“Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him-all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination-you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.” (p. 106)
In the center of the plot of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness stands the idea of two opposing cultures and the battle between developed and primitive. That conflict is portrayed through the eyes of Marlow, who is sent on a mission in Africa. Readers are able to follow the change in his opinion about whether the more dominant civilization is necessarily the better. The rise of the dilemma can be observed clearly in a passage in the book describing the African landscape and contrasting it to the lifestyle he is used to.
The first phrase that draws the reader’s attention in the passage is “the utter savagery”, since it directly describes the environment Marlow is in from his own standpoint. The word “utter”, which means “complete” or “extreme”, implies that this new world is completely different to the one Marlow is used to. The usage of the word “savagery” goes on to show Marlow’s negative feeling towards the surroundings, which is furthered by the nightmare-like image of the jungle. It has “closed around him”, surrounded him, and he has no way to escape.
The tone of the passage is starting to be turned when “that mysterious life” is brought up. While the beginning creates a feeling of a confusing nightmare, Marlow later shows curiosity and desire to know more about the jungle and the people who live in it. There is a slight change in the way he describes the environment and there certain beauty can be found behind the way he talks about the “wilderness that stirs in the forest”.
This moment definitely contrasts “the utter savagery” which opens the passage. A more positive attitude can also be found in the fact that Marlow mentions “the hearts of wild men”. While it may seem as a rather insignificant detail, it is not a frequent occurrence for a member of the more developed civilization to use this kind of phrase. The use of the word “heart” implies that the Africans are complete human beings who can feel emotion, as opposed to the then-common belief that they are mindless savages.
In addition, Marlow shows interest in the way “wild men” think and feel, which again differentiates his perception of them from the stereotype. No longer are Africans simple, but on the contrary, their culture seems so complex that Marlow is having difficulty understanding it. He says “there’s no initiation either into such mysteries”, which means that no preparation is enough for a man to begin living a normal life in the wilderness. This statement is ironic, since “wild men” simply live by the rules of nature. The fact that Marlow doesn’t feel like he can go back to that primitive lifestyle shows how much the developed civilization has distanced itself from what is natural. Marlow calls these conditions “incomprehensible, which is also detestable”, which shows the tendency of “civilized” people to hate anything that they consider confusing or different from what they consider correct.
Nevertheless, the passage again continues on a more positive note, when Marlow says “And it has a fascination, too”, which makes the transition of his mindset more evident. Starting from “the utter savagery”, he goes through the curiosity of “all that mysterious life” and ends up describing the “fascination”. Marlow is not just one of all the ignorant “civilized”, he is someone who is not completely sure which culture is better. This internal conflict can be seen when Marlow talks about “the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate”, which the fact that he cannot escape his current situation. Therefore, the only option he has left is to “surrender” to this new life and “hate” it for holding him captive, although this is really the fault of the more developed culture and that is where his anger should be directed.
In his search of finding his place in the world, Marlow is stuck between two opposing cultures. He questions what the Europeans stand for, but he cannot completely distance himself from them, since he has been part of them for quite some time. While the jungle does seem appealing, it is still an unknown place for Marlow and he does not feel he truly belongs there. At the moment, the only option he has is to stay where he is right now, between two different worlds.