Fate in Heart of darkness

?The aim of this paper is to analyse the role of destiny in Conrad’s criticism of colonialism. We will avail ourselves of the two knitting women to explore the relationship between Marlow and destiny and, thus, discover the philosophical ideas through which Conrad achieves his purpose. The story that we are told in Heart of Darkness is actually a frame story full of symbolism that reveals some of the features by which modernist literature would come to be distinguished at the beginning of the 20th century.

In that respect, the literary devices that are present in Heart of darkness, such as the relativism of perception heightened by symbolic density, the sharing of emotions with the reader, irony and allusions to myth are devices that would be found later in significant modernist works such as Eliot’s the waste land, Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Jacob’s room. Heart of darkness is not only an attack on colonialism, but also a criticism of the dark greed that the human heart retains.

Moreover, most of the content of the novel is pervaded by symbolic meanings among which destiny and foreshadowing play a leading role, and such is their relevance that both of them are consistently present explicitly and metaphorically throughout the novel. Therefore, the apparently innocent journey to the Congo to meet Kurtz masks a deeper meaning, a symbolic journey to the bottom of the human heart, a heart thirsty for power and wealth ? the heart of darkness ? which is represented by Kurtz and the colonialist lifestyle that surrounds him.

“Kurtz’s methods had ruined the district… They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him — some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence”. One of the main concerns of Conrad’s works is the quandary between good and evil. In this quandary, Conrad shows some degree of willingness to at least being open to a new way so as not to bury the possibility of change, which ultimately leads us to believe Conrad’s support of Free Will in opposition to determinism.

Thus, the plethora of allusions to destiny that Conrad makes in this story is not a matter of coincidence at all, since he was well aware of the fact that advocates of imperialism usually justified imperial action by defending that it was a mystically-fated or divinely-ordained necessity, On the one hand, the use of a frame-story technique allows Conrad to establish an interesting relationship between Marlow and destiny.

By telling us the story from a point of view in the past, Conrad allows Marlow to gain the upper hand on destiny, as if he had control over the 1situation, since he is inwardly aware of future events: “For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long”. This seems to be perceived by one of the company workers, who attributes foreseeing qualities to Marlow: “but I dare say you know what he will be in two years’ time”.

On the other hand, Marlow is also depicted as prey to destiny, which is mainly foreshadowed by the two knitting women and, to a lesser extent, by the doctor. These three symbolic characters are agents of foreshadowing, since they appear in uncanny, oppressive environments which reflect the horror that Marlow will encounter in his expedition into the heart of darkness. With reference to the doctor, he functions as an element dealing both with madness and death.

In his examination room, he shows special interest in measuring Marlow’s skull in order to find any signs of madness in people who go deep into the land of the Congo. He conducts such a proceeding because he believes that experience to alter people’s mind: “the changes take place inside, you know”, and it certainly does, as we will see later on in this paper by analysing Marlow’s words describing his feelings. Soon before visiting such a peculiar doctor, Marlow carefully enters the colonialist offices, a point in which he experiences the change in his role with destiny.

On his way to the office, he seems to be brought under control by the narrow street, the deep shadow, the high houses and the dead silence that surround him and, once in the office, he seems to be brought under control by the height of the boss, the two knitting women and the office proceedings. Thus, he becomes nothing else but a link in the chain, a defenceless individual overpowered by his environment in the same way he is overpowered by the destiny now controlled by the two knitting women.

Everytime Marlow interacts with these strange ladies, they remain silent, confident and intimidating, demonstrating their superior position to Marlow, since it is they who have control over Marlow’s destiny. Judging by the way the women are described, we can infer that these unapproachable, fateful beings who know all about the applicants represent the spinners of the thread of life: Clothos, Lachesis and Atropos. According to ancient Greek mythology, these three Fates had the power to determine the birth and death of every person past and future by spinning, measuring the length of, and cutting the thread that symbolizes human lives.

Clothos, the youngest of the fates, deals in spinning the thread of destiny with a distaff in order to determine the date of birth of each human being; Lachesis’ task is to decide how long humans will live by measuring the thread, and finally, Atropos determines the time of death by cutting the thread. Having said that, it is interesting to point out the implications of these two knitting women and why there are only two of them instead.

Firstly, judging by how they behave – they do not see or speak – and taking into account some features on their appearance that Marlow notices, not only do these two uncanny women represent Clotho and Lachesis, but they are living representations of them, death-in-life beings who embody that which the Trading Company occasions to its victims all over the world. Secondly, the fact that it is presumably Atropos who is missing betokens that Marlow will undergo a dangerous experience, but he will not die in his adventure, since Atropos is the one who cuts the thread.

