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Essay/Term paper: Contrasting marlow and kurtz and the theme of evil in "heart of darkness"

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Heart of Darkness

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Contrasting Marlow and Kurtz and the Theme of Evil In "Heart of Darkness"


It can be said that a certain degree of darkness lies within every person,
but this darkness will not surface unless given the correct environment. The
darkness, however, can emerge and ultimately destroy the person if not checked
by reason. If one's inner darkness does surface, the victim then is given the
opportunity to reach a point in personal growth, and to gain a sense of self-
knowledge from it. That is, when one's darkness appears, one must learn from
this experience how he or she can prevent similar results from occurring in the
future. It is ultimately through self-knowledge that we gain the power to
defeat our inner darkness, and all of its elements. Just as everyone has the
potential for evil within themselves, we too have the potential for true
goodness. In many literary works the author attempts to exemplify the evil
which lies within by showing many characters which have been, or are being
overcome by their inner darkness. In the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph
Conrad we see how Marlow's journey into his ultimate evil, into his inner self,
can be a positive experience. By contrasting Marlow with Kurtz, who represents
the absolute evil, we can see the two products of an inner evil which has
emerged. Marlow, who defeats his evil, and gains self-knowledge, and Kurtz, who
is defeated by his darkness and falls prey to its wrath. In William Golding's
Lord of the Flies the author points out how easily people can be over taken by
the darkness, how the potential for good can be destroyed by the evil, but
ideally how good will triumph. Through an examination of these two works we can
see how the darkness within, given the correct environment will surface. The
circumstances which eventually cause the appearance of the inner darkness in
these two novels stems from the lack of civility, the true test, or journey
which every life contains, and finally the product of evil which lies in all of
us, either through acts of commission or omission.

When people lack the aspect of civility in their lives they too will lack
the restraints and barriers it has on one's inner evil. Civility, in essence,
provides the basic structure for good. Through laws, structure, and general
order, goodness then, for the most part will be the end product. Therefore a
lack of civility would result in a lack of order, morals, and laws, leaving
chaos to over power. The desolate island in The Lord of the Flies represents a
lack of civility. Without parents, law makers, and guardians the darkness which
surfaces is inevitable. Piggy said in a feared state upon this realization:
"This is an island? Well I think this is an island! That's a reef out in the
sea. That means we are all alone! Perhaps there aren't any grownups anywhere"
(Golding 4). It is clear that the civilization of the modern world is
unavailable on the island. Although Ralph, who represented the aspect of order,
attempts to reach a point of civility, unfortunately was unsuccessful. He said
in his struggle: "We've got to have rules and obey them. After all we're not
savages. We're English, and the English are the best at everything" (Golding
25). Ironically the very group he was talking to broke order and formed the
savage group known as the 'hunters'. Similarly Piggy too represents civility.
He incorporates the conch which to aids in the order of the island. He is very
fearful of the lack of civility and scared by the hunters. He feels that
civility and order, although the ideal route, was going to be crushed, and with
it him: "We can't do this, the savages, they would crush us" (Golding 54). It
is quite obvious how the potential evil in a group of young boys unavoidably
arises due to the lack of restraint and order. When the darkness surfaces Jack
and his group of hunters gain no self-knowledge, and therefore can not reprieve
themselves nor the evil which takes over.

A strong parallel can be drawn between the island in Lord of the Flies and
The Congo in The Heart of Darkness. The Congo in is similarly used to represent
the absence of restraint and order. The effect which is used exemplifies a lack
of civility, which in turn provides the opportunity for the emergence of
darkness. At the beginning of the novel Marlow begins his descent into the
Congo, which presents a dark image of death and suffering.

It was a thing which looked as dead as the carcass of some
strange animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying
machinery, and a stack of rusty rails. To the left a clump
of trees in a twisted shady spot, the ground shook (Conrad 52).

