“A Sinister Back-Cloth”: The Fabrics of Heart of Darkness

“A Sinister Back-Cloth”: The Fabrics of Heart of Darkness

Harry Heuser

Raising a Tattered Curtain

Since its first publication in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s conspicuously symbolic novel Heart of Darkness appears to have been under such close scrutiny that any attempt to provide further reflections on darkness and light, penetrating ventures into fog, or excavations of hidden truths entombed in “a whited sepulchre” must seem shopworn and threadbare.  And yet, scholars laboring in the confines of such discussions have proven oblivious to a certain set of images that runs through the narrative like a red thread.  Even those who set out to look for patterns in Heart of Darkness—whether they comment on the monochromatic description of “trade goods” such as “ghastly glazed calico” and confounded cotton handkerchiefs” or point out, in their study of animal imagery, that the “ominous ladies knitting in the waiting-room have a cat” (Mandel 308, 312)—overlook the obvious that is already beginning to unfold here before our eyes.  Still others—whether discussing the “juxtaposition of civilized Europe with the wild forests of Africa [,which] suggests that barbarism lurks not so much in the African natives as in the hearts of the Europeans, who conceal a savagery of greed and violence” with “[v]eils of benevolent rhetoric” (Harrison 137), or the “African catacomb, from whose labyrinth no moral thread leads to the light” (Wilcox 11)—pick up and employ, be it consciously or otherwise, the very linguistic fibers of Heart of Darkness, without making them the focus of their analysis.

After examining Conrad’s concrete and figurative references to cloth and clothes, which go far beyond relatively commonplace expressions such as “truth stripped of its cloak of time” (51) or “as though a veil had been removed from my eyes” (60), one cannot but conclude that fabric imagery serves as a leitmotif in Heart of Darkness.  Although references to cloth and clothes are already of great importance—and indeed far more frequent—in Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly, it is in Heart of Darkness that fabrics, carefully select, become a dominant aspect of a novel’s design.  Rather than merely dressing up his novel in cotton and calico, in wool and worsted, Conrad addresses the doubts and discontents of the civilized European at the turn of the twentieth century.  The author’s application of cloth imagery—from fabric manufacture to textile trade, from a patch to apparel—reveal what is at the very core of Heart of Darkness, namely Conrad’s ambivalence toward and profound skepticism of Western civilization.

Since Conrad’s approach to the writing of fiction was to “start with definite images” (Karl and Davies, Collected Letters 2: 158), his skepticism often finds its expression in details, such as descriptions of qualities and uses of cotton and wool.  All fabrics mentioned in Heart of Darkness, from brown holland to linen, from worsted to flannel, are related to cotton and wool.  Any references to silk or satin (a silk, nylon, or rayon cloth), which appear in Conrad’s other nineteenth-century novels, are missing here.  This allows Conrad to establish a closer link between fabrics and Western rather than Eastern civilization.  Starting with definite images enables Conrad to question even the most basic assumptions about nature and civilized life, so that a mere heap of cotton-wool, generally perceived as soft and comforting, or at least innocuous, can serve as a symbol of entrapment:

Keep a look-out? Well, you may guess I watched the fog for the signs of lifting as a cat watches a mouse; but for anything else our eyes were of no more use to us than if we had been buried miles deep in a heap of cotton-wool.  It felt like it too—choking, warm, stifling.  (58)

Conrad fabricates this intricate simile—being in an all-enveloping fog feeling like being buried in a heap of cotton-wool—by choosing properties of raw cotton (choking, stifling) which are opposed to the purposes generally assigned to cotton products (to comfort, to protect).  The potentially favorable, or benign quality of cotton-wool, conveyed by the passive, static adjective “warm” (not “warming”), is literally enveloped by the active, dynamic adjectives “choking,” “stifling,” and consequently corrupted by this association.  A sudden sense of helplessness and loss of control—the cat and mouse roles are dismantled as soon as they are established—springs from the discovery that the very fibers of nature appear to defy human appropriation or ascendancy.

The abovementioned simile, as well as adjectives chosen to describe cotton goods, such as “plain” (24), “threadbare,” “sinister” (28), “rubbishy” (33), “confounded” (43), “torn” (52), “miserable” (77), or “greasy” (88), illustrate Conrad’s frequent devaluation of cotton and wool.  The adjective “pretty,” on the other hand, is used in a sarcastic remark about the value of clothes: “Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake” (51).  In comparison, adverb-verb combinations such as “lovingly stitched” (52) or “beautifully . . . done” “patching” (68), merely demonstrate the faith that homo faber—represented by the simple-minded, gullible harlequin, whose be-patched dress is a sign of his impressionable mind—has in the production and value of fabrics.  Even though the patchwork may very well “represent a task performed with care, an outward sign of the complex possibilities of the man” (Edwards 72), those “complex possibilities” of a man who lovingly preserves a book of dubious practical value are hardly realized here.  Instead, Conrad questions, often ridicules, this faith in such needle-work as a weapon of civilization in the wilderness.

