Exploring Madness in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Lawrence's Women in Love
Joseph 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 violence and death.
Stemming 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” (Shakespeare 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 sexuality. 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.
As Marlow’s description continues, he addresses the fierceness and strength that is also evidenced in her appearance. This strength parallels the danger of the landscape--an element that has contributed to Kurtz‘s declining psyche. Marlow writes, “She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, [and] brass wire gauntlets to the elbow” (56). Here, Marlow’s description evokes a warrior-like image. Her hair is masculine, as it is short and helmet shaped. Additionally, she is attired in brass leggings and gauntlets that evoke a sense of armor, her body rendered a hard shell by these elements. It is clear that her appearance is now far removed from the softness and delicacy--“the gorgeous apparition”--that was initially suggested by Marlow. Ruth Robbins furthers this idea, describing the native woman’s appearance as, “radically other to what Marlow expects of femininity,” as “her adornments emphasize power” (237). The native woman is not timid in any respect; rather, she commands authority. This is evidenced by both her head being held high and the sense of brutality in her appearance. While Marlow is not outwardly critical of her in this instance, his matter-of-fact description is suggestive of morbid curiosity. Additionally, it is somewhat suggestive of his aversion, as she is no longer described in terms that indicate her physical beauty. Much like the African jungle, she is mysterious and initially alluring; however, a more careful examination reveals her to be foreign and dangerous.
The native woman’s otherness fully emerges when she is viewed in contrast to Kurtz’s Intended. After going to meet the Intended in the conclusion of the narrative, Marlow describes her home in language that indicates the cold and unwelcoming environment. This description stands in stark contrast to that of the jungle, which is described in chaotic terms (30). While in the Intended’s home Marlow writes, “The bent gild legs and backs of the furniture shone in indistinct curves. The tall marble fireplace had a cold and monumental whiteness. A grand piano stood massively in a corner; with dark gleams on the flat surfaces like a somber and polished sarcophagus” (68). Clearly, the Intended embodies the safe, modern, and “civilized” society of Europe in a manner that parallels the native woman’s embodiment of the wild, brutal, and erotic nature of the Congo. C.B. Cox parallels the two women, stating that when viewed side by side, they represent “dynamic energy [and] sterile hypocrisy, life [and] death” (29). Cox’s assessment aptly ties the women to their environments; however, her assessment of the native woman’s “energy” and “life” does not adequately take into account her symbolization of the madness inherent to the Congo. While the native woman is stimulating in a way that the Intended could never be, she remains dangerous; her wildness allowing for Kurtz’s madness--his “wild man” to flourish and take over.
The dangerous nature brought out by the native woman culminates in the presence of decapitated human heads that adorn Kurtz’s station house. These illustrate that Kurtz has fully given in to his inner “wild man.” This is evidenced in the Russian’s explanation for the heads. He tells Marlow, “I want you to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in those heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him” (53). Here, it becomes clear that Kurtz has lost all ties to civilized society, and to mankind as a whole. The presence of decapitated heads around Kurtz’s home act as an outward manifestation of his complete descent into madness. Additionally, the position of the heads indicates that they serve as trophies, rather than markers of warning. Marlow writes, “They would have been even more impressive, those heads on stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house” (52). While their inward glance may act as a penitent reminder to Kurtz--a recognizable symbol of his lost humanity--they appear to be more in line with gratifying objects. He wants to be reminded of his greatness and his ability to take life at will.
Kurtz’s madness, fully evident in the staked heads, symbolizes his complete lack of control. There is no possibility of return, therefore, it is fitting that Kurtz dies soon after Marlow finds him (64). Similar to Kurtz, D. H. Lawrence’s Gerald Crich possesses a form of madness that initially manifests in a god-like mentality. This perception is heightened by sexual lust, culminating in his death.
Gerald Crich comes from wealth (155). This contrasts Kurtz, who had originally ventured to the Congo in the hopes of attaining the wealth needed to marry his Intended (Conrad 70). While Kurtz has financially struggled, Gerald has been fortunate. He leads a life of relative leisure, the narrator referring to Gerald’s youth as one of “savage freedom” (221). This description is of interest because there is little savagery in Gerald’s life. Rather, he lives comfortably, dabbling in the various activities that strike his fancy: “He wanted to see and to know, in a curious objective fashion, as if it were an amusement to him … [H]e must try war. Then he must travel into the savage regions that had so attracted him” (222). The narrator’s description of Gerald “trying” war--a task that ordinary men deem either an honorable duty or a forced service--shows the frivolity with which he lives his life. He is depicted as being “amused” at the idea of traveling into “savage” lands, making it clear that his primary goal is to seek fun and excitement. This stands in contrast to Kurtz, who has been financially motivated, if not forced, into the same “savage” lands that Gerald wishes to visit for amusement.
