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In Heart of Darkness, both the content and the form of Marlow’s narration consistently draw attention to and undermine language. Through relating his journey into the Congo, Marlow considers the role of speech in creating the self, and alternates between rejecting language completely and acknowledging his own reliance on it. In Marlow’s tale, Africans embody an ideal of self-definition through physicality in contrast to the Europeans, whose incessant attempts at linguistic self-expression merely reveal their emptiness. As a consequence of this examination of the limitations of speech and his encounter with Kurtz, a man reduced solely to a voice, Marlow finds himself struggling with his own words as he strives to capture the truth of his experience for his listeners.
Although from the perspective of the reader, Marlow is quite a sedentary figure, who neither moves nor undertakes any action other than speaking, he contends that he understands himself best as a result of his labor. He explains, “I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what it is in the work, the chance to find yourself, not for others—what no man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means” (239). While Marlow likens himself to all men by noting his aversion to work, he does not understand himself through similarities with others. He abruptly contradicts his assertions of this bond, because he conceives himself not as a relational being, finding his unique characteristics through personal interactions, but rather through solitary means, reacting only to the physical world. He does not believe in a shared “reality,” but only one exists “for yourself” different from what is there “for others.” For him, individuals can never know anything about each other beyond what we present in a “mere show,” and therefore defining identity in reference to other people is futile.
Similarly, the Africans in Marlow’s story seem completely defined by their survival in what he considers an inhospitable setting. Marlow rarely quotes the Africans directly, with the exception of the “manager’s boy” who is associated with the Europeans (284). At times Marlow interprets the meaning behind the words of the Africans, but because he does not know their language, he frequently treats their speech as though it were meaningless, or lacking the system of signification used in English. Instead, the Africans’ vocalizations act merely as direct expressions of emotion, or of the Congo itself, and are often interspersed with silence. For example, he recalls hearing the natives from the boat:
A cry, a very loud cry as of infinite desolation, sounded slowly in the opaque air. It ceased. A complaining clamor, modulated in savage discords, filled our ears….I don’t know how it struck the others: to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed….It culminated in a hurried outbreak of almost intolerably excessive shrieking, which stopped short, leaving us stiffened in a variety of silly attitudes, and obstinately listening to the nearly as appalling and excessive silence (250).
The silence in this passage produces the same effect on the listeners as the voices do, and the degree to which to which the Europeans are uncomfortable with the listening to silence is apparent in their “silly attitudes.” The description severs any connection between the sounds and the people who produced them by using passive constructions which elide the subject, and reassigning the origin to “the mist itself.” Combined with the “excessive” and “infinite” qualities of the sounds, this distance from the individual speakers negates the possibility of personal expression, so that Marlow perceives the Africans as eschewing speech which provides them individuality and finding themselves in the mist that surround them instead. One might argue that the Africans appear as a mass consciousness without differentiated personalities as a result of Conrad’s or Marlow’s racism, but regardless of the cause, Conrad certainly portrays this sort of externalized speech as a positive trait, shared by Marlow. Like the Africans, Marlow is characterized as speaking though from a mist, when the anonymous narrator compares him to the other sailors, saying “to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale, which brought it out only as a glow bring out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos” (213). The voice emanating from the mist, does not, therefore depend on race, but instead on a conception of speech as reflective of “an episode’” or nature, rather than indicative of something within the self.
The Europeans employed by the trading company to remove ivory from Africa are motivated by a desire for self-advancement, and as a result, they speak exclusively about themselves. The volubility of the men Marlow works with becomes ridiculous in contrast to the dominating silence of the Africans and the surrounding forest. Marlow interrupts his recollection of a conversation with the brickmaker to describe the vegetation “standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a somber gap glittering, glittering as it flowed broadly by without a murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself” (236). The quietness dwarfs the speaker, just as the vegetation renders the inventions of man, such as a temple, small and insignificant. Marlow disdains these men for the quantity of their speech as well as its content: “I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing but a little loose dirt, maybe” (236). The brickmaker has incorporated nothing of the greatness of the African landscape into himself, and instead has only “loose dirt.” His words act as a screen for the hollowness, but they are hardly convincing to the silence that surrounds them, as it is in fact while he speaks that Marlow discovers his empty center.
