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Old Wednesday, June 06, 2007
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Default Heart of Darkness: Self Restraint

Self restraint is certainly one of the themes of the novel “Heart of Darkness”. Self-restraint is only a subsidiary or secondary theme. This theme has been handled by Conrad very skillfully, and almost subtly, so that it does not project itself on our attention or undermine the other themes.

The white men who have gone to the Congo for trade show no self-restraint but unlimited greed. They are all there to collect ivory; and ivory has begun to dominate their thoughts. Ivory has become their obsession. The manager has begun to feel jealous of Mr. Kurtz because Mr. Kurtz collects more ivory than all the other agents put together. The desire of these men for ivory knows no bounds.

Then, all these men seek power and authority; and they show no self-restraint in this aim. The most striking example of greed and self-aggrandizement is to be found in Mr. Kurtz who knows no self-restraint at all. Mr. Kurtz becomes the embodiment of the passion for ivory and for power. Many times he was heard saying:

“my ivory, my station, my intended, my career, my …”

Indeed, Mr. Kurtz has become a devil seeking wealth in the form of ivory and seeking power in the form of control over the natives. He has collected all the ivory in the Congo. On one occasion he got ready even to kill his friend, the Russian, because he was having a small quantity of ivory which he did not wish to part with and which Mr. Kurtz had demanded from him. Mr. Kurtz's passion for power also knows no bounds. He has been acquiring more and more power over the savages till he has become in their eyes a god. If any native rebels against his authority, Mr. Kurtz has him executed. The time comes when nothing on earth can prevent him from killing whomsoever he wants to kill. And he still has more plans for his self-aggrandizement.

Nor does Mr. Kurtz show any self-restraint in the satisfaction of his primitive instincts which have begun to dominate him. Mr. Kurtz has become an active sharer in the demonic practices of the savages. He presides over their midnight dances which always end with “unspeakable rites” includIing sex-orgies, sadistic and masochistic practices, human sacrifice and other obnoxious acts. He indulgence in all such proceedings has assumed vast scope and has begun enjoying “abominable satisfactions”. He now gives a free outlet to his “monstrous passions” in the company of the savages.

Mr. Kurtz shows no self-restraint even in his desire for possessing things and for owning things. Indeed, his sense of ownership and proprietorship has assumed abnormal proportions. He has developed a feeling that everything belongs to him. And yet there is emptiness in his soul. His mind is by no means insane, but his soul has certainly gone mad. He is “hollow at the core”, as Marlow puts it. And yet this man is able to stir feelings of friendship and respect in Marlow. Here we are faced with a paradox.
There is also a lack of self-restraint in the Russian who has developed an attitude of worship towards Mr. Kurtz. The Russian, a highly intelligent and well-educated man, begins to adore Mr. Kurtz. According to the Russian, Kurt’s has taught him many things and has enabled him to look into the essence of things. The Russian regards Mr. Kurtz as one of the immortals. Surprisingly Marlow himself develops an attitude of respect towards Mr. Kurtz. He has discovered that Kurtz is hollow at the core and has taken a high place among the devils of the land. And yet Marlow himself falls under Mr. Kurtz's influence. When Mr. Kurtz has slipped away from the ship’s cabin into the forest, Marlow follows him to bring him back. Marlow writes:

“I did not betray Mr. Kurtz – it was ordained. I should never betray him – it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.”

Marlow also says that Mr. Kurtz had conquered his soul which is totally untainted by selfishness. Marlow interpret Mr. Kurtz's last words as indicative of Mr. Kurtz's victory over the evil within him. Thus we can safely affirm that even Marlow shows a lack of self-restraint in his feelings of admiration and regard for Mr. Kurtz.

This theme of self-restraint finds expression also in the manner in which Marlow has depicted the cannibal crew on his steamer. These cannibals were very hungry, and they could easily have killed some of the white men on board the steamer and consumed their flesh but they showed self-restraint. This self-restraint on the part of the cannibals is quite puzzling and highly commendable, though surprising. In respect of self-restraint the cannibals score a point over the civilized white men. Even the white manager of the Central Station shows restraint in his mental make-up. He refrains from giving orders to Marlow and says that Marlow has the right to decide whether he should continue the voyage to the Inner Station or stop for a few hours to find out whether the savages would attack the steamer.

According to an eminent critic, restraint or self-restraint is a major theme in “Heart of Darkness”. Mr. Kurtz has no restraint because he has no urgent work to do and has no belief. Mr. Kurtz's extremism and faith are the opposite of true belief which is needed to tackle darkness. On account of this lack of moral equipment and his greed of money and power, Mr. Kurtz is unable to cope with the forces of savagery and evil within him. Mr. Kurtz's only defence is his eloquence but this is not enough. These heads, stuck to the poles show that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts. The native helmsman, steering Marlow’s steamer, also showed a lack of restraint which results in his murder.

“In fact nobody in the story has any real restraint except the most savage of all men, the half-starved cannibals on
board the steamer who amaze Marlow by the fact that they restrained themselves from tucking into the pilgrims.”


This true restraint on the part of the cannibals is incomprehensible to Marlow. Our critic further says that Marlow’s failure to solve this mystery and many other mysteries in the story is linked to a lack of restraint in the language which Marlow uses. Marlow occasionally employs excessive rhetoric, thus showing his lack of restraint in the use of language also.

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