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Shannon Evans Criticism: Final Research Paper

³I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen

presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night´

The Darkness Representing Evil in Joseph Conrad¶s  

As readers we face the inevitable challenge of tackling the questions many do not want to

spend time answering. It can be such a frustrating paradox when the most intriguing questions

also hold the most subjectivity. It is a difficult task to pick apart a seemingly simple question for

eternity while never really knowing if your answers hold any validity and then always be

confronted with a thousand counter arguments. This task can often be so tedious and tormenting

that giving up becomes very desirable but the true survivors are the critics that stay strong and

work towards the impossible. Joseph Conrad¶s short fictional story 


become the epitome of a well planned out experiment for these critics. It was written more than

100 years ago and new arguments are continuously being made every day. With so many grey

areas, the short novel is begging for a little relief, something many can at least nod their head to

as true. Recently the idea of evil in  

and how it resides in all humans has

become a somewhat accepted claim over many different genres of criticism. The concept of

oneself comparing itself to the other figure becomes a beginning point for this evil, this darkness.

Many critics are trying to see a universal point in that Conrad was trying to assess the darkness

as not desirable and make it represent all things evil and mysterious. The irony of this claim

would be the darkness of the natives skin, if Conrad was a racist this would align with this idea,

if he was not it might serve as a point to see their darkness giving the white man a catalyst to

become evil. In this discussion we will proceed with the latter of the two explanations. With all
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this talk of evil one might be questioning who in the novel is this representing? Is it Marlow,

Kurtz, the natives, the Europeans, Conrad, all of them, none of them? Are they all? Are their

different degrees of it? Who essentially succumbs to this form of the darkness? Whose heart is

darkest? These are all important questions in which the answers will become clearer with a

deeper analysis. To posses the authority to declare who is what, one must deeply understand the

concept of evil. To get a more rounded approach it is beneficial to look outside of  

into both other novels, critiques and historic events. Only then does one have the

ability to see how these ideas can connect many others in Conrad¶s work.

As humans we possess the ability to navigate our own destiny, we choose our actions, our

speech, we often have the power of free choice. We all possess the power to do marvelous acts of

kindness but we also have the choice to do terrible ungodly awful things. This freedom we

possess gives us the ultimate power to shape what we do in life. When this power has been

stripped away, when humans band together to oppress, dehumanize and take away another¶s

ability to choose, pure evil is manifested by selfish humans and their power hungry need to

control. In her article  


  ´ critic Jennifer Lipka discusses how these situations (Imperialism, Slavery,

genocide, etc) can reveal a human¶s most unflattering attributes. The shaping of the masterminds

of these evil plans and their mindless followers seems to come from a combination of our

environmental influences, and our inherent ability to choose. Lipka states

³Real horrors do fill the pages of Heart of Darkness, be they heads on stakes or the grove

of death. Yet the message of the work is that the real horror has been internalized and lies

within the heart, the heart of darkness. Marlow himself makes a distinction between the
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outside threat of danger and terror to the most extreme terror, which is the product of the

mind´ (Lipka 31).

At points Marlow tends to blend together the real and the unreal (hence why it can seem

dreamlike at points). He says ³For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of

straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long´ (Conrad 78). This could be a coping

mechanism to downplay the horrific things he is experiencing. It seems to work at first but as the

novel goes on Marlow begins to realize the truth of his surroundings, and even more horrifying

the reality that he is silently watching. Why doesn¶t he help? He could be worried about losing

his job (but his quest for an occupation isn¶t the reason why he wanted to go to Africa in the first

place), or is afraid he will be punished for trying to help. It is easy to criticize Marlow for saying

so much against imperialism because he doesn¶t take much action against it, but really when

thinking about it, how many people would? In an attempt to explain Marlow¶s actions, or rather

lack of actions it is necessary to look at it from a psychological point of view. Lipka uses

Freudian Julia Kristeva knowledge to better understand this. Kristeva makes an intelligent point

when she explains

The abject resembles the sublime with its ability to carry one away, making one lose

control (or, as Marlow or Conrad might say, restraint) over one's self. However, the real

horror of the abject is that it makes known that there is a certain truth, a certain reality,

that if acknowledged by a person will annihilate them (Kristeva 250) (Lipka 33).

