The Dark Heart of the Penal Colony [A Paper Excerpt]

Actor John Malkovitch in his portrayal of Kurtz, the villain of Heart of Darkness.
Actor John Malkovitch in his portrayal of Kurtz, the villain of Heart of Darkness.

[The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote just a day ago for a class on Modernist Literature. I argue that the modernist authors flounder between a nihilistic nominalism, on the one hand, and an optimistic nominalim on the other hand. I end the paper with a proposed resolution, viz. turning back to the Christian Metanarrative which alone can contextualize these opposed conceptions of language and their respective logical conclusions. You can read the paper in its entirety here.]

Upon reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the astute reader will notice that Conrad’s secondary narrator, a man who is criticizing the phenomenon of imperialism, bears the name of another critic of imperialism, namely Marlow(e). Between these two Marlow(e)s – that is to say, the historical Christopher Marlowe and the fictional Charlie Marlow – there exists a common desire to narratively “expose cultural stereotypes and discriminations as constructs, strategically deployed to authorize the self over and at the expense of some other.”[2] Additionally, one could argue that “Kurtz is a modern Faust, who has sold his soul for power and gratification,”[3] which would further establish a literary link between the two Marlow(e)s.

        What disrupts Marlow’s paralleling of Marlowe is his closer resemblance to the villain of Conrad’s story – Kurtz. Conrad’s unnamed narrator describes Marlow as being “no more to us than a voice,”[4] and, likewise, Marlow describes Kurtz as “very little more than a voice,”[5] indeed who “presented himself as a voice,”[6] who was “just a word.”[7] Marlow and Kurtz are narrators; and as the former has a unique “propensity to spin yarns,”[8] so the latter has an outstanding “ability to talk”[9] as “an emissary of pity and science and progress.”[10] These men are reflections of one another, although they exist in different social spheres. This suggests that whether language is used by a Marlow(e), a critic of institutional abuses of power via language (Kurtz), or by an institution which eventually reveals its depravity and savagery through the writer’s (Marlow(e)’s) examination of language and narrative, the situation is equally hopeless. Jonah Raskin is correct, therefore, in noting that “Conrad unravels and uncovers…rips aside the white winding sheet and reveals the decaying corpse…the colonial enterprise.”[11] Yet he does not go far enough when considering the manner in which “the novelist unmasks,”[12] for he fails to recognize the doubling of hollow yarn-spinners in Marlow and Kurtz.

        In a similar vein, Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony shows how institutions oppress and marginalize others by means of language. Whereas Kurtz and Marlow’s yarn-spinning represents spoken language/narrative as devoid of any ultimate significance, Kafka’s triune torture machine represents institutional tyranny by means of inscription. The inscription is neither an axiom nor a narrative but a command. According to the officer, the machine’s inscription “says ‘Be just!’”[13] And the ambiguity of the imperative – is it a call to action? is it a warning? is a rhetorical address? – serves to illustrate the distance between oppressor and oppressed, as does the condemned man’s inability to understand the officer’s detailed description of the machine, its constitution, and its purpose on the island.[14]

        Equally pessimistic as Conrad in his outlook on language, Kafka portrays the only vocal opponent of the torture machine as an “explorer,” a man whose reputation is derived from his journeys. The suggestion is that the explorer is no more sympathetic to the plight of the islanders than was the officer. The explorer is a temporary liberator who is, in the end, not concerned with removing belief in the old governor’s possible resurrection but with getting off of the island alone.[15]  For although the explorer’s claim to “give [his] views about the procedure”[16] drives the officer to free the condemned man, and even causes the officer to kill himself with the machine, the explorer does not give his views on the prophecy-stone, the source of uneasiness and superstition surrounding the machine and the problems of justice. This exertion of control by means of not responding, as well as his abandonment of the islanders to the stone and their own lostness indicate that Kafka’s explorer may be a liberator of the people, but at a very expensive cost. The explorer, like Marlow, unravels the discourse surrounding the machine, but in so doing shows himself to be a parallel figure to the officer.


[2] Bartels, Emily Carroll. Spectacles of Strangeness: Imperialism, Alienation, and Marlowe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993) 4.

[3] Watts, Cerdic. “Heart of Darkness,” in The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, ed. J.H. Stape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 47.

[4] 24.

[5] 43.

[6] ibid. (emphasis added)

[7] 24.

[8] 3.

[9] 43.

[10] 22.

[11] The Mythology of Imperialism: A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 150-151.

[12] ibid.

[13] The Metamorphosis and Other Stories (New York: Dover Publications, 1996), 70.

[14] 61.

[15] 74-75.

[16] 69.


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involve yourself

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