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VARIOUS INTERPRETATIONS OF HEART OF DARKNESS
Heart of Darkness is a very complex novel that supports several different Themes at once. Readers will differ on its main theme. In the past, scholars dealt with the metaphysical Themes of the novel to the exclusion of the historical setting in colonial Africa. More recently, scholars are interested in examining issues of "race," nationality, and even gender as they play out in the novel.
Those who treated the novel as a metaphysical exploration into the heart of humankind looked at the long passages in which Marlow speculated on his own attraction to Kurtz and his own place in relation to the Africans and to the African land. Marlow is a metaphysical thinker. He habitually translates material reality into metaphysical ideas. For instance, Marlow says that his first true vision of Kurtz happened when he was told that Kurtz turned back away from the relief of the Central Station and returned to his own station with only one canoe and four paddlers. Marlow interprets this as a noble act, the single man pitting his strength against nature, turning his back on civilization. He does not consider that Kurtz has made his own place at the top of a society in Africa and does not want to give up that power.
Another example lies in Marlow's view of the Africans he glimpses on shore. He imagines them as polar opposites of the rational Europeans, totally unrestrained, devilish, whooping madly. They serve a metaphysical purpose in Marlow's view of the world. They embody the dark force, the force of ignorance, devilry, danger, and fear. When he hears them speak, he imagines he hears satanic gibberish instead of hearing simply another language than English.
The more current interpretation of this novel deals directly with the Themes of "race" and nationality. Marlow's anguish occurs because all that he has been led to believe about the superiority of European civilization is shown to be false. Instead of being in total control of nature, the Europeans in Africa are at its mercy. Instead of solving problems, the Europeans' rationality, accurate book-keeping, and organizational hierarchies produce chaos, mean-spiritedness, oblivion to the suffering of others, and back- biting. Worst of all for Marlow, the ideals that support imperialism are shown to be lies. Kurtz embodies the contradictions of imperialism, its crazy-making contradictions. In speech, Kurtz supports all the liberal ideals of bringing enlightenment to the ignorant, establishing order in chaos, advancing the causes of progress in technologically deprived areas, but in action, Kurtz simply robs and kills the Africans for a profit and for power.
Marlow is able to give up a belief in the righteousness of the Europeans' place in Africa, but he is unable to give up the illusion that some good motive is behind European imperialism. Doing so would threaten his identity as a European. He cannot imagine an alternative, which would grant the Africans autonomy and dignity as a differently organized civilization.
In the end, the historical approach to reading this novel uses the insights of the metaphysical approach. It takes seriously the historical setting of the novel and examines the characters' psychological and metaphysical response to that setting.