The Art of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Symposium

By R. W. Stallman | Go to book overview

LILLIAN FEDER


Marlow's Descent Into Hell

*

MARLOW'S JOURNEY in Conrad "Heart of Darkness" is usually interpreted as a study of a descent into the unconscious self.1 Of course, the voyage into the heart of darkness is, on one level, a symbolic representation of an exploration of the hidden self and therefore of man's capacity for evil. However, Conrad is not merely narrating a psychological experience; he is dealing with a significant moral conflict. If this were simply a story concerned with the two aspects of the mind of man, the conscious and the unconscious, what would be Conrad's point in treating so extensively the condition of the natives in the Congo? Moreover, without studying some of Conrad's most powerful and most consistent imagery, it is impossible to explain the role of Kurtz's "Intended," which is important in the development of the theme. In "Heart of Darkness," Conrad is depicting Marlow's discovery of evil and the responsibilities to himself and to others which this knowledge places upon him. In telling the story of Marlow's attainment of self-knowledge, Conrad does not use the language of psychology. Instead, he employs the imagery and symbolism of the traditional voyage into Hades.

By associating Marlow's journey with the descent into hell, Conrad concretizes the hidden world of the inner self. Through image and symbol, he evokes the well-known voyage of the hero who, in ancient epic, explores the lower world and, in so doing, probes the depths of his own and his nation's conscience. A study of "Heart of Darkness" from this point of view discloses some interesting parallels, but, more important, by setting Conrad's story in relief against a background rich in associations, it reveals the essential unity of his political and personal themes. Moreover, such a reading shows how Conrad, by combining the traditional imagery of the epic descent with realistic details from his own experience in the Congo, created an image of hell credible to modern man.

Though Marlow's journey recalls the epic descent in general, it is most specifically related to the visit to Hades in the sixth book of the Aeneid. In Vergil's poem, Aeneas' descent is part of his initiation for the role of leader of the Roman people. Vergil emphasizes the fact that truth is to be found in the heart of darkness; thus, the Sibyl who, in Vergil's words, "obscuris vera involvens" (hides truth in darkness), guides Aeneas. Moreover, just as Aeneas is about to enter Hades, Vergil interrupts his narrative to ask the very elements of hell, Chaos and Phlegethon, to allow him to reveal the secrets buried in the darkness and depths of the earth. Aeneas' voyage to Hades is one means by which he learns of the tragedy implicit in the affairs of men; this is the price he pays for fulfilling his duty as founder of Rome. In the lower world

____________________
*
From Nineteenth-Century Fiction, IX ( March 1955), 280-292.

-162-

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The Art of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Symposium
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vi
  • Table of Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • Part One 1
  • The Art of Conrad 5
  • Notes 13
  • Notes 13
  • Notes 19
  • Notes 35
  • Notes 45
  • Part Two 59
  • Notes 87
  • Notes 96
  • The Nigger of the "Narcissus" 121
  • On Lord Jim(an Excerpt) 140
  • On Lord Jim 142
  • Notes 154
  • Marlow's Descent into Hell 162
  • Conrad's Underworld 171
  • Three Notes On "Heart of Darkness" 179
  • Notes 186
  • On "Typhoon" and the Shadow Line 190
  • On Nostromo 191
  • Notes 198
  • Conrad's the Secret Agent 209
  • Notes 227
  • Notes 234
  • Adam, Axel, and "Il Conde" 253
  • Notes 254
  • Notes 275
  • Notes 275
  • The Secret Sharer 289
  • Joseph Conrad: Chance 296
  • Notes 304
  • The Hollow Men: Victory 313
  • The Knight: Man in Eden: the Arrow of Gold 317
  • On the Rescue 323
  • On the Rover and Suspense 330
  • Notes 331
  • Appendix I 337
  • Appendix II 345
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