The strength of a society can be linked to its dependence on its physical and social characteristics so that when members of a society are separated from those characteristics they are in jeopardy of a regression away from civilized behaviour. To begin, the Congo in Africa is home to dark native peoples that are portrayed with a natural, primal quality, a stark contrast to the civilization in Europe. The setting is where the supposed sophistication of civilized men is deconstructed. Marlow tells his shipmates about his childhood dreams of visiting uncharted places on maps.
However, once a space had been discovered by Europeans, “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” (Conrad 71). Once a “dark” location has been discovered by the civilized world, it is exposed to the ‘light’ of development. Without the arrival of the light of the Europeans for use in comparison, the Congo would be neither light nor dark; it is civilization that creates the primitive darkness.
The light of civilization in the Congo is depicted as evil, symbolized by the white accountant who is clothed in white starched linen amongst the white man’s civilized endeavours (digging holes) set against the dark natives -crouched in pain against the dark tree trunks- who are starving and dying as they work for the white man. Secondly, Kurtz is on a mission to procure ivory and to impose society onto a region of darkness. In his report to his superiors, he scrawls across the bottom, “Exterminate all the brutes!
” (Conrad 128) Kurtz does not believe that the natives are in any way civilized, nor does he believe that the natives can become civilized on their own. He does not see the Africans as human beings, but merely as animals. Instead of civilizing them, which he obviously has decided would be foolish, he feels it would be easier simply to kill all of the natives. In these beliefs, one can see the darkness that comes from the civilizing mission. The darkness is within Kurtz (and people like him), and that darkness is brought to light in the minds of people like Marlow who see the savagery in their ways.
Furthermore, a contemporary of Conrad, William Golding, also explores the theme of descending into savagery. Embedded within his story of a group of young boys struggling to survive alone on a deserted island -separated from society they had known- are insights to the capacity of evil within the human soul and how it can completely destroy society. On this desolate tropical island, the lost boys begin to organize themselves to gain a sense of stability, order, and brotherhood. They begin to build a society that contains rules and government.
“‘I agree with Ralph,’ states Jack. ‘We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages'” (Golding 40). By the end of the novel after they have been stranded on the Island for what seems like weeks all reason has escaped the actions of the boys. “’Never mind what’s sense. That’s gone…” (Golding 172) The boys continue to break their ‘morals,’ which were simply superficial rules of society that were fed to them unwillingly. They act upon these morals despite their own thoughts and emotions.
The latter is the definition of civilization. As it wears away layer after layer in this book, the true savage in mankind is revealed. In summary, the absence of society’s physical and social characteristics in the jungle, in Kurtz’s mission and on Golding’s island contribute to a descent into savagery by characters isolated from the restraints of society. In this light, the interaction of Kurtz with Marlow is not simply society coming to terms with its own complex nature, but a conflict between moral and immoral values.
Kurtz’s descent into madness, and Marlow’s journey along the same path, is not the result of societal shortcomings. It is society confronted with the true “darkness”. Against such a curtain, the whole of European society collapses and causes them to revert back to primal thought and action. Next, Marlow’s definition of humans is closely linked to the definition of inhumanity (quality of lacking compassion or consideration for others). Marlow describes humans being dark, inhuman shapes by the way they act towards each other.
“Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest. ” (Conrad 141). Lastly, the key to society’s battle against its savage roots is its ability to create civilization and order through a moral structure with physical symbols to remind its citizens to follow the guidelines set by society. To begin, laws and rules are necessary to keep the darker side of human nature in line. Continuing, there are many thoughts on whether man is born evil or if society corrupts man. The idea that man is born evil is controversial.
The belief that man is born good and is corrupted by society though, is not. Two famous philosophers will agree. They are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. “Rousseau believed that through a society people become evil” (Rousseau Social Contract). “Locke believed that everyone was born with a blank slate and that what you experience determines [if] you’re good or evil”(Locke Two Treatises of Government). Man is born good, with a clean slate and society is what corrupts man to evil, through the media, social groups, and peer pressure.
Through these theories, it can be seen that society is what corrupts people and their behaviour, and without society people will regress to their ‘natural’ state of being. Finally, in Heart of Darkness light is the common force within the first section of the novel but as the story progresses and grows nearer the climax, the landscape is invaded with gloom and disgust. “Going up that river was like travelling [sic] back to the earliest beginnings of the world… an empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest…
And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace… It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. ” (Conrad 105) In comparison to the portrayal of the European setting, darkness plagues his story to the extent that Marlow is cautioned “Try to be civil, Marlow. ” (Conrad 106) Marlow is depicted as a character that is unaffected by the change in surroundings but as Marlow journeys into the darkness of Africa it brings about a regression that threatens his sanity.
The further Marlow travels into the jungle the greater is the impact of his absence from civilization’s governing structure. Society relies heavily on its need for order and symbols of that order for its survival. Without them man’s savage instincts take over and society’s continued existence is in jeopardy. In conclusion, it is the innate nature of mankind to choose survival above all needs which brings out the hidden savage in all of us kept only in check by the artificial restraints placed upon mankind by society.
The descent into savagery, man’s inherent desire to survive over anything else and the need for civilization and order shows how society unnaturally holds everyone together. The aspiration to endure is an intrinsic response that may lay dormant until the chains of society and civilization are removed; when that day arrives, their dormant instincts will arise and bring about a regression back to that of a savage.