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In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the narrator is obsessed with a search for the meaning of everything he sees. Marlow, thrust into a new continent, is overwhelmed by its foreignness and his inability to understand his surroundings. The meaning that he seeks he expects to find in explanations and tries to relate in his words, but he and other characters in the story are often either deceived by words or unable to understand them. Marlow’s story shows how words and meaning are divorced and even opposites.
Heart of Darkness is narrated primarily in the first person, by the character Charlie Marlow, and is filtered through the viewpoint of an anonymous third-person hearer. Marlow only gradually comes to understand his experiences, and even as he is telling his story sometimes struggles to explain the significance of what has occurred. According to the narrator, a seaman on shore “generally…finds the secret [of the continent] not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity…Marlow was not typical…to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside” (7). The meaning of his story, then, will be as difficult to grasp as a “misty halo” (7). His tale has no moral, no illuminating clarity; it begins with his mention of “one of the dark places of the earth” (6) and ends with “it would have been too dark” (131). He begins at sunset and ends at night. The “heart of darkness” typically refers to the darkness of the human heart, or to the heart of “darkest Africa”, or even to the secret of evil, but it also refers to the darkness of incomprehension and ignorance. Just as the Romans in Britain, “men going at it blind–as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness” (9), like the Europeans in Africa, are swathed in darkness, so too is Marlow’s tale.
In Africa, Marlow looks for comprehensibility, only to find a mess of mystery, deceit, and futility in both the continent itself and the men who work there. Africa is a grand mystery; watching its coast “is like thinking about an enigma” (19); natives are “hidden out of sight somewhere” (21); the chip’s captain tells Marlow that an anonymous Swede has hanged himself, “who knows” (23) why. Marlow’s efforts to understand the situation by talking to his companions are futile. The manager of the station’s defining characteristic is his inscrutability: “it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away” (35). The other man Marlow speaks to is a spy who avoids ordering the rivets needed to fix the steamer and save the sick Kurtz; this spy wants to let Kurtz die so he cannot become the manager. Even the steamboat’s initial wreck is “too stupid…to be altogether natural” (33). Marlow gets only bits and pieces of the truth, and must figure out the rest of it himself. The atmosphere of the camp is of a petty deceit that infects even Marlow, who although he “hate[s], detest[s], and can’t bear a lie” (44) allows the spy to believe that he is a person of great influence. Aside from this outright deceit is another facet of the camp antipathetic to Marlow: purposelessness. The pilgrims hang about waiting, possibly for the death of Kurtz, “though the only thing that ever came to them was disease” (39). A man on a grass path “look[s] after the upkeep of the road” (32) though Marlow “can’t say [he] saw any road or any upkeep” (32). Convicts mine with “objectless blasting” (24) and dig holes “the purpose of which [Marlow] found it impossible to divine” (25).
Marlow’s love of meaning and truth explain his desire to leave the camp and hear Kurtz. “The man presented himself as a voice…of all his gifts the one that stood out…was his ability to talk” (79). Kurtz’s speech is the medium for all of his ideas and meanings; his disciple, the Russian, “talked of everything [with Kurtz]…he made [the Russian] see things–things” (93)–no indication what kinds of things. Kurtz has “elevated sentiments” (116), “ideas” (116), “immense plans” (111), but our only glimpse of them is in his report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, which reveals nothing more concrete than that “we can exert a power for good practically unbounded” (84). Kurtz’s devotion to his ideas becomes faintly ludicrous, given that he has strayed so far from them and that we have little conception of what they are. But whatever Kurtz’s ideas are, they are important. They draw people to him and give him immense power. Kurtz “would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party…any party” (123). His substance does not matter; “there was something wanting in him…which…could not be found under his magnificent eloquence” (97-8); he is “hollow at the core” (98) and can work for African ideals as well as European ones, just as he can write a report praising the “august Benevolence” (84) of Europe’s rule over Africa and scrawl “exterminate all the brutes!” (84) at the bottom. Marlow describes conquest of the earth as “the taking it away from those who have a different complexion” (9), a thing redeemed by an “idea only…something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to” (9). The phrasing at the end of Marlow’s sentence, treating an idea like a divinity, recalls Kurtz, whose example shows the emptiness of the bare idea and its inordinate power.