While continuously pulling the wool over Marlow’s eyes, Conrad carefully draws the reader’s attention to frivolous fabrics in order to disclose their insignificance or inappropriateness, as becomes apparent in the alliteration “pilgrim in pink pyjamas” (61) or the assonance of “confounded spotted cotton” (43).  A different technique, an elaborate anticlimax, is effectively employed in the following passage:

I had taken [Kurtz] for a painter [. . .] or [. . .] journalist [. . .]—but even the cousin (who took snuff during the interview) could not tell me what he had been—exactly.  He was a universal genius—on that point I agreed with the old chap, who thereupon blew his nose noisily into a large cotton handkerchief and withdrew in senile agitation, bearing off some family letters and memoranda without importance.  (88)

Marlow’s earnest quest, his search for the roots and essence of Kurtz is silenced; what is extracted here is, as Conrad puts it ironically “not. . . exactly” truth.  The handkerchief here contains ocular proof of degeneracy (“senile agitation”), as well as decadence, since it is clearly stated that the old chap does not suffer from a cold but “took snuff during the interview.”  Therefore, even seemingly harmless object, such as one of those “confounded spotted cotton handkerchiefs,” can serve as a memento mori.[1]

Thus, the references to cotton and cloth allow Conrad to juxtapose—and simultaneously dismantle the binary oppositions of—civilization and savagery, or master and servant.  It is worth considering whether Conrad’s discussion of civilization is a comment on late-nineteenth century, timely “issues,” or whether it is intended to be more universal.

Universality and the Cloak of Time

The references to ancient history and mythology in Heart of Darkness suggest that Conrad may very well have intended to construct a frame of universality for his discussion of the limits of civilization.  These references are also closely tied to cloth and clothes imagery.  Marlow begins his tale by pointing out that London and the Thames river “also ha[ve] been one of the dark places of the earth” (19) and refers to “very old times, when the Romans first came here” (20).  He describes the hardship “a decent young citizen in a toga” had to endure in an environment alien to him, with “precious little to eat fit for a civilised man” (20).  

The universality of Conrad’s commentary on civilization becomes even more apparent in the narrative’s mythological references, such as the three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, particularly the “missing” Fate whose conspicuous absence has inspired much critical debate.  Although Watt justly remarks that it is “not that the knitter reminds us of the classical Fates which really matters, but that she is herself a fate” (192), the two knitters nonetheless add a mythical element to Heart of Darkness and raise it above the mere discussion of timely issues:

Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool.  The slim one got up and walked straight at me—still knitting with downcast eyes—and only just as I began to think of getting out of her way, as you would for a somnambulist, stood still, and looked up.  (24)

In the following passage, Conrad manages to cut the third Fate, Atropos, who snips the thread of life, by employing the simile “knitting black wool as for a warm pall” (25), by describing at once the production of a protective, warming coverlet, and by suggesting, at the same time, the product, namely a piece of fabric designed to cover a coffin or tomb.  Thus life and death are presented as intertwined:

Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes.  Ave!  Old knitter of black wool.  Morituri te salutant.  Not many of those she looked ever saw her again—not half, by a long way.  (25)

In an oft-quoted letter, written in December 1897, one year before the composition of Heart of Darkness, Conrad, using an elaborate metaphor, compares the entire universe to a giant knitting machine:

There is a—let us say—a machine.  It evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold!—it knits.  I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled.  I feel it ought to embroider—but it goes on knitting. . . .  You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine.  And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart.  It is a tragic accident—and it has happened.  You can’t interfere with it. . . .  In virtue of that truth one and immortal which lurks in the force that made it spring into existence it is what it is—and it is indestructible!  

It knits us in and it knits us out.  It has knitted time, space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions—and nothing matters.  (Karl and Davies, Collected Letters 1: 425)

Although Raval asserts that it is imperialism which operates in Heart of Darkness as a “machine conscious of its own power, since those who created it and keep it in motion have little control over it” (30)—a simile undoubtedly influenced by Conrad’s metaphor—the cosmic knitting machine and the knitting Fates suggest, instead, that Conrad’s imagery-cloaked comments on civilization are not bound up in nineteenth-century concerns, such as imperialism, but designed for a far more universal discussion.

The very symbolism of Heart of Darkness is another manifestation of this universality.  To be sure, every object in Conrad’s fiction, “an impromptu charm, made of rags” (52) or even “a bit of white thread from beyond the seas,” has symbolic potential:

He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neck—Why?  Where did he get it?  Was it a badge—an ornament—a charm—a propitiatory act?  Was there any idea at all connected with it?  It looked startling round his black neck, this bit of white thread from beyond the seas.  (32)

Conrad himself was well aware of his tendency to write—and, perhaps, overindulge in—a highly symbolic language, and realized this as a problem in his fiction.  As he humorously remarked about The Rescue in a letter to Edward Garnett from 24 January 1898:

I’ve missed fame by a hair’s breadth. . . .  [A]nd then we could have hired some chinaman of letters to explain that the whole story     is transcendental symbolico-positivist with traces of illuminism.  (Karl and Davies, Collected Letters 2: 27)

Nonetheless, Conrad never abandoned symbolism; and in Heart of Darkness, which has been called a work of “hopeless obscurantism” (Bloom 3), Conrad not only fashions new symbols, such as this “bit of white thread,” but employs—and reinterprets—some of the more conventional cloth symbols.  In addition to the handkerchief, already briefly discussed, and the curtain, which is so successfully drawn and raised in Almayer’s Folly, Conrad makes particularly good use of fabrics of concealment, namely blindfolds, veils, and collars. 

