Both The Old Man and the Sea and Heart of Darkness deal with desire and the manner in which people deal with it: both fulfillment and disappointment occur to the characters and the manner in which they deal with it reflects their attitude towards desire. In The Old Man and the Sea the two main characters are the boy and the old man, and each in their own way expresses desire. In heart of Darkness the main character is Marlowe, and like the boy/man in The Old Man and the Sea, he struggles against both the physical environment and his inner desire to overcome it.
In The Old Man and the Sea, the old man has not caught a fish for more than eighty days, but has a kind of indomitable desire to succeed despite the fact that the odds appear to be against him. He states that “anyone can be a fisherman in May”: he desires to be a successful fisherman in September when the “big fish” come and when it is most difficult to catch them. He has a desire to prove himself to the most absolute level even though he is an old man and no longer as capable as he was when he was younger. The old man admits this, but his desire remains anyway.
His relationship with the fish that he seeks to catch is one that also expresses desire. He respects the fish but has an absolute desire to kill it. He says “fish I love you and respect you very much . . . but I will kill you before this day ends”. His desire is to kill the fish, not because he hates it or even because it may earn him any money, but rather because it will prove that he was right in his tenacity at going out to fish every day. Catching the marlin will prove that he is still a fisherman, still a man.
By the end of this short novel, the old man appears to have achieved his desire, only to have it seemingly stolen from him by the other fish that have stripped the body of the marlin down to its bones. But in fact his triumph, and thus his desire, remains intact. Hemingway explains this through saying that “a man can be destroyed, but not defeated. ” This implies that while a man may be physically beaten:- while the fish may have robbed the him of the triumph of bringing the fish home – he is not “defeated”.
Defeated is a mental, moral state in which the spirit of a man is broken, and that is something that never occurs in the novel. Desire to control the physical and human environment also occurs within Heart of Darkness, but this time it is aimed at a much larger target than a single fish sought by a fisherman, this time it is a whole continent and its effect upon the people from the West. There are various types of desire in Heart of Darkness.
First of all there is the desire of Marlowe to find Kurtz and to discover why he has started to behave insanely; then there is Kurtz himself who has traveled to the “heart” of this “darkness”. Together the encapsulate the overall desire of Europeans to control Africa. Marlowe suggests that the desire of Europeans to control other people is not in fact a very admirable thing. Early in the book he says, “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”.
While an indomitable desire was essentially valorized in The Old Man and the Sea, in this novel it is placed in a problematic context. Marlowe recognizes that the European desire “is not a pretty thing”, but this does not stop him from pursuing it. The symbol for his growing desire to find Kurtz may be found within “each station should be like a beacon on the road toward better things, a center for trade of course but also for humanizing, improving, instructing . . . “.
It is an irony that in fact it is Africa that is “instructing” the Western people as they attempt to control it. By the end of the novel, when Marlowe finally finds Kurtz, he discovers a man who is been driven insane by his experience of the desire to control Africa. Kurtz learns, far too late, that this is an impossible desire: in the end it is the continent which controls him. The last words of Kurtz before he dies “The horror! The horror! ” reflects his inability to accept that his desire can never be fulfilled.
By contrast, even though the old man’s triumph is rendered small in The Old Man and the Sea, he is never fully defeated. Kurtz is destroyed and defeated. To conclude, desire is a forceful emotion within virtually all human beings. In The Old Man and the Sea and Heart of Darkness, Hemingway and Conrad examine desire within highly unusual people placed in extraordinary situations. It is the old man who manages to adapt, and so he survives. Kurtz, as a representative of white people within Africa, shows what happens when someone is inflexible and intransigent in their desire: death.