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Heart of Darkness and The Road: Effect of Environment on Mind

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A dramatic change in environment can have varying effects on its inhabitants, leading to a person performing actions that they normally would not. I will be investigating how the characters of the two novels ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘The Road’ behave in response to these changes, as well as how their very way of thinking is altered by their experiences.

There are three societies depicted within the two novels; the remnants of humanity within ‘The Road’ and the contrasting civilisations of the Europeans and the natives in ‘Heart of Darkness’. McCarthy writes that a year after the unknown disaster, there was ‘fires on the ridges and deranged chanting’ implying that society has regressed into a structure akin to tribal, and the way it is depicted is similar to how the natives are described in ‘Heart of Darkness’ as ‘a mass of hands clapping’ by Marlow, who adds ‘the prehistoric man was cursing us’. When applied to Nietzsche’s philosophical concept of the Dionysian and the Apollonian, both of these societies are clearly Dionysian, as in both novels their respective writers portray them as chaotic, instinctual and passionate with a certain element of ecstatic madness. Both are also described by characters of a more Apollonian nature, namely Marlow and the Man, who presumably come from similar backgrounds, at least in Marlow’s case as he describes the ‘sepulchral city’ he inhabits. This supports the idea that European society is strictly Apollonian as it celebrates values such as logic, self-control and order but the word ‘sepulchral’ also captures the cold, lack of feeling associated with these concepts.

The conflict between these opposing societies is clearly demonstrated in ‘Heart of Darkness’. Published in 1899, it was written when Britain was still expanding its sizable colonial empire, focusing on Africa in particular from 1881 to 1919 as it scrambled to acquire colonies. Many British believed this was a noble purpose as they brought British traditions and religion to the rest of the way, ending their ‘barbaric practices in order to ‘enlighten’ them. Marlow’s aunt is a clear example of this attitude as she gushes ‘it’s a glorious idea’ when he tells her of his plans to visit Africa. Exploration was greatly romanticised during this time period with the publication of adventure stories such as Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ in 1851 and the idolisation of explorers such as David Livingstone (who was seen as a national hero) it is easy to see why given this environment much of the public was blinded in the radiance of these brave and noble travellers who committed such atrocities. Nietzsche believed that a balance of Apollonian and Dionysian was necessary in order to create a well-rounded individual. The Europeans in ‘Heart of Darkness’ could be said to have an excess of Apollonian; although they use the justification of educating to who they perceived as savages, in reality they are becoming savages themselves as they kill, plunder, enslave and burn a path through a country whose people are unable to defend themselves. In summary, their reaction when faced with an environment so unlike themselves is ironically one of violence as it is not in accordance with their views.

This blindness to immorality in the pursuit of a single goal is similar to the pure survivalist instinct of the cannibals in ‘The Road’. In reaction to a world with a destroyed ecosystem, dwindling resources and little hope of recovery, these people have gone to the very limits of practicality to ensure their survival. As critic Erik Weilenberg says, they ‘only care about survival and will do anything to attain it’ and live ‘without principles at all’. Their behaviour is devoid of any ethical considerations or moral judgment, as they capture and keep other unfortunate survivors in a basement as a food supply. The most horrific detail of this is a description of a man with ‘his legs gone to the hip and stumps of them blackened and burnt’ implying that they gradually amputate limbs in order to conserve food. Their actions are reminiscent to that of a shrike; a carnivorous bird that impales its prey on thorns in order to preserve it so it can return to eat uneaten portions at a later date. The lack of regard for prolonged human suffering suggests that in such an extreme environment the need to survive is so strong that an individual is reduced to basic primal instinct, exhibiting animalistic tendencies as they struggle to not be left behind in this new ‘survival of the fittest’ world.