The first blindfold in Heart of Darkness appears on Kurtz’ “small sketch in oils” showing “a woman draped and blindfolded” (39).  Ironically, the blindfold is at once a symbol of unbiased judgment, as worn by Justitia, and of deception.  The woman in the painting is not only an objet d’art; Marlow also perceives her as an object “draped and blindfolded,” implying the woman’s passivity.  Thus, the blindfolded figure appears to be deceived, temporarily deprived of sense experience, particularly since she is carrying a lighted torch, making visible what she, herself, is not able to see.  She is “blindfolded,” or misled, yet herself in a position to lead, to guide others with her torch.  This contradiction of an assigned position or role and an inability to perform—to fulfill the requirements of—such a role, becomes clearer in the following sentence: “Imagine a blindfolded man set to drive a van over a bad road” (49).  Marlow, who feels like an impostor from the outset of his assignment (27), nonetheless accepts his position, perhaps blindfold, heedlessly, only gradually becoming aware of the exploitative nature of imperialism.  As Raval puts it, a

characteristic Conradian insight [. . .] is that imperialism blinds those who serve its purpose to the real implications of their actions, so that ideals, seemingly altruistic, bring into being the practical realities of colonial exploitation.  (31)

Believing themselves to be the carriers of light into the dark recesses of an uncivilized world, Marlow, Kurtz, and the members of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition become, if, perhaps, not permanently, blind to the extent of expansionism and exploitation.  The removal of the blindfold, the disillusionment, proves fatal for Kurtz and turns Marlow—the only one aboard the Nellie who “still ‘followed the sea’” (19), as if to escape the urban sepulchre— into a cynic.  Kurtz and Marlow only manage to express their awareness of this deception in artwork and storytelling, by fictionalizing their observations; yet they primarily portray and question the blindfolded performers, and not necessarily the society as the supplier of such blindfolds.  Finally able to fictionalize his own experiences in the Belgian Congo, Conrad reportedly once commended Garnett’s “attempt to grapple with the fogginess of [the novel], to explain what I myself tried to shape blindfold” (qtd. in Haugh 36), admitting, perhaps, to his inability to make sense of the atrocities he observed, while nonetheless driven to relate them.

The veil, another rather conventional symbol, is particularly prominent in Conrad’s nineteenth-century fiction, from the “half-veiled” Nina in Almayer’s Folly, whose face is only partially covered as she listens to the “unrestrained enthusiasm of a man totally untrammelled by any influence of civilized self-discipline” (55) to the “veiled opportunities” in Lord Jim (222, 228, 291, 351).  As Frederick Karl writes in his discussion of Almayer’s Folly, there is

everywhere, an attempt on Conrad’s part to work through, by means of images, his Hell-Death motif, which dominates the entire conception.  His use of a veil image, for instance, is an attempt to break away from language toward some pictorial conception of scene and event, what he would formalize. . . in his Preface to The Nigger.  Aissa veils herself against Willems like a mummy in “cheap cotton goods,” and she uses her hair as a veil-like network to hide behind or reveal herself.  Conrad describes it as a “funeral veil,” an image he would later use to good advantage in Under Western Eyes.  (362)

As a “definite image,” the veil is unique, since it not only enables the writer to represent, often figuratively, moments of revelation and concealment, but, more important, it allows these contradictory acts to be portrayed simultaneously, since the veil, unlike the curtain, reveals and conceals surfaces only partially.  Consequently, veiling means at once to obstruct the object behind the fabric and to draw attention to it, to entice the observer to look more closely at the object or person it barely covers.  The veil, always understood to be a temporary measure, implies an eventual unveiling.  Thus, the act of veiling is an act of foreshadowing, figuratively and concretely, as the following passage from An Outcast of the Islands illustrates: “This little matter of her veiling herself against his wish acted upon him like a disclosure of some great disaster” (128).  

The veil itself, whether foretelling something good or evil, is often a symbol of promise; yet in Heart of Darkness these promises remain unfulfilled.  The opening of Heart of Darkness, for example, promises mystery and adventure.  The “very mist on the Essex marshes,” Conrad writes, “was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds” (18); yet the tale which unfolds, the reader will discover, is not one of romantic adventure.  When the figurative veils of Heart of Darkness are finally “removed” to reveal “naked breasts, arms, legs” (60), or “rent” to disclose “The horror! The horror!” (85), the truth laid bare, divested of all mysterious and enticing coverings, is sobering and anticlimactic.

