Conrad's Heart of Darkness - Marlow and the Wilderness

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Marlow and the Wilderness in Heart of Darkness

 

Marlow has always been mystified and curious about the parts of the world that have been relatively unexplored by the white race. Ever since he was a little kid he used to look at many maps and wonder just what laid in the big holes that were unmapped. Eventually one of these holes was filled up with the continent of Africa, but he was still fascinated especially by this filled in hole. When he found out that he could maybe get a job with a company that explored the Congo area in Africa he sought after it and got it. After all, it was as a steamship captain on the mighty Congo river. This was "a mighty big river...resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail in the depths of the land" (p. 2196). This snake like river was full of mystery to the adult Marlow and seemed to call him to it.

 

The wildness that the African wilderness seems to promote is foreshadowed right away to Marlow before his journey gets going. He finds out that the captain he is replacing was killed over a trading disagreement between him and a chief. It turns out that the caption thought he got a raw deal and then proceeded to hit the chief on the head with a stick, whereupon the chiefs son then stuck him with a spear and killed him. This promoting of wildness comes out in the fact that this captain "was the gentlest, quietest creature ever walked on two legs...but he had been a couple of years already out there" (p. 2196-2197).

 

Marlow then proceeds to head for the Congo, and when he finally reaches the company's lower station he begins to see how the white man has come to try and civilize and control the wildness of Africa and its inhabitants. The blacks were being used as slaves at the station to build railroads. The scene left Marlow feeling that the blacks "were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now,--nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation" (p. 2202). Marlow sees how the asserted superiority of the white man has led to the devastation of the black natives in both spirit and body.

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Marlow then heads out of the lower station towards the company's central station by foot. He notices on his journey the fact that there were "paths everywhere; a stamped-in network of paths spreading over the empty land. The population had cleared out a long time ago." There were "several abandoned villages" (p. 2204). This again shows how the white men have affected the way of Africa and it's inhabitants. They forced the Africans out of their homes to recede deeper into the wilderness.

 

Once he reaches the central station Marlow begins to come to terms with more of what is Africa, as he is getting deeper in the heart of it. He notices that there is "a great silence around and above." This signifies the fact that it is uncivilized, and thus there is none of the hub-bub of traffic and industry that pollutes the civilized countries with noise. Africa is just the wilderness and its inhabitants in harmony with one another. The only noise heard is every once in a while "the tremor of far-off drums...a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild" (p.2205). Maslow notices how this very primitive sound is very powerful and appeals to the primitive emotions found inside himself. He is beginning to understand that he might have come from a place like this once, and can still somehow feel it in his inheritance.

 

He begins to understand this primitive past contained within the inner walls of Africa when he begins traveling once again further up the Congo River. "Going up the river arms was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, and impenetrable forest. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of the overshadowed distances" (p. 2214 & 2215). Marlow can feel the landscape begin to pull at the primitive man found within his civilized shell. It is trying to bring it back out. Marlow and the others were going into this primitive self because they were "accustomed to look on the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there [the Congo River in Africa] you could look at a thing monstrous and free" (p. 2216). Africa was indeed free of the restraints placed upon man and the earth in an industrialized and civilized world. Here, in Africa, man was free to be the very core of himself in a free, living, breathing wilderness.

 

Marlow does describe the land as darkness a lot, as the title Heart Of Darkness implies, but I feel it is only the darkness of what once used to be for the white man. I believe this darkness was put there to show the vanity of the white conquerors. It was put there to show their untrue belief of superiority to the black man because they were "civilized" and the blacks were "uncivilized" like men in the dark ages. I don't believe the intention of the author was to paint Africa as a place of hidden evil and savagery. He was just trying to show that this might have been where the white man once came from, but had long ago forgotten, and thus the memory is a very faint memory lost in the darkness of a very distant past in the white man's culture. In Africa, however, the White Man confronts his primitive nature once again as he once again re-enters into this long forgotten darkness and finds his true inner nature. He is not unlike the black man when it comes down to it. The situation has the only real difference in their conduct, not the nature of the people. The white man has the civilized environment as his influence while the Africans have the wilderness as their environment. Marlow and Kurtz are the ones in the story who truly realize this fact, and it shows in their behavior and actions, and it shows in their descriptions of the landscape and the African people.


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