This contrast between content and meaning is not confined to the person of Kurtz. Marlow is required to sign an agreement before he leaves, promising “not to disclose any trade secrets” (15). “I am not disclosing any trade secrets” (97) he promises, while describing the shrunken heads surrounding Mr. Kurtz’s house, showing how little his factual and utterly uninteresting trade secrets have in common with Kurtz’s secrets, which involve but go far deeper than trade. Similarly, a book called An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship Marlow finds in an empty hut is “unmistakably real” (63) to him, and his relationship with it like “an old and solid friendship” (63), because of its concrete, mundane “talk of chains and purchases” (63). The author is “simple” (63), no eloquent Kurtz, but the book contains more information because of it. What about the book most interest Marlow, however, are the marginal notes, which appear to be in cipher, and transform the tome into an “extravagant mystery” (63). Marlow cares more about the context of this mysterious book, a relic of English civilization in the midst of Africa and containing strange markings, than the text, which is “not…very enthralling” (63). The book’s simple, literal meaning is eclipsed by its possible meanings. When Marlow learns that the “cipher” is actually Russian, because the book’s owner, who accidentally left the work behind, is a Russian, we are slightly disappointed. A solved mystery is far less atmospheric than an unsolved one; the more you know, the more possible meanings are cut off.
Marlow is aware that his understanding is incomplete; he cannot really hope to understand Kurtz or the foreign culture around him, the mystery of the jungle, because to do so would be to become part of it, as Kurtz has. Lines of incomprehension clearly divide the two worlds. The fireman on Marlow’s steamer keeps the boiler full of water, “and what he knew was this–that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance” (61). The native is able to use the boiler, but his ideas of how it works are mired in his own culture, just as the Europeans can exploit Africa’s natives to take their ivory without understanding their cultures. The Africans Marlow sees “howl[ing]” “leap[ing]” and “sp[inning]” (59) were “cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us–who could tell?” (59). Marlow watching the Africans, can, like those who watch him fix a ship, “only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means” (47). The meaning of his surroundings is accessible to him at all only because of the common humanity he shares with the natives: “what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity–like yours…there was in you…a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in [the natives’ cries] which you…could comprehend” (60). Marlow never does go native, never “go[es] ashore for a howl and a dance” (60), and so is saved from comprehending the mystery.
It is Kurtz alone of the Europeans who understands Africa. He can control the natives and speak their language, can “say the right thing to them” (100) to keep them from attacking, whereas even the Russian, Kurtz’s disciple, “do[es]n’t understand the dialect of [that] tribe” (104). Where Marlow sees mystery, Kurtz comprehends his surroundings; as they watch a native ritual, Marlow asks Kurtz if he understands it; Kurtz smiles and replies, “do I not?” (114). He understands the “whisper” (98) of the jungle. Kurtz’s final comprehension, whatever it is that prompts him to cry, “the horror!” (118) is entirely beyond Marlow. Kurtz cries out at “some vision” (118) Marlow does not see and can only wonder about: “did he live his life again…during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?” (118). This “complete knowledge” is denied Marlow, who thinks that the reason may be that “all truth…[is] compressed into that…time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible” (120). He is referring to death, but the threshold Kurtz has crossed is also the one separating Africa and Europe. He is only able to say anything on his deathbed because he has done this. Marlow’s guess about the moment of truth is clarified by his own brush with death; he probably “would have nothing to say” (119) had he died, no judgment or revelation like Kurtz’s. Likewise, the helmsman killed by Kurtz’s followers “died without uttering a sound” (78), and in response to whatever meaning one may glean from death, “as though in response to some sign we could not see, to some whisper we could not hear, he frowned” (78). Kurtz is not the only one who is granted a vision at his death, but he alone is able to put the pure truth into words, to put meaning and language together, because he understands both the African mystery and the European language and possesses the powerful gift of eloquence.
This connection of language and meaning does not last; Marlow has not the strength to make it do so. Throughout his conversation with Kurtz’s Intended, they constantly cut each other off, replacing the other’s words with phrases that are true but which the speaker and addressee do not understand in the same light. “We shall always remember [Kurtz]” Marlow, unable to forget Kurtz’s last words, tells the Intended; “you know what vast plans he had” (129) she replies, unaware of how pointless they were. Marlow finally moves from deceptive to outright false words when he tells the Intended that Kurtz’s last words were her name (whatever it is). He cannot tell her the truth because “it would have been too dark” (131) in a country that is supposed to be light, no longer a “dark plac[e] of the earth” (9). The meaning that could be found in the darkness of Africa, in the wilderness that “whispered to [Kurtz] things about himself which he did not know” (98), cannot travel to a country where people “could not possibly know the things [Marlow] knew” (121), an island without a mystery. Meaning that requires strength to confront, like Kurtz’s last words or the truth about himself that he found, does not belong in a tamed world. The only reason Marlow can tell his tale at all is that Europe was once a dark place, because he has an inkling of Kurtz’s bond with the Africans, and the only reason that parts of it remain a mystery to him is that he cannot tell the Intended the truth, that he believes in separating the light and the darkness, that he has not crossed the threshold.
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