Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” is clear reflection of what hunger for power and fame can do.
There are intertwining thoughts, idealisms and characteristics between the characters in this novel, but the most dominant of all is the protagonist in the name of Charlie Marlow. Many of those who have read the book will remember the story through Charlie Marlow’s “antiheroic return to the terrifying heart of desire, the maternal origin of life that generates … disillusionment and death” (Conrad, 1988).
By using “psychohistory” or “psychosocial dialectics” in reading and understanding Conrad’s novels in terms of his personal experience of, and reaction to, modernity, it can be realized that the personality and characteristics of Kurtz and Jim, and of Marlow, specifically his ‘inability to mourn,’ suggest that Conrad shares Marlow’s inclination to disavow loss and the need to mourn it” (Conrad, 1988).
Indeed, Marlow seems to be different. He is unlike the other characters in the novel whose selfish interests and personal agendas are all the reasons why they became a great failure.
However, it is also Marlow’s different nature and personality is also the main reason why the bad side of hunger for power and fame was highlighted.
Analysis of the Story
The social organization of Heart of Darkness was captured in the corporate culture of the allegorically – named “Company” (Conrad, 1988) for which Marlow and Kurtz work and becomes the most effective tool of the novel itself to show as a the metonym for modernity. Almost from the tale’s outset, this social organization is powerfully linked to the psychic situation through the symbolic order. In the primal scene of the novel (one which Conrad shares with his narrator), the young Marlow pores over maps choosing the places he would most like to visit, lingering especially over the many “blank spaces” (Conrad, 1988). “The biggest – the most blank, so to speak” (Conrad, 1988) is the heart of Africa, the journey to which forms the occasion for his tale of psychological discovery. From the Western perspective that Marlow would have had as a young boy growing up at the heart of the British Empire, these blank spaces are but undiscovered dominions, areas without proper social organization, civilization, or enlightenment. Their blankness suggests darkness as well, a chromatic expression of the feral character that resonates with the cliché of “darkest Africa” and which is routinely taken to be the “darkness” of the novel’s title.
This set of associations takes on the dimensions of a critique of capitalist modernity in light of the privileged position Conrad gives “the Company” over any political entity as the driving force behind, and the primary beneficiary of, the mapping process. Conrad makes a decisive point here as he pushes aside the predominant conception of imperialism as a nationally driven endeavor, instead making a private for-profit enterprise the chief agency at work in the region (Conrad, 1988). In this context, Marlow’s Englishness meshes with the Company’s continental base to create a picture not of nineteenth-century nation-state imperialism, but of the incipient multinational capitalism that will become the dominant feature of modernity (Ross, 2004).
The reality of the social organization thus produced by capitalist exploration and exploitation of the region is grounded in one particular signifier, a commodity which is of the essence of Africa and vital to European profit margins. That signifier/commodity is ivory. “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it” (Conrad, 1988). As a commodity, ivory justifies the Company’s presence in the Congo and organizes all the commercial activity in the region; it lures Kurtz there in the novella’s prehistory, sends Marlow after Kurtz, and even draws the Intended into its web of influence at the novella’s close. Though ivory itself is clearly the object of the materialist operation of the Company’s interests in the region, its real power lies in its status as a signifier, rounding the ideological field of “reality” as dictated by the profit motive. Marlow himself points to this operation as he restricts us to the realm of the signifier by directing the readers’ attention to “ivory” as a mantra rather than a material good–he does not see any ivory at all until he arrives at the Central Station (Conrad, 1988).
The law in Heart of Darkness operates analogously, taking its universal dimension from the Company’s hegemonic governance, and its particularity from the Company’s designation of ivory as the sine qua non of exchange in the region, whether social, political, libidinal, or economic. It is the means by which the Company not only controls commerce, but also “gives identities, establishes purposes, assigns destinies, and with its bizarre configuration of Central and Inner Stations even constructs geography” (Ross, 2004).
Marlow’s insistence that the introduction of the law has brought about not order but criminality provides perhaps the best example of how the arbitrary relationship between signification and reality accomplished by the law informs the Company’s social organization of the Congo: “A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file toiling up the path … They were called criminals and the outraged law like the bursting shells had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea” (Conrad, 1988). Again insisting on the primacy of signification, Marlow points out that the men are only criminals by virtue of the power of the law to call them such. The full absurdity of this designation of certain men as criminals according to a system of which they know nothing, and which they do not understand, comes out only much later, when Marlow attempts to make sense of the Harlequin’s assertion that the heads on stakes outside Kurtz’s hut are those of rebels: “Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear. There had been enemies, criminals, workers – and these were -rebels” (Conrad, 1988). By association, Marlow links the logic behind introducing and administering the arbitrary law of modernity to the ‘unsound methods’ of Kurtz’s administration at the Inner Station.
That is basically what power can do. As we may know, power may come out from two different sources. The people can generously give it as a support, or it may arise through applying force. Kurtz and the other characters that comprise the ‘Company” chose the latter. Kurtz and the other antagonists used force to gain power until it finally took hold of them. Charlie Marlow, on the other hand, is trying to initiate social organization. He was trying to understand why people and/or workers would react negatively or selfishly and why a particular law is very important. But in the end, however hard Marlow have tried to solve the increasing intensity of the problem (caused by too much desire to gain power and fame), he eventually loses his fight… but then again, the battle is not over. Unlike Marlow who was able to move on, the others like Kurtz and other fame-seekers eventually could not anymore let go of the power they were holding as if they have entered a sphere where they could not escape. Or they were captured by a limbo with which they have no control over what is and will be happening.
And I can feel that even up to their (Kurtz and others) death, people continuously scorned them because of the damages – morally, spiritually and physically – that they have caused, unlike Marlow, who has started to gain respect from himself and from the people around him.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. NY,NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1988.
Dryden, Linda J. To boldly go”: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and popular culture. Conradiana. Texas Tech University Press. September 2002
Ross, Stephen. Desire in Heart of Darkness. Conradiana. Texas Tech University Press. March 2004
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