Joseph Conrad once wrote, ‘the individual consciousness was destined to be in total contradiction to its physical and moral environment’; (Watt 78); the validity of his statement is reflected in the physiological and psychological changes that the characters in both his Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now undergo as they travel up their respective rivers, the Congo and the Nung. Each journey up the tropical river is symbolic of a voyage of discovery into the dark heart of man, and an encounter with his capacity for evil. In such a voyage the characters regress to their basic instincts as they assimilate themselves into an alien world with its primeval dangers. In Heart of
Darkness, going up the river is described to be like:
‘travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, and impenetrable forest … ‘; (Conrad ?).
The river, one which ‘resemble[s] an immense snake uncoiled … with its tail lost in the depths of the land’; (Conrad ?), is ‘dangerous, dark, mysterious, treacherous, [and] concealed’; (Karl 32). When the characters are unable to withstand the various temptations along this passage they helplessly sell their souls to corruption. In both the book and the movie, the various events along each individual journey help illustrate not only the physical deterioration of the environment and the characters’ health but also the psychological degradation of the characters’ conscience and consciousness.
In both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, the various dramatic shifts in the environment from the onset of the river journeys delineate an increasing barbarity and savagery as the characters penetrate deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. The direction of both journeys are formally established as a movement from ‘open and boundless to narrow and restricted spaces’; (Adelman 66), from the light of the sun into the darkness. Projected towards the wilderness, each journey reflects a voyage into the ‘gloom of over-shadowed distances’; (Conrad ?). In Heart of Darkness, the rivers begin to narrow as the ships approach Kurtz’s compound, and Conrad describes this last section of the river as ‘narrow, straight, with high sides like a railway cutting’; (?). In Apocalypse Now, the river towards the end of the journey is located between steep cliffs on both sides; these men are symbolically trapped within this valley, with no chance of escaping from the many horrors they face. Coupled with the ‘whirls of broken stumps and flying leaves’; (Phillips 146), the swirling ultimately disrupts the peaceful flow of the ship sailing up the river.
In addition to these numerous shifts in the ambiance, the events that occur along the respective river journeys also illustrate their advancing into the ‘heart of an impenetrable darkness’; (Conrad ?). In Heart of Darkness, signs of physical fatigue of the crew have escalated along the journey. Marlow first complains of his physical misalignment with his limbs when he reaches the abandoned hut, and later claims to have been ‘increasingly hungry for at least [a] month past’; (Conrad ?) when they fish aboard. In Apocalypse Now, such signs are most evident in the failing luster in the eyes of Willard and his crew, as well as the growing ‘wear and tear’ of their bodies seen in the movie. The physical deterioration can be attributed to numerous events such as the attack of the tiger, which symbolizes the evilness of nature, the ‘fire in the canopy’ caused by supposedly American comrades, and the battle at the Do Long Bridge amidst a ‘confused, hallucinatory, and nightmarish’ atmosphere. Like a pre-planned series of ripples caused by a stone thrown into the water, these events portray rings of obstacles that the crew faces as they proceed with their journeys.
A most significant event takes place towards the end of river journeys when both ships undergo attack from the shore. In Heart of Darkness, the boat begins to fall apart when it was attacked by the natives amongst a ‘tumult of angry of warlike yells’; (Conrad 77); ropes snapped, metal rails fell, and ‘fusillades burst out under [Marlow’s] feet’; (Conrad 76). Similarly in Apocalypse Now, the situation is chaotic, with the crew firing aimlessly into the thick, dense bushes. The first deaths also occur during this attack, at a point relatively close to the center of savagery. Thus, these various concrete and physical incidents help reflect a voyage into the heart of darkness, a place where ‘physiological discomfort heightens to rid one of all sensations’; (Boyle 97).
