Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis drive home a common point: one has to look beneath the surface of things. While Kafka’s work depicts the simple everyday life of an urban family, Conrad takes us to a strange realm where reality can be frightening. To Conrad, looking beneath the surface of things means viewing the whole from a certain vantage point.
He describes Marlow, the narrator of the story, as someone who “was not typical” and for whom “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine” (2; ch. 1). In Heart of Darkness, to look beneath the surface is to try to understand the external factors that impelled human beings to act as they do.
When Fresleven, a Danish captain employed by the Company who had been reputed to be quite harmless hammered a village chief mercilessly, Marlow understood it was not innate cruelty that drove him so, but the unbearable tension that had accumulated as he was exposed to the harsh climate and living conditions in the tropics ( 5; ch. 1). As he narrated his tale, it occurred to Marlow that the two women knitting black wool who received him at the Company’s office seemed to guard the door of Darkness.
The doctor who examined him wanted to know if madness ran in his family (6; ch. 1). These and other seemingly innocent encounters, when seen in retrospect, foretold about his descent into the heart of darkness. The author uses images of “trees, trees, millions of trees, massive immense, running up high” to convey emotions of dread and foreboding ( 3; ch. 2). Marlow recounts his voyage to see Kurtz: “The dawns were heralded by the descent of a chill stillness…the snapping of a twig would make you start.
We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet” ( 3 ; ch. 2). But the wilderness is not really that secluded because, from to time, the steamboat comes upon a settlement, its inhabitants welcoming them with wild shouts. Marlow would later find out that the tribes inhabiting it had more to dread from the white men, not the other way around. Marlow is not impressed by the colonizer’s use of brute force which, according to him, is “nothing to boast of…since…strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others” (3 ; ch.
1). To show that natives were cowed into submission because they were ignorant and superstitious, he told about the savage who was trained to attend to the boiler, and who did so with efficiency only because he was told that the monster inside would take a terrible vengeance if he did not. It was a source of wonder to him that his steamboat crew, cannibals all, subsisting on rotten hippo meat and at the edge of constant hunger, did not eat him and his white companions while they were on a journey to the jungle, although they were outnumbered thirty to five.
He wondered at the cause of their “restraint”, whether it was “superstition, disgust, patience, fear-or some kind of primitive honor” (7: ch. 2). Looking beneath the surface (or reading between the lines), one almost could detect a hint directed at colonized peoples to shake off the yoke of the invader. The novel’s central character, Kurtz is described by the station manager as “an emissary of pity, of science and progress, and devil knows what else” ( 16; ch. 1). He was an agent who brought in ivories from the deep jungle, and who later wrought havoc among the natives, using the tribesmen who worshipped him.
The devastation he brings into that savage land suggests the unfortunate ill effects of civilization to primitive peoples. One cannot read Heart of Darkness without being sickened by its depiction of colonialism, of images that portray the cruelty inflicted on the wretched masses, of chain gangs committed to back-breaking labor, of mine workers crawling away to the hillside to die while, not far away, the white company accountant in his high starched collar and clean linen seemingly took no notice of them. As stated earlier, Marlow views the meaning of an episode from without, not within.
Thus, Kurtz became a terror not merely because he was seduced by the call of the primitive; the ignorance of the natives and the civilized world’s greed for ivory and gold made his transformation possible. As we look beneath the surface of Kurtz’ character, it is quite possible that we would see a reflection of ourselves. On the surface, Heart of Darkness implies that human beings are not essentially “civilized”; thrown back into a primordial world, they are capable of unspeakable ruthlessness against their fellowmen. But looking beneath, we find such transformation occurs only when we fail or refuse to recognize the humanity of others.
To Kurtz and his ilk, the savages were of a different kind, perhaps lower than men and therefore not entitled to the same respect, kindness, or even pity accorded to other humans. Looking at the wild throng of welcoming natives, Marlow thought: We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman… that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman… what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—
the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar (4; ch. 2). This inability to recognize the humanity of others is likewise depicted in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa, waking up “a monstrous vermin,” ( 3; pt. 1) finds little or no sympathy at all, even from his own family. Before his transformation, he had felt great pride that he was able to provide a living in such a nice home for his sister and parents (II; pt. 1). But since he became not only useless but a cause of great inconvenience, embarrassment, and suffering for his family, they began to treat him like an animal.
Said Grete, his sister: “I don’t want to call this Monster my brother. ” This, after Gregor had tried to show how much he appreciated her playing the violin, and tried to attack the three gentlemen who did not like her performance. Metamorphosis, in a way, echoes the thoughts of Marlow in Heart of Darkness with regard to the lack of understanding among peoples. “If he could just understand us…” was the lament of Gregor’s family, not knowing that Gregor had the same thoughts: if only they could understand that someone who could be captivated by music was not an animal.
If only the white men in Conrad’s wilderness could recognize the humanity of even the savage inhabitants of the jungle, they would not, perhaps, have the heart to conquer and exploit. On the surface, we see the insect-like organism that Gregor has become as a pathetic image of ourselves when we cease to be healthy or productive, or perceived to be a burden to society or to our loved ones. Set in the city, Metamorphosis may also infer that despite all of man’s technological achievements and progress, he may end up a victim of such progress, a detestable creature that mars the urban landscape.
Gregor’s plight also brings to mind the revulsion felt by society towards a stricken fellow human being. Is not the horror, shame, and loathing displayed by Gregor’s family reflective of the general attitude we show to those whom we deem to be no longer useful – a nuisance to our daily lives? Perhaps, euthanasia has its adherents, not because they would want to avoid pain and suffering, but because they fear that the agony of another human being, even someone dear to their lives, would be for themselves a greater agony.
Upon closer look, Metamorphosis is not a mere condemnation of man’s cruelty to others, including their loved ones. The author transforms Gregor into a “dung beetle”, not some cuddly animal, to draw revulsion. By depicting Gregor as a creature who thought just like another human being, and who was, moreover, full of concern and love for his family, Kafka attempts to make us reconsider our attitude towards others whom we may perceive to be “different”. Come to think of it, the moral in Metamorphosis may also apply to the environment: science has long ago recognized the role of vermin in maintaining ecological balance in nature.
From these two literary works, we may think of two implications which concern us as human beings. The first is that society should not judge or treat harshly those whom it deems to be a burden to it. The second is that, without regard for the humanity of others, a man’s ethical and moral values can be corroded or swept away to release the beast within.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. Kafka, Franz. Trans. Trans. Stanley Corngold. Metamorphosis. Bantam Books, New York : 1972.