Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness is much more than simply “the story of a journey up a river. ” Although it was first published in 1902, the text contains perennial themes that remain relevant to a 21st Century audience today. Through his writing, Conrad cleverly expresses his views on colonisation and imperialism, explores the depth and concept of the inner journey, and comments on society’s need for some form of restraint. Conrad draws on his own personal experiences to accurately convey both the inner and literal journeys of the boat.

As a 21st Century audience, we gain insight into Conrad’s beliefs and the effects that isolation and lack of restraint have on individuals. One of the major themes in Heart of Darkness is colonisation, which relates to imperialism in modern times. The context of the novella lies in a period when colonisation was popular and very widely accepted, therefore Conrad had to exercise caution when expressing his views on the issue, often lacing his comments with irony and satire.

The first hint a reader gains that his view on colonisation is negative is in the opening section, when “the air was dark above…condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth. ” The darkness looming above civilisation is a stark contrast to the calm imagery used to describe nature, suggesting that civilisation has negative connotations, and the reference to London can be read as being wrapped in sarcasm. By using Marlow as a vessel for his ideals, Conrad is able to insert his own observations out in the Congo, where “there are no external checks” and racism isn’t contained.

When reading the novella from a post-colonialist perspective, the audience can easily identify the beliefs disguised in his writing. For example, when walking down the path, Marlow is spotted by the black worker who upholds the pretence of appearing to be working diligently, and Marlow comments that white men are “so much alike at a distance that he could not tell who I might be. ” Conrad puts a twist on the stereotypical belief in the 1900’s that all black men looked alike, by altering the scenario to relate to a white man. Underlying the novella’s tone is Conrad’s discontent towards racism.

Although he often uses animal imagery when speaking of the black people, such as a “parody of a dog in breeches,” he also exudes the impression that he feels apologetic towards the black people for the daily mistreatment they receive. When he first reaches the Central Station, he seemed shocked at the “scene of inhabited devastation,” particularly focussing on the iron collars and chains around the necks of the black people. As he gazes upon them, “mostly black and naked,” he thinks that while the Europeans labelled them as criminals, “these men could by no stretch of the imagination be called enemies.

” He witnesses firsthand the destructive power of colonisation, and he unmistakably disagrees with it. Symbolism is also a major feature in conveying his beliefs on the topic. Kurtz’s painting of the woman represents his views perfectly. The woman carrying a lantern reflects the colonists’ opinion that they were “spreading the light,” however she is blindfolded, implying that any good intentions will go to waste as everything in her path will be destroyed from her blind stumbling.

The constant theme of colonisation expresses Conrad’s views on the subject and assists the novella in transcending the archetype of simply being “a story of a journey up a river. ” Furthermore, the journey up the river physically embodies and represents the inner journey that Marlow embarks on, yet another perennial theme. At first he is reluctant to search inside himself, afraid of the consequences of understanding his own drive, suggested by: “The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily.

” He perceives it as fortunate that his deepest thoughts are hidden from him, because he believes he might disagree with what he uncovers. The “impenetrable forest” exhibits the difficult nature of the inner journey, showing that it is hard to begin, and suggesting that it is also hard to get back out of one’s mind. Marlow is acutely aware of the threat of madness, especially after the doctor’s ominous warning that “the changes take place inside. ” Not long after, Marlow recognises a change occurring in himself and notes that “he would make an excellent test subject” for the doctor.

Marlow sees himself as having a connection with Kurtz, and throughout the story he anticipates their meeting. When his wish is finally granted, he discovers that Kurtz has fallen far from grace. The man has lost all forms of restraint, placing severed heads around his hut and aligning himself with a god in the eyes of the natives. His greed and lust for ivory has driven him to insanity, but moreover Kurtz represents the “every-man” and displays the concept that every member of society has the capacity for corruption.

On top of this, Kurtz also symbolises Marlow’s darkness and the moral ambiguity of his inner self. When Marlow struggles to convince Kurtz to return the steamboat, it is the physical manifestation of the struggle currently within himself. Marlow’s “choice of nightmares,” related to whether he chose to be loyal to Kurtz, the philanthropic man who fell from grace, or to the Manager, the hollow man who only kept up appearances. Both represented a cross-section of the members of society at the time, revealing that Marlow believed life to be one combined nightmare.

Towards the end of the novella, his inner journey teaches him where his boundaries lie, and he comprehends his own integrity with more depth. Although he has greater understanding of the morals he upholds, Marlow’s choosing to be loyal to Kurtz causes him to cross a self-drawn line, reflected in the lighting of the room slowly dimming. He lies to Kurtz’s intended about Kurtz’s last words, and feels as if “the heavens would fall upon my head. ” He justifies his lie with the thought that “it would have been too dark – too dark altogether.

” He was conscious not only of what the truth would have meant to the intended, but also the consequences for the Western social construct, and he was willing to disobey his own internal laws to protect them both. In today’s society, people undergo moral battles on a regular basis, and the theme of the inner journey continues to be relevant. It is frequently commented that a form of restrain is necessary amongst the workers of the ivory company, demonstrating another theme that Conrad investigates.

Upon originally arriving in the Congo, Marlow discovers that there are two types of work being performed: very little work and pointless work. A theme throughout the novella states that work is a form of restraint, that while people’s minds are occupied there’s no reason for any depravity. Marlow admits that he doesn’t like work, but he likes “what is in the work, the chance to find yourself. ” Once again, because of there being “no external checks,” lack of restrain is emphasised and the ivory company’s operations can be carried out with virtually no boundaries or moral control.

Restraint is depicted as necessary for social wellbeing. In civilisation, it emerges in the form of “kind neighbours ready to cheer you, or to fall on you,” showing that being surrounded by the public is what restrains people. Out in the Congo, “no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion. ” Due to the isolation, people have to rely on their own “innate strength” to prevent their moral corruption. Marlow identifies the distinction of restraint between the Pilgrims and the Cannibals on the boat.

Rather than being bold explorers, the Pilgrims exhibit cowardice and fire their arms into the bush without any targets. They allow their simple emotions to dominate over their rationality, which displays their lack of restraint. On the other hand, the Cannibals restrain themselves from eating any of the boat’s passengers, a trait which Marlow admires deeply. As mentioned earlier, Kurtz had lost all forms of restraint, and his methods were “unsound. ” Despite having work as a form of restraint, Kurtz’s inability to restrain his greed led it to overpower everything else, and drove him to insanity.

The theme of restraint serves as a warning to the 21st Century audience that without restraint and self-control, society could succumb to extreme moral depravity. Heart of Darkness contains themes that remain relevant to a 21st Century audience, giving it more depth than simple narrative. The aspect of colonisation and imperialism is a topic of interest if the novella is being read from a post-colonialist perspective, and gives insight to different social views of the time. The inner journey and moral battles faces are relevant because in society, people face moral battles on a daily basis.

It can also be argued that the inner journey aspect applies to those who go to war and return with psychological issues, because “changes have taken place inside. ” The necessity for a form of restraint in society is important in the 21st Century as well, because without laws and morals, there would be chaos and anarchy. Heart of Darkness can be read in many different ways, and the symbolism can be interpreted differently depending on the audience, but it is undoubtedly more than just “story of a journey up a river. ”

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