Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now We do not generally link the dark vision of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" to the fripperies of Jane Austen, but we should do so because these writers can be seen as important bookmarks to the era of the modern novel and we cannot understand Conrad's work without understanding its connections to his time. By looking back to a writer like Austen we can seen how much had changed in the world at large and in the world of the novel during the Victorian era and the ways in which authors had begun to lose faith in the power of language to represent, to contain and to describe language.
We cannot understand Conrad's relationship to language without understanding the larger context within which literature was created and consumed. From the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 until her death in 1901, was an era of a number of key social changes that would force writers to take clear positions on issues of immediate importance to rest of society. Thus we see very little social criticism in Austen - whose Pride and Prejudice was written 20 years before Victoria ascended the throne - and almost exclusively social comment in Conrad's long short story, published in 1902, the year after Victoria died, as Levine (1991) argues. But even as writers begin to become engaged more and more in the world at large, they become increasingly aware of the fact that language is of limited use in effecting change. For a writer like Austen, the power of language had only to carry a plot (taken more or less from life) and characters (taken more or less from life); for Conrad language had to have to be able to transform the world. It is thus hardly surprising that Austen should find language adequate to her desires and her needs and that Conrad should find it inadequate.
Among the key political and historical developments during Victoria's reign that Conrad addresses in his novella is the consequences of British (and more broadly Western) imperialism and colonialization, both of which were the direct outcomes of the fundamental philosophy of the Age of Exploration, which told Western governments and explorers that the world was theirs for the taking, and especially if it was held by dark-skinned "savages" (Hegeman 480). Language became politicized by the process of colonialization and its after-effects, and this politicization made language more complex and less trustworthy to both writer and reader.
Heart of Darkness can be seen as a sort of ur-source for all understanding about race and the colonial experience. Heart of Darkness is a story all about black and white (in their various metaphorical and literal applications). Conrad helps us to understand in a way that few if any others do about how that contrast between black and white is also a contrast between here and there, between staying home and setting out, between civilization and savagery and the ways in which it is sometimes difficult to predict where it is that we will find civilized behavior.
Conrad resorts to an extensive use of metaphor because he finds the literal use of language to be inadequate. It might seem ironic that he should find metaphor more powerful than realistic description, but this should make sense after an analysis of the ways in which language works. When we find words failing us we often turn to the poetic as a way to go beyond the ordinary.
Conrad throughout this book implies that civilizations are created by the setting of laws and codes that encourage people to achieve higher standards - that civilization and social bonds compel us to act out our better selves. The institutions of communal and civilized life act as dams, as bulwarks to prevent humans from reverting back to their darker tendencies, which they will do as soon as they are left alone or loosed from the constraints of their own societies, an element essential to much of colonial thought, as Back and Solomos (2000) suggest. Conrad suggests, through his insistence on the primacy of metaphor, that language cannot be counted on to be one of those civilizing bonds. When a writer can no longer count on language to provide an anchor in the world, we recognize that we are entering the rocky waters of modernism.
Heart of Darkness is fundamentally a story about the way in which a man can lose his soul by casting off the civilizing elements of the world. The story tells the tale of a powerful white trader named Kurtz, who has hidden himself away in the Belgian Congo to live a depraved and evil life as he exploits the natives. Without the pressures of society and with the opportunity to wield absolute power, Kurtz succumbs to atavistic evil. The work remains shocking in its refutation of colonialism racism as well as the ability of language either to describe the world or to effect change for the better.
Within the novella, Marlow and Kurtz are two opposite examples of the human condition. Kurtz represents what every man (it is never clear in this work to what extent Conrad is making a commentary on the essential nature of "man" as a gender or humanity as a species) will become if left to his own intrinsic desires without a protective, constraining, civilized environment. Marlow represents the civilized soul that has not been drawn back into savagery by a dark, alienating jungle. Both Marlow and live in a world in which environment and experience is everything. Marlowe could easily become a Kurtz, just as Kurtz might be able (although perhaps not as easily) be transformed back into a Marlow if he were transported back to a civilized place like London. It is important to note that neither man sees the possibility of redemption through language.
Although this lesson is not explicit in his novella, one of the most important lessons that we can draw from his work is that people when torn from their cultural and historical structures lose something of their humanity. They lose the roadmaps that guide them, and the most important of these lost roadmaps that is lost is that of language. One of the most poignant statements of this loss of language to bring comfort or clarity comes in the last passage of the book:
felt like a chill grip on my chest. 'Don't,' I said, in a muffled voice.
Forgive me. I -- I have mourned so long in silence -- in silence.... You were with him -- to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear....'
To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words....' I stopped in a fright.
Repeat them,' she murmured in a heart-broken tone. 'I want -- I want -- something -- something -- to -- to live with.' was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't you hear them?' The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. 'The horror! The horror!'
His last word -- to live with,' she insisted. 'Don't you understand I loved him -- I loved him -- I loved him!' pulled myself together and spoke slowly.
The last word he pronounced was -- your name.' (Conrad 157).
Women are very much secondary to the narrative in Heart of Darkness, which is in many ways a novel about the nature of masculinity. In some sense, we may read the absence of significant women as being emblematic of the absence of civilization: Although Conrad was intentionally writing a progressive critique of the horrors of colonialism, he was less concerned with writing a progressive critique of misogyny, and this work falls in line with traditional (and traditionally patriarchal) notions of woman as the great civilizer. It is not coincidental that women are allied generally within Western culture with the civilizing influence of language and literature; the absence of women from this novel is a metaphor for the absence of a language as a potent force in the world.
It is because Kurtz is beyond the pale of women (and their world of language) - except those that he uses as objects to gratify his sexual longings and whom he does not see as complete human beings - that he has become so morally lost. Women are the (absent) redeemers of men in this story, having been left at home, as they so often are, by men intending to find a way to live beyond the standards of human decency (Hegeman 459). Women who speak (rather than simply serve as the object of sexual predations) would make this a novel in which language has the kind of force that Austen argued it did.
Colonialism is the process through which people are indeed torn away from home - stolen by slave-traders or lured…