Thus, in Heart of Darkness, the enigma of a veiled object cannot be found behind the veil, but, instead, within its “diaphanous folds.”  Draped in this veil imagery is, perhaps, another one of Conrad’s comments on the art of fiction writing itself.  After all, in his “Preface” to The Nigger of the “Narcissus, Conrad remarks about the “aim of art” that it,

like life itself, is inspiring, difficult—obscured by mists.  It is not in the clear logic of a triumphant conclusion; it is not in the unveiling of one of those heartless secrets which are called the Laws of Nature.  It is not less great, but only more difficult.  (l-li) 

It is through the character of Marlow’s listener, introducing the storytelling mariner, that Conrad expresses his respect for the creator of fiction.  The listener removes the veil of romance and intrigue that commonly envelops the seafarer.  As he puts it rather prosaically:

One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same.  In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself. . . .  (19)

Yet, as the undisclosed listener assures the reader, Marlow “did not represent his class,” “was not typical,” since, contrary to the ordinary seaman, for whom “a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and [who] generally finds the secret not worth knowing” (19), Marlow’s veil, with which he envelopes his tales, is not one of ignorance.  This is, perhaps, Conrad’s defense of symbolism.  To Conrad, the “unveiling” of “heartless secrets,” the temptation to rend the veil of nature, the need to come to conclusions, to find answers, is a questionable accomplishment of civilization.  The purpose of art, including the art of storytelling, then, is, like the aim of life itself, to restore nature’s “gauzy and radiant fabric” so systematically removed by science.

In addition to blindfold and veil, the stiff collar, too, is effectively employed, but only seemingly as a symbol of self-restraint and control.  As Marlow relates his first encounter with the Company’s chief accountant, he admits to his listeners:

I respected the fellow.  Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair.  His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser’s dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance.  That’s backbone.  His starched collars and got-up shirt-front were achievements of character.  (32)

This description exemplifies Conradian irony.  Rather than stating that the starched collars were a sign of achievement of character, Conrad establishes the equations “the fellow is his collar” and “his collar is his achievement.”  Consequently, the removal of the starched collar would lead to a collapse of the wearer, just as the removal of the backbone collapses the bodily frame.  The further equations “keeping up appearance is backbone” (again, not merely a sign of backbone) and “his appearance is that of a hairdresser’s dummy,” completely deflate Marlow’s praise.  In this passage, Marlow’s adoration of adornments and Conrad’s contempt for such cotton-wool-worship are clearly distinguishable.

In a letter to Cunninghame Graham dated 16 February 1898, a worn-out Conrad creates quite a different connection between backbone and collar: “An extreme weariness oppresses me.  It seems as though I had seen and felt everything since the beginning of the world.  I suspect my brains to be yeast and my backbone to be cotton” (Karl and Davies, Collected Letters 2: 39).  Apparently, without a generous application of starch, which, as Berman puts it “creates a self-preservative form against the formlessness of the jungle” (60), cotton cannot provide much support.

In Heart of Darkness, the stiffly starched cotton collar, the symbol of self-restraint, is cleverly juxtaposed with the iron collar, the symbol of restraint, as Conrad describes earlier a group of shackled natives, “each . . . [with] an iron collar on his neck” (30).  The use of the word “collar” allows Conrad not only to establish a semantic connection between “natives” and civilized intruders, but also to question, once again, the accomplishments of Western civilization.  This juxtaposition becomes particularly biting considering the late nineteenth-century trend in men’s and women’s fashion.  After all, stiff neckwear found its extreme with the advent of the breath-taking “masher collar,” the “male epitome of clothing which physically restricts as it symbolically protects.  One was supported by, and subjected to one’s collar” (Kunzle 151).  However, and here Conrad’s irony becomes apparent, to achieve this stiffness, even starch was often not considered sufficient, so that “aluminum plated watchspring steel collar supports,” up to three inches in height, were offered to the trendy elite (153).  To colonials, Kunzle asserts, “the collar meant more than social status, it was a symbol of civilization itself” (153).  Yet by juxtaposing iron and cotton, Conrad manages to strip the symbol he employs of its significance, namely the import late nineteenth-century civilization attributed to the stiff collar.

Thus, despite its universality, its references to ancient history and mythology, borrowed or hand-made, as well as its use of traditional symbols which provide a timeless cloak for the discussion of civilization and its discontents, Heart of Darkness, as Conrad’s attention to the starched collar already makes apparent, is nonetheless profoundly influenced by—and respondent to—contemporary concerns, from late-Victorian costumes and customs to commerce and colonialism.

Emperor Leopold’s New Clothes and Other Issues

In a letter to William Blackwood dated 31 December 1898, Conrad asserts that the subject of Heart of Darkness “is of our time distinc[t]ly—though not topically treated” (Karl and Davies, Collected Letters 2: 140).  Of Conrad’s time distinctly—though not topically treated—are his comments on costume and social status, as becomes evident in his irreverent portrayal of the late-Victorian veneration of collar and starch.  Although the connection between dress and social status is a universal aspect of civilization, hardly restricted to any particular era, the status symbols of fashion, such as the starched collars, undergo constant changes.  Heart of Darkness includes numerous references to fashion and fads, such as “pale plumpness in a frock-coat” (24), “a starched white affair on her head” (25), or “his cravat was large and billowy” (25).

