The Role of Boundary in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

Based on a mixture of his own Congo experiences and a fictionalised account, Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, is forged in a furnace of blurred boundaries.  It revolves around man’s ability to permeate boundaries and presents the reader with a fundamental question: how far will we allow ourselves to penetrate boundaries, to acknowledge mankind’s inherent darkness, when we are removed from the constraints of the Western structure that upholds them?  Accordingly, Conrad presents the reader with Marlow, an intermediary character who navigates between the extremes of the unbounded Kurtz and the bounded Company men.  Sitting as a meditating Buddha, but without the lotus flower, the symbol that “signifies emergence into light from darkness”[1], Conrad leaves us to project our version of the flowerinto Marlow’s upturned palm.  This explains the countless interpretations offered by readers and critics since the novella’s release.

The most obvious and tangible boundaries are those presented by the varied geography of London and the Congo.  The titular phrase, “heart of darkness” is imbued with a duality that reflects the importance of landscape within the novella.  At once an Imperialist term that refers to Africa physically, and a term that implies metaphysical struggle, the coupling of geographic boundaries with the “contradictions, ambiguities, and discontinuities”[2] that face Marlow, results in geography being inseparable from the previously elaborated, main question of the book.  How deeply the characters penetrate into the Congo correlates to their ability to penetrate the European social environment and to understand the evil inherent within them.

From the Pilgrims who “wander here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands… bewitched inside a rotten fence.“[3], to the Accountant, whose office is “built of horizontal planks, and so badly put together that, as he bent over his high desk, he was barred from neck to heels with narrow strips of sunlight.”[4], the Company men, in all their forms, remain within the geographic boundaries erected by their fellow, white colonisers.  Although, quite literally never more than a stone’s throw from the solitude and internal awareness of the African wilderness, the propagation of the European framework allows them to ascribe the small, physical distance, a greater, mental significance.  They bar themselves from the wilderness, and by doing so, they purge themselves of their ability to discover what is in the hearts of men.  From this removed position, they ascribe the country and its people the label of ‘the other’.  This dehumanises and devalues the natives and highlights their differences, and furthers the ability of the Company men to adopt a moral and ethical position that justifies their actions.  Without these geographic boundaries, the mental boundaries that they use to remove themselves from the atrocities they commit (directly or by association) against the Congolese peoples would not be possible.

This pattern of drawing mental fortitude from geographic boundaries is repeated by the European habit of travelling in large caravans.  By banding together, the Company men are able to maintain the illusion of belonging to Europe, while they remain on the tenuously thin paths of colonising light that run through the darkness of Africa.  They can distract one another from the wilderness and indeed, their time is filled with chatter, “They beguiled the time by backbiting and intriguing against one another in a foolish kind of way… It was unreal as anything else – as the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, and their talk of government”[5].  Through this mental engagement they can continue to carry their established preconceptions in safety.

There are however, two physical and tangible links to the surrounding darkness: the African porters and the ivory.  The porters, while integral to the caravans, provide a direct and human link to the outside darkness that menaces the European sanctuaries.  This danger however, is traduced and extinguished by the Company men ascribing them the dehumanising label of ‘the other’.  Labelled as ‘the other’, their threat is immediately extinguished.  Marlow’s early description of the porters reveals their declawed place in the European worldview.  He describes them as naughty children that need to be disciplined, hardly a threat to the company’s agents.  “They jibbed, ran away, sneaked off with their loads in the night – quite a mutiny.”[6]  The second link to the darkness, and threat to the European travelling ‘green zone’, is ivory.  A distinctly African treasure, the Company’s caravans are loaded with it.  Marlow never mentions ivory’s elephant origins and the Pilgrims never actively pursue its trade.  Rather, they remain idle and inert, engaged in pointless plotting among themselves, all the while waiting for the ivory to trickle into their stations.  But, like the porters, the ivory is re-evaluated according to a European scale.  It is deliberately transformed into a commodity signifying wealth, social position and advancement within a European context, effectively suppressing its native origin and threat.