Is Marlow acting in defense, or is this an unconscious rationalization? Is Marlow evil for

ignoring the cries of the helpless? Going back to the theory of evil in all humans, every person

has the makings to act selfishly and brutally unkind. If there weren¶t social institutions like
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morality and concepts of what being civilized entails would most humans act barbaric like

Kurtz? Or would many sit by the wayside as Marlow does? If love and goodness were the

inherent qualities social institutions would cease to be needed, but we do need them because

people are not born with morality. Some would argue that we are not born with evil intentions.

Instead they could insist that we are only acting upon Darwin¶s theory of survival of the fittest,

but it is this exactly which causes one group to oppress and dehumanize another thus forming

evil doings. Seeing others as different and as competition breeds hatred and leads to the need for

control. To fulfill this need one seeks to be a master of puppets, able to brainwash and be in

complete control of others. The concept of the I and the other goes hand in hand with survival of

the fittest, they intertwine to create vicious humans such as Kurtz. Conrad writes ³All of Europe

contributed to the making of Kurtz´ (123). At the time of the fight for Africa European

imperialism was reaching its peak. The effects of imperialism influenced Europeans to

momentarily shed their morality in lieu of the ultimate battle for territory and resources. This

fight is what brought about the evil and dehumanizing actions from the Europeans.

It is hardly hidden that Kurtz represents the actions and behaviors of one who succumbs

in full to the influence of imperialism. He is manipulated by his internal urge to control and the

external influence to work for his country. In her article   



 Dorothy Trench-Bonett dares to take this

notion a step further by comparing Kurtz to the ultimate evil; the devil. Kurtz could represent

evil incarcerated in human form. Trench-Bonett says

The association of the whites in Africa with devils becomes clearer and clearer as we

delve more deeply into the text. The Belgian Congo, on one level, is certainly meant to be

hell« and Kurtz, like Dante's Lucifer, is found at the very center of the darkness. Kurtz
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resembles the Lucifer of the Bible, who fell through pride (though even after his fall he

remained fatally attractive), and this pride, the pride that demands worship and feeds off

the abuse of others, leads not just to the fall, but eventually to the Apocalypse. Conrad's

message to the European colonizers in this book is thus very, very strong (4).

Kurtz not only represents evil but he also shows the process of how evil can corrupt others into

obliging with its horrific deeds. In  

Marlow is the test subject for Kurtz¶s

manipulation. The reader can already tell that Kurtz is experienced at subjecting his influence

upon the natives. This is shown through many depictions in the book. Kurtz is described to have

³The power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honor´

(Conrad 60). He can easily control the natives by threats and brutality. Trench-Bonett calls this

quotation an act of Kurtz making himself be worshipped (3). However when Marlow arrives he

is the true test because he is seen as only slightly inferior to Kurtz. When he is willing to stay

silent and passive he lets Kurtz/ Europe/Imperialism win. Marlow can be seen as both a foil and

a contradiction to Kurtz. In Florence H. Ridley¶s article " #     

she takes the position of seeing Marlow as an opposite. She explains her theory by


Both men are subjected to a moral test; by means of their re-action the

resemblance and the basic difference between them are made clear. Forced by the

wilderness to recognition of his kinship with primitive man, and granted the

opportunity to gratify his primitive lusts to their absolute full, Kurtz succumbs

completely forced to the same recognition, "what thrilled you was just the thought

of their humanity-like yours-the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and

passionate uproar," and granted some-thing of the same opportunity, Marlow does
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precisely the opposite, does not succumb, does not "go ashore for a dance and a

howl (Ridley 6).

Instead of Marlow, Ridley uses The Helmsman as a foil for Kurtz. She compares them by saying

both lived without restraint and both realized ³The Horror!´ in their final moments of life

(Ridley 47). Ridley chooses to see Marlow¶s innocence rather than convict him. We have

reached the point where it is the ideal time to discuss the quote that is used in the title. The full

quote is

I turned to the wilderness really, not to Mr. Kurtz, who, I was ready to admit, was as

good as buried. And for a moment it seemed to me as if I also was buried in a vast grave

full of unspeakable secrets. I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of

the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an

impenetrable night. (Conrad 75).

