L I T E R A T U R E – A N A L Y S I S
Rifat Ahmed Riyad
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness centres around Marlow, an introspective sailor, and his journey up the Congo River to meet Kurtz, a reputed idealistic man of great abilities. Since the publication of this novella, it has been a topic of discussion among the readers—especially because of its ambiguous ending. The ambiguity arises from the novella being ended with a lie, the writer offering no definite conclusion on the characters’ parts and employing two identities to the word ‘darkness’ mentioned throughout the novella.
Firstly, Conrad ending Marlow’s journey of self-search with a lie renders a moral confusion in readers. Marlow’s journey up the Congo River is also his journey within—he becomes aware of the darkness pervading the human soul. Being aware of this truth, Marlow still deciding to tell the lie about Kurtz’s last words implies that Conrad probably explores the idea of truth and lies. We ask ourselves—to what extent a lie is a lie, or is it a lie at all if it brings hope to the hopeless? Is a white lie preferable to a black truth (since Marlow’s pitiful lie saves the Intended from heartbreak)? Is it the “inconceivable triumph” (of lie over truth) that Marlow refers to? This moral dilemma contributes to the ambiguous feeling we’re left with at the end of the novella.
Secondly, Conrad presenting no definite conclusions on the characters’ parts also leaves us with an ambiguous feeling. To elucidate, Marlow witnesses brutalities throughout his journey, but never comes to any conclusions about his experiences, nor about what Kurtz realises when he utters “horror, horror” on his deathbed. Kurtz is the only character in the novella who experiences the “supreme moment of complete knowledge”, which is also left unexplained. However, as readers, we may interpret his last words as the realisation of all the horrifically brutal acts he has committed in Congo.
Last but not the least, Conrad referring to London as “the heart of immense darkness” gives us a contradictory feeling regarding the true identity of darkness. Throughout the novella, darkness is associated with Africa; but in the end, we comprehend that the real darkness lies in the heart of European colonialists. Kurtz is a symbol of European colonialism—he goes to Congo with philanthropic ideals and ends up killing natives and stealing their ivory. Hence, ambiguity is rendered with the revelation of the true identity of darkness at the end.
Nevertheless, the novella ends with one unambiguous statement—that European women are naive—which is apparent in the Intended blindly believing Marlow’s lie. We realise that European women did not have any idea about what their men did in the name of colonialism. They were completely unaware of the atrocities committed by the European colonialists in Africa and Asia alike.
In conclusion, we are left to decipher meaning at the end of the novella since Conrad offers us no absolute answers at the denouement. So, we could surmise that the ambiguities are intentional and thereby, integral to the meaning of the novella. Through these premeditated ambiguities, Conrad probably tries to convey that there is no absolute truth and the vain pursuit for it will only end inclusively, just the way Heart of Darkness does.
Riyad identifies as a cinephile. He loves travelling, listening to music, and learning foreign languages.