Exploring Madness in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Lawrence's "Women in Love"

By Marina A. Kinney
2010, Vol. 2 No. 12 | pg. 1/3 |

Joseph Conrad's Heart of DarknessJoseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novel about the human psyche. It is as concerned with man’s ability to descend into madness as it is with his ability to break away from it and triumph over the dark, consuming impulses that threaten to consume his heart and mind. This struggle between awareness and madness is evidenced in both Marlow and Kurtz. While the narrative is arguably more concerned with Marlow and his struggle between these two realms, it is Kurtz who is of most interest, his madness and its effects dominating the narrative from nearly the beginning. The protagonist and narrator, Marlow, draws the reader’s attention to Kurtz’s plight early on, describing Kurtz as a “poor chap” who existed at the “farthest point of navigation” (5). While this nautical reference is used in a literal sense--Marlow is telling the tale of his journey up the Congo--it clearly encapsulates the state of Kurtz’s mind. Additionally, the narrative is quick to establish that Kurtz has fully descended into the “farthest” state of madness, but is decidedly less clear as to why. While it is easy to dismiss his state of mind as the effect of greed and arrogance--his ability to accumulate massive amounts of ivory has rendered him a god-like entity in the eyes of both the British (19), and the natives within the Congo (51)--there is decidedly more to Kurtz’s madness than monetary lust.

Similarly, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, while different in scope and tone, explores man’s descent into madness through Gerald Crich. Unlike Kurtz, Gerald is introduced to the reader as the “personification of a civilized man” (Oates 561), who comes from an upper class family (Lawrence 222). Additionally, he possesses an initial sense of normalcy not seen in Conrad’s Kurtz. This is most clearly evidenced in Lawrence’s depiction of Gerald’s awareness of the world. Lawrence writes, “[Gerald’s] eye ran over the surface of the life round him and he missed nothing” (53). While Gerald is conscious of the environment outside of himself, he is no less safe from madness than Kurtz. Following a romantic relationship with Gudrun Brangwen, Gerald delves deeper into his own mental descent, which, like Kurtz, culminates in and death.

D.H. Lawrence's Women in LoveStemming from this, the question of the true reasons as to why these men go mad arises. In tracing the elements that contribute to the perception of madness within the narratives, it becomes clear that both men’s madness allows for a god-like mentality to emerge. As the men develop an extreme sense of self-importance, they ultimately become disconnected from the world. Simultaneously, their madness is furthered by lust, leading to greater alienation. While Kurtz’s lust arises out of his environment and is developed by the native woman, Gerald’s lust is established through a sexual relationship with Gudrun. As a result of their unrestrained desires, the men completely lose their sanity, ending in both their deaths.

In analyzing Kurtz’s madness, it is important to examine the aspects of his character that indicate normalcy. By looking at instances of praise for Kurtz, the extent of his madness becomes apparent. In knowing how he once was, the reader can see the extent to which his madness has developed. Because Heart of Darkness is narrated from Marlow’s point-of-view, the reader is not privy to information that Marlow has not gathered for himself. Therefore, little is known about Kurtz’s life before he journeyed into the Congo and as a result, the reader only learns of Kurtz through the comments of others who know him or know of him. Subsequently, the reader is entirely unaware of whether Kurtz was mad before entering the jungle. However, the comments of Kurtz’s colleagues give no indication of madness prior to his life in the Congo. The beginning of the narrative contains a great deal of praise from these people, the majority of which portray Kurtz as an exceedingly smart and capable individual. Kurtz is described as a “prodigy” (22) and a “genius” (24), while several people make mention of his potential for greatness within the Company. The accountant who Marlow meets before beginning his voyage states, “‘[Kurtz] will go far, very far’” (16). From these opinions, it is clear that Kurtz has made a positive, lasting impression upon the other men within the Company.

Additionally, Marlow himself comments on Kurtz’s articulacy. This aspect of Kurtz’s character confirms the positive attributes described by others, while it also highlights an element of Kurtz’s remaining lucidity. When describing Kurtz’s ability to discourse, Marlow writes, “[O]f all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words” (43). This passage is of interest, as the reader notes that Marlow is recounting it in the present. He is fully aware of Kurtz’s eventual fate and in spite of knowing this, he attests to the few faculties Kurtz possessed until the end. This suggests a level of awareness that remains within Kurtz; however, this awareness does not prevent him from developing a god-like sense of self-importance. This is evidenced within Marlow’s description of Kurtz’s claims of ownership, “You should have heard him say, ‘My ivory.’ Oh yes, I heard him. ‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my--’ everything belonged to him” (44). Here, Kurtz’s claims extend beyond objects, to include people. He believes “everything” and everyone to be under his power.

While Kurtz’s mind has given way to delusions of grandeur, he continues to be regarded as an exceptional man (51). While he possesses potential, his capacity for “greatness” is not achieved with the Company as his colleagues predicted. Rather, his distinction emerges as his madness manifests itself within the African wilderness. Stemming from this, the reader notes the general association observed between genius and madness. While it is a clichéd idea, it remains a prevalent dynamic within contemporary fiction. David Chan finds that the correlation between genius and madness in literature dates back to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” ( Act 5, Scene 1). Chan writes, “The 1600s and 1700s witnessed the dethroning of reason as the major attribute of greatness and the replacement with originality and imagination. Consequently, the modern idea of the genius was born with this change, resulting in the artist replacing the sage as the great man” (par. 4). Because Chan’s argument places imagination at the forefront of brilliance, Kurtz’s mind is seen as equally superior, in spite of madness. This is evidenced in his eloquence and skill with words. In this manner, Kurtz is the verbal “artist” for whom reason and sanity are not necessary components of greatness.

In addition to his “artistry,” Kurtz is commended for his ability to perform his job well. In attaining vast amounts of ivory, he becomes a “genius” or god-like figure in the eyes of the Company. This is evidenced in the narrative’s depiction of the importance of ivory. It is clear that ivory has become an idol-like object, worthy of worship. Marlow describes its presence while stopped at the Central Station, stating, “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it” (20). Because Kurtz is the leading purveyor of this “sacred” object, his identity becomes intertwined with it, making him an object worthy of equal adoration, in the eyes of the British.

Conversely, it is in the pursuit of ivory that Kurtz has gone mad, as he compulsively desires its acquisition (51). As a result of this madness, he becomes a god-like being to the natives. Their reverence for him becomes apparent when Marlow questions the Russian trader about Kurtz’s relationship to the natives. The Russian states, “‘They adored him … What can you expect?’ … ‘He came to them with thunder and lightning, you know--’” (51). The Russian’s depiction of their adoration shows that Kurtz has indeed been deemed a god-like figure. The description of Kurtz’s “thunder and lightening,”--his guns and ammunition--shows why he is viewed as mighty. To the natives, he appears to be a god wielding the forces of nature. As a result, he becomes a wrathful, fear-inducing creature. While the Russian tells Marlow that the natives “adore” him, it seems more feasible that they live in fear of him. This idea is confirmed by the Russian’s latter declaration that Kurtz could be “very terrible” (51). In this light, Kurtz’s brilliance, while good for the Company, is detrimental to the natives. He becomes a cruel and manipulative ruler who uses the uncivilized environment to his advantage.

While the primitive environment of Kurtz’s location enables him to exert control over the natives, it is also an influence upon him. Marlow’s description of the African jungle is important because it establishes the tie between Kurtz’s mental state and his . Because sexuality is so closely linked with primitivism and organic drives, the “uncivilized” and undeveloped jungle serves as an appropriate parallel to an uninhibited state of being. When describing the environment of the jungle, Marlow states, “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings” (30). There is a decidedly unruly element to Marlow’s description, emphasizing the wildness and freedom that the jungle represents. This freedom within the jungle also pertains to Kurtz’s inner nature. Richard Bernheimer describes mankind’s psychological state as containing a “wild man” who represents “the need to give external expression … to the impulses … which are hidden in all of us, but which are normally kept under control” (Feder 3). The impulses Bernheimer describes are most clearly those of mania. While we all possess a “wild man,” those who lack restraint are more likely to evidence or expose these obsessive impulses and drives. For Kurtz, the absence of restraint brought about within the environment of the Congo allows for his madness or mania to surface. It is fitting that Marlow has reverted to a state of madness here, in a landscape that is so closely associated with primal nature and the beginnings of time.

The environment of the Congo river furthers the images of sexuality established in the description of the jungle. The waterway on which Marlow travels is erotic in nature. Additionally, his boat takes on a decidedly phallic tone as it descends deeper into the darkness of the forest--the womb within the Congo. Marlow describes the atmosphere of the river, stating, “You lost your way on that river as you would in a desert.” While Marlow’s description is initially a reflection upon the indistinct physical makeup of the river, it also relates to the sexual nature of the environment by highlighting the confusion that plagues any man who journeys down it. The river is so consuming that man cannot keep his bearings. This sentiment parallels the state of mind before orgasm, as all control and awareness of the self, is lost. This sentiment is echoed within the French term for orgasm, la petite mort--the little death. While the loss of control associated with orgasm is only momentary, it is a state of madness that appears analogous to Kurtz’s permanent state of mind. From this, it appears that the wild and erotic nature inherent to the Congo has directly contributed to his decline.

While Kurtz’s inner impulses--his “wild man”--have emerged within the sexualized environment of the Congo, his mental state is greatly exacerbated by the native woman. It is important to note that the text never directly addresses this woman as Kurtz’s lover; however, Marlow’s depictions of her interactions with Kurtz (56, 62) single her out from all other females and in doing so, establish the intimacy that exists between the two. Additionally, it is important to note that the native woman has not physically pushed Kurtz into madness. It is her spirit, her personification of the freedom of the Congo, that allows for Kurtz’s madness to develop further.

The native woman serves as the ultimate embodiment of the wildness inherent to the Congo--both exciting and dangerous--as it is created by the uncultivated atmosphere. Marlow introduces the woman in a manner that suggests his own interest in her body: “And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman” (55). Here, Marlow is quick to address her beauty, her physicality or “wild and gorgeous” appearance echoing the description of the Congo landscape. Additionally, Marlow’s description highlights an intense and ethereal quality of her presence. While she is not directly alongside the men, her presence captivates Marlow almost immediately. The reader can imagine the woman entrancing Kurtz, years before, much like she appeals to Marlow now.

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