While a series of events have pushed Kurtz towards madness, the narrative is devoid of the instance at which he transformed. However, for Gerald, it appears much clearer. Mark Kinkead-Weekes describes “Water-Party,” the chapter in which Gerald’s sister drowns, as “a catalyst that brings out [Gerald‘s] inner being” (xvi). It is clear that his sister’s death stands as the moment in which he begins to discernibly change, as he is unable to save Diana from drowning. The insistence with which Gerald dives into the water to try and save her is expressed through Ursula Brangwen when she states, “He’s dived again, … And I know he ought not, with his hurt hand and everything” (182). Here, there is a clear sense of desperation. In spite of having injured himself, Gerald continues trying to rescue Diana, unable to give up. Additionally, it appears that he can trust no one but himself, as he is the only one repeatedly diving in. While this is clearly a moment when most people would continue at any cost to search for a drowning person, Gerald does not call for the assistance of other men. Rather, he continues his pursuit alone. It is only after several minutes have passed that Gerald is forced to give up, as there is no chance of rescuing her.
Upon realizing that Diana is unable to be saved, Gerald is described in language that expresses both his physical and psychological defeat:
Gerald climb[ed] out of the water, but this time slowly, heavily, with the blind clambering motions of an amphibious beast, clumsy … [He] looked defeated now, his body, it clambered and fell with slow clumsiness. He was breathing hoarsely too, like an animal that is suffering. He sat slack and motionless in the boat, his head blunt and blind like a seal’s, his whole appearance inhuman, unknowing. (182)
This passage illustrates the weakness inherent to human beings. While Gerald is “weak” and “clumsy” from the physical exertion of the search, these descriptions go beyond his momentary state to encapsulate the state of being human. Man is quite delicate, and therefore subject to the basic necessities, which include resting after strenuous activities. Gerald emerges from the water exhausted, but he is now fully aware of his physical weakness. By not being able to save Diana, partly due to his human weaknesses, Gerald has lost (or perhaps given up) part of his humanity. He is now described as a “beast” and an “animal,” illustrating the transition from human to other. Additionally, it is while he is in this animalistic state that Gerald begins his own descent into madness, as he abandons his humanity for a stronger persona.
Similar to the manner in which Kurtz gathers ivory for the Company, Gerald’s job provides a means for his madness to be made apparent. Initially, Gerald views his job in the coal mines as another exciting activity: “He discovered at last a real adventure in the coal-mines” (222). However, his enjoyment emerges out of the control he exerts over people and the land, in addition to the pleasure he receives in observing the physical manifestation of his influence: “So many wagons, bearing his initials, running all over the country. He saw them as he entered London in the train, he saw them at Dover. So far his power ramified” (222). It is with this great sense of control and influence that Gerald continues to descend into darkness, as the power inherent to his position is abused.
The abuse of power that Gerald exhibits is similar to that of Kurtz. Both men assume god-like mentalities as they dominate people. For Gerald, he has become “the God of the machine” (223), as he presides over both the mines and their employees. When describing Gerald’s attitude towards the employees, the narrator states, “They were all subordinate to him. They were ugly and uncouth, but they were his instruments” (223). By referring to his employees as “instruments,” Gerald removes their humanity, turning them into one unit and making them an extension of himself. In doing so, he assumes a god-like position over the lives of the employees. Similar to the way in which Kurtz is viewed by the natives as a fear-inducing entity, so too is Gerald; his lack of care and consideration for his employees showing him to be a cruel ruler.
While Gerald presides over the mine and its people in a god-like manner, he also exerts control over his lover, Gudrun Brangwen. This is evidenced when the narrator describes Gerald holding Gudrun: “Under this bridge, the colliers pressed their lovers to their breast. And now, under the bridge, the master of them all pressed her to himself!” (330). Here, Gerald exerts physical control over Gudrun, as he passionately, though forcefully, embraces her. His actions are equated to those of the “subordinate” colliers; however, he is depicted as being decidedly more dynamic and powerful, as he is their “master.” While he is unquestionably in charge of the mine workers, the narrator’s assertion that he is has power over “all” works to move his authority to an even higher plane. Here, Gerald becomes dominant over the colliers, Gudrun, and potentially, all of humanity. Within this passage, it is clear that Gerald’s desire to control becomes manic when coupled with sexual interaction. Gerald parallels Kurtz in this manner, as Kurtz’s madness is heightened within a sexually charged atmosphere.
