The Pervasiveness of
Perhaps the strongest theme
in the novel is that of darkness. Indeed, darkness seems to pervade the
work. Marlow's tale begins and ends in literal darkness; the setting of
the novel is often dark, such as when the steamboat is socked in by fog or when
Marlow retrieves Kurtz; dark-skinned individuals inhabit the entire region;
and, of course, there is a certain philosophical darkness that permeates the
work. But within the tale darkness operates in several ways.
As any child knows, darkness
symbolizes the unknown; it gains its power from its ability to conceal things
we are too frightened to face. Several times in the novel we see
characters afraid, not of the darkness itself, but of that which potentially
lies within it. One of the most alarming scenes occurs when the men
aboard the fog-bound steamer hear a shrill cry from somewhere around
them. It is particularly frightening because the men know some potential
threat is near, but they cannot see it; it is simply out there in the darkness,
Darkness also effectively
conceals certain savage acts. It is possible to operate in the cover of
region's darkness in ways that would not be possible in the more civilized Europe. For example, when the Manager suggests that the "scoundrel," who is suspected
of helping Kurtz procure his ivory, should be hanged as an example, his uncle
agrees, noting that such actions are possible in the Congo, a region far from
the "light" of civilized action. And Kurtz's most disturbing act, the
placement of human heads atop poles surrounding his station house, is only
possible in the concealed Congo.
Of course, darkness is also
very compelling. Despite the fear it induces, there are plenty of men who
are willing to brave it for its potential rewards. For the company men,
the incentive is material wealth in the form of ivory. There are,
however, other rewards. Marlow travels to the region because of a map he
sees, which lists the area as one of the few largely uncharted lands
left. To him, the Congo is a place to undertake a great adventure.
The Harlequin is a physical and spiritual wanderer, and through Kurtz and his
dark station, his mind has been "enlarged" he has found a sense of
purpose. The character who most fully embraces the darkness is, of
course, Kurtz. He has been completely transformed by his experience in
the Congo. He has looked deeply within himself and has seen his own
potential for savagery, yet he has accepted it.
The Europeans try to push
back the darkness, if only temporarily, through their white clothes, adherence
to European customs and morals, and technological advances, like the steamboat
and the railroad. But the novel argues that the darkness is too
enveloping. In the preface to his tale, Marlow remarks that London was once "one of the dark places of the earth." Later he sees how quickly the
jungle reclaims its territory. When he locates the remains of his
predecessor, Captain Fresleven, who died in an argument with a native chief, he
notes that "the grass growing through his ribs was tall enough to hide his
bones." These remarks suggest that in time Europe too will be reclaimed
by wild. The light of civilization with someday return to darkness.
Another major theme in the
novel is the notion of colonization as a destructive, rather than constructive,
Kurtz's initial approach to
colonization is very altruistic; he believes that each company station "'should
be like a beacon on the road toward better things, a center for trade of course
but also for humanising, improving, instructing.'"
Kurtz is not alone in this
philosophy. The International Society for the Suppression of Savage
Customs, which commissions Kurtz to write a report, is likely an organization
that believes in "civilizing" the inhabitants of Congo. Even Marlow's
aunt, who helps to secure his position, is pleased that her nephew will help in
"weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways."
Of course, the reality of
colonization is very bleak. As Marlow comments: "The conquest of the
earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different
complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when
you look into it too much." Marlow sees firsthand the cold truth of
colonization: physically wasted workers operating in deplorable conditions,
backstabbing co-workers jockeying for the most profit and recognition, and a
colonized people literally being shackled. It's as if the company is a
steamroller plowing through the jungle, flattening anything and anyone that
happens to be in the way, all, of course, in the name of profit.
The Manager condemns Kurtz
for his "unsound" methods, yet in one sense Kurtz has achieved the ultimate
form of colonization: the natives actually worship him. As a result, he
brings in the most ivory. Of course, it is at Kurtz's station where
Marlow sees the greatest act of savagery, the placement of the decapitated
heads of "rebels" atop poles. By the time Marlow encounters Kurtz, Kurtz
no longer has any noble intentions; instead he feels the need to "Exterminate
all the brutes!'"
Colonization may help to
maintain the surface luster of the home country, but
there are no benefits for
those being colonized, only hardship, suffering, and death.