The colonisers’ attempts to physically distance themselves from their cruelty, extends into the perpetration of violence itself.  The French man-of-war and the Pilgrims aboard their riverboat mimic one another by firing their weapons blindly into the jungle, each separated by the boundary of water and sight from a perceived danger.  With a crew of sailors required to load and fire a cannon, and the grouped Pilgrims shooting carelessly from the hip, all involved can absolve themselves individually of the violence they are committing; just like the absolved responsibility of each member of a firing squad.  Who provides the fatal blow is unknown, thereby removing any individual recrimination, and allowing violence to be used to maintain the boundary between “civilizing light” and darkness.

In contrast to the Company men, Kurtz, a renegade trader, subscribes to an entirely different mind-set.  The polar opposite of the Company men, Kurtz realises that “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”[7]  Although he still believes himself to be superior to the natives, Kurtz’s intellect combined with the fact he has chosen to ignore the self-imposed geographic and mental boundaries of the Company men, provides him with the means to recognise similarities between Europeans and the savage natives.  Conrad demonstrates this through the observations of the intermediary character Marlow, who maintains some of Kurtz’s defining characteristics: independence, capability and honesty, “…but what thrilled you was the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.”[8]  Kurtz embraces the outright acceptance of mankind’s cruelty rather than the hypocritical qualifications of the Company men.

Kurtz’s epiphany can be directly traced to geography.  Living deep within the heart of the Congo, he has passed beyond the geographic boundaries of European exploration.   Kurtz’s geographic isolation directly contributes to the expanding of his mind and perspective.  It is in his isolation that he is exposed to the “contradictions, ambiguities, and discontinuities”[9] presented by the silence of the African wilderness.  Bereft of any of the Western constructs and societal norms that other Company employees maintain through frequent communal interactions, Kurtz is able to examine, without inhibitions, the darkness inherent in every human being and to cross the mental boundaries instilled by his European upbringing.  “The wilderness had patted him on the head… it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.”[10]  Nowhere is this infiltration of the darkness clearer than in the postscript added to his pamphlet, “Exterminate the brutes!”[11]  Kurtz’s addition directly contradicts the stereotypical colonial message espoused throughout the rest of his pamphlet. “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanising, improving, instructing.”[12]  The text of the pamphlet’s body is so typical, an unnamed journalist, a supposed former colleague, says of it only, “’it would do,’”[13].  The postscript throws into stark relief his open acceptance of the darkness in his soul.

Within his geographic isolation, there is a further blurring of the physical boundaries that reflects Kurtz’s acceptance of his innate evil.  Kurtz’s Inner Station differs markedly from the other stations visited by Marlow.  Man-made fences and rivers surround the Company stations that are situated closer to the coast.  These river and fence boundaries are inextricably linked to Europe and its tenets of civilisation.  The fences, like the beaten paths between stations, provide a bulwark against the solitude of the wilderness and the river.  In contrast, Kurtz’s abandoned inner station is open to the jungle, “There was no enclosure or fence of any kind; but there had been one apparently, for near the house half-a-dozen slim posts remained in a row… The rails, or whatever there had been between, had disappeared.”[14]  In his remote location, Kurtz can view and absorb the darkness, unimpeded by the small physical boundaries erected by the Company men, which carry such large mental significance and symbolism for them.

