It has long been a romantic notion of mine to be able to embark on a quest in order to expose societal corruption, and then expunge it where it may be found. But before this desire to straighten the world comes upon you, you must first realize that the world is, in fact, bent. After reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, I believe it was Conrad’s aim to do just that; that is, specifically, to expose the dubious practices of those within international, imperialist trading companies of the time, and to vivify the ugly heart of man driven by greed.
I have a strong belief in the influential power of fictional commentaries, and what Conrad has captured in Heart of Darkness is truly unique. Marlow’s experience is Conrad’s experience, as Conrad made his own journey to the Congo and witnessed the same human depravity that Marlow does in the book. Marlow is the protagonist in Heart of Darkness, and he is heard through the ears of another, telling the tale of his descent into the darkness of human nature, the metaphorical and literal “heart of darkness”. -“The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.” -(Chp.2 page 75)
The story begins with four companions lounging about on a boat floating upon the River Thames. Among these four is the weathered sailor Marlow. The day on the river has become an incubator for lethargy, yet even amongst the languidly contented company of his fellows, Marlow decides to lead into a story. He begins by speaking offhandedly about the Roman conquest of the lands of Britain, –(Chp.1 page 40)- and how the Romans functioned through brutality to take what they could from the people who dwelt there in the heart of what was then, the savage wilds. His companions didn’t know it at the time, but Marlow was purposefully correlating this deliberation to the narrative he was about to recount. Marlow’s story is that of his journey through the Congo, initially, of his intrepid and (as we discover) naive desire to immerse himself in a wild and seemingly enticing new world. It is his intention to become a steamboat captain for a trading company conducting their business on the Congo River in Africa. –(Chp.1 page 43)- However, when Marlow arrives a suspicion grows on him that the whole place must be steeped in madness, for he says: – “There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives–he called them enemies! — hidden out of sight somewhere.” -(Chp.1 page 49.)- The situation worsens when he discovers that his fellow white man has ruthlessly subjugated the Negro. -(Chp.1 page 51-53)- But were there ever any reasonable excuse for slavery there was none here, for Marlow begins to realize that the whole setup on the river has become an organized farce, a pretence for greedy men to lay their hands on precious ivory. The fresh waters of the Congo had truly become a brew of madness.
I believe it is safe to say that most all of us can relate to Marlow’s experience in some fashion. Even though he was a weathered sailor long before he departed for the Congo, in a way he still carried his innocence; for he was ignorant to the many ruthless and corrupt cogs of the world that turned interminably and without any purpose save greed. How many times have we looked on something with innocence and harmless wonder? For then, if we pursue that wonder we may find it is nothing like we believed it would be; that at its heart, it is truly grotesque or twisted. Then our innocence is torn away, and readily replaced with a cold, hard understanding; or if the occurrence is alarming enough, we must keep our wits in order to stave off insanity driven by a controversy we never could have imagined. For most of us, we will only experience the former in our lifetime, but I believe Marlow had to struggle with the latter. He witnessed the brutality that is born of greed, and saw what lengths a man and a society will go to in order to obtain wealth. Before he departed, the face of the trading companies in the Congo seemed a virtuous one. They were supposed to be great men bringing civility to a savage land, but in truth they only brought more savagery; yet they weren’t even united in their brutal subjugation of the land; it was an enormous wanton effort, as each man sought what he could for himself. Everything Marlow came to realize was a terrible truth, and just as he had to reconcile these realizations to himself, so too will we be forced to reconcile to ourselves the savage truths in our own world. We cannot afford naivety, for the cogs of corruption Conrad portrayed to us are still turning today.