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Chthonic Themes In Heart Of Darkness Essay


Joseph Conrads novella, Heart of Darkness, explores the enlightenment of Marlow, an explorer who ventures into the Belgian Congo. He is led through a chthonic journey, witnessing humanity at both its darkest and lightest and emerging from the jungle reborn. While both Conrad and his characters make it clear to the audience that Marlow has reached an enlightened state, what precisely he is enlightened about is never explicitly states. A common, easily reached interpretation has Marlow lamenting the evils of European imperialism in Africa. Superficially, this interpretation is well-supported by the text; however, if one goes beyond the surface, the interpretation becomes far more universal and ambiguous. Marlows ultimate enlightenment, reachable only through a chthonic journey, is to embrace both the light and dark parts of humanity and to accept that we live in the gray area between.

Marlows journey forces him to stop seeing the world in the concrete, black-and-white, objective way heand the majority of the other charactersis comfortable with. Before beginning his journey, Marlow wants to see the world in these clear-cut terms. His idealism is seen in his exchange with his aunt before departing for the Congo; Marlow is uneasy with the idea that the company, which claims to be bringing the light of civilization to the savage African masses, is being run only for profit. His aunt, who is older and one can assume has more worldly experience and wisdom than her young nephew, reminds him that the laborer is worthy of his hire (Conrad 10), suggesting through an allusion to Timothy 5:18 that the company has every right to profit from their work. Marlow scoffs at how out of touch with the truth women are (10), yet it would seem that at that point it is Marlow who is out of touch with the truth, caught up in the ideal that a company can be run for either profit or welfare, but not both. This is not to say that the company was benefiting the native Africansit certainly isntbut to say that Marlow was absorbed with an idealistic vision of the world. Through his chthonic journey, Marlow seems to have come to recognize the subjectivity of the morality he clung so idealistically to. His enlightenment is to realize that good and evil are not objective facts but subjective opinions that can vary between people without becoming invalidated.

In Heart of Darkness, Marlow descends into the darkness of an unfamiliar, unconquered realm. The Congo River acts as a labyrinth, leading him into and out of the underworld of the jungle. Once fully immersed in the jungle, Marlow encounters Kurtz, the enigmatic ivory collector that Marlow was sent to retrieve from the jungle. Kurtz serves almost as a warning for Marlow, a vision of what he could become if he fully immerses himself in the darkness. Kurtz lived and worked in the jungle for a number of years, actively participating in and experiencing the underworld. Through this he has not only reached an enlightened state of mind but gone beyond it, obtaining an untranslatable knowledge. Kurtz recognizes no set moral code, no binding definitions of good or evil, but the subjective, mutable nature of morality. As a result, he detaches himself from the normal plane of existence and consequently is no longer a part of the world he came and cannot return to it. In contrast, Marlow merely observes the underworld as he moves through it. He stands as close to the edge of darkness as he can without going over it, as Kurtz has. Marlow passively listens to, reacts to, and learns from the underworld, and as a result, he is able to return from the jungle, reborn and enlightened, completing his chthonic journey.

Marlow outwardly demonstrates his enlightenment to the narrator of the story as well as the others listening to his tale in various ways. He has a Buddha-like appearancean enigmatic, Eastern aesthetic that connotes a higher, enlightened mental plane (1). It is suggested that Marlow makes a habit of telling others about his inconclusive experiences (5), relaying cryptic tales to anyone who will listen, connoting a certain level of sage-like wisdom. However, the most telling external evidence of Marlows enlightenment is found when he lies to Kurtzs intended. When visiting her to inform her of Kurtzs death, she asks Marlow to tell her what Kurtzs final words were. Seemingly without much admonition, he lies, telling her that Kurtzs last words were her name. Marlow realized that if he told her the truththat Kurtzs last words were the horror and exterminate the brutesshe wouldnt have been able to comprehend. Marlow understands and accepts Kurtzs final words because he has been brought face-to-face with the darkness that prompted them. Kurtzs intended has been through no such chthonic journey; she is firmly set in the concrete world of objectivity and absolutes from which Marlow was ripped. Marlow understands that, because she has only ever lived in the light and has never been through the dark, she cannot comprehend the gray area in which Kurtz and Marlow reside, and therefore he chooses to lie to her, giving her answers she can understand and accept.

Marlows enlightenment is also seen through Conrads use of diction, motif, and narration style. Throughout the novella, Conrads diction is elevated and poetic, often employing repetition and alliteration. This level of diction reflects Marlows level of thought; poetic, abstract, fluid, and descriptive. Perhaps the most telling sign of Marlows enlightenment is Conrads use of the contrast between light and dark. This contrast is found frequently throughout the novella, from the accountants starched, white clothes and the black loincloths of the natives to Kurtzs painting, which depicts a blindfolded woman holding a torch out against the dark background. This frequent, blatant juxtaposition forces the reader to look for meaning in the contrast of the two extremes, finding it in the middle groundthe gray area. Similarly, Marlow was forced to confront the juxtaposition of the known and the unknown, the light and the dark aspects of human nature, and from that juxtaposition was enlightened.

The most interesting method through which Conrad conveys Marlows enlightenment is through is narrative style. The story the audience receives is second- or third-hand; it is Kurtzs story, being told by Marlow, being told by an anonymous narrator to the audience. In Greek religious practices, oracles were thought to be human portals through which the gods could communicate with people. The Delphic oraclethe most celebrated of the numerous oracleswould commune with the gods in the innermost sanctum of her temple and never have direct contact with the person seeking divination. Instead, it was the role of priests to interpret her messages and relay them to those outside of the temple. This practice, which relates back to the chthonic, mythological element of Marlows story, is reflected in Conrads narrative style. Kurtzs story, which comes directly from the underworld, must pass through a series of interpreters before reaching the audience. This puts Marlow in a position of enlightenment, interpreting Kurtzs messages and relaying them to the unenlightened.

Heart of Darkness is a story about the enlightenment one can reach by going beyond the normal plane of existence and venturing into the unknown. By understanding how and why Marlow reaches his enlightenment, one is able to comprehend what exactly that enlightenment isreality exists not in absolutes, but in the uncertain gray area between them.

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