Marlow sees himself slowly going down the way of Kurtz; his inevitable doom if he fully gives

in to the corruption. Ridley gives Marlow more credit than most. She assumes that Marlow still

remains in the light for not participating in the horrors as the helmsman and Kurtz do, other

readers are not so sure, this seems to be letting Marlow off quite easy. To be fair Marlow does

seem to possess guilt in many passages. He realizes what is fully going on, he describes it

beautifully but almost as if he was on the outside; as if he isn¶t standing right there able to do

something about some of it. In psychological terms Marlow is actually participating in a semi-

common phenomenon known as the bystander effect. The bystander effect does not sustain one¶s

innocence; on the contrary it condemns them. Since this effect is common it also supports the

theory that this evil/ ability to do nothing in the face of absurd violence could reside in our
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human nature. The possibility that humans only do good deeds from external influences/

institutions is a sad and scary thought. Since Marlow is a clear example of this effect it is hard to

see him as good/ the opposite to Kurtz. It is more likely that he represents the level of evil before

Kurtz. He is the subject that European imperialism is testing. It is safe to say he passes their test

and fails the one that would clear him as an inherently good human. He is part of a theoretical

study to see if he will become a product of the banality of evil, to see if Marlow will willingly

accept the horrors as the new normal.

The banality of evil is a phrase made by a political theorist named Hannah Arendt. She

created this phrase with the infamous Adolf Eichmann in mind. Arendt, a Jewish girl who left

Germany in the midst of World War Two, wrote on article on Eichmann¶s trial. Eichmann was

the one of the main Nazi¶s behind organizing The Holocaust, but it is said he had never actually

facilitated any of the killings himself. While attending his trial Arendt made many interesting

observations. She notes that Eichmann did not come off as monstrous and he uses the excuse of

just doing his job. She also notes that he was trying to use the German public to scapegoat his

own actions. He felt he didn¶t hold as much of the blame because many people in society were

endorsing the final solution. When hearing these findings of Arendt¶s one can imagine the image

of Marlow juxtaposed with Eichmann. One of her most substantial quotes can be related to many

people other than Eichmann. She writes

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many

were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly

normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of

judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.c

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It seems that the bystander effect and the concept of the banality of evil can often go hand in

hand. Marlow even admits his fault by acting in accordance with Kurtz. It is clear he understands

because he guilt¶s himself into saying how he picked his own nightmare. He exclaims "I did not

betray Mr. Kurtz--it was ordered I should never betray him--it was written I should be loyal to

the nightmare of my choice. I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone--and to this

day I don't know why I was so jealous of sharing with anyone the peculiar blackness of that

experience´ ( Conrad 76).

Towards the end Marlow has an epiphany of what is happening. He is not fully submerged into

the darkness but his soul is tainted. When the novel commences the reader can perceive

Marlow¶s innocence but as he takes this journey his experiences slowly but surely make his

character less desirable. Marlow¶s guilt must be seen, Kurtz is often given all the blame but it is

characters like Marlow who deserve some of it. Critics have been beginning to acknowledge this,

in their article   

    $  %

Birgit and Daniel Maier-Katkin talk about how Marlow is left with no blame after Kurtz

seemingly becomes the one and only villain. They assert that ³The narrative¶s excessive

fascination with the primitive manifestation of evil, as is represented in the encounter with the

antihero Kurtz, detracts attention from more significant representations of ordinary evil that

make abusive regimes possible´ (Maier- Katkin 587). Men like Eichmann allowed the atrocities

of The Holocaust to unfold and Men like Marlow watched the dehumanization of the natives in

the Congo. With comparisons put in this way their morals seems one in the same. Eichmann was

to Hitler as Marlow is to Kurtz.

To officially denounce Kurtz, the Helmsman, and Marlow one must be able to judge the

instances of dehumanization for themselves. Language plays a large part in the prejudice against
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the natives. One of the words Marlow uses to describe the African natives is rudimentary, which

is commonly defined as elementary, primitive, and even incompletely developed. One of the

most insulting lines is when Marlow utters that the Africans are ³rudimentary souls.´ It is

conceivable that Marlow is claiming the Europeans superiority, their exceptional, developed, and

civilized souls in comparison to the natives. It is not only Marlow¶s adjectives that get him into

trouble; it is also his lack of acknowledging humanity in the Africans. The combination of these

is what ultimately depreciates him. When describing he is obsessed with blackness, Marlow uses

the obscenity nigger profusely, and contrasts the darkness of the natives with pure ivory skin of

the Europeans. His imagery often shows the Africans as masses not worthy of faces or individual

characteristics. When describing a native Marlow says ³A black figure stood up, strode on long

black legs, waving long black arms" (Conrad 77). In addition to the theft of individuality the

Africans are also deprived of speech. There are only a few instances in the story in which an

African speaks. It is beneficial to examine Conrad¶s similar nature toward women in  

in order to see the dehumanizing qualities his writing possesses.