The capacity for evil in the jungle is endless. This is illustrated through the
natives which who go mad and begin killing. Marlow struggles but by realizing
his potential for good, manages to contain his evil. Unfortunately the result
was not the same for many others: "I don't know how this would have struck the
others but to me the evil was unspeakable, but not undefeatable" (Conrad 85).
The Congo and the lack of restraints it represents causes one to lose common
sense. Without common sense the mind is deteriorated. It is also left twisted
and functionally useless in regards to civilized thought or action. The power
of mind in most cases is no match for the lack of order and the lack of reason
for most of the Congo's inhabitants. Kurtz fell victim to this and his mind
became extremely deteriorated due to the lack of order. He eventually finds his
inner darkness come forth and essentially control all his thoughts and actions.

By comparing the two novels it is clear how one's inner darkness will
surface without the restraints of civilization. In the case of Jack and the
hunters, the children are accustom to civility, laws, and order. The fact that
parents and teachers were always placing unwanted rules on them, probably caused
an initial enjoyment of the lack of civility so much that the growing savageness
within grew blindly. The darkness was being to rise. This is shown through
Jack, when asked about the war paint he was wearing replied: "For hunting! Like
in the wars, you know, dazzle paint! We look more savage!"(Golding 71) This
can be compared to the darkness which surfaced in Kurtz and the natives of the
Congo, however their darkness was the result of greed rather than ignorance.
Unlike Jack and the hunters, the greed for money and power by Kurtz allowed his
darkness, which controlled him in the end, to surface. The on going evil
growing in Kurtz was not only a result of the jungle, but it was shown through
it as well. As he gained more darkness the jungle thickened and became
increasingly dangerous: "…as we crept on closer towards Kurtz the snags were
thickining and the water becoming treacherous…" (Conrad 82) If civilized limits
are placed upon society as a whole, the majority of people have the opportunity
to contain the darkness within. If and when it occasionally surfaces then the
knowledge which is gained through a civilized lifestyle will contain, and defeat
the individual's darkness.

It is true that every person must undergo the ultimate test at some point
of his or hers life time. The test between good and evil. This test can be as
simple as small, daily difficulties, or as large as the general principle in
which one bases his or hers life upon. Although many people will fail the test
which are given to them, it is better to attempt the test and fail, than it is
never to have taken it at all. Ralph and Piggy, who as well as representing
civility, now also represent the goodness, or the 'passers' of this test of life.
Through the many altercations with the hunters, those who have failed the test,
we can observe the darkness beginning to rise. The ultimate dark figure, Jack,
who hasn't even attempted the test, that is to be satisfied with one's dark
lifestyle, shows how the journey of life presents us with the tasks and trials
which we are tested upon. Piggy perhaps was the character who was presented
with the most tests. Many times he almost lost his sense and civility, but he
always prevailed. Piggy at the verge of losing his sense murmured: "Nobody
knows where we are! Perhaps they knew before but they don't know now 'cos we'll
never get there!" (Golding 36) Not soon after, however, Piggy regained his
sensible approach to the situation. It is impossible for one person to pass
every test that life gives them, but the important thing is that you learn from
every test, pass or fail, one must gain self-knowledge from each altercation.

When Marlow's time came to take his test, it was not necessarily that he
passed it, but more importantly he gains the self-knowledge needed in order to
defeat the darkness within him. By containing his darkness and preventing the
release of his evil, he allows a certain degree of goodness to surface. The
result of one's ability to contain his or her darkness does not always equal
goodness, but instead it represents the awareness gained from each test. The
natives show through their savagery and murderous ways that they have
subsequently failed to gain the desired self-knowledge to maintain their
goodness. Kurtz can be viewed as the character in the novel who doesn't attempt
to take life's challenges and at length seals his dark fate. Marlow's first
view of Kurtz shows how the goodness, and evil fail to co-exist together:

Seeing Kurtz for the first time, It was a distant glimpse:

the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white
man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on
relief, on thoughts of home--perhaps; setting his face
towards the depths of the wilderness, towards his
empty and desolate station (Conrad 75).

Had Kurtz even attempted the journey or test he was faced with perhaps he may
have seen things in a different light. The natives on the other hand appear
ignorant, but at the same time they appear content with their lifestyles.

