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Common Themes in The Road and Heart of Darkness

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From analysing both novels it is clear to say that both show a negative correlation to the environment and the characters rapid decline in mental health. It is easy to see that in The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the deeper Marlow travels along the Congo River, deeper into the heart of Africa, the more the men display a more primative nature. Similarly in The Road, due to it being set in a post apocalyptic world, we see no society to enforce laws and authority and so we see people resort back to a very primitive nature. Overall, both show very similar connotations, however the context and reasoning behind both novels may allow us to understand why the authors portrayed certain characters and events the way they have.

The Road was released in 2006 by American writer, Cormac Mccarthy. It shows the journey of a young boy and his father travelling across America in a post-apocalyptic world, witnessing the horrifying sights that humanity has succumbed too. Members of the environmentalist movement, such as George Monbiot, have claimed The Road as a valuable tool in warning about the dangers of pollution and climate change, especially the fact that without plants and animals, humans will inevitably die off too. It can be said that there are also fragments of mystery throughout the novel such as the failure of obtaining the man and the boy's name and also the disaster leading to civilisation's collapse is never explained. McCarthy has purposefully done this as to not distract the reader from what he wants us to focus on the most, this being the overall relationship between the man and his son.

When submerged into this new environment, the man takes on a more protective role for the boy than before and tries to preserve his innocence for as long as possible, however in this world, that is very challenging in itself. To help protect the boy, the man carries a pistol with them throughout their journey, this can be seen as ironic because a gun typically represents corruption and impurity, symbolic to the new environment they have been exposed to. After discovering a cannibal trap house, the man says “If they find you you are going to have to do it.” “it” being committing suicide as the man does not want the boy to be killed in a horrific way by the others; which is ironic. It is also important to mention that the man cannot say the word suicide to his child, because obviously this is a disturbing thought for him. To clarify with his child, he repeatedly asks “Do you understand?” to which the boy eventually replies “Yes I do papa.” which the man sees is a lie and then says “No you don't”. This can be interpreted as again showcasing the boy's innocence to his current situation, which allows the reader to further develop sympathy for his character. The boy does still hold some child like qualities such as curiosity when they approach the dam. The man explains that “it will probably be there for hundreds of years. Thousands, even.” meaning that it will eventually turn into a relic of humanity. This emphasises the fact that is it a post apocalyptic environment and that eventually, all of humanity will cease to be. The boy asks if there are “fish in the lake?” which shows his naivity and childlike nature. Another place the boy shows curiosity is when they scout a supermarket. The man “withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca-Cola.” which is an iconic American image. When the boy asks “what is it, Papa?” we start to see the reality that divides them; the boy was born after the apocalypse so only knows the world in its apocalyptic state whereas the man has grown up in the time before the apocalypse and so has experienced a normal childhood unlike the boy, meaning he knows what the world was like when it was civilised. This will always be a difference between them that neither of them can change.

McCarthy's continuous lack of punctuation, such as the refusal to use speech marks, was abandoned to keep his prose remaining simple; For example, when analysing dialogue between the man and the boy. It can be argued that this was done to correspod with the environment the man and the boy are now in; with the lack of libraries and the breakdown of literature, it can be said this is why McCarthy chose to use minimal puncuation. Thus all thoughts turn to survival. Semeikis writes, ''McCarthy manages to communicate these things briefly, in an almost unspoken way… emphasising fact and action, how things are done.'' However, another interpretation of McCarthy's style can be seen from critic Michael Madsden as he defends McCarthy's style, adding that The Road ''could become a target for some of the criticism because very little happens on this journey toward an unknown future. But…the lack of action or plot movement is important to the story. The nothingness of the landscape is all-consuming.'' It can be said that because of this, McCarthy can be compared to novelists such as Steinbeck or Hemmingway.

McCathy's work can also be compared to that of Joseph Conrad's, in particular his novel The Heart of Darkness which he began working on in 1898. He later signed on to an English ship in 1878, and eight years later he became a British subject. In 1889, he began actively searching for a way to fulfil his boyhood dream of travelling to the Congo. He took command of a steamship in the Belgian Congo in 1890, and his experiences in the Congo came to provide the outline for The Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s time in Africa caused severe damage to his health, consequently, he returned to England to recover. Many of Conrad’s works, for example, Heart of Darkness in particular, show examples of Victorian ideals. Women are shown as the idealistic person for home life and for having a sense of right and wrong, yet they are almost never present in the narrative; instead, the concepts of “home” and “civilisation” exist as hypocritical ways of thinking. While the threats that Conrad’s characters face are concrete ones such as, illness, violence and conspiracy, they nevertheless obtain a philosophical character, which can be seen by Marlow who explores these ideas.