Completely rejecting the mental limitations sustained by the Company men to stem the darkness, Kurtz begins a relationship with an African woman.  The woman symbolises Kurtz’s relationship with the jungle.  This symbolism is supported by the highly sexual description of the landscape throughout the novella.  The river, thick with matted vegetation, evokes imagery of female sexuality, and the progression of the steamer up the river parallels the act of sexual penetration.  Kurtz’s mental acceptance of his own darkness and evil, and his physical degradation due to extended exposure, are similarly described in a sexual context, “The wilderness had patted him on the head… it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.”[15]  The jungle is described as looking like “the earliest beginnings of the world”[16], bringing the biblical story of Adam and Eve to mind.  The African mistress takes her place as Eve, and fulfils one interpretation of the story that Eve was the cause of Adam’s demise.  The sexualised landscape in concert with the biblical allusion, reinforce the African mistress’ jungle symbolism and “serve as progressive metaphors for the repressed unconscious that threatens to disrupt the orderly masculine autonomy of the European abroad.”[17]  This threat is recognised by the Russian, an itinerant character who attaches himself to Kurtz.   Wearing clothes of brown holland, a common unbleached fabric, he is “covered with patches all over, with bright patches, blue, red, yellow – patches on the back, patches on front, patches on elbows, on knees; coloured binding round his jacket, scarlet edging at the bottom of his trousers;”[18] Looking like a walking flag, and with “little blue eyes that were perfectly round”[19], the Russian represents the European male.  An almost ethereal being who flits through the jungle alone, with limited provisions, yet somehow staying alive, he also represents the wider European presence.  Accordingly, he is discomfited and threatened by Kurtz’s relationship with his African mistress.  He fulfils his role and tries to erect boundaries between Kurtz and the mistress.  He simultaneously represents a microcosm and macrocosm and his threat to shoot the mistress reflects the attempts of Europeans, individually and as a whole, to place physical and mental boundaries between the maddening solitude and themselves.  It is interesting to note, that once Kurtz leaves, the Russian disappears with “One of his pockets (bright red) bulging with cartridges, from the other (dark blue) peeped ‘Towson’s Enquiry”[20], presumably to find someone else to provide him with wealth and power.  Armed and carrying a shipping manual, he possesses the two main items Europeans need to maintain boundaries: the ability to inflict violence from a distance, and a guide to navigate the river.

Kurtz’s acceptance of an African woman as a mistress, simultaneously demonstrates his rejection of the mental boundaries and the importance of geography in this action.  By embracing this relationship, Kurtz transgresses “the boundary of race and class and is in danger of becoming completely assimilated into the African culture.”[21]  His relationship with her becomes sexual, and therefore more intimate, and in doing so he partially rejects the label of ‘the other’.  This directly contrasts with the actions of the Europeans to stifle the threat that the African porters and the ivory represent.  Kurtz’s African mistress is not judged by him according to European standards, but is accepted in her natural form.  Like the jungle, she “does not overtly defy her coloniser, but subverts them through her gazes and silent actions.”[22]

This subversion of European standards through “gazes and silent actions”[23] is explicitly shown in Conrad’s portrayal of the physical form of the station building.  European notions of the organisation and arrangement of a household and station are corrupted.  Skulls decorate the station’s fence posts, which have lost their railings and therefore, their purpose as a boundary to hold back the jungle.   “These heads are, in a sense, a morbid parody of the shrubbery and flower bushes that might line the walkway of a middle to upper class person’s house.”[24]  This native art form harks back to Kurtz’s earlier painting of a white woman holding the colonizing light of civilization against a black background.  His departure from creating European stylised artwork that “is representative of the general artifice which the colonizers employ to separate themselves from the natives”[25] to a form of native artwork, illustrates how close Kurtz is to “becoming completely assimilated into the African culture.”[26]  The silence of the jungle enlightens him, fundamentally changing his worldview.  Art, once a representation of white civilisation and beneficence, is now appropriated into native form.

The pervasive effect of Kurtz’s mistress continues with the description of the station building itself, “large holes in the peaked roof gaped black from afar”[27].  The station, the ultimate physical boundary between the European and Africa, has caved in from neglect.  Resembling a large skull, it draws a parallel to the skull-topped fence posts, symbolising death and how far removed from European society Kurtz has become; it reflects his realisation of the darkness within his soul.  Consumed by the silent introspection the jungle allows, he loses his physical form.  He almost dies of illness twice and becomes emaciated, on the verge of death when Marlow arrives.  Kurtz’s disintegration parallels the neglected roof.  The slow degradation reflects the gradual influence of solitude in the jungle.  Kurtz’s voice however, remains.  It proclaims his horror, and while his body is overwhelmed by the illness arising from the darkness, his voice is loud and clear, lodging itself in Marlow’s memory as the voice of the reality the jungle has unveiled.