The character of Kurtz, however, has entirely different reasoning altogether. Like the cannibals of ‘The Road’ in accordance with Freudian theory, Kurtz has succumbed completely to the id element of Freud’s tripartite personality. He operates solely on pleasure principle, the idea that every wishful impulse should be immediately satisfied regardless of the consequences. For the cannibals, it was their hunger, but for him it is simply his desire to fulfil his sadistic tendencies. A question posed by Marlow is the cause of these tendencies; how did a talented but relatively ordinary European become the murderous and tyrannical overlord of a native community? Thomas Hobbes in his work ‘Leviathan’ argues that peace within society can occur with the presence of authority from above and that without a powerful ruler, the natural state of humanity is that of conflict and horror. This can be looked at in two ways. Firstly, it can be argued that because Kurtz has been removed from European society, and by extension its authority, this sudden freedom has led him to fall from one extreme to the other as he casts aside respectable restraint in favour of the Dionysian indulgence of his desires, free from consequences and confirming the fears of many Europeans at the time of ‘going native’. The second interpretation of this is that the state of Kurtz’s camp is because of his weakness. Like the cannibals, Kurtz is initially seen as a strong and powerful, feared because of his success, but in reality they are those of weak character in an oppressive environment. Kurtz gives the impression that he is subject to no one, but really he has been reduced to a living corpse, ‘an animated image of death’ grasping and clinging to life in a pathetic manner. He’s a ‘hollow man’ desperately trying to fill that emptiness inside with sin and indulgence whilst slowly being consumed himself. This applies in the case of the cannibals quite literally as they do anything to keep themselves alive. Both scenarios have a Faustian theme as in exchange for power or their life, they have given up what makes them truly human , their principles, beliefs, in others words their soul. The effect on the mind is personified in ‘Heart of Darkness’ as a sickness that causes the true power, the wilderness of Africa, to burst into a ‘prodigious peal of laughter’ as it mocks Kurtz and these ‘hollow men’ who believe they have achieved power when in fact they are slowly being stripped of it. Conrad portrays Africa as a temptress, ensuring the destruction of Kurtz as he is drawn in by ‘the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness’. Marlow says that Africa ‘fascinated me as a snake would a bird – a silly little bird’. This can be seen to have religious connotations as it bears similarities to the fall of Adam and Eve who were tempted by the Devil in the form of a snake, leaving paradise at the cost of knowledge. Temptation is further explored in ‘The Road’ in a similar manner. Here, death acts as the temptress, as the brutality of the environment coerces its inhabitants to believe that death will be their salvation. The Wife uses a metaphor to describe death as she takes it as her ‘new lover’ betraying her family by committing suicide. Although both Kurtz and the Wife fall prey to their respective environments; the Wife realises that it is futile to escape the coming reckoning and chooses to end her life on her terms. Kurtz on the other hand, tries to escape it and does not realise the truth until the very end as he rasps ‘the horror, the horror’. Alternatively this could be interpreted as Kurtz’s realisation that he has become the savage that he so vehemently despised. He has fallen prey to the warning within Nietzsche’s quote ‘Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you,’ becoming a monster in his fight against supposed monsters, losing himself as he falls completely into the abyss.

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The most obvious parallel between the two novels is when their respective characters encounter decapitated human heads, which truly show the reader that this is not a society they are accustomed to, transporting them to past times where this form of punishment was standard. However there is a contrast between these two scenes. While McCarthy describes the heads in vivid detail pointing out their ‘teeth in their socket like dental moulds,’ Conrad has Marlow view them from such a distance that he originally describes them as ‘round knobs’ thinking them as something else. It is possible that Conrad chose this style of writing as the narrative is aimed at a British audience (shown by his choice to write in English given his first language was Polish) and because of the delicate subject manner, he wished to maintain a neutral and unbiased viewpoint, likely a wise decision given the reception of shock he received, regardless of detail. However, a more likely explanation of this decision is that Conrad refuses to go into detail as he is suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress himself from his own similar experiences. Conrad’s three years spent with a Belgian trading company including acting as captain of a steamer on the Congo River which provided the foundation of ‘Heart of Darkness’. His journey began five years after Belgium’s King Leopold II gained the Congo as his personal estate at the Berlin Conference of 1885 and his experiences during his six month journey led Conrad to refer to it as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration”. Critic Albert Guerard believed that the journey of ‘Heart of Darkness’ was a metaphor for a psychological exploration into the heart of human nature and finding only the animal selves that lurk beneath. Thus, this could be applied to Conrad himself which would suggest that ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a story of how the environment of Africa impacted him, but a detached version as he cannot bring himself to recall it fully, and so it could be said that the character of Marlow is a shade of Conrad’s psyche.

To further expand the idea of ‘hollow men’ explored in ‘Heart of Darkness’ rather than simply just applying it to the cannibals of ‘The Road’ the Man himself could be considered hollow. In their battle with the environment, the Man and Boy are able to avoid succumbing to the animalistic tendencies of other survivors showing their true moral integrity. They are able to look in Nietzsche’s abyss and hold their ground. However, the Man’s world revolves around his son; he lives only for him. Without the Boy, it is arguable that the Man would have become just like the cannibals they fear. His insistence in ‘carrying the fire’ may be metaphorical for protecting the Boy; one of the last to have a soul and carry the spark of real, true humanity. This idea is shared by Weilenberg, who writes ‘to carry the fire is to carry the last seeds of civilisation’. The Boy is truly unique, a child of the apocalypse, born into this horrific environment and has nothing of the joys that the Man once experienced and because of this, he does not suffer in the same way as the Man. The Man is a shade of his former self; all that made up his identity has been ripped away from him and is almost stuck in state of purgatory as he struggles between the vividness of his dreams and the bleak reality. The Boy only knows one reality, and because of this he is much more grounded and the contrast in environment does not affect him. However, this doesn’t mean the past has no effect on him. When encountering the Man’s childhood home, even though the Boy has encountered numerous horrors, upon entry he says ‘I’m really scared’ and convinces the Man to leave. What is seen as source of comfort to the Man is not to him as he is accustomed to living a nomadic lifestyle and a stable home is a completely foreign concept to him. The Boy is also affected by the constant fear that surrounds him, which leads him to become depressed and yearn to join his mother, as well as wish for children his own age to play with.

