LitLink

This is a course blog for the members of EH236 at the University of South Alabama, Spring 2006.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Relationship of Kurtz, Europe, and Africa in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Conrad’s’ Heart of Darkness is a literary masterpiece that delves into the deep psychological make up of man. By exploring the effects of placing civilization into the very depths of wilderness, Conrad suggests that, void of any sense of normalcy, man could very well go mad. He makes this point by marvelously placing one mysterious character in between two worlds, Europe and Africa. The relationship between this central character, Mr. Kurtz, and the two worlds creates a veritable “heart of darkness”.

One of the most interesting tools Conrad uses to build that relationship is point of view. Throughout the story, we learn of Kurtz through the eyes of another seaman named Marlowe who is actually spinning a sailors yarn. The affect of this limited third-person narrator is that everything we learn about Kurtz is relative to the viewpoint of Marlowe. For some, it brings into question the validity of the story. Nonetheless, it does help to interweave the relationship between Mr. Kurtz, Europe, and Africa.

We get our first impressions of Europe through Marlowe during his trip down the River Thames in London. He contextually describes the ancient Roman conquest as “merely a squeeze, and nothing more.” According to Marlowe, this conquest was “not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. But, unlike the Romans, what saved Europeans in his time was an “idea”. Thus, European ideals, whether it is bringing Christianity or civilization to others, justified their conquest. His tone seems quite sarcastic in this description making the reader question if “an idea” is really enough to justify “taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves”. This is great example of how Marlowe qualifies our viewpoint of Europe.

However, Europe is better conceived in contrast to Africa. One example is found when Marlowe describes a Man of War sitting off the coast of Africa seemingly firing at nothing. This image makes Europe, with all its grandeur, seem inane in the African setting. Furthermore, upon landing in Africa, Marlowe’s depiction of European machinery lying “as dead as the carcasses of some animals” suggests that European influence could not survive in the African wilderness. A final example is found when Marlowe is looking at the serenity of nature and all of a sudden a rhinoceros comes and disturbs the piece of the moment with “a deadened burst of mighty splashes”. All of these examples point to the degrading effect of nature upon Europe.

These images are very significant because Marlowe says of Kurtz, “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” In essence, Kurtz is Europe; and, like Europe, “he had no restraint”. In his mind everything belonged to him. At one point, Kurtz exclaimed, “My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river.” This lack of restraint placed a terrible toll on a once “noble and eloquent man”. According to Marlowe, “the wilderness…had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion.” Thus, just like that the Man of War, or that abandoned machinery, the African wilderness had rendered Kurtz ineffectual, and eventually left him as a carcass. He could not survive the innards of the wilds. The “heart of darkness” was just too much for him.

Clearly, then, in this work, Europe is destroyed by the depths of Africa. Since Kurtz is made from all of Europe, his innate failings where magnified by abundance of commodities and deadly isolation that Africa offered. In the end, though, he could never enjoy all of his “ivory”. He was consumed by the darkness.

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