowing by the doctor alludes to the mental journeys men experience in the heart of darkness. Marlow explains that“[the wilderness] had taken [Kurtz], loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation” over the few years Kurtz had spent in the Heart of Darkness (89). Kurtz’s journey of the psych begins with his becoming very corrupt in the heart of Africa. In his quest to spread civilization, the jungle awakens the evilness inside of Kurtz, and he begins killing natives and satisfying his greed for wealth and fame. Marlow proclaims it impossible to “breathe dead hippo…and not be contaminated” (91) by the evils, the dead hippo of course representing the iniquity of the heart of darkness Kurtz is infected by. Eventually, Kurtz and Marlow “find [themselves]” along their journeys (51), where Kurtz “[makes that last stride, [and steps] over the edge, while [Marlow … draws] back [his] hesitating foot” and still learns the truth of human nature through Kurtz (132). Kurtz yells out just seconds before his death, “The horror! The horror!” (130), because he has come to self-realization that while in Africa, he had lost his “faith in [his] ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the [evil] stuff in” (91). Kurtz “deteriorates to the lowest possible levels” (Goonetilleke), and on his deathbed, he came to self-realization of this immorality, while Marlow learned that evil exists in all men through Kurtz’s insight. “The most [one] can hope for is some knowledge of [oneself]” (Conrad 131), knowledge that came too late for Kurtz, but not for Marlow.
Marlow and Kurtz make the journeys through hell, back in time, and to the core of the psyche- the Heart of Darkness. By traveling through the heart of Africa, Hell, the primeval people remind Marlow that all humans originated from savagery, and Marlow and Kurtz both come to the realization that all men are created with iniquity deep in their hearts.

Works Cited
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.
Goonetilleke, D.C.R.A. "Heart of Darkness: Overview." Literature Resources from Gale. Gale, 1994. Web. 18 Oct. 2011.
Loe, Thomas. "Heart of Darkness: Overview." Literature Resources from Gale. Gale, 1991. Web. 18 Oct. 2011.





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