Finding the Heart of Darkness

Throughout life, one must constantly fight against the forces of darkness. Kurtz, in The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, fights a battle against the so called "darkness." This darkness surrounds Africa and the African peoples. The greatest darkness, however, exists within Kurtz himself.

The first type of darkness that Kurtz must conquer is one of ignorance that surrounds the Europeans in regard to the African natives. Prior to Kurtz's voyage, he is part of a society where traditional law prevails. When he penetrates deep down the Congo River, he enters an area where it appears that law is all but absent. He observes people living under an entirely different code of ethics than the one he is accustomed. The Europeans that surround Kurtz treat the natives very poorly. They instituted many programs such as slavery that exploit the natives and their land, using as an excuse that they are inferior. Kurtz spends a great deal of time with the natives, and he learns that they are not inferior as the Europeans believe, but instead they are just not technologically advanced and have a different moral system. Kurtz even writes a book, "How to suppress savage customs," explaining his feelings toward the Africans. Though he is partially successful in his goal of illuminating the darkness (ignorance) of the Europeans, he was never able to end many of the savage customs such as slavery that are still being carried on, long after his death.

Black is used repeatedly to symbolize both the unexplored and the evil. At the beginning of the story, Marlow says of Europe, "...this also has been one of the dark places of the earth,"(67) explaining that at one point, people knew no more about Europe than they do now about Africa. He sees Africa as a "blank space on the Earth,"(70) blank meaning unknown. When he arrives, Marlow is shocked at the treatment of the natives. As he learns more, Marlow begins to realize that the darkness associated with Africa was not an evil darkness, but instead darkness based on prejudice and greed on the part of the Europeans who are unwilling to treat the natives as equals.

The most striking aspect of the story is when the reader realizes that the whites are the ones that are most "dark" and evil inside. They enslave the blacks and treat them as sub-human. When Marlow tells about the failure of the Eldorado Expedition, he says, "...News came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals," (102) referring, of course, to the blacks. Marlow is shocked to learn that his peers were attempting to impose their moral system on people who live under a different, but not necessarily inferior system. Other than Kurtz, the person who Marlow identified with most is his navigator, a black native.

The second type of darkness that Kurtz must fight is the darkness inside himself: The forces of selfishness and greed that are compelling him to take advantage of the African peoples. This form of darkness is more sinister and more difficult to fight than the first because instead of affecting others, one must change oneself. This darkness is apparent when the time comes for Kurtz to leave the jungle and just as he is about to do so, he turns back. Instead of taking what he learned about the natives to heart, he takes advantage of the fact that in the jungle, he will be treated as a god, and will be able to do all he wants forever. It is this lapse in judgement that causes Kurtz to say at the end of the book, "The Horror, The Horror." When he says this, he is expressing the disappointment in himself that instead of doing the correct thing and returning to Europe to enlighten the people, an action that would have made a real difference in the lives of the Africans, he took advantage of his perceived superiority and allowed himself to be idolized.

In addition, he is frustrated that he cannot explain to Marlow, or anyone else for that matter, the fundamental change that has occurred within himself. The realization that is finally reached by Kurtz at his moment of epiphany, and is relayed to Marlow, is the fact that "We live, as we dream- alone."(95). It is this insight that Marlow receives from Kurtz regarding the nature of the human condition that changes his life and allows him to come from the jungle a different, stronger man. The knowledge that even if one is as morally and emotionally strong as Kurtz is, it is still immensely difficult to fight the greed and craving for power over others that can surround the heart with "darkness".

Before Marlow departs for Africa, he believes it to be surrounded with "darkness" because it is mostly unexplored. After he spends time there, he discovers that the metaphorical darkness is due to ignorance and blatant arrogance by European exploiters whose moral system is corrupt.

I wrote this for AP English a few years ago. Please don't steal it. Thanks.