The black colour of the two knitting women’s wool enhances both the adverse nature of Marlow’s journey and the symbolic meaning of some other aspects of the novel. Thus, the dark colour of the wool is the same colour that tinges the heart of Kurtz and his ambition for power and ivory at the expense of exploited indigenous people, and is the same colour that tinges the background of Kurtz’s painting symbolizing Europeans’ blindness to the real consequences of colonialism.

Furthermore, the black colour of the wool’s threads contrasts to the white colour of the book’s cotton threads that Marlow finds, which, as opposed to the unpleasant feelings of black involving darkness, arouses some positive feelings in him, since the fact that the book dealt with ship-repairing seems to convey a metaphorically goodwill message… Thus, in the shady -but enlightening at the same time- journey into the human heart on which Marlow embarks, the ship functions as the means of transport to arrive in the dark Congo, but also as the vehicle to reach his destiny, the goal in his life… the meaning of his life!

“Were we to let go our hold of the bottom, we would be absolutely in the air – in space. We wouldn’t be able to tell where we were going to –whether up or down stream, or across – till we fetched against one bank or the other”. Hence Marlow’s excitement when he finds the book about ships that, in a metaphorical sense, could enlighten his life. As the crew move forwards through the inscrutable jungle in their ship, we come across countless descriptions of the landscape, but it is hardly surprising considering the symbolic relationship between landscape and destiny that Conrad establishes in Heart of Darkness.

As Marlow himself admits at a certain point in his voyage, he is becoming “scientifically interesting”, that is to say, he feels that his mind is undergoing a psychological change caused both by his stay in the Congo – as the doctor foresaw- and by the change in his role to destiny. This change in his mind is what makes him relate the vast landscape to destiny, as if they were two forces that attracted and sank him.

Thus, the characteristic mystery and impenetrability in which fate is usually shrouded are captured by the dense vegetation of the Congo, which prevents the crew from knowing who is behind the trees while crossing the river, and consequently, prevents them from knowing what will happen to them, as we can read in “This strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention”.

Later on, when Marlow asks himself if he will achieve the goal of his journey, he is posing a more philosophical question in essence, since he – Conrad in the analogy – is going even further by calling into question the capacity of men to have control over their own lives “I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? ”.

Specifically, he is referring to the theories of determinism and Free Will, which are uniformly present throughout the novel. Using Imperialist thinking, Conrad ironically pretends to establish that we are not the masters of our own lives, since there are more powerful forces that we cannot apprehend, let alone bring under control, as proved by the existence, among others, of the two knitting women and ultimately by the colonialism. We can read traces of that thinking in the words of the crew: “we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences. ”

This determinist thinking is what leads Marlow to wonder about death and to finally assume that he, as a human being, will die sooner or later. “Whether drowned at once or not, we were sure to perish speedily in one way or another”. If we pay attention to the first part of Marlow’s statement, we notice that the metaphor of the ship functioning as the conductor of our lives makes even more sense, insofar as Marlow’s worry begins when the ship is on the brink of sinking. We can perceive absurd and pessimistic hints in the statement above as well, which evoke the sadness and horror –as Kurtz would say – caused by colonialism.

It is upon the death of Kurtz himself when Marlow pronounces what is possibly the most significant statement in Heart of Darkness for our purposes, inasmuch as it links the most predominant philosophical theories posed by Conrad in heart of darkness to the main theme criticized in it, the colonization, through the most symbolic character of the novel, Kurtz. “Destiny. My destiny! Droll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of inextinguishable regrets.

” It is in the above Marlow’s reflection where all the symbolic elements involving destiny, such as the two Knitting women, the doctor, the colour usage, the ship and the landscape make complete literary sense, as they constitute the group of elements that Conrad uses to reflect an ironic, determinist view of the world in the novel.

It is also in the above Marlow’s reflection in which Conrad attacks determinism, colonialism and the dark human hearts of the imperialists through the last words of Kurtz’s figure, who unfortunately realizes toolate that colonization was not a divinely-ordained task and that he could indeed  have done something to avoid the calamity that his greed has wreaked upon colonized indigenous people. Bibliography Conrad, J. (1996):

Heart of darkness, London, Everyman L. Nadelhaft, R. (1991): Feminist Readings: Joseph Conrad, Great Britain, Harvester Wheatsheaf Sherry, N. (1976): Joseph Conrad: A commemoration. Impressionism and symbolism in “Heart of darkness” , Bristol, The Macmillan Press Verleun-van de Vriesenaerde, J. (1988): Conrad criticism 1965-1985: Heart of darkness, The Netherlands, Phoenix Press.

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