However, in contrast to Almayer’s Folly, with its descriptions of a “green turban and gold-embroidered jacket” (24) and “glittering uniforms” (32), the clothes in Heart of Darkness, either impressive or improper, are generally not beautifying.  This becomes significant in the description of the Intended, whose dress is not even mentioned.  Conrad carefully avoids the description of beauty and femininity through dress.  After all, the only reference to women’s fashion in the novel is the remark “she wore a starched white affair on her head” (25).  Instead, her “fair hair,” her “pale visage, this pure brow” (90), “her forehead, smooth and white” (91) and her “pale hands” (93) are described.  Since she is “one of those creatures that are not the playthings of Time” (90), as Marlow argues, she is not dressed by the knitting Fates.  In comparison, her drawing-room windows are likened to “luminous and bedraped columns” (90).  Just as Marlow’s lie is meant to save her innocence, the intended appears to be untouched by the corruptive fabrics of civilization.

Furthermore, Conrad’s comments on fashion are not restricted to the descriptions of the colonizing intruders; the natives proudly display objects of adornment as well.  A native woman, for example, is described walking “in measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments” (76).  Then there is a “young, broad-chested black, severely draped in dark-blue fringed cloths, with fierce nostrils and his hair all done up artfully in oily ringlets” (55).  And an “athletic black belonging to some coast tribe,” Marlow comments, “sported a pair of brass earrings, wore a blue cloth wrapper from the waist to the ankles, and thought all the world of himself” (59).  This was written by a man who, in 1888, as captain of the Otago, was himself described as a “dandy” (qtd. in Karl 256).

Yet even though it seems, at first, that Conrad focuses on the unifying, universal aspects of clothing, observable in all cultures, his timely comments on imperialism find expression in descriptions of colonial uniforms.  The uniform, while restricting, or entirely excluding, the expression of personality through clothing, nonetheless conveys certain character traits of  orderly conduct, moral rectitude, and selfless service.  As the drunken Almayer reveals the unconscious connection between uniform and assessment of character: “Two white men—men in uniform—honourable men” (Almayer’s Folly 115).  With the noticeable exception of the chief accountant, most civilians, such as the supposed clerk who was “shabby and careless, with inkstains on the sleeves of his jacket” (25), and the old doctor, an “unshaven little man in a threadbare coat like a gaberdine, with his feet in slippers” (26), appear to lack backbone and dignity.  Marlow judges the clerk to be shabby and careless, not merely to be shabbily and carelessly dressed, and sees the doctor as a “harmless fool” (26).

In Conrad’s fiction, careless attire is always a sign of decay.  In An Outcast of the Islands, for example, Old Omar, whose sloppy apparel is described—”His turban was half unrolled, and the end trailed on the ground behind him.  His jacket was open” (108)—shortly afterwards “collapsed on his carpet” (109).  In comparison, “an agent buttoned up inside an ulster” (80) is confident enough to sleep in the most adverse of situations.  Thus, if the faith in impeccable attire, such as the uniform, is strong enough to restore confidence in Western civilization, then any impurities or flaws observable on a uniform must be interpreted as particularly ominous signs of moral decay and deviance, threatening to undermine an established system of order and restraint.  In Heart of Darkness, Marlow comes across “a white man in an unbuttoned uniform” (34), who claims to be “looking after the upkeep of the road” (34).  Marlow, however, remarks cynically that neither any road nor any upkeep were noticeable.  A native is described as wearing a “uniform jacket with one button off” (30), thus defiling and infiltrating Western order.  The uniform, therefore, “won’t do” either, but is just another one of those “rags that would fly off at the first good shake” (51).

Despite the inefficiency of Western clothing, however, nakedness in Heart of Darknessis presented neither as a romantic answer to—or mode of escape from—Western civilization, nor as a reasonable alternative to its limitations.  Instead, life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short.  Even though indigenous people are at times presented in their traditional clothes, they are most often described as wearing imported rags, a noun of decidedly negative connotation which clearly indicates inadequate, insufficient, or, at least, inferior clothing.  The Russian harlequin relates to Marlow that Kurtz’ female companion, a native woman, attacked him to protect “those miserable rags” (77).  Fabrics, Conrad seems to argue, in whatever state, are valuable, and preferable to nakedness.  Insufficient attire leads to comparisons between natives and animals, as the following similes illustrate: “A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants” (29); “Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails” (30).  These descriptions, in which natives seem to represent the tail end of civilization, strongly suggest influences of Social Darwinism on Heart of Darkness.  As the descriptions of naked and scantily clad natives clarifies, Conrad, despite his juxtapositions of civilization and forest, does not suggest a return to nature.  In fact, in a letter to Cunninghame Graham dated 31 January 1898, Conrad asserts that

[w]e can’t return to nature, since we can’t change our place in it.  Our refuge is in stupidity, in drunken[n]ess of all kinds, in lies, in beliefs, in murder, thieving, reforming—in negation, in contempt—each man according to the promptings of his particular devil.  (Karl and Davies, Collected Letters 2: 30)

Thus, Conrad interprets the stupidity of fashion, the beliefs in collars and starch, imperialistic murder and thieving, as well as social reforming, as desperate attempts to grapple with this inability to return to nature.

