The ego and diverted focus in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’Posted: January 14, 2014
More than halfway through the novel Heart of darkness.Conrad(1902), Marlowe, in who’s perspective the the book is written see’s his boats helmsman sqewered to death by a lunged spear. Following a rushed river burial (he is thrown overboard immediately as the narrator suspects the cannibals would be at him in no time), Marlowe gets semi-sentimental over the death of his Helmsman.
‘I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot house. Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black sahara. well, don’t you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months i had him at my back- a help- an instrument. It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me – I had to look after him, I worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which i had only become aware when it was suddenly broken. And the intimate profoundity of that look he gave me when he recieved his hurt remains to this day in my memory – like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.’ (Pg 73)
This; my favourite chapter of the book, exhibits almost everything you need to know about it’s perspective. I say almost because the sentiments of this paragraph are enhanced if you know by reading the novel in full how much admiration and affection Marlowe has for the egotistical socio-path Kurtz. His careless, indulging in sentimentality over a human who he looked at as no more than a part of his boat: The abomination of his retrospectively seeing the final moments of the Helmsman’s life as a bonding moment between them reminds me of a scene from the brutally violent low-budget film Romper Stomper (92), in which the troubled female lead of the movie has to listen to her artistically pretentious father softly describe his love for his daughter after years of sexually abusing her.
Heart of Darkness is a novel which revolves around the egos of the white characters. Their superiority is assumed and the horrific system of slavery is made viewable to us solely as background. Towards the end of the book, it is explored that perhaps slavery ultimately harms it’s profiteers as well as it’s commodities. As corruption and exploitation soaks the mind in guilt, it becomes the norm that exploiters feel a grudge against those whom they exploit. And if as in the case of Kurtz, the exploiter lives, eats and sleeps with the exploited then his grudge turns into a fierce repulsion, as Kurtz scrawls on the end of his pamphlet;
“Exterminate all the brutes!”
Illustrating Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I wanted to decorate what was already on display, as the subject-matter is so weighted. The direction of the story is one travelling from the depressing to complete destruction. So, one thing I certainly wanted to do was to have a slightly chronological order of destruction going on in my three images (one for each chapter). Secondly, i had to consider what would be the focus of my illustrations…
My notes, which i wrote throughout the book began with descriptions of the important characters. Once I’d finished reading it, I looked again at my copy of Heart of Darkness’s cover illustration, which is a ghostly image of a man fitting Kurtz’s description. Kurtz and Marlowe may be the character focuses of the novel, but the images that come instantly to my mind when recalling the story is the horrific oppression infested landscape which serves as the stage for Marlowe’s journey.
‘It was unearthly, and the men were- No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it- the suspicion of their not being inhuman’ (Pg 51)
So, the focus in my illustrations is the bloody destruction of the people who are essentially a dramatic backdrop for the story.
The Cover illustration is the most symbolic and also the one with the most narrative inherent in it. I found this very flat view of the scene conveyed it’s representational, rather than literal intention. Had it worked in a more dramatic, 3dimensional view, i might have scattered western extravagant items around the room or on the piano, to contrast the two worlds of where the profit is made, and where the profit goes, and their necessary segregation.
For quotes, my copy of: Heart of Darkness. J.Conrad (1902) Penguin Books.London 1972 Edition