Heart of Darkness

The framing narrative
of Heart of Darkness is presented by an unnamed,
undefined speaker, who is one of a group of men, former
sailors, now professionals, probably middle-aged, on the
deck of a yacht at the mouth of the Thames River, London
England. The time is probably contemporary with the
writing and publication of the novel, so around the turn of
the 20th century. One among the group, Charlie Marlow, a
mysterious figure who is still a sailor, tells the story of
something that happened to him several years before, when
he drove a steamboat up a river in Africa to locate an agent
for a Belgian company involved in the promising ivory
trade. Most of the novel is Marlow\'s narration, although
Conrad sometimes brings us back to the yacht and ends
the novel there. Also, as in Wuthering Heights, the
technique of a framing narrative brings up questions of
memory: how a story is reliable when related by someone
many years after the fact, then reported by someone else.
The structure of Heart of Darkness is much like that of the
Russian nesting dolls, where you open each doll, and there
is another doll inside. Much of the meaning in Heart of
Darkness is found not in the center of the book, the heart
of Africa, but on the periphery of the book. There is an
outside narrator telling us a story he has heard from
Marlow. The story which Marlow tells seems to center
around a man named Kurtz. However, most of what
Marlow knows about Kurtz, he has learned from other
people, many of whom have good reason for not being
truthful to Marlow. Therefore Marlow has to piece together
much of Kurtz\'s story. We slowly get to know more and
more about Kurtz. Part of the meaning in Heart of
Darkness is that we learn about "reality" through other
people\'s accounts of it, many of which are, themselves,
twice-told tales. Marlow is the source of our story, but he
is also a character within the story we read. Marlow,
thirty-two years old, has always "followed the sea", as the
novel puts it. His voyage up the Congo river, however, is
his first experience in freshwater travel. Conrad uses
Marlow as a narrator in order to enter the story himself and
tell it out of his own philosophical mind. When Marlow
arrives at the station he is shocked and disgusted by the
sight of wasted human life and ruined supplies . The
manager\'s senseless cruelty and foolishness overwhelm him
with anger and disgust. He longs to see Kurtz- a fabulously
successful ivory agent and hated by the company manager.
More and more, Marlow turns away from the white people
(because of their ruthless brutality) and to the dark jungle (a
symbol of reality and truth). He begins to identify more and
more with Kurtz- long before he even sees him or talks to
him. Kurtz, like Marlow, originally came to the Congo with
noble intentions. He thought that each ivory station should
stand like a beacon light, offering a better way of life to the
natives. Kurtz\'s mother was half-English and his father was
half-French. He was educated in England and speaks
English. The culture and civilization of Europe have
contributed to the making of Kurtz; he is an orator, writer,
poet, musician, artist, politician, ivory procurer, and chief
agent of the ivory company\'s Inner Station at Stanley Falls.
In short, he is a "universal genius"; however, he also
described as a "hollow man," a man without basic integrity
or any sense of social responsibility. Kurtz wins control of
men through fear and adoration. His power over the natives
almost destroys Marlow and the party aboard the
steamboat. Kurtz is the violent devil whom Marlow
describes at the beginning. Kurtz might never have revealed
his evil nature if he had not been spotted and tortured by
the manager. A major theme of Heart of Darkness is
civilization versus savagery. The book implies that
civilizations are created by the setting of laws and codes
that encourage men to achieve higher standards. It acts as a
block to prevent men from reverting back to their darker
tendencies. Civilization, however, must be learned. While
society seems to restrain these savage tendencies, it does
not get rid of them. The tendency to revert to savagery is
seen in Kurtz. When Marlow meets Kurtz, he finds a man
who has totally thrown off the bondage of civilization and
has reduced to a primitive state where he cheats everybody
even himself. Conrad recognized that deception is the
worst when it becomes self-deception and the individual
takes seriously his own fictions. Kurtz "could get himself to
believe anything- anything." His friendly words