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Module 1: Heart of Darkness Part 2

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Twentieth-Century Fiction
Prof. Avishek Parui
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Madras

Lecture - 14
Heart of Darkness - Part 9


So, hello and welcome to this NPTEL course entitled Twentieth Century Fiction, where we were looking at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. So, today will be the last lecture on this particular text and we look at two sections and compare and contrast the two sections in terms of how that informed the larger narrative that we talked about in the text the narrative of imperialism, exploitation, human greed and also alienation, commodification, and alienation the two symptoms which emerge out of merciless capitalism and merciless imperialism which is a context in this particular story, which is one of Belgian ivory imperialism in Congo as you know.
So, we are just looking at the section where Kurtz dies in Heart of Darkness. So, that section needs to be said in some detail in terms of what Kurtz says before he dies and what could that symbolically signify. Because you know a large part of this novel is about symbolic signification. There are not many literal things in this novel.
So, we are not really looking for a story over here, we are looking for symptoms, we are looking for psychological conditions, we are looking for emotional conditions. So, as a result of which those of you who have read the entire novel would know it is a very difficult novel to read, it slows you down as a reader, it decelerates you, it defamiliarizes you. And as you mentioned already this idea of deceleration and defamiliarization are very deliberate narrated techniques used by Joseph Conrad in terms of looking at the cognitive condition which Heart of Darkness dramatizes, ok.
So, it is not really telling you a story in that sense it is an anti-story, it is an anti-novel. And a large part of Marlow’s anxiety as a narrator is because he cannot put his experience into a story and he says that over and over again that it is impossible to tell to convert my experience into a narrative which would be meaningful to a European audience and that lack of meaningfulness, the slight absurdity, the danger of absurdity is something which lurks in the story all the time.
Now, let us look at Kurtz’s dying scene, the scene in Heart of Darkness where Kurtz dies and what does he say right before he dies, in that one little line. It is sort of packed with lot of meanings and which is something which is which keeps coming up over and over again, in any reading of Heart of Darkness and also the different adaptations in Heart of Darkness as we have seen, ok.
So, and then this is where Marlow is talking about Kurtz and entire novel of course, is focalized through Marlow. So, we see the entire experience as focalized through Marlow’s brain. Marlow is prism, Marlow is camera, the movie camera through which we see the story unfold in Heart of Darkness. So, this is what he says and this should be on your screen.
I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride of ruthless power of craven terror of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire temptation and surrender during the supreme moment of complete knowledge? So, look at the contrast there is a series of contrasts going on over here. So, it has got power, it has got terror, it has got pride, all put together and it has also got hopeless despair. So, in that sense Heart of Darkness what it does to Kurtz is that it him them with power and in the process, it makes him hollow. So, the filling in of power is also a process of making you know hollow it is also process for liquidation of exhaustion, right.
So, power over here becomes very deceptive instrument, a very deceptive category over here which Kurtz embodies, it is a very paradoxical category. So, he becomes powerful, but at the same time he is liquidated by power. His existential self-goes completely liquidated or you know is completely exhausted with the entire arrival invasion of power, ok.
So, did he live his life again in every detail of desire temptation and surrender during the supreme moment of complete knowledge? So, this entire knowledge the complete knowledge of imperialism the complete knowledge of his own self-as had not been consumed by imperialism is that supreme moment that the Kurtz embodies.
He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision - he cried out twice, a cry there was no more than a breadth. And what was the cry? The horror, the horror. Now, that is a very often quoted line from Heart of Darkness, the horror the horror. And what does Kurtz mean by this? What does Kurtz signify when he says these things the horror the horror is obviously, the horror of imperialism as seen by someone who becomes the instrument of imperialism. Kurtz of course, is a perfect instrument of imperialism, but at the same time he becomes a threat because he becomes too perfect.
So, he completely appropriates and internalizes imperialism to the extent that he becomes ivory and you find how the ivory image is used over and over again to categorize Kurtz, right. So, he becomes a tool, he becomes a commodity, he becomes the instrument, he becomes the material that is signifier of imperialism over here, ok.
So, the image the particular line the horror the horror, becomes a moment of selfacknowledgement. He is acknowledging his own hollowness. He is acknowledging his own surrender to the power of imperialism, and he uses the word surrender quite ironically because he notionally is a powerful man, theoretically he is a white imperialist. He is a all powerful figure, but what he what he realizes through becoming powerful to the process of becoming powerful is that this process of power is actually something which actually annihilates him, something which consumes him, right.
So, when you consume power it consumes you back and that is the horror that Kurtz is talking about over here, the horror of hollowness, the horror of understanding, that entire life that he spent as a human being has been at a service of you know process of commodification, a process of exploitation, a process of merciless exploitation. And that is the image of horror. That is knowledge of horror that Kurtz is crying out over here.
So, interestingly Heart of Darkness is about enlightenment, but the enlightenment is one not of illumination is one of darkness. So, you get the knowledge of your darkness, you got the knowledge of your nothingness to a certain extent, right. And that paradoxically is what gives you the only redeemable meaning, about the life that you achieve actually know that you are nothing, that you are consumed by nothingness that becomes the only this sole redeeming figure in Kurtz.
The fact that he ends up actually knowing the horror of imperialism, he does not become a fool, he does not really live a life of a fool, he wakes up and realizes what is done is that of an act of horror because it is become an act of exploitation, but also one of selfconsumption.
So, it has this sort of quasi cannibalistic quality imperialism in Heart of Darkness. It cannibalizes Kurtz, it makes him eat himself up, existentially and it also materially, so he becomes a lean eaten out man. So, there is this image of having been eaten out having been annihilated by power and that becomes the signifier of horror over here the fact of the knowledge of exploitation and knowledge of nothing less, knowledge of annihilation, self- annihilation that is what he cries out twice, the horror the horror.
I blew the candle and candle out and left the cabins. So, again it is very cinematic. So, if you look at the visual narrative in Heart of Darkness. It is very cinematic in quality. So, the Kurtz says it is the horror the horror and then he dies, that’s his dying word and then immediately after Marlow blows the candle out and leaves the cabin.