Women are also only figures in the novel, without possessing names, or any intelligent

characteristics, they come across as less human. The superiority of the white European male is

insurmountable. Kurtz¶s African mistress is described as a ³Wild and gorgeous apparition of a

woman´ (72). She is demeaned to the point of an apparition; a ghost of a woman. The European

women are still neglected but they are not apparitions, they are not seen as just objects. The

Intended does not have the courtesy of having a full persona or name, but she still has a title, and

an unabashed relationship/ claim to Kurtz. These are things the African mistress will never

possess. A gender critic Johanna M. Smith explains Marlow¶s attitude towards femininity in an

interesting light she says Marlow possesses the ideology that woman and men live in ³separate
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spheres.´ This separation is the catalyst for the ³Masculine Imperialism´ (Smith 196). Marlow¶s

treatment of women and Africans contradicts his anti-imperialist views because he has

imperialist/ patriarchal influence in his actions towards these two groups, and he silently watches

their oppression.

Marlow¶s silence is not the only significant quiet in the novel. The natives silence also

possesses a great meaning. Africa can often be seen a contradicting foil to Europe¶s superiority.

Europe¶s languages are spoken eloquently and with great care while Africa¶s many wild and

native dialects are hushed in order to observe languages deemed superior to their own. Conrad

may have chosen to deny the Africans the right of speech because he himself went through a

time where he was not allowed to speak in his native tongue. Conrad was growing up in Poland

when Russia invaded and forced all the Polish to abandon their language and learn to speak

Russian. This snippet of his autobiography can give new insight into the deprivation of speech

from the natives in the novel. Trench-Bonett adds that ³Conrad clearly understood, in a visceral

way, how language can make you the ³other´ and he mistrusted it under the best of

circumstances´ (6). Why would Conrad deny the natives speech if he was really sympathizing

with them? Again, Trench- Bonett enlightens by revealing that Conrad purposely did this. ³The

Africans in  

can be trusted precisely because we never really hear them. Truth,

in Conrad¶s works, is never what we are told by the characters. It is always what we actually see´

(6). Hence the Natives silence actually being a strong characteristic in their favor, you can trust

the scenarios because they don¶t speak, when they can¶t talk they cannot deceive. The Europeans

in the novel have the power to be deceitful and manipulate. Their ability to speak gives them

power and this power is what causes them to become evil.

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The intent of this analysis was to broaden the reader¶s perspectives when looking at

Joseph Conrad¶s Heart of Darkness. There is seemingly no end in sight for the vast questions and

critiques of different genres in terms of this novel, but many can see how the concept of evil and

its manifestation in the heart of this novel might soon gain enough ground to be acknowledged as

universal between all of the contrasting critiques. The Maier Katkin¶s sum up the distinctions

between the most visible evils when they allege

Conrad¶s contribution to the discourse on human rights is centered on three brilliant

depictions of the origins and nature of evil: the base primitive, perverse allure of evil in

the human heart; the heart of darkness in the soul of civilization; and finally the banal evil

resident in the day-to-day conformity of ordinary, decent people like Marlow´ (586).

cIt is clear that Conrad uses evil and the degrees of it as a mechanism to help one distinguish it in

our real world. Maybe we can even see this darkness in our society, our peers, and even

ourselves. He challenges the bystanders to do something, and the followers to say something. It

seems that he does not want us to become the Marlow¶s and Kurtz¶s of our time. Hopefully as

this concept gains acceptance so too will the ultimate lessons Conrad is trying to teach.
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Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. %    

 &   $  %. New York [etc.:

Penguin, 2006

Conrad, Joseph, and Ross C. Murfin.  


. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.

Jennifer Lipka. "The Horror! The Horror!": Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a Gothic

Novel."    40.1 (2007): 25-37. () #"'%. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.


Maier-Katkin, Birgit, and Daniel Maier-Katkin. "At the Heart of Darkness: Crimes against

Humanity and the Banality of EvilÔ"  & 

*  26.3 (2004): 584-604.

' +&. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.

Ridley, Florence. "The Ultimate Meaning of "Heart of Darkness."    ,  -

18.1 (1963): 43-53. JSTOR. 4/27/2011.

Trench-Bonett, Dorothy. ³Naming and Silence: A Study of Language and the Other in Conrad's

Heart of Darkness.´   . 32:2. (2000) 84-96.