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Different perspectives on Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad who was born on December 3, 1857 joined the French Merchant Marine at 15. He had a long period of adventure at sea and during his seafaring career. Conrad encountered numerous hardships and shipwrecks when he sailed down the Congo river. He gave up his seafaring career due to ill health.

A decade after returning to England Conrad embarked on writing his Novella known as Heart of Darkness which placed him in the front rank of English writers.

The "Nellie" a cruising ship was anchored at the mouth of the river Thames awaiting the turn of the tide to go out.

The director of companies, who was also the Captain and the host, the lawyer, the accountant and Marlow who was a seaman and a wanderer and the unnamed narrator who was also another guest were relaxing on the deck. All of them appeared to be restless but meditative.

Except Marlow, the rest of the men continued to glorify the historical and triumphant voyages originated from the Thames.

The unnamed narrator and the rest were talking proudly about the era of British explorers and the trading ships that set sail from the Thames.

According to the narrator, the explorations facilitated the founding of the British Empire which benefited the whole humanity.

Suddenly, Marlow contradicting what the unknown narrator and the rest were talking about the Thames and early British explorers and their achievements, said this very spot referring to river Thames in the past was One of the Dark Places of the Earth.

Marlow said when the Romans first arrived in England it was 'a great savage wilderness to them.'

Marlo kept on narrating his experiences as a Captain of a steamship on the Congo River but the others were not listening to him.

The unnamed narrator on the ship describing the pose of Marlow when he started to narrate on the gloomy days of the river Thames tells the reader "Mind," he (Marlow) began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards, so that with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus flower."

Marlow's experiences during his voyage along the Congo River and his personal observations of the inhumane manner how the natives were treated, effects of imperialism and how he reached his 'grail quest' Kurtz and his famous last words 'the horror, the horror' implying his redemption before his death are some of the vital revelations in Marlow's narration.

Throughout the novel, from the symbolic description of the voyage of Marlow along the Congo river through the massive jungle Conrad made Marlow to reveal his 'spiritual voyage of self-discovery.

On his return to England Marlow who had undergone a vast transformation visited Kurtz's fiancee and handed over her the old letters as instructed by Kurtz saying a big lie that the last word of Kurtz was her name.

Literary Critics widely differ in their interpretations of the meaning of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Some critics judged Heart of Darkness as an attack on Belgian Colonial Methods of Administration in Congo.

Some considered it as a study in race relationships.

It was a symbolic picture of the inborn antagonism of two races- the Whites and the Blacks.

William Follet in his book on Joseph Conrad analysing his work generally said Conrad was for ever fascinated by the 'immense indifference of things 'the tragic vanity of the blind groping that we call aspiration, the profound meaningless of life was symbolically portrayed in the whole canon of Conrad's work.

His stories including Heart of Darkness are not chronicles of men who conquer fate but of men who are conquered.

Referring to the character of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness he said, "Kurtz is a personal embodiment of all that Conrad felt of futility, degradation and horror in what the Europeans in the Congo called 'progress.' meant exploitation of the natives.

Albert J. Guerard in Conrad the Novelist said Conrad like many other novelists was drawn to idealism and repelled by its hypocritical abuse.

Marlow used the term 'pilgrims' sarcastically refers to the rest on board even though they were nor redeemed and totally blind to the real impact of imperialism on the lives of the natives in Africa.

According to Marlow, both the 'pilgrims' and Kurtz are hollow men.

Marlow in his narration identified the wilderness in Kurtz was 'echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.'

F.R.Leavis, in The Great Tradition regarded Marlow the central character of the Heart of Darkness only as a narrator providing 'specific and concretely realised point of view of Conrad'.

Marlow returned to Europe as a changed and a knowing man.

It was evident from Marlow's own words, 'now ordinary people are intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I know."

Marlow in several instances had referred to his dream sensation.

"It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream.'

The expressions used by Marlow how his steamer toils such as " along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy seemed unnatural like a state of trance " and again on encountering a thick fog " The approach to this Kurtz grubbing for ivory in the wretched bush was beset by as many dangers as though he had been an enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle " are clear indications of dream like quality of Marlow's narration.

After Kurtz was brought back to the ship Marlow said, "His was an impenetrable darkness.

I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines."

Kurtz was found dead on board the ship and his body was taken off and buried in a muddy hole.

Alan M. Hollingsworth in his book Literature and Psychology says both Joseph Conrad and Sigmund Freud were intensely interested in discovering 'ills of our society'.

In the Heart of Darkness Conrad made references to white facade and inner dark corruption of the 'Whited Sepulchre" of Christian Imperialism.

In the Gospels, Christ specifically warns his lower apostles not to carry staves (Luke) in the same manner Marlow was accompanied by many 'pilgrims' with staves in his journey into the heart of Africa to seek the truth of Kurtz.

Marlow discovered in Kurtz a kind of cannibal. He proved to be a real devil to the natives.

Kurtz had resorted to 'infernal rites' , 'mutilation', 'torture', and 'horror'.

Image of death

Conrad uses images of death when Marlow gives a description of the house of Kurtz's intended wife and its surroundings.

'She lived in a mausoleum in which the piano is like a sarcophagus on a street resembling an alley in a cemetery.

The city which houses this tomb is a 'city of the dead.'Jerome Thale in his compilation of Narrator as a Hero referring to Marlow's Quest says Conrad's Heart of Darkness has all the qualities of a conventional adventure tale, such as mystery, exotic setting,escape, suspense and unexpected attack.

They are literary devices to convey something more fundamental.

Heart of Darkness is identified by Jerome as a 'grail quest.'

Grail Quest is the search for some object and who finds it can see the grail, an illumination.And Marlow the central figure in Heart of Darkness played the role of a knight seeking the grail which he found at last - Kurtz.

When Kurtz died Marlow was spiritually reborn.

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