Darkness and Light: the Illumination of Reality and Unreality in Heart of Darkness

May 4, 2022 by Essay Writer

Throughout his narrative in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Charlie Marlow characterizes events, ideas, and locations that he encounters in terms of light or darkness. Embedded in Marlow’s parlance is an ongoing metaphor equating light with knowledge and civility and darkness with mystery and savagery. When he begins his narrative, Marlow equates light and, therefore, civility, with reality, believing it to be a tangible expression of man’s natural state. Similarly, Marlow uses darkness to depict savagery as a vice having absconded with nature. But as he proceeds deeper into the heart of the African jungle and begins to understand savagery as a primitive form of civilization and, therefore, a reflection on his own reality, the metaphor shifts, until the narrator raises his head at the end of the novel to discover that the Thames seemed to ‘lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” The alteration of the light-dark metaphor corresponds with Marlow’s cognizance that the only ‘reality’, ‘truth’, or ‘light’ about civilization is that it is, regardless of appearances, unreal, absurd, and shrouded in ‘darkness’. Marlow uses the contrast between darkness and light to underscore the schism between the seemingly disparate realms of civility and savagery, repeatedly associating light with knowledge and truth; darkness with mystery and deceptive evil. When Marlow realizes that his aunt’s acquaintances had misrepresented him to the Chief of the Inner Station, Marlow states, ‘Light dawned upon me’, as if to explicitly associate light with knowledge or cognizance. It is significant then, that Marlow later associates light with civilization. He describes the knights-errant who went out from the Thames to conquer the vast reaches of the world as having brought light into the darkness, flanked with figurative torches alongside their swords, ‘bearers of a spark from the sacred fire.” That Marlow directly correlates knowledge and light, and light and civilization, necessarily implies that Marlow seeks to correlate knowledge and civilization. In a word, Marlow’s delineation of the British imperialists implies that he understands civilization to be logical and rational, while he understands primitive social organizations to be backward and crude.As Marlow proceeds deeper into the heart of the African jungle and begins to understand savagery as a primitive form of civilization and, therefore, a reflection on his own reality, the light-dark metaphor shifts. For example, when Marlow goes wandering in the jungle, he has contrasting experiences in the sunshine and in the shade that are ironic in light of the established metaphor. Contemplating the colonialists in the jungle, he remarks:’I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! These were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men – men, I tell you. But as I stood on the hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later.’ That the ‘blazing sunlight’ would proffer to Marlow the realization that the civilized colonialists were little more than ‘flabby, pretendingÖ devils’ is ironic. In keeping with the established metaphor, it would be logical for him to glimpse the intelligence and inherent goodness of the colonialists in the sunlight. The pun on the metaphor continues when Marlow departs the sunshine for the shade and is aloud to partake of the natives in their ‘natural’ habitat: the darkness. We would expect to see the natives in all their wanton savagery, but instead the darkness is ‘gloomy’ and filled with a ‘mournful stillness’ . As Marlow describes, ‘Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between trees, leaning against trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced with dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair.’ Note that Marlow describes the emaciated natives as being ‘half effaced with dim light’. He is just beginning to see the realities of civilization and progress, and the reality that the natives are not ‘the enemy’ or madly insane, but are sick, starving, dying, helpless, and weak; the partiality and dimness of the light reflects his half-awareness. As if to ensure the reader’s cognizance of the pun, fate would have it that as Marlow departs for the station from the shade, he runs into one of the colonialists: ‘I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clear silk necktie, and varnished boots.’ The contrast between the starving, deprived, wretched natives and this overfed, overdressed man parodies the man, while his dress (‘white’, ‘snowy’, ‘light’, ‘clear’, ‘varnished’) again makes a pun of Marlow’s understanding of light (the man’s tie also stands in august contrast to the absurd white worsted the black man had wrapped around his neck in the shade ). These pun provides a context for Marlow’s use of the metaphor later to critique the colonialists treatment of the savages: noticing a painting of Lady Justice in the manager’s station, Marlow observes: ‘The background was somber, almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister.’ With this, the metaphor has come full circle, and Marlow’s understanding of civilization has been fundamentally altered. We’ve now established that Marlow’s perception of reality in regards to civilization changes: what he initially thinks of as rational and good, he concludes is irrational and evil. It remains to be shown that Marlow believes Kurtz to have been anything short of fundamentally evil. When Marlow first learns of Kurtz’s activities in the jungle, he attributes Kurtz’s moral downfall to his disconnect with civilization and reality, blaming the ‘dark’, ‘mysterious’ forces of the jungle for Kurtz’s actions: ‘Önever, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness.’ Marlow gradually becomes aware that perhaps Kurtz’s actions were quite natural, however, and reflect not a madman’s sick abortion of human nature, but rather reflect human nature itself. Take, for example, Marlow’s reaction to Kurtz’s cannibalistic brutality: ‘ÖI seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that has a right to exist – obviously – in the sunshine.’ Savagery itself is not shocking to Marlow, but he is unable to reconcile its uninhibited, unapologetic treatment (manifested here by its existence in the light of day). This implies that Marlow understands savagery as something that exists in society, just not in a tangible, explicit form. Kurtz’s government, less removed from its original formulation, is therefore a truer reflection on ‘reality’ than the trappings of civilization. When the harlequin warns Marlow not to judge Kurtz’s brutality because Marlow can’t understand the ‘conditions’ that led Kurtz to impale heads upon stakes outside his house, Marlow reflects: ‘I shocked him excessively by laughing. Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear? There had been enemies, criminals, workers – and these were rebels.’ But the harlequin’s justification for Kurtz’s actions is not unlike the justification individuals from all walks of life posit to justify the brutality of the sovereigns under which they are socialized. To further the irony, Marlow stops just short of mocking the savages in their militaristic procession: ‘Some of the pilgrims behind the stretcher carried his arms – two shot-guns, a heavy rifle, and a light revolver-carbine – the thunderbolts of that pitiful Jupiter.’ And yet such displays are common in civil societies: carrying arms in the name of gods: flags, leaders; against individuals who might otherwise be brothers, but who happen to live on the wrong side of a collectively imagined border or believe in a different deity at the head of their collectively understood religion. In these ways, the natives become a reflection of how absurdly we give up our bodies and our thoughts to the Durkheimian group, and shed light on the reality that is human nature.This realization terrifies Marlow, as indicated by his pronouncement: “I don’t want to know anything of the ceremonies used when approaching Mr. Kurtz,…Curious, this feeling came over me that such details would be more intolerable than those heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz’s windows.” Marlow is forced to conclude, however, that any partition between the reality of civilization and the seeming unreality of primitive savagery is diaphanous at best. As Marlow comes to understand Kurtz’s ‘society’ as a reflection on all civilizations, and Kurtz’s actions as a reflection of the evil that resides in the hearts of all men, he must necessarily conclude that all civilizations are, in some small way, shrouded in darkness. His ultimate conclusion about societies is that they are a form of escapism from the darkness of human nature,: ‘When you have to attend to [menial tasks], to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades. The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily. But I feel it all the same [Ö]” That the surface realities of social man’s life are little but absurd trappings of civilization is evidenced by the socialization of the savages to the colonialist ‘white’ government. Marlow describes and parodies three savages who have, in Rousseau’s tradition, accepted the yoke of the colonialist on the condition that they have power enough to enslave their fellow Africans. The most explicit instance of this mocking comes from his description of one of his shipmates: ‘He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boilerÖto look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs.’ Marlow’s parody of this man parallels his ironical lauding of civilization, describing a large, seemingly meaningless hole in the slope of a hill as perhaps being ‘Öconnected with the philanthropic desire of giving criminals something to do.’ Civilization, then, can be said to be a form of iridescent escapism that protects us from the reality buried under its surface. In the end, Marlow is fatalistic about his findings, gazing around London and realizing that perhaps it is better that individuals should be filled with petty delusions than for Marlow to preach to them like some deluded, living Thomas Marley. In the end, however, Marlow’s message is heard by his listeners, as the narrator raises his head at the end of the novel to discover that the Thames seemed to ‘lead into the heart of an immense darkness,” thus accepting, like Marlow, that the moral to be gained from Kurtz’s experience is that the only ‘reality’, ‘truth’, or ‘light’ about civilization is that it is, regardless of appearances, unreal, absurd, and shrouded in ‘darkness’.

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