Although the physical aspects of the river journeys contribute in establishing the foundation for the entrance into the heart of darkness, the psychological journeys traveled by Marlow in Heart of Darkness and Willard in Apocalypse Now, and their respective crew, are more reflective of the ‘restorative return to the primitive sources of being and [the] advance through temporary regression’; (Guerard 12). Through active, spiritual voyages of self-discovery amid continual moral deterioration and alignment with the barbarous wilderness, the characters have evolved into new beings that reflect the ‘uttermost cruelty of imperialistic domination’; (Adelman 73).
‘The hidden truth is hidden – luckily, luckily’; says Marlow, ‘but I felt it all the same’; (Conrad 56). In Heart of Darkness, confesses to feeling grieved: ‘my sorrow had a startling extravagance of emotion’; (Conrad 26). Unable to restrain his many desires in this land of temptations with ‘his own true self … his own inborn strength’; (Conrad 60), his determination to survive has been undermined by his moral conflicts. However, as Marlow learns of the new reality around him he develops a set of values with which he constantly projects onto his surroundings; Marlow at length decides to live under ‘the primitive influence of humankind’; (Brooks 617), letting his conscience float around as a negligible variable. The symbolism of this journey as regression to savagery suggests, according to Adelman, ‘the force of Marlow’s disgust with himself’; (69).
These interwoven senses of uneasiness, shame and lack of conscience are reflected in Marlow’s reactions towards the book An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship, and later towards the death of the helmsman when the ship was attacked. As Marlow flips through his newly discovered book, he feels that it makes him ‘forget the jungle … in a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real’; (Conrad 63); Dorall describes this feeling to be ‘one that strengthens his determination to confront moral responsibility’; (308).
However, Marlow later receives ‘a flash of insight’; (Conrad 69), which Frederick Karl suggests to symbolize ‘the uselessness of burdening himself with conscience’; (36). By believing that he is not solely responsible for his savage thoughts, Marlow argues that the ‘evil extends far beyond his own personal actions’; (Adelman 72). This temporary suspension of moral judgement continues when the blood of dead helmsman drips into his shoes during the attack. Marlow, conscious of his ‘hesitant guilty approach to the account of his meeting with Kurtz’; (Cox 32), is ‘morbidly anxious’; (Conrad 78) to fling quickly his socks and shoes overboard. His struggle to rid himself of this guilt beneath his shame amidst a sudden realization of the horrors that surround him portrays:
‘the acutest analysis of the deterioration of a white man’s morale when let loose from European restraint and planted down in the tropics as an ’emissary of light’ armed to the teeth, to make trade profits out of the ‘subject races’; (Watt 81).
Likewise, the pilgrims on board are also subjects of moral degeneration. As they involve themselves deeper and deeper into the ‘vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience’; (Karl 33), they become mentally disfigured due to their loss of self-restraint, and ‘a general stage of languid imbecility’; (Adelman 68). They, like Marlow who at length proves unable to cope with the drudgery around him, loose themselves into the wilderness.
Compared to Marlow and the pilgrims in Heart of Darkness, Willard and his crew in Apocalypse Now also undergo similar psychological degradation. As Willard proceeds on with his journey which Coppola describes as ‘the voyage of life that each of us takes within ourselves and during which we choose between good and evil’; (Phillips 149), he faces a ‘certain moral confusion … a mistiness, [and] a philosophical intangibility’; (Wilmington 286). The most dramatic example of his being astray from his conscience and morality is perhaps when he cold-bloodedly puts an innocent girl to her death. Later, he places his blame for his lack of humanity on his self-interpreted reality:
‘it was the way we had over here of living with ourselves. We’d cut them in half
with a machine gun and give them a bandaid. It was a lie, and the more I saw of them, the more I hated lies.’;
As he continues his soul-searching journey, he begins to realize his willingness to live in this ‘prehistoric society, with a luminous lack of identity’; (Hagen 299); the closer he comes to accomplishing his mission,, the nearer he is to ‘endemic insanity and primitive barbarism’; (Bogue 617). Even when Clean is killed during the first attack, Willard shows no emotional sign of sorrow; at this point, the dog, the symbol of innocence, rightfully disappears from the scene, as the last strand of morality has left Willard. With this frame of mind he carrieson.
