How Does Conrad Link His Physical Exploration to a Psychological Journey of Discovery?

1 January 2017

The “Heart of Darkness” is a tale of passage and discovery, not only into the heart of Africa, but into the heart of our human mind. Written by Joseph Conrad, this novel follows Marlow’s expedition into the unknown depths of the Congo in search of Kurtz and his adored wisdom. Conrad links Marlow’s physical journey to a psychological quest of discovery into evil and darkness inside each one of us. Through the impassable landscape, the language barrier between the colonists and the natives, and embodiment of Kurtz this idea is portrayed.

We are given a glimpse of what mankind is capable of, how destructive and hostile we can be. But the question this novel probes at is to what length can we restrain ourselves from revealing our inner darkness? The significant background of this text is that eight years prior to writing this book, Joseph Conrad had served as the captain of a Congo steamer.

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His life-changing experiences on his voyage into the Congo shaped the pages of this book. He has lived and experienced all that Marlow has, and therefore puts more validity into his meaningful words.

The pages of this book echo the thoughts and truths of Conrad and express not only a fictional journey, but a factual discovery. The third person narrative technique, within Marlow’s first person narration of the story, separates the audience from the truth and demonstrates the ef fect the Heart of Darkness has not only on Marlow, but soon the audience as well. One technique which demonstrates the clear contrast between the colonists and the natives is language. Through the two distinct means of communication a barrier is placed between the two sides.

The colonists place a condemnatory prejudice on the African people, labelling them as “barbaric savages”. But the reality is that we, the audience as well as the colonists do not fully understand their culture and way of life and therefore cannot make sense of their speech and behaviour. The way they look, dress, speak, behave are so unfamiliar to what western society is accustomed to, therefore we try to label and classify them based on our social systems, therefore they remain to us as “brutes”. This is an unjust prejudice, which centres our inner evil which is developed further in the novel.

Our communication is our identity, and through it we are able to discover more about people than merely judging from outward appearances. Marlow and his “white” crew could not speak the language of the Africans, therefore this barrier posed as a catalyst of the bigotry they later place on them. The dense and unforgiving landscape in the story is an illustration of the many difficulties in our world today. Our individual paradigms are linked to the setting of the Congo; a mysterious void of darkness ready to be unearthed. Marlow’s physical journey up the Congo is paralleled to our psychological journey into our self.

The setting itself is a linking symbol of our own lives, whereby as the river changes and turns, we discover more about our human nature. Marlow encounters numerous snags along his journey down the river, which corresponds to the numerous obscured “snags” we have in our own relationships. All we know about people are what they reveal to us externally. Their inner thoughts, emotions and capabilities however are concealed to us. Likewise in the story the snags down the river are hidden from the outside, but once revealed cause a multitude of trouble.

Marlow describes the journey up the river as “traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings…” The river is a representation of times before colonisation, where nature rules and beauty reigns, free from man-made influences. It is a symbol of beauty and treachery. The river seems to want to expel the Europeans from Africa altogether through its omnipotent current, perilous snags and human protectors. Marlow struggles with the river, travelling upstream only as fast as the mighty current will let him.

It is as if the river is trying to pull the steamship back to where it belongs, away from the Congo and back to the civilisation of Europe. The psychological discovery which this journey of Marlow represents; is man’s burning desire to overpower and conquer all that it sees. But here in the depths of the unknown, the trees are the kings. They outnumber the humans significantly, “trees, trees millions of trees…” and demonstrate that we cannot have control over all things, that there is a higher power which governs even us.

Marlow’s journey into the unknown is predominantly in search of the idealism of meeting Kurtz. Before we finally encounter Kurtz in the story, an admirable reputation of him and all he represents is formed. Marlow is so fixated on the wisdom and greatness of the man that he becomes more of a God than a person. He is a representation of darkness and is the focal point of the play to some degree.

He is a personification of his surroundings, part of the African earth, an ominous shape in the foliage of trees. Kurtz and Marlow are the only two characters named in the entire tory, which places emphasis on them and distinctly dehumanises the other characters in the story. Conrad amplifies Kurtz’s significance through waiting to the third chapter to finally reveal him to Marlow and the audience. We feel as we have earnestly waited for an eternity to finally meet him. His entrance on a stretcher carried by the African natives is an image of significant connotation. He is described initially by Marlow as “an insoluble probability”. He has overcome death, an immortal legacy which will never die.

However, what the image further tells us is that the effects of the overpowering jungle has taken hold of him, filling him with a psychological and bodily darkness. He is enveloped with an inner evil which breeds insanity. He has lost his previous European identity and has become one of them, a “dark shape among the multitude of trees”. His crippled state further demonstrates the physical effect his quest for ivory has cost him. It is an illustration to us of how immense greed can bring about a darkness that cannot be cured.

Conrad has used Kurtz’s life and physical journey as an analogy of our own voyage of discovery. If we do not restrain ourselves from the repressing our inner greed, it can envelope us, just as it did to Kurtz. The complete juxtaposition of the characters on the steamboat itself is another point which develops the meaningful idea of the story. Marlow’s Steamboat has aboard both native cannibals and European crewman. The distinct contrast between how the two distinct groups deal with the imploding darkness which envelopes them is notably different.

The natives are cannibals, which imply that they acquire the taste of human flesh. However they demonstrate immense restraint to not eat any of the crewmen on-board. Even after their rotting hippo meat is thrown overboard they restrain themselves from turning on the Europeans. The cannibals may be simple people who the colonists do not understand, but they demonstrate restraint and abiding respect which the colonists do not. Interesting as it may be, the alleged “savages” show more civility than the so called “civilised colonists”.

The Europeans have colonised with intense cruelty and hatred, without restraint or reason. It is a clear demonstration of how they perceive the world with a narrow mind, not seeing past their own cruel actions. Marlow, however begins to identify with the Africans and portrays to us through Conrad, that they show more humanity than the colonists. “…they are not inhuman…. they are not enemies”. This voyage by Marlow helps him see the reality of the preconceived folly of the Europeans. The Congo and the Africans themselves have opened his eyes to the truth, and similarly ours as well.

The “Heart of Darkness” is more than just a physical journey, it is a psychological passage to inner discovery. Conrad has revealed to us the inner darkness of man, through parallelism to Marlow’s expedition into the Congo. Through the mysterious setting acting as a symbol of our lives today, along with the contrasts of the natives and the Europeans and the epitome of Kurtz, this psychological journey was revealed. Our inner darkness is hidden from us, but through the realisation of this novel we are one step closer to realising the full supremacy of it.

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How Does Conrad Link His Physical Exploration to a Psychological Journey of Discovery?. (2017, Jan 26). Retrieved May 20, 2019, from
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