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"Conrad is a difficult and uneven writer".
One may assert after reading this novel that Conrad is not a systematic writer and often shifts from one idea to another at a rather rapid pace. Attention of the reader is therefore required in order to fully understand the novel.
According to John Masefield , Conrad’s "narrative is not vigorous, direct or effective.... it is not clear and fresh."
Secondly , Conrad portrays the environment with a sense of uncertainty.
Even before Marlow leaves for the jungle there is uncertainty as to what the jungle holds for him. Marlow cannot shake off an inexplicable, ominous feeling about heading into the African continent where the guy that used to have his job was just murdered.
As he began to recount his story as a "fresh-water sailor" and the three listeners resign themselves to hearing his tale he says, "It was sombre enough, and pitiful-not extraordinary in any way- not very clear either."
Then when Marlow goes to the office in Brussels, the city reminds him of white sepulchers. There is a kind of ominous atmosphere, or possibly even dark, despite all the whiteness all over the place.
There were two women knitting at the door that freak him out a bit with their placidity. Marlow says, " I began to feel slightly uneasy....there was something ominous in the atmosphere. It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy- I don't know- something not quite right, and I was glad to get out".
This creates a sense of uncertainty as Marlow is unsure of what will happen to him next. After that the doctor while examining him regards "Oh, I never see them again'' implying that most people who go to Africa do not return, and if they do "the changes takes place inside".
For example, the shore are hazy and the land looks like "a spine out from a man’s back" but is not described in topographical terms.
The jungle itself is full of uncertainty. As Marlow says, "all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forests, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men". The jungle is "so dark-green as to be almost black.“
Uncertainty is also symbolized by the ever present fog in the jungle. In the fog, one cannot see, all things become blurred.
While Marlow is travelling at dawn, a thick fog falls and prevents everyone from seeing anything. There are huge forests, aggressive animals, and an unnerving stillness in the air. Marlow feels tiny next to this immense wilderness. So small that he compares his steamboat to a beetle. All this signifies uncertainty of anything happening at any time.
Thirdly , Conrad portrays the characters with a sense of uncertainty
For example Marlow is obsessed with Kurtz long before he even meets him without a clear idea why. Marlow says that, "I was then rather excited at the prospect of meeting Kurtz very soon". Marlow hears rumors about the mysterious Mr. Kurtz from the accountant and learns that Kurtz is a top agent working right in the heart of the continent and that he obtains more ivory than all the other posts combined.
Kurtz is so obsessive about ivory that while reading the novel the reader finds out that he even threatened to shoot the harlequin one day unless he handed over his own personal supply of ivory. Everyone agrees he is destined for great things within the Company.
However, Kurtz himself is a very uncertain figure ruled by two separate impulses; the noble and the destructive. At the beginning of the novel, the reader perceives that the former is his dominant characteristic. But his ruthlessness in extracting ivory from the land proves that himself the latter.
He is an obsessed, lustful, and maniacal imperialist who would stop at nothing for ivory and other treasures he found in the African land. Horrific cruelties against humanity were part for the course in his quest for material gain. The choice of words to delineate Kurtz as “ a prodigy”, “ a remarkable person…gets more ivory than all the others”, a “ universal genius” serves the purpose of making the colonist ludicrous.
Marlow makes the ominous comment that the light they live in now is a "flicker" – that darkness may return to the land soon. Also there is darkness inside men’s hearts, instead of the just the literal darkness at the geographical heart of the country.
Marlow tells the story of his travels up the Congo River. But then we remember that Marlow is telling us this story on the Thames in England. Which, much like the Congo, is also a river. It’s almost as if the Thames River is made parallel to the Congo River. That means if the Thames is like the Congo, then Europe is like Africa, the white men in England are like the black men encountered in Africa and Marlow is like Kurtz.
Heart of darkness is a captivating dramatization of human uncertainty. A sense of danger pervades the entire trip and it is mostly dictated by uncertainty.
The entire story is imbued with a deeper and more profound meaning than just the literal meaning. Marlowe’s journey though started as an authentic voyage of exploration ended in the darkness of the imperialistic conquest.
His journey into the wilderness of Africa is also a voyage into the unknown. It may be regarded as the white man journey back into his recesses of mind, as he finds that he himself is the savage that needs civilizing.
The tone of the novel moves from enchanting and heroic to dizzying and dark, but all the while maintains a mysterious undertone of not knowing what will happen next creating an element of uncertainty.
The different themes in the novel and criticism are still valid even after all these years because despite the social progress our underlying human values have not changed. If the element of uncertainty and the quality of the novella has made it a work of endless enquiry, it is because experience is too private and subjective for others to grasp totally.