The two novels can be compared in many ways according to the characters,
and the tests they take along the journey of their lives. Piggy and Ralph can
be compared to Marlow in the fact that they had either passed the test or
clearly gained the self-knowledge to prevent the potential darkness within
themselves from escaping. The two groups, the 'hunters' and the 'natives' can
be similarly compared in terms regarding the characters who attempted to take
the test but failed, an action which can, but not in these two cases, result in
self-knowledge. Finally the two symbols of true darkness, Kurtz and Jack. The
darkness within them surfaced due to that fact that not only did they fail to
take the test of life, but they appeared to be content with the situation that
this left them in.

The evil which lies within all of us has a third and final way of showing
itself. This is exemplified through acts of commission, and through acts of
omission. Edmund Burke was quoted as saying "Evil happens when good men do but
nothing" (Encarta {Quotations}). The actions which one commits, or fails to
commit, can act as a channel in which evil or darkness will begin show. The
dark forces which lay in Jack and his group were confirmed by their final direct
actions. The action which reiterated the darkness in Jack was the murder of
Piggy. The murder was very brutal, and unnecessary: "The rock that had killed
Piggy had bounded into the thicket and bounced there, landing in the middle for
all to see" (Golding 230). Not only had they committed the murder but they
indirectly reinforced their desire to deny civilization, as Piggy represented
this. Earlier in the novel when Jack, and the hunters, directly disregarded
civilization, they performed their first act of omission. This coupled with the
savagery they possessed, showed a distinct lack of reason and reality, two of
the key components to maintaining one's inner goodness. Finally the murder of
Simon, who represented the Christ figure in the book, was the element which
finalized Jack's descent into a irretrievable darkness.

Through the acts of commission and omission in Heart of Darkness, it is
clear how the same actions, by separate people, can result in differing
consequences. Marlow and Kurtz both live within the treacherous Congo, and are
involved in the sales of ivory to gain power and wealth. The greed and
stubbornness shown by the two men is very similar, but the result divers. Due
to Kurtz's inner darkness which had risen, his downfall was evident. But
through Marlow's ability to gain the self-knowledge required he was able to
prevent his evil from emerging, which in turn would lead to his eventual demise.
The natives on the other hand represent an indirect act of omission in which
they were unable to obtain any knowledge. When the evil within them begins to
surface they begin to break down mentally and physically. They become fierce,
then eventually cataclysmic. They allow their true inner evil to take over, and
they lose all capacity to gain any self-knowledge, which may have averted this
catastrophe.
The characters in the novels again are comparative with respect to direct
and indirect actions. Marlow and Ralph, through all the hardships and lack of
civility, overcome the test of life, and finally prevent their own actions from
surfacing their inner darkness. They are alike as they gain the essential
knowledge to prevent this potential evil from taking its course. The natives
and hunters find themselves in a situation in which, although they have
committed few actions, have by-passed the opportunity to gain the smallest
amount of knowledge, let alone the amount needed for to prevent future evil
occurrences. Finally, Kurtz and Jack through their direct and deliberate
actions place themselves in a position where it is obvious that self-knowledge
and control is not what they desire, but instead the inner darkness which
controls them to surface. When one is in the position of gaining self-knowledge,
or materialistic amounts, we are faced with one of the greatest and most true
tests of life, it is imperative that one takes the test, for you can not avoid
the test by attempting to gain both.

Through examining the many different images which allow one's inner evil
to surface, the lack of civility and restraints for good, the test which we must
endure through life, and evil through commission and omission, it is evident how
evil, if not checked by reality, reason, and imagination can surface in real
life situations. Even in today's society with the amount of civility we posses,
inner darkness may arise in many ways. This is predominate in direct actions,
but appropriately too through those omission. With the potential for evil so
great in today's materialistic, difficult society, we find ourselves with the
difficult task of taking life's many journeys and tests. Not every journey will
result in goodness, and the ones that do not are a learning experience in which
must gain the self-knowledge to prevent our inner darkness from emerging. We
must also be able to take the knowledge with us through every experience we
encounter and incorporate it into our daily lives.

 

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