The pilgrims were dining in the mess room and I took my place opposite the manager who lifted his eyes to give me a questioning glance, which I successfully ignored. He leaned back, serene, with that peculiar smile of his sealing the unexpressed depth of his meanness. A continuous shower of small flies streamed upon the lamp, upon the cloth, upon our hands and faces. Suddenly, the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway and said in a tone of scathing contempt. Mistah Kurtz, he dead.
Now, this particular line again is very loaded it is the only time a non-European speaks in Heart of Darkness you know an African speaks in Heart of Darkness. And; obviously, he speaks in very broken and stilted English, Mistah Kurtz, he dead. There is no verb there is no sense of sophistication. It is just conveying an image, it is conveying a message in very broken English and that is part of the a very racist rhetoric used by Marlow and of course, by Conrad in the context of his times to talk about the Africans and how the African appropriates English to convey a message.
So, Kurtz’s just dying report comes to them through this manager’s boy, you know who just puts his insolent black head. So, again if you look at the adjective insolent black head very racially loaded it’s very racist, by modern standards the black head it’s just an object who comes convey an image, convey a message that’s it, there’s not a degree of humanization, there is no degree of characterization given to that person. He just becomes a very convenient and effective messenger an African messenger who comes and delivers a broken message with his insolent black head.
So, the degree of objectification and reduction is very important for us to understand. And of course, objectification or reification is a process that operates through reductions that is reduces certain things, as a very metonymic process where the entire body, the entire human being is converted into body and then entire body is converted into a small image. In this case it’s an image of the head, the insolent black head who comes in and delivers the message and goes away, ok. So, that is the entire image of Kurtz dying.
And as you can see we have discussed already there is something very spectral about Kurtz, a very shady, very ghostly, very spectral about Kurtz it does not really very get fully fleshed out as a person we do not quite know the entire background of Kurtz we have very metonymic information about him. The father is half German, half Russian and the entire Europe went in the making of Kurtz which is to say he has becomes the European man, the European imperialist.
So, he is cracking up, he is going native, you know his degeneration into something which is you know a threat to the empire becomes a very dangerous degeneration because it shows that even the best of Europe, even the best European mind, even the finest specimen of European masculinity can become degenerate in the African wildness, right.
So, the African wilderness of course is very exotic, is very essentialized over here and is obviously, feminized. It is something which consumes the perfect white man, the perfect logical white man, even he is not you know impregnable against this kind of a seduction of the African wilderness, right. So, the entire rhetoric in Heart of Darkness becomes very racist in quality, it becomes very racially inflected because we have all the series of Africans who are completely dehumanized and only person who speaks is the person who comes in and points his insolent head and just delivers Mistah Kurtz he dead, right.
So, you know the whole idea of the African being reduced to a certain image a certain stereotype, a certain racist stereotype which is rampant in Heart of Darkness.
Now, the reason why I have a slight reservation in calling Heart of Darkness an out and out racist novel is that it is actually very ambivalent towards imperialism, right. So, it does not really glorify imperialism at all and not just that it does not really glorify the white man. So, the white man in Heart of Darkness is someone who is a bit of an idiot he does not quite know what is happening, he is completely confused about you know what is around him politically cognitively. He just becomes an embodiment of confusion.
And you know he becomes an unknown, he becomes very small instrument in the entire machinery of imperialism, white imperialism. So, Marlow in Heart of Darkness is hardly a hero and Kurtz of course, is more of a hero, but then he becomes, the antihero in that sense because he becomes a threat, he becomes a danger, he becomes a degenerate in Heart of Darkness is something which is you know dramatized over and over again.
