Madness in Heart of Darkness

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Joseph Conrad's 1899 masterpiece, 'Heart of Darkness', is renowned for its scathing criticism of European imperialism. But the novella is also a stunning depiction of the slow descent into madness.

Madness in Heart of Darkness

Imagine a world where everything you knew to be true suddenly wasn't, a world where black is white and white is black. A world where up is down and down is up. Worse, a world where good is evil and evil is good. It's enough to drive a person insane.

That is what happens in Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness. Conrad's novella is a scathing condemnation of modern European imperialism, the political and social conquest of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America that reached its brutal height in the late 19th century.

But the novella is also about the fragility, mystery, and darkness of the human mind. Heart of Darkness can be read as an allegory (a story in which the plot, characters, and major elements symbolize something else) of the descent into madness.

Joseph Conrad

The Wildness of the Mind

Heart of Darkness centers around Marlow's journey up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, the manager of a remote station outpost. Kurtz has become a problem child for the Belgian trading company he works for. He's installed himself as a sort of king among the Congolese natives. Worse, he's siphoning off most of the company's profits, keeping most of the ivory the company wants and owns, according to Belgian imperial law, for himself.

A psychoanalytic reading, that is, a reading that uses the basic principles of modern psychology, gives us more than just a story of money, corruption, and political oppression. Marlow's journey up the Congo in search of Kurtz, penetrating deeper into the African jungles, can also be read as a journey into the subconscious mind, where our innermost fears and desires lie hidden, driving us in unexpected, and, often, terrifying ways.

Case in point: Kurtz. Marlow says of Kurtz, 'But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude--and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.'

In essence, it is when we are most alone, when we are freed from the constraints of society, when we are no longer bound to obey the laws of culture or submit to the expectations of friends and family, that we find out how we really are. It is here that the unconscious fears and yearnings can begin to rise to the surface. This is the dark mystery that the wilderness of the mind conceals, but can never truly deny. It can be the siren songs that lure sailors to their deaths and drive good men mad. It is the inner voice of the self, whispering the truth, fascinating and despicable, horrifying and inescapable, of who we really are. This is what Marlow means when he describes the maddening touch of the wilderness on Kurtz. Here, the wilderness is the manifestation of the darkness of Kurtz's subconscious.

The Congolese Wilderness

The Maddened Soul

Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, argued that the fears and desires that populate the subconscious, which he called the id, are kept in check by two things: the ego and the superego.

The ego is the self that we present to the world. It is our social mask, and, for the most part, it can be selfish. It wants as much pleasure with as little pain as possible. So it will abide by laws and customs for as long as it's comfortable. But when those laws and customs become too burdensome to the ego, then Johnny bar the door because all bets are off.

Fortunately, we have one more line of defense when the ego falters, and that's the superego. This is an internalized moral code that the superego enables us to develop over the course of our lives. It develops as our parents teach us right from wrong and our society shows us what to value and how we are expected to behave, such as turning a wallet full of money in to the police even if no one would ever know that you had found it otherwise.

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