Without the journey up the river, with the encounters and observations made upon the way by, first, an unnamed narrator and, more significantly, by the character of Christopher Marlowe, there would be no Heart of Darkness. Yes, the plot is centered upon Marlowe’s mission of going deep into the African jungle to retrieve Kurtz, the company man whose methodology with regard to the ivory trade provides the rationale for Marlowe’s journey. It is the journey, however, that provides the basis for Conrad’s indictment of the evils inherent in European imperialism. The journey up the river, in essence, is everything. Early in the novel, the narrator quotes Marlowe commenting on the significance of the journey in terms of insights it provided into not just Kurtz but into his own psyche:
“‘I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,’ he began, showing in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would like best to hear; ‘yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I first met the poor chap. It was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me— and into my thoughts.”
The “poor chap,” of course, is Kurtz, whose zeal and efficiency at accumulating ivory was becoming the stuff of legends, but whose tactics, born of his increasing departure from reality, was proving excessive even for the British company in whose employ he toiled. That the journey is the central theme of Conrad’s novel is repeated throughout Heart of Darkness. As the narrator continues to introduce the reader to the character of Marlowe and to the underlying importance of their journey up the river (presumably, the Congo River), he further quotes the adventurer whose passion for sailing has brought him to the edge of civilization. Describing his life-long fascination with exploration, Marlowe begins to focus on one particular gap in his travelogue -- Africa:
“‘True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery— a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird—a silly little bird. Then I remembered there was a big concern, a Company for trade on that river.”
And, so, Marlowe is granted the commission to take a steamboat up the length of that river and bring back Kurtz. More than Kurtz himself, the river becomes a character in Conrad’s story: “I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there—fascinating—deadly—like a snake.” Marlowe only belatedly comes to understand the object of his mission. It is the river that captivates him, and what he sees along the way helps him understand the madness that Kurtz has come to exemplify. That the experience of going up-river will be a defining moment for Marlowe is suggested by the boat’s captain, who describes a similar voyage to his guest after Marlowe rejects the captain’s admonition against taking too lightly the psychological ramifications of this particular trip:
“‘It is funny what some people will do for a few francs a month. I wonder what becomes of that kind when it goes upcountry?’ I said to him I expected to see that soon. ‘So-o-o!’ he exclaimed. He shuffled athwart, keeping one eye ahead vigilantly. ‘Don’t be too sure,’ he continued. ‘The other day I took up a man who hanged himself on the road. He was a Swede, too.’ ‘Hanged himself! Why, in God’s name?’ I cried. He kept on looking out watchfully. ‘Who knows? The sun too much for him, or the country perhaps’.”
What Marlowe will witness along the journey constitutes Conrad’s definitive condemnation of European imperialism. That Heart of Darkness continues to be read and studied is testament to the author’s success in presenting the soul-crushing effects of colonialism on those who practice it as well as on those who were forced to endure it.