Fear of Nature and Savagery in “Heart of Darkness”

by Bouchera Ouahbi




“The horror! The horror!” these are the final words said by Kurtz before his death, and this is the moment when Kurtz realizes the true state of mankind, that is revealed through the power of the wilderness. Kurtz symbolizes the evil side, and his complete descent into darkness, his long life in the wilderness brings Kurtz to the point where he has full awareness of himself, and about all mankind, as Marlow says about him:

” the wilderness . . . seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions . . . this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.” (112)

  In “Heart of Darkness,” we are presented with many metaphors, of light and dark, representing nature and human beings, the journey made by Marlow in the Congo River represents his psychological journey. Josef Conrad uses this adventure in the unknown, mysterious, dark, and fearful place to show that there is a profound connection between man and nature. “Heart of Darkness” is also a story of the deep interior, and profound black desires of the human heart.  Thus, the nature in “Heart of Darkness” is not a real setting, but it is the nature of the human being, and the horrified feeling that Marlow had experienced during his journey is a fear of his initiation into the unknown and into his reality as white man from colonial country. Marlow is scared of becoming savage; he says about himself, "I was getting savage," meaning that he was becoming more like Kurtz. During the trip into the wilderness, he discovers his true self through contact with the native people. On one occasion, the steamer is attacked by a party of natives, killing the helmsmen and frightening the crew. This event triggers a change in Marlow, who takes off his shoes, which were covered in his friend’s blood. This taking off of clothes is a return to nature, bringing about a more primitive Marlow.

The further Marlow travels into the jungle, the deeper he looks into himself, and faces the evil side of human beings. Marlow sails up the Congo River, which he compares with a coiled snake.  Thus, it is a symbol of danger; it lies in wait, ready to strike.  It should be noted that Marlow's journey upriver, into the heart of the Congo, is not a majestic or peaceful one, but a very mysterious, savage and menacing one. The wilderness destroys man's pretensions and shows him the truth about himself; this suggests that the journey into oneself is both a slow and difficult task (Enotes).




Nature is also connected with death. Seeing several Africans lying despondently under a tree, Marlow describes them as "they were nothing earthly now - nothing but black shadows." Marlow says outright that there is nothing left of these people, just the shadows within them that are finally visible, which symbolizes the savageness of the colonizer and his mistreatment of the Africans. While Kurtz was dying, Marlow calls him hollow. "The original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham." He is speaking about the wasted state of the man, but also at the damage that has been done to his soul. The true nature of the human soul was released, and its true hollowness has been revealed. Conrad's reference to shadows and hollowness, help to reinforce his theme that all humans are dark and hollow at heart. Marlow says about Kurtz’s gaze "piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness" (119).



 Unlike Kurtz who was captured by the evil in the wilderness, and chooses to follow his desires, Marlow was supposed to make a choice between good and evil; His journey, based on fear of nature, within his soul and his confrontation with evil makes him able to see the essence of the human being, and chooses to save himself by escaping back to his land.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1988.

Enotes, Heart of Darkness | Introduction http://www.enotes.com/darkness/ (01/12/2007)