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Madness And Insanity Conrads Heart Of Darkness English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1236 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Madness… A complex and very subjective mechanism that is often misconstrued as an objective entity of simplicity, a black and white line between normality and abnormality. However, is it really so? This theme is explored quite closely in the literature ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad. The aim of this paper will be to discuss the concepts of madness and insanity and how they are encountered in the above mentioned novel in an attempt to answer the above question.

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The first thing that must be understood is what insanity is actually defined as. According to Howes (2009), insanity is defined as “mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behaviour.” Madness, on the other hand, is simply defined by the Oxford dictionary (n.d) as “extremely foolish behaviour”.

In terms of the novel, the main focus on madness is how it is spread through the unknown. That is, how the foreign and wild African jungle setting ate away at ‘civilised’ European white men’s moral boundaries, made them lose themselves in their own great moral struggles and drove them to insanity. This is portrayed through various scenes in the novel wherein strange occurrences are observed with people exhibiting foolish and/or nonsensical behaviour (Shmoop, n.d).

The first indication given that the Congo is a place of madness is when Marlowe, the novel’s protagonist, expresses his surprise at the doctor he has to see never being to the Congo before. To this the doctor calmly replies “I am not such a fool as I look, quoth Plato to his disciples”. (Conrad, 2011:15). In saying this, the doctor is implying that setting out to the heart of the Congo is foolish and anyone who does so is only setting themselves up for defeat and madness. This is further re-enforced when the doctor asks to measure Marlowe’s head, as back in that day scientists believed that the shape and size of one’s skull was a factor that helped determine to see whether or not someone was mad (Conrad, 2011).

Upon arriving in the Congo, the first sign Marlowe actually sees that portrays madness quite well in terms of its nonsensical nature is a scene wherein Marlowe finds a French man-of-war firing into a shoreline that appears to be empty. He even says that “there was a touch of insanity in the proceeding” and that it was not exactly dissipated when one of the men on his boat assured him, in earnest, that there was a camp of natives, or “enemies”, hidden out of sight in that shoreline somewhere (Conrad, 2011:19). It can be argued that this is the actual beginning of insanity for Marlowe as he feels he is entering a different world wherein nothing really makes sense (Conrad, 2011).

The next event is not very significant in itself, but is of great symbolic importance. It is when Marlowe recounts that he almost falls into a random hole that somebody had dug on a slope they were travelling on, he goes on to state that he was not able to divine the purpose of this particular hole (Conrad, 2011). This is symbolic for two reasons: One, the random hole the statement that it seemingly has no purpose is a sign of the escalating incomprehensibility and absurdity of the Congo jungle. Two, the fact that Marlowe almost fell into said hole signifies that said absurdity is no longer harmless; ergo things become far less amusing (Conrad, 2011).

When Marlowe reaches the station where his steamboat is meant to be, it is sunken and as a result Marlowe must live there for quite some time to fix it. During this time, it becomes clear that the madness of the Congo is slowly starting to touch on him. He becomes obsessed with fixing the steamboat as he believes the only way he can remain sane is to work by himself (Shmoop. n.d). This is portrayed when he says that working by himself is the only way he could keep his hold on “the redeeming facts of life” (Conrad, 2011:33) and that it allowed him to find himself. He insists on working by himself as all of his fellow crew members are wandering around aimlessly, which does not sit well with him because of his keen sense of purpose.

The true madness, however, only gets revealed when Marlowe meets Kurtz in the inner station at the heart of the Congo. This is fitting to an extent as the Congo is an analogy for madness or insanity throughout the novel. When the audience is first introduced to Kurtz, a man of great repute in Europe, it immediately becomes obvious that something is terribly wrong. He is worshipped as a god of sorts amongst the people of the station and has started acting in accordance with their ‘savage’ ways, killing off the very inhabitants who worship him. This is observed much to the confusion of Marlowe, who had thought Kurtz to be an honourable and intelligent man, not the poster-boy of delirium in front of him (Conrad, 2011).

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Marlowe soon realises, however, that because of his stay in the heart of the Congo, or more aptly, the heart of madness, Kurtz has become accountable to nothing. He ingeniously describes this when he says that Kurtz had “kicked himself loose of the earth” (Conrad, 2011:98) and that “there was nothing either above or below him” (Conrad, 2011:98). To put that statement in other words, Kurtz has spent so much time in the heart of the Congo, living the way the natives do, that he has entered a dimension of existing wherein all his past knowledge and joys have effectively become useless. He no longer recognises European moral values or the concept of good or evil. It can be argued that because of this freedom, because of this floating around in the unknown for so long, Kurtz has gone mad (Shmoops, n.d).

Perhaps the ultimate tragedy in this case could be that Kurtz knew he was going mad. He knew that being in the wilderness alone like that would eventually make him go mad and he struggled with himself really hard to prevent it. However, he did not win as he was blind to his greed for the ivory that trapped him there. This is enforced when Marlowe states “I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.” (Conrad, 2011:99)

Marlowe faced the same struggle as Kurtz in the sense of his battle with madness in the Congo. He stated that Kurtz’s soul had gone mad and he had to go through the same ordeal of looking into his soul as well, just as Kurtz had (Conrad, 2011). It could be argued that Marlowe won this struggle against madness and insanity as he did not succumb to the greed for ivory that Kurtz had. This is demonstrated when he chooses to leave the ivory behind when he leaves the inner station after Kurtz’s death (Conrad, 2011).

In conclusion, the madness and insanity explored in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is profoundly intricate, showing how human beings removed from the places they are used to and put where they do not belong eventually go mad, but also how greed plays a role in making people go mad by keeping them in said places. It proves that madness is not as simple a mechanism as is popularly believed.


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