A short and sloppy interpretation of Heart of Darkness

This interpretation of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is meant to be read by those who have already completed the book. Also, none of the interpretations presented here are meant to be taken as gospel. I don’t know what Conrad meant to put into this novel. I can only tell you what I got out of it.

Marlowe states that he was initially attracted to the depths of the jungle by its relatively uncharted nature. As a child, he was drawn to the compellingly empty space on the map. Metaphorically speaking, the lines of exploration and demarcation on the map represent cultural and scientific progress, the stuff of modernity, namely the things the civilized world sees as having elevated it above the level of animals and so-called “savages.”

When Marlowe makes his way down the river, heading towards Kurtz and gradually getting further and further away from the trappings of modern society, he is understandably put off by just how savage the world seems to his civilized eyes.

This frightening feeling of being lost in this geographic “heart of darkness” manifests itself first as a vague fear of the unknown, an unseen yet looming threat hiding behind the trees that line the riverside. But it is not, as it seems at first, the land that is possessed by some rank and primitive evil standing in opposition to modern society’s relative “holiness.” There is nothing inherently sinister about the jungle or its inhabitants. In fact, the jungle is notable only for the previously mentioned absence of these metaphorical lines on the map, the conspicuous absence of everything modern people use to give their existence meaning. The artificial light of science and progress does not shine here, and the meagre modern light carried into the jungle by Marlowe and his steamboat is not reflected back.

Marlowe admits to being conveniently distracted from this oppressive emptiness by the tedious day-to-day tasks that are forced on him as he pilots his boat (the one little island of modernity to be found here) down the treacherous river. It is only in the idle times that the true fear begins to writhe.

This true fear, which, in turn, points towards what we might call “the true heart of darkness,” is born when Marlowe begins to realize that his fear of this place and the people in it is not based on their fundamental and dramatic difference from himself. On the contrary, the true fear comes, not from witnessing the savagery of the jungle, but from feeling a strange affinity for this savagery emanating from deep in his supposedly civilized core. The primal solitude of the jungle doesn’t poison his sensibilities so much as it forces him to confront the emptiness that exists within him after the conditioning of modern society melt away in the foul heat. It is as if he is realizing for the first time that lines drawn on a map don’t change the land itself. Beneath all his culture and conditioning beats a savage, animalistic heart that has been obscured by the trivia of modern society, but never destroyed.

When he stumbles upon Kurtz, a man who has lived longer and deeper in the unmapped jungle than most, he sees just how dark this heart of darkness can be. Kurtz has found within himself something far more sinister than anything the jungle has to offer, for not only has he degenerated to an animalistic immorality, but he is embracing it in concert with the shrewd intelligence of the modern world. In effect, he has become a monster more horrible than anything the deep, dark jungle, or the modern world could have birthed on its own.

He uses and abuses all of the know-how of the modern world, but feels none of the typically accompanying cultural restrictions. He has all the benefits of a map, but no moral compass to restrain him. In this way, he has the ability to pass himself off as a god amongst the natives, using them to accomplish his own greedy ends.

It is not until Kurtz is confronted by scraps of the civilized world he left behind — in the form of Marlowe, his boat and his crew — that he himself sees how far he has fallen, as if these bits of civilization are a light shining down, showing the depth of his dark well of depravity.

Here, Marlowe has his feet in both worlds, understanding Kurtz’s position, yet unwilling to embrace it himself. He watches, from an slightly elevated position, the last moments of a monster.

As he dies, Kurtz’s haunting last words, “The horror! The horror!” are not directed at anything he has seen in the jungle, but what he has seen inside himself. The true heart of darkness, the one that gives this novel its name, is the foul heart that beats deep within each of us.

Marlowe’s deception of Kurtz’s betrothed, in which he lies about the dead man’s final words, is quite interesting as well. In a way, perhaps, he understands Kurtz’s descent and wants to simply save what he can of the man’s reputation. In another, perhaps greater, way, he is covering the woman’s eyes, shielding her from having to see The Horror for herself. It cannot be un-seen. Even though Marlowe himself has backed away from the dark chasm, he is haunted by what he saw there. The heart of darkness still calls out to him, even from the civilized safety of the London harbour.

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