Although it is questionable whether Conrad was at all concerned with—or even conscious of—the ecological consequences of this alienation from nature, cotton and cloth imagery is nonetheless employed to depict the conflict between human beings and nature.  Conrad reveals nineteenth century faith in industrialization, the belief that the civilized human being is in control of nature and the resources (cotton) exploited, to be fatally flawed.  The adjectives Conrad uses to describe unnatural, modified cloth, such as “spotted” handkerchiefs or “glazed” calico are paired with adjectives and adverbs such as “confounded” and “ghastly” (43), venting his contempt for such chintzy attempts at beautification.  When cotton goods are destroyed by flames as if “the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash” (38), the loss is not only infinitesimal, but nature, once more, reigns victoriously over human hubris.  As Conrad expresses it to Cunninghame Graham in January 1898:

Not that I think mankind intrinsically bad.  It is only silly and cowardly.  Now You know that in cowardice is every evil—especially that cruelty so characteristic of our civilization.  But without it mankind would vanish. . . . I belong to the wretched gang.  We all belong to it.  We are born initiated, and succeeding generations clutch the inheritance of fear and brutality without a thought, without a doubt, without compunction—in the name of God.  (Karl and Davis, Letters 2: 25)

Even though nature can, and does, intervene, the deliberate dismantling of the signs and symbols of civilization through human hands, as described in Almayer’s Folly, cannot be tolerated, particularly not by those who profit from the display of such signs.  While Mrs. Almayer was “tearing down the pretty curtains in her unreasoning hate of those signs of civilization, Almayer, cowed by these outbursts of savage nature, meditated in silence on the best way of getting rid of her” (25).

Marlow is firmly “knitted in,” as well, woven into the imposed patterns of society.  While he criticizes and ridicules the gullibility of his “excellent aunt” who “talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’” (26), he nonetheless “got embraced, told to wear flannel” (27).  And even though he feels like an impostor (27), he still agrees to replace Fresleven, and “got out and stepped into his shoes” (23).  Later on, Marlow discovers that Fresleven’s shoes are hard to fill.  Eloise Knapp Hay suggests that, as

the nightmare journey nears its climax, his very clothes (one thinks of Sartor Resartus), tokens of his European “reality,” become irritating.  After the blood of the native helmsman stains his shoes, he impulsively casts them overboard.  His impulse, with one foot as it were, is to dissociate himself from the blood-guilt; with the other, to strip away what will be of little use in facing “the wilderness.”  (140-41)

Hay’s parenthetical remark, alluding to connections between Carlyle and Conrad, invites a look at Conrad’s comments on Victorian work ethics.  The two knitting women, for example, are not intimidatingly otherworldly, but firmly enmeshed in the civilized world, since they not only “knitted black wool feverishly” (25), not only diligently produce fabrics, but wear cotton products from the “starched white affair on her head” to the “flat cloth slippers” on her feet (25).  Whether repairing books or leaky steam-pipes, whether knitting feverishly, stitching and patching, or, in the case of “the foreman—a boiler-maker by trade—a good worker,” rinsing a wrapper “in the creek with great care” (44), European (including Russian) men and women are described as constantly working.  In comparison, the African woman, trained to take care of the chief accountant’s linen, has “a distaste for the work” (32).  As Berman points out:

Insofar as work slows the introspective voyage by serving as a break against the accelerating descent into the self, it becomes nothing less than the central method of self-therapy in Conrad’s universe.  Work becomes as much a moral imperative and psychic restorative as it becomes a physical activity; even if the work accomplishes nothing materially, it remains a life-saving illusion  without which we could not exist.  (60)

While Conrad appears to be criticizing Victorian work ethics, he is nonetheless influenced by one of their most fervent representatives, namely Carlyle.  Watt suggests, for example, that this “Philosophy of Clothes” in Sartor Resartus (1834) “may have supplied Marlow’s metaphor of ‘pretty rags’” (149).  Most likely, Carlyle’s influence on Conrad goes far beyond borrowed metaphors.  In book 1, chapter 8 of Sartor Resartus, Professor Teufelsdroeckh’s “Philosophy of Clothes” is described:

Teufelsdroeckh undertakes no less than to expound the moral, political, even religious influences of Clothes; he undertakes to make manifest, in its thousandfold bearings, this grand Proposition, that Man’s earthly interests “are all hooked and buttoned together, and held up, by Clothes.”  He says in so many words, “Society is founded on Cloth;” . . . .  (41)

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad seems to do just that.  Thus, he admits to his roots, but, at the same time, tries to break away from them.  Alison Hopwood, pointing to possible connections between Heart of Darkness and Carlyle’s Past and Present, observes that Marlow read Sartor Resartus in “Youth” (1898), and asserts that, in contrast to Carlyle, “Conrad uses ‘cotton’ as the symbol of the debased form of European civilization, irrelevant to Africa, that is forced on the colonial people . . . ” (165).