Now, the next scene which I am going to jump cut into in Heart of Darkness is the final scene where Marlow comes back to Belgium and goes to Kurtz’s intended the fiancé of course. And interestingly if we take a look at the two female figures in Heart of Darkness Kurtz’s mistress in Africa who is exotic, who is you know excessive, exotic and who is very bodied.
So, the entire characterization of the Kurtz’s intended mistress in Africa is used through bodily markers ah you know is very very fleshy and mutable and hysteric. And in all these racist sexist stereotypes which are used she is hype she is hyper sexualized in her characterization in complete contrast to which we have the very very somber magnificent and very very withdrawn female figure of Kurtz’s intended or fiancé who is obviously, the white woman ah who is very elegant who is mourning Kurtz’s death using a proper mourning costumes. So, she comes dressed up as a mourner. She is very elegant and she has got all these very very stereotypically white elegant female markers which he used to characterize her.
Now, it actually gets more complex than that it does not really stay at the level of this blunt binary we will see in a moment how Conrad actually makes him more complex because when Marlow comes back to Belgium he is expected to deliver a report a posthumous report about Kurtz and the only report that he can deliver is that Kurtz died as the hero Kurtz died as a white hero, as a white man, who is very glorious in his quality and that is the only message that he can deliver to Kurtz’s intended.
So, the point is he cannot tell Kurtz’s intended what really transpired what really happened in African wilderness that Kurtz became degenerate that Kurtz became you know a merciless mercenary you know who turned his back to the empire he was actually become a problem to the empire and who had to be essentially you know exterminated.
So, he cannot tell that report, he cannot give the authentic report to the European insider and interestingly the European insider happens to be Kurtz’s intended the female figure. So, it actually becomes a broader narrative. What it actually shows us is that when the white man comes back from the you know the site of conflict he cannot deliver the authentic report, he cannot deliver the truthful report, he has to lie, he has to conform to the consumed narrative of glorification, civilization, heroism, etcetera.
And if you take a look at that little narrative it is something which is very correct geopolitically given the current tensions we have in a world today where you know when soldiers, for instance come back from certain sites of geopolitical conflict whether it is the middle east or the parts of the world, they are not expected, they are not allowed to actually tell what really transpired which is a horror of the world, the horror of exploitation, the horror of merciless exploitation.
So, in that sense the entire image of the soldier is one of heroism, is one of self-sacrifice, is one of commitment towards a greater goal whether the greater goal of fighting terrorism the greater goal is establishing in civilization etcetera. But the point is any site of conflict which has soldiers, which has human beings in it you know it also comes with a set of constraints, in the sense that soldiers cannot come back and tell what really happened. We can think of situations even closer to home where soldiers were sent back from the enemy camps they just become a symbolic instrument to goad on a particular narrative. So, a soldier cannot really speak, the soldiers are not allowed not given the agency to speak out, what really transpired to really tell what really transpired in that particular setting.
So, Marlow in that sense becomes one of the earliest figures in fiction of the man who comes back from the site of conflict, but cannot really tell what happened, what cannot really tell what really happened at the European insider who happens to be obviously, a woman a female figure, who can only consume the glorious narrative the heroic narrative the glamorous narrative about imperialism being a civilizing mission, ok. That is the entire setting in which that particular scene takes place. Let us just go there and see how that you know is described in Heart of Darkness, ok.

