The Darkness Within All of Our Hearts
Having just finished Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, The Heart of Darkness, I am struck by the adroit insight that Conrad provides his readers into the inner soul of man – where the “heart of darkness” lies. Perhaps this is why many literary critics acclaim The Heart of Darkness as the best short novel written in English.
The story tells of an Englishman, Charlie Marlow, who takes on a foreign assignment given to him by a Belgian trading company to fill a deceased captain’s spot aboard the ship Thames Estuary. His assignment is to sail up what is assumed to be the Congo River, part of the Belgian Congo, to retrieve sought after Ivory and also to retrieve a Belgian colonial agent, named Kurtz, who has evidently lost his wits.
Africa, as it was known to the Victorian aged people, was considered the “Continent of Darkness.” Conrad plays on this motif by his referral to the African continent, and specifically the Congo, as the “Heart of Darkness.” The darkness epigraph used by Conrad has a two-fold meaning. The first describes the perception of the unchartered African continent, specifically the Congo, and the undomesticated, savage cannibals who inhabit the Congo.
The second, and much profound, meaning is Conrad’s metaphorical representation of Marlow’s travels into the depths of the human soul, where one can find the “heart of darkness.” The humanist motifs of truth, evil, and morality are stirred about but not explicitly defined. The writing style employed by Conrad leaves the reader to deduce the truth about the human soul as one travels into the heart of darkness. As Conrad takes Marlow throughout the heat of the African Congo, the purest form of civilization is made clear: the brute nature of life and the inner darkness of the human soul. The primordial Congo represents the essence of the soul.
Marlow is being sent to collect an agent who has deviated from the plan – presumably exploitation of the land and the people. The life of the rouge agent Kurtz represents the fight to “suppress the savage customs,” of both the aboriginal people and, more importantly, the human soul. The agent Kurtz, in Conrad’s story, lost the battle with the inner darkness. As Kurtz is quoted saying near his death, “Live rightly, die, die . . .”
Perhaps the essence of the inner battle with the soul is represented by this quote:
“It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, or ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he [Kurtz] live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’”
Kurtz had been overcome by the inner darkness of the soul. However, Marlow chooses not to succumb to the darkness of the inner forces.
“I did not go in join Kurtz there and then. I did not. I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end, and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once more. Destiny. My Destiny!”
It is Marlow’s destiny to show the fortitude of one man who faced death and the inner darkness of the soul and had something to say about it — a man who attempted to live rightly, but was overcome by the inner darkness and the horror of the darkness. Marlow’s comment on death beckons the reader to consider what he has to say about death and the meaning of the life – what is it that you have said or done?
“I have wrestled with death . . . If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle that some of us think it to be. I was within a hair’s-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it.”
What is the riddle of life? Are our moral structures and civilized societies mere social facades hiding the answer to the riddle — the “sepulchral” city, as described by Conrad? Does all of this serve to coat the inherent brute — the inner heart of darkness? Is life, in essence, Hobbesian in nature: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” — an animal kingdom?
The inevitable death . . . the darkness within all of our hearts?