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Restraint in The Heart of Darkness

Humans ought to constantly consider their actions so that they may better decide just what course of action to take, yet when they lose sight of themselves so completely that they are human in name only, should they ever realize what they have become it would truly be terrifying. It is this same realization which drives Kurtz to utter the infamous phrase “The horror! The horror!” in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness (Conrad 112). Kurtz began he career as a missionary from the civilized world journeying into a realm of savagery, yet somewhere along the way his personality was destroyed and he became something else entirely; he became a conduit for the darkness and brutality of nature, living a life without restraint and satisfying all his most basic and cruel desires with no regard for others. It was only in his final seconds of his life that he saw that he had completely destroyed the person he had once been, and only such a realization is able to bring the true horror to his lips.

Civilization is a key component in this novel, for it is frequently contrasted with the wilds of the Belgian Congo, and while the Congo represent uncertainty and at times barbarism, civilization is presented as something which, though it may make sense in and of itself, makes little sense when exposed to a true lack of civilization. In the city of Belgium, the ‘sepulchral city, the civilized inhabitants are presented as slightly ridiculous in contrast with those who must face true dangers in the dark wilds of Africa. For example, the doctor who examines Marlow before his departure is intensely interested in the idea of madness borne of the jungle, yet he seeks simply to measure its effects rather than to do anything to aid those affected by it or even to change Marlow’s mind about his journey. The doctor’s observational attitude makes sense in his society, yet when exposed to the horrors of the wild it seems almost mocking of those such as Kurtz who suffer from true madness, as the doctor believes that the skulls of those affected physically expand, ignoring the painful psychological nature of the problem in favor of a superficial explanation to present to his society. The doctor isn’t the only example of such absurdity – early in Marlow’s travels he encounters a French warship firing aimlessly at an unseen enemy in the wilderness.

Indeed, while this method of combat might make sense in “civilized” combat where the targets are clear, it seems completely illogical in a vacuum of civilization, for the weapons are utterly ineffective. Even at the station, the last vestige of civilization before Marlow truly journeys into the heart of darkness, Marlow sees negro laborers wearing little-to-nothing, yet he also encounters the station’s book-keeper, who had “his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser’s dummy; but in the great demoralisation of the land he kept up his appearance.” (Conrad36) Once more, though this civility may make sense in a society where presentation and appearance are critical, it seems ridiculous in the harsh climate of the Congo, reducing the credibility of civilization in its contrast with nature, thereby suggesting that it is perhaps something else that holds humans back from madness – something common to those who are “civilized” and “uncivilized”.

It is quite evident that the natives of the Congo are not possessed of the same sense of civilized behavior as are Marlow and the Pilgrims, yet Marlow observes something in them that he notices is present in all those who haven’t abandoned themselves to madness – he notices that they seemingly inexplicably possess some form of restraint. As he passes natives on the banks of the river, he is unclear as to why they hold themselves back, thinking “Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield. But there was the fact facing me…”(Conrad 71). Marlow initially cannot fathom how this restraint can be present without the confines of a society to hold back the individual, yet after some thought he determines that each individual has their own restraint; their own reasons for holding themselves to a certain standard, be it primeval in nature or something induced by society. It is only when this restraint is abandoned that individuals descend into madness, as is evidenced by Kurtz’ collection of shrunken heads on pikes, which only showed “that Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” (Conrad 95).

In the movie Apocalypse Now the consequences of such abandonment of self-control are even more obvious, for the main characters commit many unrestricted actions, from the slaughtering of a boat of Vietnamese who were simply protecting a puppy to sating their lusts with playboy playmates in exchange for their precious fuel. It comes as no surprise, thus, that all the crew members save the captain ended up perishing as a result of their frivolous deeds. Even to a lesser extent, Marlow views lack of restraint as a source of demise, for when one of the “savages” opens the shutter to view the assault on the steamer, the man is shot and killed, and Marlow proclaims “Poor fool! If he had only left that shutter alone. He had no restraint, no restraint – just like Kurtz – a tree swayed by the wind.” (Conrad 85) Inasmuch, it is suggested that the unifying force which permits humans to lead normal lives is not civility or such absurdities, but rather an inborn sense of restraint, and only when this restraint is gone does madness and doom ensue. It was this lack of restraint which Kurtz ultimately observed in his dying moments, viewing and acknowledging the inhumanity of his deeds as the horrors they had embodied.

In the vacuum of civilization that forms in the Congo, it can be difficult to cling to this restraint that seems to unite those who are “civilized” and “uncivilized”, resulting in the madness that so characterizes and defines Kurtz. This vacuum is characterized as true nothingness wherein anything can come to be true. “The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere.” (Conrad 68) In this emptiness of the wilderness, Kurtz was abandoned by society, leaving him to his own devices, and in this void he dug deeply into the depths of his nature, and despite society’s efforts to suppress Kurtz’ base nature “they couldn’t bury this parcel deep enough to save the gifted Mr Kurtz from his fate.” (Conrad 81) In his quest to conquer his surroundings, Kurtz lost all the restraint characteristic of his humanity, and in doing so he comes to embody the darkness of nature itself. Kurtz becomes a man who, though thoroughly enfeebled by natural diseases, is able to hold power over people through his strong personality. As Marlow phrases it “I had turned to the wilderness really, not to Mr. Kurtz, who, I was ready to admit, was as good as buried.” (Conrad 101) Kurtz’ actions in the wild seem to embody a freedom from restriction that only nature could produce, with no concern for conscience or for consequence to hold back his actions.

The nature brought out such inner darkness from Kurtz that it utterly destroyed the person he had been before, as “it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he tool counsel with this great solitude – and the whisper proved irresistibly fascinating.” (Conrad 95) Kurtz, having been corrupted by the “great solitude” turned so inwardly that the entire persona he had once been simply ceased to be, and he became one with the jungle. Even as civilization came to spirit him away, nature objected in the form of Kurtz’ mistress, who embodies a truly “fierce aspect of wild sorrow and dumb pain”, personifying the desire for the wild and Kurtz to be one, without the risk of civilization returning to Kurtz his sense of self-control (Conrad 99). It isn’t until the very end of his life that Kurtz realizes the truth to all this; the truth that he has not become a more enlightened being and that in fact he has merely become so corrupt that he is absolutely lost as a result of his own action.

Society may seek to impart certain values and mannerisms upon the individual, but outside of this society such values simply appear as absurdities, for they aren’t the key that allows individuals to persist – no, only basic restraint is able to do so, and when this restraint is gone the individual is faced with the prospect of utter madness, as faces Kurtz. Indeed, he becomes a conduit for all the darkness and brutality of nature tainted with humanity, personifying a monstrous amalgamation of dangerous emotions that appear awful to those not also tainted by such madness. In his final seconds of life, when Kurtz finally realizes that there is nothing more for him to gain from his uninhibited, that he briefly recalls who he once was, and this recollection is enough to make him realize the truly terrible nature of his current actions, leading him to proclaim them as they truly are – “the horror! The horror!”


Literature | Book Review


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