So, this is the image of Kurtz’s intended. This is the image that you know when Marlow meets Kurtz’s fiancé in Belgium, in Brussels presumably. This is what you know the entire scene is described as. And you know she and this is the description that should be on the screen at the moment.
She struck me as beautiful, I mean she had a beautiful expression. I know that sunlight can be made to lie too, yet one felt there is no manipulation of light and pose could be conveyed could have conveyed the delicate shade of truthfulness upon those features. She seemed ready to listen without mental reservation, without suspicion, without a thought for herself. I concluded that I would go and give her back the portrait of those letters myself. So, look at the way in which you know Kurtz’s intended is described using markers of beauty, restrain, discipline, elegance etcetera in complete contrast to the excessive markers that were used to describe Kurtz’s African mistress, ok.

So, that binary is interestingly conveyed over here, ok.

And now if you take a look at the very performative quality of mourning that takes place in Heart of Darkness when she appears, she turns up before Marlow dressed as a mourner, a very elegant mourner. It is very elegiac and very elegant.
Before that just take a look at some of the material signifiers in Heart of Darkness just before and this is the image of Marlow waiting for the fiancée to come, presumably in her house and you know and she is just looking around and seeing what is around him, and this is what is around him and it should be on your screen. The dusk was falling. I had to wait in a lofty drawing room with three long windows from floor to ceiling that were like three luminous and bedraped columns. The bent gilt legs and backs of the furniture shown an indistinct curves. The tall marble fireplace had a cold and monumental whiteness. A grand piano stood massively in a corner; with dark gleams on a flat surfaces like a sombre and polished sarcophagus. A high door opened, closed. I rose.
So, you know the whole idea of the polish a sarcophagus and before that a grand piano and before that a marble fireplace are very European signifiers of nobility, are very solid European bourgeoise that kind of a setting, right. So, you know it is like very privileged markers of wealth, markers of privilege markers of whiteness for that matter. And that is an all-white space and all these markers are also very white which is a complete contrast to the delayed decoding that Marlow experienced in Africa in Congo.
Well, he did not have a clue cognitively speaking of what was around him whether it was arrows coming at him or it was river Congo whether it was he was even attacked by people he had no clue. And now contrast that to the very solid material markers he welds and privilege that Marlow is experiencing over here. And now we have seen in which Kurtz’s intended comes and you know gets a report from Marlow about you know Kurtz dying and then the question she would ask him is what were his dying words and this something which would become very dramatic.
She came forward, all in black, with a pale head, floating towards me in the dusk. She was in mourning. It was more than a year since his death, more than a year since the news came, she seemed as though she would remember and mourn forever. She took both my hands in hers and murmured, ‘I had heard that you were coming,’ I noticed she was not very young, I mean not girlish. She had a mature capacity for fidelity for belief for suffering. The room seemed to have grown darker, as if the sad light of the cloudy evening had taken refuge on her forehead.

This fair hair, this pale visage, these pure brows, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me. Their glance was guileless profound confident and trustful. She carried her sorrowful head as though she were proud of that sorrow, as though she would say I alone knew know how to mourn for him as he deserved. So, there is a degree of pride about the mourning over here. It has been more than a year, but we are told that she is still mourning for him because it seems to be the elegant romantic thing to do, ok.


But now the questions that Marlow is subjected to become very very interesting, and she tells Marlow and this should be on the screen. You knew him well she murmured after a moment of mourning silence. Intimacy grows quickly out there. I said, I knew him as well as is possible for one man to known another. And you admired him. She said, it was impossible to know him and not to admire him. Was it?

He was a remarkable man. And look at the rhetorical quality of the question. It is impossible to know him and not admire him. Was it? So, the answer is embedded in the question already and that is that is the part of the entire narrative over here. Marlow does not have an option to say no. Marlow does not have an option or the agency to give the authentic report. He cannot really say to her that Kurtz was a merciless mercenary. Kurtz was an exploiter he cannot say that. He has to conform to the narrative that a white man, in the colony, in the empire in the wilderness of empire, must be a glamorous hero, must be someone worth admiration.
This is the only narrative available to him as a as a reporter of the empire, as a report of the horrors in the empire and therein lies the Heart of Darkness, therein lies the darkness in the Heart of Darkness. The fact that he cannot convey the real knowledge he cannot convey the real experience to the European insider, ok.
He was a remarkable man, I said, unsteadily. Then before the appealing fixity of her gaze, that seemed to watch for more words on my lips, I went on, ‘It was impossible not to, ‘love him,’ she finished eagerly, silencing me into an appalled dumbness. So, again look at the way in which the narrative is already constructed, right. So, she already knows she has already said the narrator that it is impossible not to love him.
So, Marlow cannot even complete his sentences he does not even have the agency to complete his sentence. So, he says it was impossible not to and then she fills in by saying love him, right.
So, you know Kurtz must be lovable. Kurtz must be admirable. Kurtz must be someone worthy of reveration, worthy of worship all the time and it is very important for the purpose for the broader narrative of the empire, that a white man must always be worthy of admiration because he is that is his job as a white man, he is civilizing them.
So, what this particular scene reveals very interestingly is the lack of agency suffered by Marlow. He cannot really tell or allowed to tell what really happened to him before he finishes the sentence a adjectives are filled in for him by the intended of Kurtz, ok.
How true, how true. But when you think that no one knew him so well as I, I had all his noble confidence I knew him best, ok.

