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Old Wednesday, June 06, 2007
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Default Heart of Darkness: Significance of Title

The phrase “Heart of Darkness” has two meanings. Literally, the title refers to the dark continent of Africa known as the Congo. “Heart of Darkness” is an appropriate title for the novel because Marlow describes his experiences of the interior region of the continent which was known as Congo. The events at the beginning and at the close of the novel occur outside Congo but the major and the most significant events of the story take place in the Congo and on the river Congo. The savages really belong to the heart of darkness.

There are other features of the novel too, justifying the title “Heart of Darkness”. One such feature is the description of the wild scenery of the thick, impenetrable jungle, and the suggestive picture of the natives not fully visible to the white men sailing over the river Congo. At one point in the novel Marlow says that sailing up the river Congo was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world. He then refers to the great silence of the impenetrable forests where the air was warm, thick, heavy and sluggish. Marlow perceived no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine in that region. The long stretches of the water-way ran on into a mob of wooded islands. One could lose one’s way on that river as one might lose one’s way in a desert. The stillness prevailing there was not the stillness of peace but of a relentless force brooding over some mysterious purpose. Now, a description of this kind occurs later when Marlow tells us that the night came suddenly and seemed to strike him blind. Then, about three in the morning, Marlow heard a loud splash as though a gun had been fired. When the sun rose, there was a white fog, very warm and damp, and more blinding than the night. The fog remained there like something solid. A little later in the morning the fog lifted as a shutter lifts. Marlow then had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense jungle, and of the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it, all perfectly still. And then the white fog came down again. There are other descriptive passages of the same kind in the book, too.

The barbarism of the natives reinforces the effect of these descriptive passages and intensifies the atmosphere of mystery and fear. Reading about the natives, we get an even stronger impression that we are in the midst of darkness. On one occasion, the natives, seeing Marlow’s steamer sailing up the river, draw near the river-bank in order to launch an attack upon the intruders. Marlow on this occasion hears a muffled rattle, then a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation. This cry gives rise to a feeling of terror in the hearts of all the white men. Then the attack by the natives actually begins. The white men then hit back by firing their rifles. In the fighting, the helmsman of the steamer is killed with a spear hurled at him by a native. It is the backwardness and the ignorance of the natives which creates the effect of darkness. The natives have merely attacked the steamer because they have received instructions to do so from their supremo, Mr. Kurtz. The personality of Mr. Kurtz is very important because it is he who sums up the whole essence of the barbarism and the savagery of the natives. Marlow has conveyed to us the demonic character of Mr. Kurtz by the use of highly suggestive phrases. Instead of civilizing the natives, Mr. Kurtz has himself become barbarian. Mr. Kurtz has begun to identify himself with the savages. He has been presiding over their midnight dances which always end with “unspeakable rites”. In Marlow’s opinion, Mr. Kurtz has taken a high place among the devils of the land. He has been experiencing “abominable satisfaction”, and he has been gratifying without restraint his “various lust”. In short, Mr. Kurtz has become part of the darkness of the Congo.

The phrase “Heart of Darkness” has yet another meaning. It also stands for an exploration of the depths of Marlow’s own mind or soul. The human mind may also be regarded as a kind of Dark Continent whose exploration is even more difficult than the exploration of Congo. The book called “Heart of Darkness” may be treated as a journey by Marlow into his own sub-conscious mind or into the sub-conscious mind of all mankind. Marlow’s journey into the Congo is metaphorically a psychological and anthropological might-journey. The book called “Heart of Darkness” is symbolically the story of an essentially solitary journey involving a profound spiritual change in the voyager. Marlow prepares us for such a journey at the very outset. But it is, at the same time, a psychological and mystical journey. Marlow also tells us indirectly that, by paying close attention to the surface reality of the story and its external details, we would be able to arrive at an inner meaning. Thus Conrad is here able to blend morality and adventure in a unique manner, as he has done in some of his other novels as well.

There are many passages in the course of Marlow’s narration in which he gives us glimpses of his own mind. At one point he tells us in explicit terms that he has always hated and detested lies because he has always found a taint of death and a flavour of mortality in lies. In the same context, Marlow also says that it is not possible for any man to convey to others the life-sensation of any period of all existence. He says:

“We live, as we dream – alone.”

At another point Marlow says that the mind of man is capable of anything because everything is in it. In order to endure the stark realities of human life, a man should possess an inner strength. What a man needs is a deliberate belief, at yet another point in the novel, Marlow tells us of the effect on his own mind of the savage sight of human skulls hanging from the tops of the posts fixed to the ground outside Mr. Kurtz's residence. Later, Marlow tells us of the effect on his mind of Mr. Kurtz’s arguments defending his action in slipping away from the ship’s cabin into the jungle. Towards the end of the novel, Marlow tells us the working of his own mind when several persons come to him, one after the other, claiming the packet or papers and the photograph which, Mr. Kurtz had given him for safe custody; and he also reveals to us the working of his mind when he goes the meet Mr. Kurtz’s Intended. In all these cases, Marlow tells us not about his conscious thoughts but also tries to probe his sub-conscious mind. This subconscious mind is also the heart of darkness which Marlow or Conrad tries to explore.

A critic, commenting upon the title of the novel, says that the “darkness” here is many things: it is the unknown; it is the subconscious; it is also a moral darkness; it is evil which swallows up Mr. Kurtz and it is the spiritual emptiness which he sees at the centre of existence; but above all it is mystery itself, the mysteriousness of man’s spiritual life.
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