However, what makes the Boy so different is that he finds purpose where the Man does not; in helping people. It is he who guides his father’s moral compass as he begs repeatedly in the case of the man struck by lightning ‘Can’t we help him, Papa?’ and sees Ely for what he is ‘He’s just scared, Papa.’ While the Man is focused on survival and believes there is little point in giving help (in his view they either don’t deserve it or die anyway) the Boy places morality over survival and insists on being the ‘good guys’. Critic Alan Noble states that ‘the boy authorises his father to live in a way that is consistent with the beliefs in God’ casting the Boy as a saintly figure as he keeps faith in a planet almost devoid of life. His optimism and hope for humanity truly casts him as what the Man believes him to be as he asks Ely ‘What if I said that he’s a god?’ Gods are made powerful by belief; and although not literal, the Boy is raised to an elevated status due to the Man’s belief in him, similarly to the native’s elevation in Kurtz. A significant contrast; a dying soulless corpse of man and a fragile boy and yet both are idolised due to belief. From this it can be inferred that when an environment becomes difficult, it is natural for others to look for a source of hope or strength, whether it be negative or positive, and this is where the battle stems from in choosing to descend into the strong but beastly ways of the cannibals and Kurtz or the more delicate but yet more powerful morals of the Boy, as they not immorality, are capable of saving humanity. This plays into Nietzsche’s philosophical concept of the ‘Übermensch’ where he believed that human evolution would someday result in an ‘over man’ capable and great enough to create new meaning in the world he inhabits. Another aspect that can be summarised about the Boy that can be applied to all of the characters is that it is not the drastic environment itself that causes unnatural behaviour (also seen by the natives) but rather the extreme change in environment which leads to rapid adaptation which varies greatly as those not used to it struggle to cope.

A final point to make regarding the affect the environment can have on the human mind is the nihilistic hopelessness that is felt by various characters. One such example is the character of Ely as the lonely environment which he inhabits has become a distorted result of an indistinguishable blending of reality and fantasy for him. His existence is now purely psychological as the physical world fades away and with that all meaning. What is perhaps most sad about the fate of Ely is that he has convinced himself that not only is humanity doomed but that ‘things will be better when everybody’s gone’ proving Nietzsche’s philosophy that the death of god (at least from his perspective) leads to the loss of any universal perspective and by extension any coherent sense of objective truth. This suggests that when you are exposed to a certain environment for so long, you not only begin to accept your circumstances but agree, and even to your perception, understand them. This is such with the character of the Russian Harlequin. He is infatuated with Kurtz, utterly devoted and accepting of his actions whatever they may be, casually noting that ‘he wanted to shoot me one day.’ The Harlequin justifies Kurtz’s actions by earnestly telling Marlow that ‘You can’t judge Kurtz as you would an ordinary man’. Like Ely, he has lost sense of the world outside of the jungle and deluded himself into viewing Kurtz as a godly, divine figure, separate from the rest of humanity, and wishes to protect and preserve this view despite whatever principles he may have had before going ‘so far that I don’t know how to get back’ in his words. Perhaps he is also a hollow man; the environment has reduced him to a shade as well, his meaning for living and soul now entirely dependent on Kurtz. However, the naivety of the Harlequin allows Kurtz to confide in him, and Marlow finds the Harlequin’s proclamation that they talked of ‘Everything! Everything!…Of love too,’ amusing. In this sense the Harlequin plays into the role of the ‘wise fool’ seen often in literary texts such as Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ in that he is privy to information and exhibit behaviours that others cannot as he is simply dismissed as a result of his supposed madness, or in this case his infatuated naivety.

To conclude, the environment affects the minds of the characters in ‘The Road’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’ in various interesting and often damning ways. Some are utterly consumed by the wilderness such as Kurtz and the Cannibals, others defy it such as Marlow and the Man, others accept it, like the Wife, Ely and the Harlequin while others, namely the Boy, have the power to define it.

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Heart of Darkness and The Road: Effect of Environment on Mind. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“Heart of Darkness and The Road: Effect of Environment on Mind.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Heart of Darkness and The Road: Effect of Environment on Mind. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Sept. 2023].
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