And now the real question comes when she asks Marlow, you know the question that you know what was his dying words, ok. And this is what she asked him. It is impossible that all this should be lost that such a life should be sacrificed to leave nothing, but sorrow. You know what vast plans he had. I knew of them, too. I could not perhaps understand, but others knew of them.
So, again look at the sexism over here the embedded innate internalized sexism that a white man knows things that a woman cannot. He had great plans, grand plans, that I as a woman have no access too. But then I understand how great he is that is the entire narrative dished out over here.
I could not perhaps understand, but others knew of him, something must remain his words at least have not died. His words will remain, I said. Of course, Marlow means the words that he heard the horror the horror and as a dramatic irony over here at play, we know Marlow knows, but she does not know. But the more sinister thing is she does not want to know. She wants to know the consumed truth, she wants to know the commonly consumed truth which is Kurtz must be a hero, Kurtz must be a romantic hero, Kurtz must be the perfect agent of the empire, right. So, no other interpretation, no other narrative is allowed, ok, right.

And this is the this is you know question, the dramatic question that the intended asked Marlow. I heard Marlow says I heard his very last words I stopped in a fright. So, look at the neurotic quality of Marlow over here, he is very neurotic. He stopped in a fright, I heard his very last words. And of course, we know the last word, so the horror the horror.
And that is what is freezing him he cannot even re-experience it was so horrifying for him.
Repeat them she murmured in a heartbroken tone. I want, I want something, something to live with. So, she wants to latch on to the commonly consumed narrative of the romantic hero, the romantic white man who died in the non-white space. So, she wants Marlow to repeat the words. I was on a point of crying at her. Do you not hear them? The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising world. ‘The horror, the horror! That was the dying word and everything around him the atmosphere around him was screaming that to Marlow. He was re-experiencing that the entire experience of hearing the words the horror the horror.
His last words, his last word to live with, she insisted. Don’t you understand, I loved him, I loved him, I loved him. Look at the performative quality over here the performative quality of mourning and the very stereotypical romantic narrative, I loved him, I loved him, I loved him there is a crescendo to it, there is a climatic quality to it. And it is like she is telling Marlow what to say and Marlow does not have any other option apart from saying what she wants to hear.
So, she becomes a very you know interesting symbol of the European insider who consumes the normative narrative of imperialism being the white man’s civilizing mission, being the white man’s glorifying mission, being the white man’s heroic mission. Anything apart from that will not do for her, ok. So, I loved him, I loved him, I loved him is reaching a crescendo and it’s pushing Marlow towards telling you know what she wants to hear and of course, she being a European insider over here.


I pulled myself together and spoke slowly. The last word he pronounced was, your name, right. So, this is a romantic report, the posthumous romantic report that Marlow is forced to deliver to Kurtz’s intended, right. But there’s a double irony over here as I am sure you know you would understand by now.
The fact that Kurtz actually said the horror the horror and Marlow cannot say that to the European insider, therein lies the horror. So, when Marlow says to Kurtz’s intended the last words he died with was a romantic word your name and he died with your name. In that sense he is actually, right because she is a horror and what Kurtz may have meant along with many things among other things is the misinformation consumed by the European insider, the misinformation that is you know forcibly consumed by the European insider about imperialism, about imperialism being a grand noble romantic thing.
So, in that sense her name or the symptom that she stands for or the symbolic significance that she embodies is the horror that Kurtz had died with. So, in that sense it is actually is a truthful report, but of course, that is lost in her because she is forcibly consuming, excuse me the romantic report that she wants to consume.
So, it is a very complex narrative at play over here Kurtz had died with the words the horror the horror which is about the hollowness of imperialism the hollowness a cannibalistic quality of imperialism, and the effect it has on the white man as makes him a beast, makes him mercenary, makes him an instrument, completely dehumanizes him and the knowledge of dehumanization that is a horror in Heart of Darkness. And when Marlow comes back to Brussels, he is forced to tell a romantic report and give a romantic report to Kurtz’s elegant mourner, elegant fiancée and he cannot tell anything apart from you know what she wants to hear which is you know he died with your name on his lips which is a very romantic report about you know the nobleman dying with the you know word of the with the name of the loved one who was insider over here.
But the macro narrative over here is interesting because that is part of the horror when her name becomes the horror because she stands for the horror, she stands for the misinformation, she stands for the complete ignorance, about imperialism. The very forcible and very consumed ignorance, a very happily consumed ignorance about imperialism, that imperialism was a noble thing a romantic thing etcetera.