In The Road, understandably, when left with very little hope, the man turns to express his beliefs in God in hopes of receiving some guidance and answers as to what has caused the apocalypse and what they should do. With the distortion of the new environment and the breakdown of communities, the man also, at points, questions God's existence, however, he contradicts himself here as he believes his son is a miracle, saying “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” capturing just how angelic and pure his child is. It can also be argued that the boy is the only hope the man has left at restoring his faith in humanity, which is why throughout the novel, he teaches the boy important principles and how to tell right from wrong. In the book of genesis it depicts God as creating through speech, thus meaning the man’s declaration is that either his son is the word of God, or, that the universe is a godless one. When analysing The Road, the boy's holiness is apparent. When the man and boy find the bunker, the two get to experience how life was before the apocalypse occurred. The man cooks them hams, scrambled eggs, and baked beans along with coffee for breakfast. Before eating, the child wants to thank the forgotten people for preparing the bunker. “Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldn't eat it no matter how hungry we were and we're sorry that you didn't get to eat it and we hope you're safe in heaven with God”. Not only does the boy's thanks to the people sound very much like a prayer, but it was also the child's own idea to do so. The man had no influence in the boy's decision, and it has a righteous, holy quality. Furthermore, it shows the child acknowledges that there is a God somewhere. Therefore this could possibly be interpreted as the boy, who is seen as a symbol of purity, trying to restore society and order to the new environment in which ever way he can. Ely is the third character that also presents religious implications. Ely can be said to represent the prophet Elijah, a faithful Christian who foresaw the second coming of Christ. Like Elijah the prophet from the Bible, Ely tells the man '[he] knew [the apocalypse] was coming . . . [He] always believed in it'. When the man and boy first find Ely, he shirks away in fear and sits on the road. The boy approaches the stranger and '[puts] a hand on [Ely's] shoulder,' telling his father that Ely is only scared'. This resonates greatly with Revelations 1:17 in the Bible, further supporting the notion that the boy plays a critical religious role in the new world. However, Ely also deviates from the typical figure symbolising Elijah when he asserts 'There is no God . . . There is no God and we are prophets'. He admits that he lied about his name and that it is not actually Ely, for the sake of protecting his identity. Ely reveals the religious views of The Road are not specific to a specific religion. Rather, it expands to all religious forms showing that with the absence of a society, the mind is free to roam, which can be interpreted as a positive or a negative.

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In The Road we also see people revert back to a very primitive nature which involves things such as cannibalism, foraging and even slavery. Most critics see cannibalism as a symbol for something else, such as consumerism, or, like Jordon J. Dominy, present it mainly as a method of “othering”. In doing so, they forget important statements on morals and cannibalism. Most postcolonial discussion on cannibalism follows the ideas of William Arens, who suggests that Europeans created the idea of ritualistic cannibalism and imposed it on the newly discovered Americas at the time. Arens' hypothesis is that “despite claims made by western explorers and anthropologists, there is no firm substantial evidence for the socially accepted practice of cannibalism”. This concept seems inadequate to describe The Road because McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic vision differs so greatly from the historical world of the Americas.

As stated, we are also reintroduced to slavery, as the man and the boy observe a group of people pass “Two hundred feet away”, followed by “wagons drawn by slaves in harnesses and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.” This is a more organised group of “bad guys” than the party in the truck, and it shows the brutal societies being formed in this post-apocalyptic world. This is what the woman killed herself to escape – being captured by violent men and either murdered for food or used as a sex slave. We now see the true horror and violence that the man is risking by choosing to keep him and his son alive. We can compare this to Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad by noticing how the roles have reversed. In The Road, the man and the boy are prey to everyone they encounter, however, in Heart of Darkness, due to their ethnicity, Marlow and Kurtz are seen as the predators and dominators of the natives. Janet Maslin calls McCarthy's novel a parable as she writes: ''This parable is also trenchant and terrifying, written with stripped-down urgency and fuelled by the force of a universal nightmare.''

The environment is a very significant symbol in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness because it allows us to see it's effects on the mind or civilised people compared to primitive. The harshness of the environment contrasts with the simpleness of the pilgrims, and the wilderness also shows the greed and brutality that lie in man's heart.

