Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a novel where the main character Marlow is telling a story of a trip to the Congo. This novel is said to possibly be an autobiography of Conrads life at sea. This is said because Conrad was a seaman for a many years and went into Africa many times. The story is so powerful that even after 100 years, we still struggle with its meaning. This story has been retold by Francis Ford Coppola in the film Apocalypse Now. Chinua Achebe has recently explored Conrads ideas on imperialism.
Achebe believed Conrads book presented a racist view of the people of Africa and Achebe in his own book, Things Fall Apart, presented imperialism through the eyes of the Africans. The story of Heart of Darkness is being told to four men on the deck of the Nellie. The story being told is about one of Marlows expeditions to the Congo in search of an Ivory hunter named Kurtz. When Marlow found Kurtz in the Congo, Kurtz had “gone native” Marlow found, “a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole,” outside of Kurtzs house and Kurtz had been hunting with tribes in the area (Conrad, 73). When Marlow arrived Kurtz, was ill and dying.
Kurtz cried out the words “The horror! The horror! ” right before he died (Conrad, 85). These words cried out by Kurtz as he died created the most important passages in Heart of Darkness. The way this one passage is interpreted determines how the book is interpreted. One interpretation is that the “horror” is death and Kurtz is realizing he is dying. Kurtz is horrified at the thought of dying and is crying out in pain of the realization. Kurtz may be afraid to die in the heart of darkness. Kurtz may be afraid to die knowing that he will never see his intended again and he may feel guilty for leaving his intended for his savage life.
This interpretation shows a book about lost love and guilt for finding a new life. This interpretation is one of the less complex and uninteresting interpretations. Now here is a more interesting and complex interpretation. Some view Heart of Darkness as a racist book. This interpretation comes from the view that the “horror” Kurtz is identifying is his being brought “down” to the African ways. This interpretation sees the African ways as uncivilized and horrid to Kurtz when he realizes he was at their level. Kurtz realizes that he is at the Africans level when he sees Marlow and Marlows civilized ways.
Also in the book Conrad talks about Africans in degrading and outright racist ways. The Africans are viewed as savage barbarians who are uncivilized and therefore inferior to civilized people. One argument against this interpretation is that these were the ideas of the time and when Conrad used degrading names for the Africans he was just using the excepted language of the time and expressing the views of the time. Just because the ideas and language were excepted at the time does not make the views not racist in any manner. The time period that Conrad wrote in was the height of imperialism.
The late 18th and early 19th century was a very racist time period and the excepted ideas were extremely racist. Conrad was not a bad person for believing these things because they were the excepted ideas at the time but the ideas were racist. This interpretation of the “horror” being the horror of the uncivilized would mean that the book was a racist book. The “horror” has also been interpreted as the horror of the inner human soul (Beaconschool, 1). When someone is taken out of civilization they are unbounded by civilization when this happens, the inner human soul lets out its natural evilness.
This interpretation suggest that humans are naturally evil and evil is in the heart of our souls. Civilization just keeps that “evil” at bay and once someone is unbounded by civilization the evil comes out. This interpretation shows us that Conrads novel is essentially a psychological novel. The heart of darkness is the darkness in the human soul and Conrads novel is telling the story of someone finding the inner darkness. That person is Kurtz and when Kurtz cries out “The horror! ” he has found the horror of the inner soul within him.
In this interpretation the novel is about self and human discovery. Conrad may be telling us about himself searching for his inner self. In this view, Africa is just a symbol for the human soul and the human soul from the beginning of time. Conrad even compares the trip up the river to a trip to the beginning of time (Conrad, 55). The Heart of Darkness may be the heart of the human soul and Conrad suggests this heart to be evil. Another interpretation of Heart of Darkness is that it is an anti-imperialist book and in this context the “horror” is imperialism and colonialism.
Marlow hints this aspect when he makes the reference to the Romans “they were going to run an oversea empire, and make no end of coin by trade” (Conrad, 24). This line is important because it brings out the point that what is happing in Africa is what happened to England. England was oppressed by the Romans and is now oppressing the Africans. Kurtz, being European has realized what imperialism and colonization has done to the Africans. Imperialism and colonization has oppressed them and taken their natural resources away from them.
Kurtz realizes this and wants people to know the horror of this because at this time people back in Europe did not realize imperialism was so horrid. People did not know how horrid imperialism was because when people went back to Europe they would lie about how bad it was. Marlow says of women, “we must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse” (Conrad, 63). Conrad uses women in his book to be the symbol for the people who are being lied to. In the end of the novel Marlow goes to Kurtz intended and she asks what were Kurtzs last words.
Marlow lies to her and tells her that Kurtz spoke of her in his last words. Marlow does this because he “could not tell her. It would have been too darkto dark altogether… ” (Conrad, 94). Marlow, because he did not tell her, asked himself if he was doing Kurtz an injustice. Did Kurtz want the truth to be finally told? Marlow could not tell the truth and he was upset because he did not bring the truth out. This is an example of what went on in this time period. If people had not been lying about how horrible colonization and imperialism was it may have not gone on for so long.
Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness has simple interpretations and very complex interpretations. None of these interpretations are wrong or right. None of these interpretations are less important than the others, on the contrary all the interpretations make Heart of Darkness what it is. These different interpretations are what give the book its different levels of meaning. What makes this really interesting is that all these interpretations stemmed from one passage “The horror! The horror! ” (Conrad, 85). This passage is so complex because it creates the question, what horror?
The answer of that one question depends on the interpretation of the novel. The interpretation of the novel does not have to stick to one straight interpretation. The novel can have many different meanings that work together and create one interpretation. An example of this is that the “horror” could be both the horror of discovering the heart of the inner soul and trying to tell how horrible colonization is. The interpretation could say that colonization is the heart of darkness and is true evil and that true evil lies in the heart of our souls.