Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Discuss the relationship between the physical environment and the characters' mental states in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

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Even before Marlow travels to Africa in the novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad, he is aware of his obsession with huge spaces and this is a theme developed by the author as the story unfolds - the absolute and total immensity of the African jungle and the sense in which it goes on for ever without end, to such an extent that thinking about it could drive a person wild with curiosity and possibility. A modern comparison for our more sophisticated twentieth century minds would be trying to work out what outer space was and why we are here.  The description of a mental breakdown that threatens the colonial explorer with madness is closely connected to the landscape. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the question of mental imbalance is first suggested in relation to Marlow’s objective in going to Africa. During a check up before his travels, a doctor asks him if  there is any madness in his family. Annoyed by such a question, Marlow snaps back, ‘Is that question in the interest of science, too?’.4 The doctor tells him about a  ‘little theory’ he has about the mind-changing symptoms from which travellers suffer in Africa but doesn’t expand upon it much, but we get the feeling that Marlow knows all too well about the shocking landscape, is lured towards it and prepared to take the risk and therefore the consequences. The main feature of the landscape, apart from the darkness (the impenetrability and undiscovered nature) of the forest/jungle it is the sheer ‘immensity’ of it which challenges Marlow. Probably guessing at the loneliness and isolation, he takes the chance but :

‘’But his soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad."

he states as he contemplates meeting Kurtz alone in the wilderness and then of course famous dying words :

'The horror!  The horror!"

 Dying in the darkness in a strange land on the other side of the world  was a risk they were all prepared to take, some for riches and some for an insatiable appetite and curiosity.

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