Although Marlow can understand the literal significance of the words of the Europeans, he renders their dialogue meaningless by focusing on its pettiness. When relating the conversation between the manager and his uncle, he “gathered in snatches” that they disapproved of someone, but he has reduced their words to isolated, and therefore useless phrases (242). In spite of their shared language, Marlow cannot understand them, and receives from what he has heard only the feeling that he greatly dislikes them. This failure of the communicative function of words differs from his experiences with the Africans:
The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from comprehension of our surroundings…Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you…could comprehend (246-247).
Marlow seems to engage with his listeners in this passage, responding “yes” to an unspecified challenge, as though he is aware that by admitting a faint comprehension, and further a response, a sympathy for the speakers who have been designated “ugly.” Marlow does not challenge this judgment, but since he associates the Africans with the natural world and the past, the sentence “we were cut off from comprehension of our surroundings” does suggest a sentimental longing to change his identity from European to African, although what really attracts him is the possibility of trading flat, selfish words for the mysterious power of language he cannot decipher.
In spite of his faith in communication across cultural and language barriers (as well as across time periods), Marlow doubts the efficacy of speech in transmitting specific meanings. This insecurity manifests itself in the several instances in which Marlow interrupts his narrative to question the possibility of shared understanding among individuals who have only language to draw them together. When he remembers, for example, how he conceived of Kurtz before meeting him, he realizes the futility of trying to convey the essence of any man or experience to his listeners:
“Kurtz whom at the time I did not see—you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream-making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation.
He was silent for a while.
No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone.
He paused as if reflecting, then added:
Of course in this you fellows see more than I could then. You see me, whom you know…
It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more than a voice” (237).
Although the passage begins with a confident assertion of his own intelligibility, namely, the interjection “you understand,” Marlow’s narration soon breaks down to such an extent that he lapses into ellipses and another voice must intercede to inform the reader of his silence. Paradoxically, even while he considers any explanation of Africa “a vain attempt” he continues to grope for words that will express that failure to communicate; he cannot find any silence profound enough and instead multiples his phrases into overabundance. He speaks of “the dream-sensation,” “the life-sensation,” “truth” “meaning” and “essence” to describe what he cannot describe, since none of these terms could adequately convey their own absence, but like the words of the Europeans, the sheer volume of them take on the function of silence, while depending on words.
Marlow explicitly attacks the tendency of words and names to replace their referents, and privileges the act of sight over hearing, as when he says, “I did not see…he was just a word for me.” Seeing assumes direct, physical contact with the object, whereas hearing relies on another person’s presumably different impression and their choice of words, which can in themselves be misleading, as when he notes that while Kurtz’ name means “short,” the man himself was not (272). Marlow eventually resumes his narrative after assuring himself, “Of course in this you fellows se more than I could then. You see me, who you know…” The other narrator undermines this point, however, by informing us that in fact Marlow is invisible and has become only a voice, like Kurtz. The listeners can see neither themselves nor the speaker, and thus depend on speech for any contact with each other, but the intense loneliness of the line “We live, as we dream—alone” indicates that relating dreams, or the most personal of thoughts, cannot overcome the extreme isolation of souls.
Kurtz’s madness stems from his seclusion. Since he had based his identity on his voice, even in Europe, as we hear from the journalist who visits Marlow (287), in the absence of such as structure based on language, Kurtz dissolves. He lacks the external checks an audience provides, so that his mind strayed “by the way of silence—utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion” (261). Unlike Marlow, who, at least ideally, defines himself through work, Kurtz epitomizes the self-constructed through conversation. Marlow recalls, “I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing. I didn’t say to myself, ‘Now I will never see him”…but, ‘now I will never hear him.’ The man presented himself as a voice” (259). Again, Marlow asks rhetorically for confirmation of his words, saying “you know” and contrasts seeing and hearing, but he also focuses on how Kurtz “presents” himself. He is dependent on discourse, and therefore on active listeners, who he cannot find in Africa. His soul, therefore, cannot survive solitude: “Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within himself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad” (280). Perhaps upon examining himself, Kurtz discovered the hollowness that the other ivory hunters continued to mask with their chatter, and that is the horror to which he refers on his deathbed.
Western literature has often been understood as the expression of a personal truth, but while Heart of Darkness discusses souls and expression, it self-consciously refuses to act as a document of any one man’s internal life. Although Marlow narrates, it is Kurtz’s consciousness that is examined. The disjunction between word and subject, like the rest of the novel, challenges the assumption of self-expression. The reader, like the anonymous narrator, is left “on the watch for the sentence that would give…the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips” (237).
Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness,” Great Short Works of Joseph Conrad, New York: Harper, 1967.
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