Willard’s crew also experiences this process of moral deterioration compared to the pilgrims in Heart of Darkness, they are given more space for development of character. Lance demonstrates his acceptance of the ‘surrounding evils’ by first camouflaging his face and then volunteering to go with Willard on his mission at the Do Lung Bridge, specified by the Lieutenant Carlson as ‘arsehole of the world’;. Chef, shattered by his encounter with the tiger and the merciless killing of the innocent girl which he ignites by yelling ‘let’s kill ’em all’;, also develops by gaining courage to confront the ‘hollow core of darkness at Kurtz’s camp in Cambodia with Willard and Lance. Clean is amiable and carefree, and his death while listening to his mother ‘pleading with him to come back home in one piece’; (Dorall 304) is a most embittered moment in the film. Nevertheless, his death is a direct result of his leaving his position, allowing for the enclosing corruptness to ‘spread its claws and consume him’; (Watt 90). The other black is Chief, who becomes more hostile towards Willard as the journey proceeds; this increased dissonance concerning the hierarchy of power in the boat finally leads to direct verbal conflict; near his death, he even tries to pull Willard towards the tip of the spear which robbed his life away from him.
Apart from the falling sense of conscience, both crew also suffer from a slow deterioration of their consciousness as they proceed up their respective rivers. In Heart of Darkness, Brooks explains this shift to originate from the characters’ ‘conscious actions, feelings, and outlooks [to] the sub-conscious, perhaps even the unconscious, life within [them]’; (299). Marlow, who often soul-searches in the midst of a recurrent dream-imagery, identifies his trouble of believing himself to be conscious. In addition, as he proceeds along the river, the drums speak to him with ‘a sound weird, appealing, suggestive and wild’; (Conrad 75)’;, and he gradually assumes that the wilderness is alive, either making an appeal or offering a menace.
In like fashion, Willard in Apocalypse Now also suffers from a similar problem; Wilmington explains that his strength is ‘constantly being drained dry by his fear to confront [Kurtz]’; (287), moving his frame of mind into the subconscious level. As his surroundings ‘transforms from the known concrete world into the unknown and mysterious spaces’; (Phillips 148), his consciousness follows, loosening itself amongst this imminent darkness. As well, the various crew members are also constantly disturbed by distorted thoughts in regard to their environment. A sign of being astray from the conscious realm is perhaps depicted at the Do Lung Bridge when Chief asks ‘which way, captain?’; when he clearly knows the answer; without surprise.
Frederick Karl once wrote ‘the jungle itself, the vast protective camouflage barring the glow of the river and the light of the sun and sky, become[s] part of the psychological as well as the physical landscape’; (37). In such an perplexingly powerful ambiance, both Marlow and
Willard, and their company, undertake a river journey which symbolizes ‘an unraveling of the threads of civilization … an investigation leading toward beginnings and origins’; (Brooks 109); in the end, they emerge as ‘new-sprung’ individuals from the experience. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Bogue describes as a ‘book with no moral center’; (616), Marlow’s great lesson is that existence itself has no moral heart; he has not sustained the river experience with his ‘moral perspective intact’; (Boyle 93) unaltered. In the end, he is a changed man, vastly isolated and tremendously different from those abroad the Nellie. In like fashion, Willard in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is isolated by his newly acquired knowledge. He has been changed, humbled by his confrontation with ‘the darkness inherent in Kurtz, in himself, in existence’; (Hagen 294). All in all, both river journeys, each by itself literal and symbolic, physical and psychological, reflect ‘search[es] towards death and dissolution’; (Wilmington 288) that lead into the ‘heart of darkness’;. Each tropical river embodies the characters’ struggles with their conscience and consciousness, as well as their battles against the ‘fascination of abomination’; (Conrad 78).