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The Use of Philosophical Ideas of Hobbes in Conrad's Novel

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The Use of Philosophical Ideas of Hobbes in Conrad's Novel essay
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Though Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hobbes lived during different time periods and never had the opportunity to meet each other, both shared several ideas regarding human nature while they also harbored a few differences in ideologies. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness highlights several of these similarities and differences between Conrad’s views and Hobbes’ philosophies.

Conrad’s characterization of Marlow and Kurtz cause these two characters to resemble two sides of Hobbesian philosophy that a society is necessary to control the people and prevent them from living in a primitive and chaotic state free of moral restrains and regards. Conrad depicts Marlow, before he leaves for the Congo, as a man who comes from Britain, a wealthy, organized and structured country full of “high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds” (Conrad, 1899, p.13). According to this aspect of Hobbes’ philosophy, the central government of the western civilization suppressed Marlow’s innate primitive characteristics, and when Marlow reaches the Congo, Conrad portrays him as a confused man, initially having a hard time accepting the fact that both natives and the people of Western civilizations are ultimately all part of the same race, for to Marlow, the natives appear more as animals than humans and he ponders about the horrific thought of “[the natives’] humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar” (Conrad, 1899, p.58). Seeing this wild state of the people in the Congo comes as a deep surprise to Marlow at first, but contrastingly, Conrad soon indicates that Kurtz, a veteran of the area, adapted to this situation during his time in the area. Though Kurtz also once spent his days in Western civilization, Conrad characterized his activities to show that his time in the depths of the Congo heavily impacted him, for “the wilderness has patted him on the heard, and, behold, it was like a ball – an ivory ball; it caressed him, and – lo! – he had withered, it had taken him, 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”(Conrad, 1899, p. 79).Away from a central government such as the one in Britain, the chaotic nature that Hobbes describes in his philosophies arises as Kurtz, surrounded by the wildness of the non-Westernized Congo, returns to a primitive state.

Not only does Conrad reflect this philosophy in the characters of Marlow and Kurtz, but he also scatters it in less prominent characters who also exhibit this natural state. For example, Conrad mentions a captain called Fresleven who he initially describes as “the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs” (Conrad, 1899, p.12). Conrad, however, does not further characterize this character in a manner that follows that statement –instead, he chooses to then state that the captain beat one of the native chiefs in front of a large crowd until the chief’s son speared the captain and chooses to have Marlow mentally justify this man’s action by believing that this act had happened because “he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause” (Conrad, 1899, p.12). This mental justification falls right in line with the Hobbesian belief regarding the importance of an authoritative force, for without it, the captain acted in a manner that completely went against the European description of the captain once he had spent a few years living in the Congo. Conrad’s depictions of these characters, from Marlow to Fresleven, align with the branch of Hobbes’ philosophy regarding the nature of mankind, for these characterizations follow this line of thought: once people are away from a central government, they will face primitive transformations such as the ones that Kurtz and Fresleven faced.

Conrad fostered a belief that humans exist in a natural state of conflict and internal war based on self-interests and desires. The pilgrims and Kurtz embody this belief as Conrad creates westernized imperialists who obsess so much over obtaining this wealth that they almost exist in a state of worship as “the word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it” (Conrad, 1899, p.35). Conrad centers the interests of Kurtz and the pilgrims on wealth in order to highlight their internal conflicts involving the ivory. Eventually, their love for ivory shapes them into greedy creatures whose desires for wealth triumph against their moral restraints as the pilgrims exploit the natives for labor and “[snap] ivory from the natives” (Conrad, 1899, p.52). Conrad places Kurtz at the head of this pack that obsesses over wealth as Kurtz “[steals] more ivory than all the other agents together” (Conrad, 1899, p.77) with no regard to the consequences that his actions will have on those from which he stole from. Conrad reflects this internal war, as described by Hobbes, over and over again as he mentions the consequences of these conflicts due to the desire for wealth.

Additionally, Hobbes fostered a belief that people naturally fear that other people will invade them, and therefore may choose to strike first as an anticipatory defense. Conrad echoes this belief in the interactions between the Europeans and the natives that live in the Congo. When Conrad depicts Marlow floating down the river in the fog, he incorporates an attack from the natives even though the Europeans had not directly acted out in any way to threaten them as “sticks, little sticks, were flying about – thick: they were whizzing before my nose, dropping below me, striking behind me against my pilot house” (Conrad, 1899, p.73). In line with the Hobbesian belief, Conrad chose to have the natives along the river strike first against the Europeans because they feared that the Europeans would cause them more harm if they chose not to strike. After Kurtz passes away, Conrad illuminates Marlow’s mental turmoil as he fears “the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre, or something of the kind, which I saw impending” (Conrad, 1899, p.108). Conrad once again incorporates Hobbes’ belief by opening a window to Marlow’s thoughts about the fear of an attack functioning as a defense.

One area that Hobbes and Conrad adopted contrasting ideas on was women. Hobbes insisted on the equality of all people, explicitly women, because he believed that all people face domination and possess the ability to potentially dominate other people. Conrad, however, portrayed women in Heart of Darkness in a different manner than he portrayed men, observing “how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be” (Conrad 1899). Conrad implies that woman harsh reality around them while men face the facts. Instead of forcing Marlow to tell the Intended Kurtz’s true last words that reflected the horror in the Congo, Conrad chooses to have Marlow preserve the innocence of the woman because he does not think she can handle the truth and chooses to have him lie to the Intended, informing her that “the last words he pronounced was – your name” (Conrad 1899). Conrad prefers this deception so that Marlow does not disillusion the Intended and destroy the idealistic version of Kurtz that she has developed over the years. While Conrad writes initially in a way that implies that women are lesser than men, Conrad eventually implies ironically that Marlow is actually the person who cannot handle the truth. Hobbes would have most likely chosen to allow Marlow to tell the Intended the truth about the horrors that Kurtz committed and experienced, but alas, Conrad, not Hobbes, wrote Heart of Darkness.

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