The passage from “Youth” is worth quoting, since, as another example of Conrad’s delicious irony, it reveals at once the author’s awareness Carlyle’s influence, as well as his irreverence and deviance when appropriating Carlyle’s thoughts:

[Captain Beard’s wife] caught sight of me once, sewing on a button, and insisted on having my shirts to repair. . . .  When I brought her the shirts, she said: “And the socks?  They want mending, I am sure, and John’s—Captain Beard’s—things are all in order now.  I would be glad of something to do.”  Bless the old woman.  She overhauled my outfit for me, and meantime I read for the first time Sartor Resartus. . . .  (12)

Conrad shows his opposition to Carlyle’s philosophy by belittling the significance of Carlyle and his work ethic.  The paragraph concludes with Marlow’s terse remark that Carlyle, as well as Mrs Beard are dead, and that “all dies. . . No matter” (12).

Most noticeable in Heart of Darkness, of course, are Conrad comments on colonialism and imperialism.  During the process of writing Heart of Darkness, Conrad asserted, in the aforementioned letter of 31 December 1898, that the “criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing work in Africa is a justifiable idea” expressed in the novel (Collected Letters 2: 139-40).  This statement reveals that the “civilizing work” itself—the need to “civilize”—is not questioned; its methods, however, are.  The fabric imagery enters into this discussion as well, as Conrad makes numerous references to the British textile trade.  He states quite clearly that “ghastly glazed calico that made you shudder only to look at it” (43) and “rubbishy cottons” are shipped to the Congo only to secure the “precious trickle of ivory” (33).  After all, from his many seafaring years aboard British vessels (including the wool clipper Loch Etive), Conrad probably knew firsthand that the 

major area of market expansion for British wool textile manufacturers was the colonies.  The proportion of exports going to British possessions rose steadily after the early 1870s to the extent that before the First World War the level reached over 40 per cent; and the colonies took by far the major proportion of exports of some types of cloth, primarily blankets.  (Jenkins and Ponting 257)

Significantly, the blankets in Heart of Darkness never serve the natives, but are used, instead, to protect a white man, suffering from a fever (35), or, ripped to shreds, to mend leaky steam-pipes (51).  According to Jenkins and Ponting, historical documents also “show very clearly that it was cheaper cloth that was finding a market in the colonies” (258), and Conrad questions even the potential benefits of such “ghastly” and “rubbishy” fabrics, of “all that trash” (38) to the native population.

A Woolly Account of Civilization?

Commenting on the references to clothing in Heart of Darkness, Paul Edwards has observed that

Marlow’s shoes, a strip of white rag round the neck of a dying African, the elaborate get-up of the company accountant, the multi-coloured patchwork worn by the tattered Russian, the “powerless charms” bedecking an African woman, all function . . . as a cumulative image;  and may be related, indeed, to the hollow places and the hollow men, the whited sepulchre, the papier-mache Mephistopheles, the dying Kurtz emerging from his winding sheet of a body.  (67-68)

This “cumulative image,” however, is more than one of hollowness and nothingness.  Heart of Darkness amounts to more than a dress rehearsal for A Passage to India’s Marabar Caves—but rather one of Western civilization touching and transforming all aspects of human life.  After “reading cloth” and reading closely, one cannot but conclude that Conrad’s novel, instead of  portraying a civilization dismantled, presents one whose cloak has become threadbare, whose buttons are coming off, a civilization worn down in the continuous attempt to cover up the animalistic roots of human nature which threaten to emerge, at any given moment, in horrifying violence.  Surface is knitted, patched, and stitched together unceasingly to hide the “naked truth,” to cloak and conceal it, to make it presentable.  Conrad often reveals the uses of clothes and cotton goods to be inappropriate, vain attempts at clinging to a fabricated order.  Yet even though this deception is disclosed whenever the fabrics of civilization come apart at the seams, the threadbare cloak, “the narrow mantle of civilized morality” (Almayer’s Folly 37), should, Conrad seems to argue, nonetheless be mended, rather than stripped.  After all, fabric and starch appear to be the only weapons in the fight against the “flabby devil” who is running the show of expansionism and exploitation, “some sordid farce acted in front of a sinister back-cloth” (28).

Adelman points to the profound contradictions in Heart of Darkness when he argues that its “story is one in which the political theme illustrates a vision of tragic prophecy: Western Civilization is driven by an unconscious need to dominate others and to destroy itself” (6), but that, at the same time, “the frame story attaches a moral to Marlow’s narrative: that however imperfect civilization may be, the alternative to preserving its values is worse” (7).  Even though the seafaring Marlow, who has had a glimpse at the heart of darkness, only occasionally returns to the thriving center of Western civilization as skeptic and cynical commentator, he nonetheless continues to cover up, to protect this narrow mantle of civilization, to keep blindfolds, veils, and collars firmly in their place, as his lie to the Intended demonstrates.