Both Kurtz and Gerald’s madness is intensified by the sexual elements of their lives; however, Kurtz’s sexuality is symbolic, while Gerald’s is literal. Kurtz’s mania is intensified by the Congo and by what the native woman symbolizes, whereas Gerald is depicted in concrete sexual experiences. While Gerald’s madness has been intensified by his interactions with Gudrun, the consummation of their relationship makes it impossible for him to recover his sanity. The narrator describes this final encounter, stating, “She let him hold her in his arms, claps her close against him. He found in her an infinite relief. Into her he poured all his pent-up darkness and corrosive death, and he was whole again” (344). This passage initially suggests that Gerald is healed by his sexual experience. Joyce Carol Oates confirms this idea, stating that Gerald “is profoundly revitalized by [Gudrun’s] physical love” (562). Oates’ reading is echoed within Harry Guntrip’s psychoanalytic theory of Eros. Lillian Feder summarizes the theory, stating that “Eros [as sex] is the preserver of all things, including the self” (19). From both Guntrips’s theory and Oates’ reading, it is easy to dismiss the sexual experience as being beneficial to Gerald, as he is described riding himself of the “darkness” and “death.” However, Gerald’s madness, evidenced in his delusions of godliness are heightened by his passionate encounter under the bridge. These delusions become solidified in this culminating sexual experience, rendered him so far removed from reality that he has no hope of recovery. His belief that he is made “whole again” by Gudrun, illustrates the idea that he is unaware of the difference between lucidity and madness. This is confirmed in Gerald’s violent nature when he wishes to murder Gudrun.
Gerald’s madness is made fully evident when his desire to murder Gudrun is expressed. His capacity for violence initially manifests in relation to a sexual experience: “His passion was awful to her, tense and ghastly and impersonal, like a destruction, ultimate. She felt it would kill her, she was being killed” (444). Here, Gerald’s passion becomes an overwhelming force, as it threatens to consume Gudrun. While this passage portrays Gerald as being somewhat innocent--his “passion” or emotions have taken over his body--it soon becomes apparent that his mind is wholly without reason. The conclusion of the narrative depicts Gerald in all-consuming mania, fully intent on murdering Gudrun. The narrator states, “He took the throat of Gudrun between his hands, that were hard and indomitably powerful. And her throat was beautifully, so beautifully soft. Save that, within, he could feel the slipper chords of her life. And this he crushed, this he could crush. What bliss! Oh what bliss, at last, what satisfaction, at last!” (471). Here, Gerald’s desire for power and control is again apparent. Believing himself to be god-like and “master“ of all, he desires Gudrun’s complete submission. When he is refused, his only manner of coping is violence. Gerald’s mentality in this instance, evidence of his complete descent into madness, is striking similar to Kurtz’s own madness as it manifests in the decapitated heads outside of his home.
Following his attempt to murder Gudrun, Gerald is described wandering aimlessly “in a basin of snow …till he slipped and fell down, and as he fell something broke in his soul, and immediately he went to sleep“ (474). This passage illustrates Gerald’s total psychological destruction. His madness has become so consuming that there is nothing left for him in the world. Here, the snow acts as a counter to Gerald’s dark state of mind, as it is pure and white, while equally capable of enveloping a man. The narrative’s depiction of Gerald’s soul breaking shows that any remaining awareness or lucidity has been crushed by the violent events that preceded his death. His madness has consumed all aspects of him that remotely resemble his earlier life. His attack on Gudrun shows that there is no way for him to continue living, therefore, his soul breaks and his body gives out.
Stemming from this analysis of both Heart of Darkness and Women in Love, it is clear that madness lurks somewhere within most men, regardless of background or social standing. However, it only manifests if given the appropriate opportunity and means for development. Kurtz’s madness has developed over a period of time within the wild and sexualized environment of Congo. His madness manifests in a god-like persona and leads to his inevitable death. His violent nature, evidenced in the decapitated heads, leaves no hope of recovery. Conversely, Gerald is plagued with a similar evolution of madness. For him, madness has developed following the death of his sister. It manifests within his own god-like persona, as he views himself “master” of all. His violent nature, evidenced in the desire and attempt to murder Gudrun, leaves him unable to continue living.
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