The environment continuously watches the arrival of the colonists. The activities of them are viewed throughout the book as meaningless and pointless. The men spend their time scavenging for ivory or competing against each other for a position of power within their own community, such as becoming captain of a steam boat. Their whole society seems to have an sense of falseness about it. Marlow comments: 'The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it...I've never seen anything so unreal in my life'. In contrast to the ordered, cyclic community, the wilderness appears intimidating, immovable, and increasingly threatening. During Marlow's stay at the Central Station, he describes the surrounding wilderness as a 'rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to...sweep every little man of us out of his little existence'. It is difficult to say, however, what the intentions of the environment actually are. We see the wilderness entirely through Marlow's eyes, and it is always depicted as somewhat of an enigma.

Another interpretation of the environment is that it can be seen to reflect the true nature in the characters hearts, for example, the deeper into the jungle the white men travel, the more they abandon their restraints from society. The natives, however, seem to be immune to this. This is because they are simple, like-minded individuals who already exert a primative nature as they are from the uncivilised continent of Africa. In many places in the novel their voices can be considered to be the voices of the jungle, for example, when they are crying out in grief to the thick fog, “to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed'. The natives reflect the wilderness and this can be seen through Marlow's description of the natives in the canoes on the coast, “they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, and intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there'. The environment of the jungle forces no restraints upon an individual, unlike the European society from which Marlow has come from, thus allowing the characters to have a more wild nature. The Congo can be seen as a harsh environment that tests the white men's ability to hold onto sanity without the structure of society. As long as the men keep themselves distracted, they cannot hear the whispers of the jungle, and the darkness in their hearts remains buried. For example, the chief accountant of the government station avoided falling victim to the environment by maintaining a tidy uniform and appearance. Marlow says of him, 'in the great demoralisation of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character'. Marlow himself must also face the truth that the environment reveals to him. When he sees the wild dancing and chanting of the natives, he says at first that the idea is unimaginable to him, upon reflection he admits that he feels a slight urge to join the 'passionate uproar.' Marlow says, '[The earth] was unearthly, and the men were-No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it-this suspicion of their not being inhuman'. But, like the chief accountant's clothes, Marlow's work repairing the steamboat distracts him.

Overall, the white men are successful in fighting the influence of the environment. They are either too greedy or dull to realise that they are potential victims, for example, the pilgrims who are hunting ivory have managed to distract themselves through work, enabling them to stay sane. There is, however, one notable exception. Kurtz, the ubermensch that succumbs to the savagery of the wilderness. He sets up his own society under his own domain, and consequently, the environment brings out the darkness and brutality in his heart. All the principles of a European society are stripped from him, unleashing the greed hidden in his heart. The full effect of the environment can only be seen through Kurtz, because it is he who most succumbs to its powers. Through the influence of the environment, basic, primitive human nature is revealed in him. We can see the effect the environment has over Kurtz when Marlow says, “The wilderness...seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions...this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.” The loss of pride from Kurtz also has implications for more than just himself. It can be interpreted as a representation on all of humanity when greed takes over and there is no society to help restore you. At his death, he is able to see the true state of mankind. His gaze is 'piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness'. His final statement of 'The horror! The horror!' can be interpreted as his judgement on all of life. The environment brings Kurtz to the point where he has a full awareness of himself, and the atrocious acts white men will carry out when left with no restrictions. Thus, in the novel the environment is more than just a setting. It is a ruthless force that constantly tempts the characters to shed the restraints of civilisation and to persue the darkest desires of their hearts.

To conclude, the environment can be said to influence the characters greatly in both The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. From analysing both novels we see that the environment does not effect the protagonists in the same way it effects the supporting characters. From reading the story through the protagonists point of view, we are able to see first hand how exactly the environment effects the characters; in The Road we see civilisation deconstruct and see people resort back to a barbaric nature and in Heart of Darkness we see people lose control or their mannerisms and become the dominating figure man was once depicted to be before the introduction of civilisation. Ultimately, by taking this view into consideration, “The values we hold to be permanent are only as permanent as the society that disciplines them.” and from what we can conclude from the two novels, we can fairly say that without the permanence of society, civilisation as we know it would crumble.

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Common Themes in The Road and Heart of Darkness. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 10, 2023, from
“Common Themes in The Road and Heart of Darkness.” Edubirdie, 08 Jul. 2022,
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