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The White Collars in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The White Collars in Heart of Darkness

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Charles Marlow relates to his listeners aboard the Nellie the story of his service with a European company operating in the African Congo. Arriving in this European country to interview for employment, Marlow recalls, “I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a white sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt” (73). But whose prejudice is he speaking of: his or that of the citizens of that commercial center? Either way, his image is prophetic. The white sepulchre contains the remains of the countless Africans slaughtered by these colonizers–not in the form of corpses, but in the wealth that has been stolen from the African continent. The significance of the sepulchre’s whiteness (and that of the longed-for ivory) lies in the contrasting images of a piece of white worsted and the starched white collars that Marlow comes upon in the jungles of the Congo. While the collars represent the violence, oppression, and hatred that dominate the European’s treatment of the African, the white worsted is an attempt by …

journeyhod Spiritual Voyages in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The Spiritual Voyages of Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness describes an outward journey to the heart of Africa that parallels an inward journey to the heart and depths of man’s being. Two spiritual voyages are made by Kurtz and Marlow.

Kurtz was a great man who discovered a flaw in himself while working in Africa. He lacked “restraint” to control the emerging dark side which he found within himself. He plumbs the depths of man’s dark side -a side which civilization and culture represses – but is swallowed up, by these forces which eventually overcome him in the isolation of darkest Africa. He falls into unspeakable acts and experiences the primitive power and ecstasy and horror of man’s uninhibited darkness. Marlow holds back from “the abyss,” although he humbly takes no credit for this achievement, ascribing it to grace. Nonetheless, he comes away changed, even enlightened, by this glimpse into the deeper and darker mysteries of life. William Blake (and Sartre) suggests that the road to heaven leads through hell. Blake also saw the pursuit of truth and self awareness as an effort to combine the Innocence of the Lamb with the darker Passion of the Tyger, the two poles of man’s and life’s existence. Wisdom and enlightenment come to the one who effectively understands and harmonizes both sides of this human nature.

Few people make the effort because society discourages such knowledge in an effort to protect itself. Most people are ignorant of themselves, blithely self-satisfied in their protected world. Kurtz was one of the great men of Europe, a poetic visionary and promoter of progressive causes. In Africa, repressed urges arose which he could not control. Lost in the darkness of his own being, he defines this new found reality as “the horror.” Despite his descent into evil, Marlowe respects Kurtz in comparison to the much more “hollow men” whom he ironically calls “pilgrims.” These men (EEE, Central Manager, paper mache Mephistopheles, pilgrims on the boat) operate on the “raw principle of rapacious greed” while pretending to be apostles of progress. Such pyjama-clad, gun waving, slave driving, self righteous fools sicken Marlow and, compared to their nightmare of ignorance, the nightmare of Kurtz commands respect and allegiance. His was a spiritual voyage which failed.

Marlow, we are led to believe, has succeeded. He is five times described by the narrator of this frame story in the posture of a meditating or preaching Buddha.

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