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Heart of Darkness

Of all the psuedosciences conjured up by overeager scientists in the early
nineteenth century, none is more ridiculed, retrospectively, than phrenology.
Adherents hailed it as “the only true science of the mind,” arguing that, through
careful cranial measurements, one could gleam a patient’s inner psychological
state (Van Wyhe). Soon, however, even the most gullible started to question the
accuracy of this novel idea; the so-called experts’ response, “I have seen it work,”
failed to turn the tide of public opinion (Novela). By the 1840s, most of the
educated world had already dismissed phrenology as a viable technique (Van
Wyhe). This brings up an important question in Heart of Darkness–Why would the
Company doctor utilize this particular method when examining Marlow? The
doctor defends his actions as “in the interests of science” (Conrad 13), but
certainly he is “not such as fool as [he] looks” (Conrad 13) to believe that, a halfcentury later, the current of academic opinion has suddenly reverted course. A
more probable reason presents itself: this old doctor wants Marlow to remember
the curious appointment well. By concluding with cautionary advice, “in the tropics
one must before everything keep calm” (Conrad 14), the Company doctor hopes
Marlow will stay vigilant against changes in the inner workings of the mind –his
soul. Through a dark journey into Marlow’s mind, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of
Darkness presents a compelling three-part viewpoint to the human soul, an
approach shared by Conrad’s contemporary D.H. Lawrence.
A key feature in Heart of Darkness is its usage of vivid imagery to
convey a deeper meaning to the novel, that “a man’s soul is the whole of him” (D.

H. Lawrence). Conrad writes Heart of Darkness using a frame narrative technique
–Marlow’s entire journey in the Congo lies in his past recollection. Therefore,
present Marlow, through his past experiences, represents someone who has
discovered his soul. The narrator accompanying him quickly discerns that Marlow
behaves unlike the others aboard the Nellie, with “the pose of a Buddha preaching
in European clothes” (Conrad 7). While the rest of the group have made a name
for themselves in society –the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant –
Marlow “[does] not represent his class”(Conrad 5), instead pursing a livelihood of
a lowly seaman. Yet, only Marlow truly grasps that material possessions and social
position are like feathers in comparison with the weight of a soul. Conversely, the
first-class agent that Marlow meets at Central Station demonstrates that a person
is nothing without a soul. This brick maker, filled with the sin of greed, embodies a
devilish “Mephistopheles” (Conrad 31). Conrad aptly describes him as sporting “a
forked little beard and a hooked nose” (Conrad 28), classic Victorian images of a
fiend from the Inferno. Though the first-class agent does not lack material
possessions –he inappropriately obtains candles and a wall of native spears –
Marlow sees through the flimsy papier-mâché façade that hides his true nature.
Behind the mask, the first-class agent’s soul is hollow, filled with nothing more
than “a little loose dirt, maybe” (Conrad 31). Clearly, Heart of Darkness holds deep
convictions about the importance of the soul.
Throughout his journey, Marlow continues to discover more about
himself, thereby affirming the idea that a soul constitutes “the unknown as well as
the known” (D.H. Lawrence). Obviously, Marlow understands his own soul to a
certain degree. As a child, “[he] had a passion for maps” (Conrad 8), indicating his
natural affinity toward exploration of all types. Like any other normal young man,

Marlow yearns for well-paid, interesting job –he even pressures his aunt to get him
a position with the Company. With innocence, Marlow views his journey to the
Congo as a great adventure to both spread religion and amass a fortune. Through
the sketch of a woman in the first-class agent’s room, Conrad stresses the folly of
this narrow perspective. Marlow hopes to spread the torch of civilization, but he is
blind to the prospect of the Congo corrupting him into something altogether
“sinister” (Conrad 30). On the other hand, part of the soul still lies unfamiliar to
Marlow, a bit that “he [does not] know himself before setting off” (Guerard 113).
Marlow chances on this discovery, the heart of darkness that lies deep within a
man, when he meets Kurtz for the first time. Realizing that Kurtz is his “potential
and fallen self” (Guerard 113), Marlow views the atrocities of Kurtz vicariously
with a combination of repulsion and fascination. More importantly, the recognition
of Kurtz as his doppelganger renews Marlow’s perspective toward himself.
Channeling the doctor’s advice, he manages to keep calm to a degree, “meet[ing]
the challenge and temptation of savage reversion” (Guerard 112) with regenerated
restraint. Only a meeting with his reflected double keeps Marlow from completely
‘going native,’ so to speak.
Conrad suggests that the soul contains “wild life in it” (D. H.
Lawrence), capable of brutally conquering the rest of the soul. Kurtz epitomizes
the fall of a man whose shining ideas of progress become adulterated by the
surrounding environment. Unlike Marlow, Kurtz has no double nearby by which he
can gauge the changing complex of his own soul. Rather, “the wilderness [pats]
him the head,” “seals his soul to its own,” (Conrad 59), and slowly turns him into a
hollow man without restraint. Kurtz, unable to fight against this growing darkness
in his soul, falls to temptation. His sins venture pull him successively deeper into

the circles of Hell: he lusts for the native priestess and covets the Russian’s cache
of ivory; to satiate his desire for tusks, he plunders surrounding villages; finally, he
commits the ultimate sin –declaring himself God through human sacrifices and
worship. Conrad uses the example of Kurtz to convey the message that anybody
and everybody will become “utterly lost” (Conrad 82) by succumbing to
temptation. Before entering the Congo, Kurtz embodies qualities of a fine
renaissance man; Marlow considers this talented musician, artist, and leader to be
“a universal genius” (Conrad 90). At first glance, it seems that Kurtz will be
immune to the base urges of his soul. But, like the maxim states, ‘the bigger they
come, the harder they fall.’ Yielding to temptation, the great man falls
spectacularly; none of the vision he has planned –“On the Suppression of Savage
Customs” (Conrad 61) –has come to fruition. Only Kurtz’s immortal words remain,
forever haunting Marlow: “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 86).
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, incorporates Conrad’s stylistic preference
for groups of threes toward his views on the human soul: a soul that comprises the
whole of a man, contains a mixture of known and unknown elements, and leaves
the possibility open for corruption. Conrad, though not religious in the usual
sense, incorporates many Biblical allusions in his oeuvre. Before his Africa trip,
Marlow receives a kind complement from his aunt, taken straight from the New
Testament: “The labourer is worthy of his hire” (Conrad 14). Marlow, speaking
from the present time, rejects these words as mindless drivel. With an enlightened
state of mind, he comprehends the truth: Kurtz, the perfect worker who “sends in
as much ivory as all the others put together” (Conrad 22), certainly is not worthy of
anything but eternal torment in the last circle of Hell. Kurtz has failed to uncover
the darkness of his soul, allowing corruption to overpower his will. By the time

Marlow has reached the Inner Station, Kurtz is all but lost, “utterly lost” (Conrad
82). If Marlow meets his aunt again, his reply will not be one replete with graphic
descriptions of the atrocities found in the Congo –he lies to hide the horrific truth
from Kurtz’s Intended. No, Marlow will be Marlow, speaking an ambiguous tongue,
quoting from the same book as his uncomprehending relative: “What good is it for
a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Bible ).