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The Role of Madness in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

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The novella Heart of Darkness was composed by the British author Joseph Conrad and appeared, prior to its publication in 1902, as a three-part series in Blackwood’s Magazine. This frame tale or “story within a story” follows the protagonist Charlie Marlow as he explains his experiences to a group of males aboard a ship. It likewise informs of an earlier occasion in Marlow’s life, at a time when he was working as a steamboat captain in a country whose name is not specified in the book.

The story supplies readers with a glimpse into the mind and soul of Marlow as he travels through the literal “Heart of Darkness” and comes face-to-face with the atrocities of bigotry and slavery. Marlow’s predecessor, the government-employed ivory representative Kurtz, controls the locals through violence and browbeating. When the 2 men finally fulfill, Marlow recognizes in Kurtz a simple shell of a guy, the compound and soul of which has actually been feasted on by the contempt of his own morals. This awareness moves Marlow to scrutinize his own virtues and to choose whether or not to jeopardize them for the sake of wealth.

The novella revolves around three central themes: “the hypocrisy of imperialism, insanity as an outcome of imperialism, and the absurdity of evil” (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/heart/facts.html, 2006a). In Heart of Darkness, madness is closely connected with the concept of imperialism. In the text, Africa exists as a cause and driver for illness of the body and of the mind. Insanity also serves 2 functions in the novella.

Initially, it operates as “an ironic device to engage the reader’s compassions” (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/heart/themes.html, 2006b). As Marlow is informed from the start, the ivory agent Kurtz is “mad”. Nevertheless, as the story unfolds, it emerges that this madness is relative; that insanity in the context of the setting in which the characters move is rather tough to define. This causes the reader to develop a feeling of compassion towards Kurtz and a sense of doubt and mistrust towards the Company. It also propels Marlow, who was initially suspicious of Kurtz, to sympathize with him.

Insanity likewise serves to produce the “requirement of social fictions” (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/heart/themes.html, 2006b). Despite the fact that rationales and social standards are strewn throughout Heart of Darkness, they are ultimately proved to be absolutely false and even causative of evil. However, they are essential in the quest of offering a sense of personal security and consistency amongst groups.

In Heart of Darkness, insanity is the outcome of having been removed from one’s own social realm and being allowed to become the only arbitrator of one’s own actions. For that reason, madness is associated not only with supreme power and ethical genius however to guy’s main and deep-seated imperfection: the character of Kurtz answers to nobody but himself, and this proves too much for any someone to endure.

In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz proves not able to resolve the contradictions between his own ethical beliefs and cultural assumptions and subsequently sinks into madness when he starts to relate to the natives. Marlow says that Kurtz had gone mad since his soul “Being along in the wilderness, … had actually checked out itself, and by paradises! I tell you, it had freaked.” (http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng109/HeartSG.htm). This is in contrast to Kurtz’s nature of being power-hungry.

The madness starts when Kurtz, who seethes with power supplied by his outright control over his domain, starts to succumb to the lure of the wilderness and the native people. He freaks when his greed clashes with his growing affinity towards the natives. The subsequent ethical dilemma proves too much for him. Marlow, in his stating of his adventures, states that the minute of the native ceremony was the moment when he recognized that Kurtz had gone mad when he went alone into the wilderness, when his spirit had been left alone with itself.

Marlow recognizes that Kurtz is under the spell of the wilderness and tries to comprehend what had drawn Kurtz into “the edge of the forest … towards the throb of drums, the drone of odd necromancies; … seduced his unlawful soul … beyond the bounds of permitted goal” (http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng109/HeartSG.htm).

Marlow, who is unenthusiastic with wealth or advancement in the Business, is focused chiefly on keeping his peace of mind amidst the insanity in his surroundings. Nevertheless, his experiences leave him broken and distressed. The physical and mental torment he was required to endure proved to be too much for him. Through Kurtz, Marlow had been drawn into the scary too. When Kurtz states his last words, “The scary! The horror!” (http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng109/HeartSG.htm), Marlow was required to deal with death.

The experience leaves him mystified and disrupted. He informs the group that when the locals buried Kurtz, they had almost buried him as well. When he returns to the city from which he came, Marlow discovers the people there silly and he continues to harp on Kurtz and the remnants of the life Kurtz had actually left behind. When he goes to go to Kurtz’s fiancé, he feels the presence of Kurtz’s spirit going into the house with him. As Marlow continues into the fiancé’s house, he envisions the natives dancing around their ritualistic fires, and hears Kurtz’s voice talking about ivory. Insanity, as a theme in Heart of Darkness, serves to reinforce the truth that when given absolute power over himself and those under his influence, man is vulnerable to his own dark nature.

Work Cited

Conrad, J. (1899 ). Heart of Darkness. In Davis, et. al. Eds. (1995). Western Literature in a World Context Volume 2: The Knowledge throughout the Present. New York City: St. Martin’s Press. Recovered from <

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