Ultimately, Heart of Darkness addresses the manifold problems of Western civilization without offering any clearly defined position, let alone solutions.  Indeed, as Raval puts it, “the novel’s importance is in its disclosing the ideal of affirmation to be an aberrant expectation, dear to the genre of romance” (19).  The novel’s multi-layered irony already reveals Conrad’s self-consciousness when tackling the issues of late-nineteenth century civilization, such as colonialism and imperialism.  It is the complex narrative structure of Heart of Darkness, however, which seems particularly suitable to express the author’s ambivalence toward Western civilization, its accomplishments and horrors, since it enables Conrad to interweave the often contradicting views of the experiencer, observer, and commentator.  It is the character of the unknown listener who allows Conrad to comment on Marlow.  Whereas Marlow may be impressed by the chief accountant’s collars, convinced of the significance of fabrics, the unknown listener, describing Marlow’s pose as one of a “Buddah preaching in European clothes” (21)—an image with which Conrad also concludes the novel—seems to question the importance and influence of clothing.

Throughout the novel, Conrad’s fabric imagery serves as an appropriate back-cloth for this discussion of civilization and its discontents.  The imagery has been carefully chosen to address timely and universal aspects of civilization, since cloth and clothing are not only essential to human survival, the artifacts of continuously evolving civilizations, but also a sign of humanity’s gradual separation from nature, a detachment which, after all, found its extreme expression in the buttoned-up, strait-laced, and stiffly starched garments of the Victorian age.

[1]The “red cotton handkerchief” on a bald head, the “blue cotton handkerchief in a grey beard and wrinkled face, serve similar purposes in Lord Jim (90, 115).  In An Outcast of the Islands, Hudig, a fat, old pig of a banker, wipes his “purple face with a red silk handkerchief,” threatening to break every bone of the native boy—the pig, as Hudig calls him—operating the fan (19).

Works Cited

Adelman, Gary.  Heart of Darkness: Search for the Unconscious.  Twayne, 1987.

Berman, Jeffrey.  Joseph Conrad: Writing as Rescue.  Astra, 1977. 

Bloom, Harold. Introduction.  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Edited by Bloom.  Chelsea, 1987, pp. 1-7.

Carlyle, Thomas.  Sartor Resartus.  Edited by Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor.  Oxford UP, 1987.

Conrad, Joseph.  Almayer’s Folly.  1895.  Penguin, 1976.

—.  Heart of Darkness.  Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism.  Edited by Ross C. Murfin.  St. Martin’s P, 1989, pp. 17-94.

—.  Lord Jim.  Ed. Cedric Watts and Robert Hampson.  1900.  Penguin, 1989. 

—.  The Nigger of the “Narcissus.”  Penguin, 1988.

—.  An Outcast of the Islands.  Edited by J. H. Stape and Hans Van Marle.  Oxford UP, 1992.

—.  “Youth.”  “Youth” and “The End of the Tether.”  Penguin, 1975, pp. 7-39.

Edwards, Paul.  “Clothes for the Pilgrimage: A Recurrent Image in Heart of Darkness.”  Mosaic, vol. 4, no. 3, Spring 1971, pp. 67-74.

Harrison, Robert Pogue.  Forests: The Shadow of Civilization.  U of Chicago P, 1992.

Haugh, Robert, F.  Joseph Conrad: Discovery in Design.  U of Oklahoma P, 1957.

Hay, Eloise Knapp.  The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad.  U of Chicago P, 1963.

Hopwood, Alison L.  “Carlyle and Conrad: Past and Present and Heart of Darkness.”  Review of English Studies, vol. 23, no. 90, May 1972, pp. 162-72.

Jean-Aubry, G.  Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters.  Vol. 1.  Doubleday, 1927.

Jenkins, D. T., and K. G. Ponting.  The British Wool Textile Industry: 1770-1914.  Heinemann, 1982.

Karl, Frederick R.  Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives.  Farrar, 1979.

Karl, Frederick R., and Laurence Davies, editors.  The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad.  Vol. 1.  Cambridge UP, 1983.

Kunzle, David.  Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of the Corset, Tight-lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West.  Rowman, 1982.  

Mandel, Miriam B.  “Significant Patterns of Color and Animal Imagery in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Neophilologus vol. 73, no. 2, Apr. 1989, pp. 305-19.

Raval, Suresh.  The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction.  Allen, 1986.

Watt, Ian.  Conrad in the Nineteenth Century.  U of California P, 1979.

Wilcox, Steward C.  “Conrad’s ‘Complicated Presentations’ of Symbolic Imagery in Heart of Darkness.”  Philological Quarterly, vol 39, no. 1, Jan. 1960,  pp. 1-17.

%d bloggers like this: