The Heart of Darkness and The Road both reflect the hardships and struggle of a seemingly futile journey where the outcome remains predominately elusive to those characters with a feeble but defiant hope. Therefore it can be argued that both novels represent not only a physical journey but also a metaphorical one. The journey model can be seen as ideally suited for both novels as it offers the truest test of optimism, that against the ever-immersing dark the potential for purity and goodness holds a glimpse of hope.
The contextual background surrounding the Heart of Darkness has significant influence on the notion of a physical journey, as the story itself unfolds at a specific time in history and draws from Conrad’s personal experience.
The Heart of Darkness is set during the last two decades of the 19th century when European nations competed to colonize and in turn ‘civilize’ the African continent. In the Heart of Darkness this is linked to the ‘Belgian Congo’, believed to have contained some of the most brutal treatment of the native Africans, which was in part experienced by Joseph Conrad who worked as a pilot on a Belgian steamship. In this sense the physical journey is, within a framed narrative, the first narrator telling us Marlow’s story of his journey into the Congo. The idea of a framed narrative also creates the impression of being taken deeper and deeper into the narrative by a telescoping process, which suggests a similar idea of Marlow delving further into the psychological struggle he endures. The reader is also reminded that it is retrospective and this allows Marlow to fully reflect on his journey and explore how it has affected him. This is supported by the first narrator reliving his own journey commenting at the end that the Thames leads “into the heart of an immense darkness”.
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The concept of a journey is also reflected geographically, with the Thames acting as the setting of the narration, in itself a historical trading route to the different ports of the British Empire, while Marlow uses Brussels as a starting point for his physical journey and the doctor’s warnings of the emotional and psychological effects on western colonialists to foreshadow Marlow’s journey through the Congo. However, Conrad is deliberately unspecific. Even where place names are mentioned, such as ‘Gran Bassam’ and ‘Little Popo’ they seem designed to conjure up the sense of a rather exotic façade instead of a more factual and geographical reality. This is further evident when Marlow goes to visit the Company headquarters where no mention is made of the European city he is in apart from his own description “whited sepulcher”. This suggests that Marlow’s geographical wanderings can be also read as a metaphorical journey of self-discovery.
Conrad’s use of language helps to accentuate the physical intensity of the journey. He demonstrates this through vivid and brutal personification of the landscape; it is a place where “the mist itself had screamed”, “the bush began to howl”. This physicality is also reflected in his detailed description of the natives, ” I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes- the bush was swarming with human limbs”, and his striking depiction of Kurtz, “I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm wavingâ€¦an animated image of death carved out of old ivory”.
From a contextual viewpoint, Heart of Darkness reflects a physical invasion of western colonialism.
The Road on the other hand takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting where the remaining world is left “sparse and decaying into nothingness”. The only reference to the calamity being.” A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions”.
The father and son’s physical journey is more obvious and is rooted in human survival “This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up”. The general frame of the journey in The Road is the father and son’s objective to reach the east coast of the US. On a literal level, their aim is to reach the sea, while at each stage; the journey is the struggle for survival and the father’s challenge to preserve his son’s life.
Right from the beginning, the father senses the fragility of their goal, ” He knew that he was placing hopes where he’d no reason to. He hoped it would be brighter where for all he knew the world grew darker daily.” However, fragile or not, the goal of the coast lends a structure to their wandering.
McCarthy also uses distinct detail to continually emphasise the physicality of their journey. For example the simple opening of a jar is no longer routine “he knelt and placed the first jar sideways in the space between the door and the jamb and pulled the door against it. Then he squatted in the foyer floor and hooked his foot over the outside edge of the door and pulled it against the lid and twisted the jar in his hands.”
Although the physical nature of the journeys within both novels play an important part, they are structurally used to reflect a more symbolic meaning of each novel. The idea of metaphorical journeys, helps to enhance and provide a basis for the characters’ personal progression.
This is most evident in The Road, with the father and the boy representing two different perspectives on survival. The boy suggests a more collective journey; about preserving all forms of life in the moment, which contrasts with that of the father’s individual journey, that firmly embodies the present world. The boy’s collective journey is echoed by his belief to bring people with him “if we had that little baby it could go with us”. He goes on to suggest similar sentiments to the young boy and the dog, while also trying to convince his father for Ely to go with them. His desire to include others on their journey reflects a collective approach to survival. On the other hand, the father’s mistrust of people makes their journey that of the individual, the lone man on “some last venture at the edge of the world”. This creates inevitable isolation, which, however, is essential in order to survive.
The idea of survival therefore becomes a central theme to the novel. The father insists upon it: “We’re survivors”, the wife however, has a different outlook on their predicament “We’re the walking dead in a horror film”.
The dismissal of his wife’s condemnation suggests the survival instinct within the father. However, Ely, the old man they meet on the road, puts what constitutes surviving into question.
He says, “If something had happened and we were survivors and we met on the road then we’d have something to talk about. But we’re not. So we don’t”. According to Ely, although they may still be alive, they are yet to have truly survived the disaster. Ely and the mother both suggest that just the simple idea of avoiding death is not enough. To them, mere survival by means of fleeing or travelling is futile, if there is no place of sanctuary at the end of the journey. Therefore they see the journey is not progression as advancement but rather empty movement.
The concept of time entwined with the journey adds a further layer of complexity to metaphorical aspects of The Road.
The combination of the journey model with the post-apocalyptic vision evokes a linear conception of time. This concept places past, present, and future along a path, where a sense of time passing marks any advance along the path. In The Road this is particularly evident as time passes without reference and just like most things in the novel it too has become meaningless and hollow, “The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later.” The path also allows us, from our current position, to look ahead into the future or reminisce on the past. This idea is suggested through the father’s recollections, but his memories are no more relevant to the immediate moment than dreams. Both occur in brief glimpses that momentarily pull the reader away from the cold reality of the present. The father provides a reason for mistrusting dreams: “And the dreams so rich in colour. How else would death call you? Waking in the cold dawn it all turned to ash instantly, like certain ancient frescoes entombed for centuries suddenly exposed to the day.”
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The key metaphorical reading of the Heart of Darkness is Marlow’s journey of self-discovery. Marlow’s descent into the Congo, “I was about to set off for the centre of the world”, is a clear indication of his intended exploration into the interior, ” The changes take place inside, you know”. Marlow often reiterates that he is recounting such a journey and points out he did not know himself before setting out, the Inner Station “was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience”, while also hoping that it would give him a chance to ‘find’ himself. Marlow’s journey, however, is driven out of a curiosity for the mystery surrounding Kurtz an unseen agent who had left ‘the flabby devil’ of the Central station and “equipped with moral ideas of some sort”, had not returned. This journey is also submersed in the metaphors of light and dark. Considered contextually the assumption that the colonialists are bringing the light to the darkness of Africa. However, this view is reversed by Marlow, who considers the greed and malice of the ‘interlopers’ to be at the root of ‘the darkness’, “It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares”. This is foreshadowed when Marlow describes London, the heart of the colonialist empire, to be engulfed in a “brooding gloom”.
While on the journey Conrad frequently portrays Marlow in an almost dreamlike state, as if he is delving into his own consciousness “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation”. This introspective view increases in significance the closer he gets to Kurtz, adding a layer of tension to the aura already surrounding him. Marlow’s fixation with Kurtz seems to stem from a powerful attraction to something within him, something that Kurtz embodies and dramatizes. To Marlow, Kurtz represents a hero figure, a man who let himself be engulfed by the darkness and plunge into the depths of human savagery, who had shown him the limits of the moral spirit while also dismissing the light as if to defy the very nature of human conditioning. It is this fascination that even in the darkest pit of human existence one may find a sense of purity, a “supreme moment of complete knowledge” that becomes illuminating to those that witness it, “that could not see the light of the candle, but was wide enough to penetrate all the hearts of the universe”. In essence, Kurtz defines Marlow’s journey of self-discovery. To understand this one needs to grasp what Marlow has truly discovered. Unlike Kurtz, Marlow possesses an ‘inborn strength’. He has the means, when the external restrictions of society are removed, to not step “over the edge” and resist the temptation of a decline into bestiality and primitive emotions. As for Kurtz whose soul knows “no restraint, no faith, and no fear”, he is penetrated by the wilderness “echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core”. In comparison to Kurtz, Marlow evades “the horror!” while gaining sight “of a glimpsed truth” to become a more knowing man. This change in him, this fulfilment of himself, is evident on his return to Europe, where Marlow now sees ordinary people as ” intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew”. In this sense Marlow’s metaphorical journey is complete.
The underlying theme of both physical and spiritual survival seems to be the prominent feature of the metaphorical and physical journeys endured by the main characters. The journeys themselves show that when the restraints of society are stripped away and the world is torn between moral conflict, it is those that possess the ability to keep hold of their humanity that are ultimately the true survivors who reach the journey’s end.
“It was a moment of triumph for the wilderness, an invading and vengeful rush which, it seemed to me, I would have to keep back alone for the salvation of another soul.”
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