In Heart of Darkness, how does the environment relate to the mental state of the characters?
Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness was published in 1899. At that time, England was still a colonial power in various parts of the world. To understand the novel and how Conrad uses the African environment to express its theme and reflect on the characters’ mental states, one must understand what colonialism is.
Colonialism is the occupation and economic exploitation of one country by another. The African continent was particularly ravaged by this practice for centuries, not just at the hands of England, but also many other European powers. Conrad looked upon colonialism as a moral wrong that injured both the colonial power and the victimized culture.
In part 2 of the novel, Marlow tells his listeners about his journey up the river. Look at how Conrad describes the environment:
“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sand-banks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps.
The environment is “bewitching” and can cause one to become “lost.” Words such as “no joy,” “gloom,” “sluggish,” “deserted,” and “cut-off” establish the idea that the Englishmen are in a place they don’t belong and don’t understand. Colonialism does just that: it forces one culture upon another in an exploitative manner, and both sides suffer from it. The oppressed indigenous people suffer first, but eventually the moral transgression begins to affect the minds and hearts of the oppressors. Conrad symbolizes this idea through his depiction of Kurtz’s deterioration. Although he is venerated by many, his health fails him in Africa and he dies. Conrad is implying that this is what will happen to England, too, if it continues to take advantage of a culture it has no genuine connection to.
One of the overriding themes in the book is that the isolation and removal from civilization in the African jungle causes Westerners to lose some of their moral senses. This is seen mainly in Kurtz, who was a harsh but normal employee of the Company until he ventured deep into the jungle. Once isolated from his own people, Kurtz found that he could do anything he wanted, and that freedom caused him to lose his morality and his rational sense. Marlow mentions this theme early on:
Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him,-- all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable.
(Conrad, Heart of Darkness, gutenberg.org)
Marlow's idea is that the wildness and darkness of the jungle removes the inhibitions that have been built up in civilization. Because men feel disconnected from their moral norms, they start to believe that they can do anything and everything, without consequences. The result of this freedom from moral scrutiny is a loss of sanity as the conditioned mind tries to reconcile its immoral acts with what it "knows" to be true. Marlow feels a certain amount of this by the end, but has not gone as far as Kurtz, and so survives with his moral sense intact, if not entirely unharmed.