Marlow’s awareness of the Company men’s cruelty and his recognition of the darkness inherently resident within all mankind, comes from his position as an intermediary character.  Insightful and observant by nature, Marlow is shocked by the cruelty inflicted on the native population.  As he travels up the river, his exposure to tribesmen helping to run the steamer, and his dislike of the Manager and Pilgrims, allows him to see the similarities that exist between the two races.  However, unlike Kurtz, Marlow remains within a European framework and mindset.  He stays at the stations, travels on the steamboat, and plies the trading paths.  He is aware of the solitude of the wilderness, but does not allow it to envelope him.  He operates in a kind of purgatory where the geographic and physical boundaries erected by the Europeans are not removed, but made translucent.  The importance of geographic boundaries is reiterated in his venture onto shore to retrieve the wandering Kurtz.  Unlike the Pilgrims who guard the ivory pile, he enters a middle ground between Europe and Africa.  He enters Africa unarmed, crossing the Pilgrims’ established boundaries, but without a European intent.  It is in this middle ground of blurred geographic and mental boundaries that Marlow is forced to choose one of the two evils.  At Kurtz’s Inner Station he comprehends the ability of man to commit great acts of evil; but when he returns to Europe he re-erects Western geographic boundaries and sensibilities, which influence the version of events he recounts to Kurtz’s Intended.  Telling her that Kurtz’s last words were her name, his white lie propagates a European fantasy and boundary that his experiences in the jungle, and acquaintance with Kurtz, enabled him to see through and question.  “The Intended’s story of Kurtz will bury the dead with honour, erasing Kurtz’s brutalities and the forces that were too great for home, transforming them into positive and active heroism.”[28]

Throughout the novella, a fat/thin dichotomy is also maintained.  “As Leslie Heywood insightfully suggests, those who are lean (the Swedish steamer captain, the foreman and Marlow himself) become associated with goodness and restraint.”  This boundary does, however, collapse.  Kurtz’ body is ravaged by an illness stemming from the darkness in his soul and he is gaunt and wasted when Marlow reaches him.  Kurtz states that having no entrails is the best way to live in the jungle; his desire to remove these vital organs reflects his hollowness and his complete acceptance of the darkness.  With this acknowledgment of his cruelty, he loses his human form.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness deals extensively with the theme of boundaries.  How deeply the characters understand their inherent darkness depends on their ability to penetrate the geographical, physical and mental boundaries intrinsic to their culture and upbringing.  Written as a story told to close friends, the reader is directly challenged by the questions the novella raises, forcing each reader to place his or her own lotus flower into Marlow’s upturned palm.

Bibliography:

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness (Penguin Classics, 2007).

Raschke, Debrah, Modernism, Metaphysics and Sexuality (Susquehanna University Press, 2006).

Shetty, Sandya ‘Heart of Darkness: Out of Africa Some New Thing Never Comes’ Journal of Modern Literature (Indiana University Press 1989).

Smith, Kathryn Marie, Revis(it)ing Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”: Women, Symbolism, and Resistance (ProQuest, 2009)


[1] Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness (Penguin Classics, 2007). Pg. 117

[2] Shetty, Sandya ‘Heart of Darkness: Out of Africa Some New Thing Never Comes’ Journal of Modern Literature (Indiana University Press 1989)

[3] Conrad, pg. 27

[4] Conrad, pg. 22

[5] Conrad, pg. 29

[6] Conrad, pg. 24

[7] Conrad, pg. 7

[8] Conrad, pg. 44

[9] Shetty

[10] Conrad, pg. 59

[11] Conrad, pg. 62

[12] Conrad, pg. 40

[13] Conrad, pg. 90

[14] Conrad, pg. 64

[15] Conrad, pg. 59

[16] Conrad, pg. 41

[17] Raschke, Debrah, Modernism, Metaphysics and Sexuality (Susquehanna University Press, 2006).

[18] Conrad, pg. 65

[19] Conrad, pg. 67

[20] Conrad, pg. 79

[21] Smith, Kathryn Marie, Revis(it)ing Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”: Women, Symbolism, and Resistance (ProQuest, 2009) pg. 33

[22] Smith, pg. 151

[23] Smith, pg. 151

[24] Smith, pg. 33

[25] Smith, pg. 33

[26] Smith, pg. 33

[27] Conrad, pg. 64

[28] Raschke, pg. 84

© Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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