Deconstructionist Analysis: “Heart of Darkness”

I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations… And I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance—barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn’t so good, on account of unavoidable noise. 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. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.

from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.

A deconstructionist view argues that language is uncentered; we cannot perfectly convey the ideas in our heads because of the limits inherit to the signifier/signified relationship. For example, if I say “cat,” there is a distinct image (the signified) which comes as a result from reading or hearing the word “cat” (the signifier). However, the image which appears in your mind is not a perfect replication of the image which is in my mind. I could say, “a cat with black and white spots and a grey patch over one eye,” and the signified image in your head might be closer to what I am imagining, but there is inevitably some sort of failure, some room for interpretation. Where are the cat’s spots located? Does it have a few large spots, or many small ones? Is the grey patch representative of a discolored area of fur, or is the cat wearing an actual eyepatch? Another example could be our dictionaries. If you look up any given word, there are more words used to describe that word. If you look up those words, there will be more words to reference and point to the meaning of what is trying to be conveyed. Eventually, you’d just end up starting back at the original word you looked up. Derrida argues that language conveys ideas imperfectly, and thus fails every time we utilize it to express ourselves. As a result, absolute truths cannot be discovered in language or speech, because there is an inherent failure to communicate absolute truth from the moment that we start to express ourselves. If it sounds a bit nihilistic, well, it is.

When we look at fiction, we generally look to find meaning by examining the tensions/conflicts/oppositions of the narrative and the way these things are rectified (or not rectified) at the resolution. Often, these tensions are described in terms of binary oppositions: male/female, good/evil, white/black, culture/nature, speech/writing, with each precedent of these pairs having an implied or presumed hierarchal governance over the other, as a result of the dominance of Western-European cultural paradigms. The goal of the deconstructionist lens is to show that these elements are not actually in opposition or that tensions do not exist, not by reversing the hierarchal structure, but rather by neutralizing hierarchy entirely. This is often done by critiquing the sociocultural structures and beliefs that reinforce these binaries.

Examining the passage above in a deconstructionist lens, there are a number of oppositions suggested in the excerpt which could be examined: civilized/uncivilized, sane/insane, tamed/wild, pure/corrupt, moral/immoral, rationality/instinct, or the greater opposition which these all allude to, good/evil. Marlow listens to Kurtz grieve for his “immense plans,” and takes this as affirmation of Kurtz’s aspirations of aristocracy: “Your success in Europe is assured in any case” (Conrad). Within this context, Marlow assumes Kurtz’s “final burst of sincerity” is a mourning of the sacrifice of his career, engagement, and wealth for a strange, predatory reign over the indigenous people of the land (Conrad). Marlow believes the isolation of the wilderness has put Kurtz under a “spell,” having “beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations” (Conrad). The implication is that Kurtz’s behavior in the jungle is entirely uncivilized, and, had Kurtz simply held steadfast to his supposedly civilized principles, he would not have been torn apart by regret and shame in his final hours, and may have lived a great deal longer.

However, Marlow’s assumptions present a number of problems. First, Marlow defines Kurtz’s sanity in the moment quite plainly: “I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear” (Conrad). Marlow weakens his own argument by portraying Kurtz as a rational, sane, and intelligible human; he is not, therefore, insane. Kurtz has enough cognizance to “struggle blindly” with an issue which is implied by Marlow as relating to his behavior in the wilderness, suggesting the presence of a moral paradigm. So, though he may have succumbed to immoral behavior, the suggestion is that Kurtz is a moral person, now weighed by the gravity of his decisions. This would likewise weaken the suggestion of the good/evil binary attached to Kurtz by proxy.

The most fatal blow to Marlow’s observations, however, is the colonizers’ occupation of the continent. Marlow critiques Kurtz actions in the jungle: his baseless governance over the indigenous people; his tactics of manipulation and influence; the exploitation and oppression of an unsuspecting and vulnerable population; the leveraging of resources and power to intimidate, enact violence, and overthrow existing hierarchies, and so on. As a result, Marlow brands Kurtz as insane, irrational, uncivilized, and/or evil. However, every single one of these actions is reflected in the very trade which affords Kurtz his resources: his wealth, his connections, his status, his career, his fiancé, and so on. These are the things which Marlow believes Kurtz laments in the throes of death. They are the things which sparked Marlow’s interest in Kurtz. They are the very source of power which arguably compelled Kurtz to his current predicament. They are also composed of the Western European sociocultural signifiers that suggest Kurtz was once a successful and therefore good person, and would have continued to be, had he kept to that path.

However, had Kurtz kept to his accepted path, he nonetheless would have participated in all the same activities for which he is demonized, even without his pretentious and violent “reign” over the indigenous people. The looting and aggressive colonization of the African continent for the enrichment of the European economy constituted a baseless governance over indigenous people, exploitation and manipulation of a vulnerable population, the leveraging of resources to intimidate, enact violence, and overthrow, and so on. Kurtz is merely deemed evil, insane, or uncivilized because he did not participate in these activities in a way which held to the expectations of the sponsoring organization. Therefore, Marlow’s implied qualification of Kurtz as evil, insane, or uncivilized does not hold up; the performative manner of these exact same actions is all that concerns the civilized group. The civil, sane, or good population participates in the exact same behavior as Kurtz; the behavior is merely hidden behind a corporate umbrella.

I chose to examine this passage through a deconstructionist lens for a few reasons. First, Marxist theory is heavily criticized for its lack of intersectionality; the oppositions examined through this view are generally only bourgeoisie/proletariat, ruling class/working class, or oppressor/oppressed. Though this could provide some compelling insights into the power dynamics of the narrative, I felt that this piece would be more effective with both a wider and a more cynical lens. There are obvious, problematic views in this novel, particularly in terms of racial oppression, and the Marxist view generally disregards race in favor for class. Marlow and Kurtz are arguably of similar class distinction, making the Marxist lens somewhat less compelling for this piece. I favored the deconstructionist lens for its ability to critically examine and take apart the implied hierarchal structures or binary oppositions of this piece, specifically because those structures are inherently problematic.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” Project Gutenberg, 2018, retrieved from https://gutenberg.org/files/219/219-h/219-h.htm.

Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.

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