Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness tells of the horrifying tragedies that expose the true evils of European imperialism and civilization that occurred throughout the African Congo during the late nineteenth century. The novel’s main character, Charles Marlow, serves as the narrator who tells of his experiences as the captain of a steamship on the Congo River. The story is both a dramatic story of a difficult journey into Africa at the turn of the twentieth century but also a symbolic journey into the depths of human nature. On a literal level, Conrad illustrates the uncivilized treatment of the native Africans using vulgar diction and explicit imagery through the narration of Marlow. But in reality, his trip into the continent also gives him insight into the “darkness” of humankind.
Prior to his trip, Marlow was expecting to learn more about the Congo, but most importantly, pursue his dream of being the captain of a steamer. But instead he discovers the true darkness inside him that he had not discovered up until that point in time. As his journey slowly progresses along the Congo River, he continues to find more and more about himself and the reality of human beings through Kurtz. Throughout the novel, Marlow begins to develop a strong fascination towards Kurtz, a man whom he has never met. However when they do come face to face, Marlow begins to see Kurtz as the embodiment of the mystery he is pursuing in Africa. Marlow is searching for some type of answer that proves Kurtz is the great leader that many people describe him to be. However, Marlow also becomes interested because he may be the exact opposite, illustrating that his obsession with Kurtz is driven by his own curiosity. He wanted to know everything about him, whether it be by reading his text or listening about his adventures. But unfortunately Kurtz dies before Marlow was able to talk to him about all those things he had planned. Marlow respects Kurtz and the decisions he chose to make since he “saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself” (Conrad 66). But they never were true friends, they just had no one else. Kurtz had seemed to work all his life to be adored by everybody, but sadly in the end, everybody was just waiting until the day he passed so they can receive his ivory.
Marlow, who does not get trapped within the Congo’s darkness, makes it his duty to preserve Kurtz’s memory when returning to England. Before his experience in Africa, Kurtz was a well-rounded man according to his “intended”: an artist, a musician, a journalist and Marlow believes that it is his honor to protect that image. He lies and decides to tell Kurtz’s widow that his last words were in fact her name, so that he may be remembered as the civilized man he once was since “it would have been too dark – too dark altogether….” (89) for her to know the truth. But the suffering and trauma of observing his transformation is permanent, and it stays with Marlow indefinitely. Marlow’s lie at the end of the story is both compassionate, but indeed cruel since he believed “[he] should never betray him” (64). While she is comforted temporarily, she will have to continue living her life in a never-ending illusion. She will never know the true account of what Kurtz became during his time outside civilization.
When finally meeting Kurtz, Marlow cannot help but to ponder and explore the wickedness that is deep within every human. His eye-opening experience throughout the continent has dramatically impacted his point of view on human nature, civilization, and imperialism. The bitterness and anger of Marlow’s story suggests Conrad’s strong bias against European colonialism, which he seems be integrating into Marlow’s difficulties throughout his expedition. Marlow’s storytelling account aboard the Nellie provides him with a sense of relief, an opportunity to express his challenging experiences while concurrently portraying the negative aspects of society and human nature.