Title of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: MA English Study Materail


A popular English novella, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is included in the postgraduate syllabi of several Bengal universities. This is a study material on PG Course M.A. English Literature.

Study Material of MA English of Bengal universities including University of Calcutta and Rabindrabharati Vishyavidyalay

Conrad's early critics mostly considered Heart of Darkness a problematic text on colonialism, showing the disparity between its ideology and practice using the travel narrative motif. From an Eurocentric perspective, Africa was itself the heart of a vast darkness – mysterious, corrupt, sinister, savage and whatsoever – antithetical to Europe and so to civilisation. This binary provided the prime defence for the European colonialists: the theory of 'enlightenment'. Not just conquerors like the Romans, they excused themselves as emissaries of light to dark, savage lands: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only."

Eurocentricism is constantly problematized as Charlie Marlow embarks on his colonial mission in Congo. His voyage from Europe to the Outer and then to the Central Station foregrounds his response to the light and darkness binary in all the possible connotations. He receives a tremendous culture shock in what he sees around - the futile firing of the warship, the accountant's indifferent malice, the genocide at the "grove of death". His journey to the Inner Station subverts one of the major tags attached to the autochthones: cannibalism. The Africans do not eat up the Europeans. They live on rotten hippo meats, which the so called emissaries of light throw overboard. The pieces of brass wire given to the natives as a salary was of no avail "unless they swallowed the wire itself, or made loops of it to snare the fishes with." Nevertheless, "it was paid with a regularity worthy of a large and honourable trading company."

Cedric Watts observes how darkness has always connoted death, evil, mystery and corruption as an opposing force to the life, truth and sanctity symbolized by light and white. In Heart of Darkness, white is the color of Fresleven's bleached bones, of the skulls round Kurtz's hut, of Kurtz's bald head, of the ivory which elicits the pilgrims' avarice. Brussels reminds Marlow of "a white sepulchre". This overturn of polarities invokes Marlow's spiritual introspection.

The enlightenment theory is finally undermined by Kurtz's last utterance: "The horror! The horror!" This final pronouncement might indicate a complete negation of his entire life, the ideas he carried in Africa, those he developed while in Congo and those he left with it. Such conceptual annihilation, however, is opposed by the return of the second man, Marlow. His experience makes him wiser; to what extent is a different question altogether. He is described by the frame narrator as seated like "a Buddha", and the use of the indefinite article is a possible indication to take the term Buddha in its literal meaning of the wise man. Thus the European is himself enlightened instead of civilizing the African, which destabilizes the very idealism of colonial enterprise.

It is significant that Marlow recalls the same dark past of England. Prior to the Roman invasion, the Thames too would flow through wilderness as the Congo does today. Achebe detects racism in Conrad for depicting the Thames as a tranquil river resting peacefully "after ages of good service done" to the colonialist, whereas the Congo is presented quite antithetically like a sinister, twisted snake. Yet the enlightenment of civilisation is ultimately problematized by triumphant bestiality. The glory is no more at the end of the text, as the Thames seems to "lead into the heart of an immense darkness".
The psychoanalytic aspect of the text was first recognised by Edward Garnett. In a 1902 review, he perceived how the White man, on his mission to enlighten the savage, finally uncovers devastating truths about his own self.

Albert Guerard in 1958 described Marlow's trip down the Congo as "the night journey into the unconscious, and confrontation of an entity within the self." The colonial and the psychoanalytic are not two different paradigms altogether; the public reality and the private introspection always have symbiotic qualities.

Carl Gustav Jung held darkness as an archetype of the unconscious, some other common symbols being water, jungle and fog. Conrad used all of them in Heart of Darkness, while the serpentine river represents the tough and twisted inner journey. The layered narrative frame and names like Outer, Central and Inner Station are obvious metaphors for the introspective voyage. Together they form a dark circle with a darker centre that Marlow penetrates by and by. His search for implications of colonialism thus mingles with his quest for inner knowledge and truth.

Frequent biblical allusions enhance this idea. Marlow views Brussels as a 'white sepulchre' while his aunt considers him an 'apostle'. Not coincidentally therefore, his journey is reminiscent of the quest of salvation by a soul or Heart suffering in Darkness, or of a knight's search of the Holy Grail to protect his folk from Dark libels. Those who look for ivory or other earthen things are described as 'faithless pilgrims', and this once again views Marlow's journey as a true pilgrimage in search of light from the all encompassing Darkness of Heart.

Africa was victimised by the lust of European colonialism, which is predominantly a male enterprise. This is manifested through Kurtz and his savage yet superb African mistress. The notion of Africa as a "hostile place" is fused with a male fear and apprehension of the feminine mystery, either a "wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman", or of "fair hair…pale visage…pure brow…surrounded by an ashy halo." Ivory, the chief commodity of trade, can also be seen as a long and white phallic symbol of the colonial enterprise.
Conrad uses light and darkness in all the possible connotations: good and evil, civilised and savage, truth and lies, innocence and experience, idea and practice, philanthropy and exploitation.

Thus the tension appears between the two opposing forces of the binaries, within each of them and finally in the relation between the duo. Conrad constantly destabilises and validates the polarities, only to destabilise once again. And in this endless deference of a conclusive meaning, Heart of Darkness invokes more and more critical discourses on its title and the theme.


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