The Darkness of Human Nature: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

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In the words of Douglas Preston “We all have a Monster within; the difference is in degree, not in kind.” Evil is often associated with humans, and can easily be found within the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. Although there are all kinds of people, those who are kind and gentle and those who are cruel and brutal, everyone carries a darkness within them, it’s simply human nature. Heart of Darkness follows the story of Marlow, an adventurous steamer captain as he traverses the beautiful yet treacherous Congo River. Marlow begins the novel by narrating his story while sitting on a boat cruising on the River Thames. He recounts his ‘past experience’ and begins telling the readers about his journey up the Congo river and his destined meeting with Kurtz, the main antagonist of this novel. Kurtz is a very successful ivory trader employed by ‘the company’ and stationed in the deepest camp in the Congo Jungle. As a result of his long-time exposure to the evils of the jungle, it’s revealed that he rules his camp with brutal insanity, obsessing over the jungle’s ivory. Readers are brought along Marlow’s journey as he experiences the dark natures of, not only the jungle but the people that reside in it. Different to Heart of Darkness, No Country For Old Men jumps between the stories of three different main characters. Llywelyn Moss is a former Viet Nam U.S army sniper who stumbles across two million dollars in a drug deal gone wrong. Anton Chigurh (the antagonist), is a mysterious, brutal, and merciless Hitman who chases Moss across the country and stops at nothing to retrieve the money for his employer. And finally, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell who attempts, but never succeeds in catching up with the two other characters of the novel. The story as Chigurh chases Moss to the ends of the Earth, brings readers along as it displays the life of a man who made a grave mistake, a hitman who holds no humanity, and a cop who struggles to find justice in a world increasing in chaos. Both novels, display the evil and darkness within humans and the ignorance of society to encourage its actions. It is through the setting and time period of the novels that help readers establish the cause of such evil and it is through the experiences of the main characters that show readers the darkness that humans hold within them.

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Imperialism is undeniably at the center of the Heart of Darkness. It is precise because imperialism was such a huge deal during the release of the novel that it ultimately became so popular during its time. Cormac was able to capture the cruelties and injustices of colonization in his writing which led to the sympathy and acknowledgment of many towards the idea. Society was convinced that places like the Congo were full of ‘savages’ and thus supported colonization so that they could ‘civilize’ these parts of the world. “Weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid way”. A quote by Marlow’s aunt which acknowledges that many people are ignorant of the darkness that imperialism gives rise to. His aunt is essentially suggesting that people need to stop imperialism as it ruins the lives of innocents when foreign nations colonize lesser powerful countries. As shown from Marlow’s journey, the natives were treated as less than human while the Europeans plundered their land and committed dark acts. Imperialism grants the ability to commit dark acts as it functions outside of civilization. As a result man’s darkness is often exposed from it. However, the darkness that is exposed is not only from imperialism, but form generations of racism. Racism during the time that the book came out, called into question the treatment of people from other countries, especially as the quest for civil rights was beginning during the time. “It 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. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity–like yours–the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”. Essentially, what Marlow is saying here is that the white men don’t want to believe the natives are human. It’s a negative thing for them to be reminded they are all, in actuality, human. To combat this, they rarely refer to the natives using humanizing terms and instead choose to treat them as primitive, less intelligent beings, often calling them ‘niggers,’ ‘savages,’ and other dehumanizing terms. The setting of the novel being the Congo further contributes to the dark tendencies that humans displayed in the novel. Congo is very different from the world of civilization like London. Heart of Darkness projects the image of Congo as a “different world” compared to refined and civilized England. “‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.’”. Marlow says this close to the beginning of the story, establishing that the novel will be taking place in a brutal, lawless, and treacherous environment. The jungle is filled with endless dangers enough for any person to lose sanity. The jungle has a way of messing with a person’s mind and this can easily be shown in Kurtz who was completely driven insane from the years that he spent there. Europeans came to civilize Congo but instead, they were the ones that were shown to be uncivilized. Although evil is within all humans, it takes specific conditions for this darkness to come to light. However, in this story, there is no shortage of the heinous deeds committed. As the imperialistic, racist, and treacherous jungle setting supplies the perfect conditions for the darkness within humans to thrive.

Darkness in No Country For Old Men shows up in a more modern setting compared to Heart of Darkness. The book was released following the events of 9/11 where terrorist attacks are high and drug-related crimes are higher. Although the novel takes place somewhere close to the border of Mexico in America, the exact location is never stated. “Last year nineteen felony charges were filed in the Terrell County Court. How many of those would you say were not drug-related? I don’t know. Two”. This quote was said by Sheriff Bell when he was talking to a reporter. The quote implies that the crime is rising, specifically drug-related crimes which mainly involve the Mexicans. Since the novel takes place close to the border where the crimes are most abundant Sheriff Bell has experienced many dark situations in his years. He has seen firsthand the lengths at which people are willing to go for their greed, towards money and drugs. Greed brings out the worst in people, it allows their dark nature to show and always ends badly. Not unlike the rise of crime, people’s fear of terror attacks has only increased their suspicion and hatred for minorities. Although racism was no longer a huge issue, there were still plenty of people who still believed in it. “However, revealing the 9/11 embodiment of the border in No Country for Old Men can invite all readers to question Bell’s narrative and reconsider this anxiety-stricken border. thus shedding light on the conflicting social realities of the nation”. Stated in Hwang’s article suggests that the novel was actually racist to some degree as almost always during that era, the Mexicans were portrayed as the bad guys and the Americans as the good guys. The novel also adhered to this standard and in a way contributed to the stereotype. According to Hwang, the book tries to establish America as being the victim of the “Mexican evil” and thus racializes Mexico. By contributing to this stereotype it contributed to racism during its time and helped bring out the worst in people during a time where minorities were looked down on. Back to the story aspect of the novel, the darkness of human nature was all to present at the border of Mexico. “I DONT KNOW THAT law enforcement benefits all that much from new technology. Tools that come into our hands come into theirs too”. Here Sheriff Bell speaks about his experience in fighting crime in his area of America. He suggests that it’s almost futile to fight back and that no matter what happens, criminals just seem to be getting harder to handle. In an environment where crime is so rampant, there’s no wonder why the darkness of human nature keeps appearing throughout the story. In a setting where the police can do so little and crime is ever-increasing, it’s the perfect condition for criminals and those involved to show their dark natures as they are consumed by their own greed and act for their own selfish reasons. Through the setting of the novel, darkness in human nature is established by the post-9/11 setting. By allowing racial tension as well as a crime to increase, the story sets up conditions for which the darkness of human nature may come to light.

The darkness of human nature is often brought out and even amplified by the conditions of their environment. Both books take place during specific events in history and therefore produce their own conditions for bringing about the darkness within humans. No Country for Old Men occurs at a time of great fear of terrorism which heightened its popularity and message when it came out. Whereas Heart of Darkness occurs during a time where many countries were colonizing different parts of the world and the ideals of imperialism were brought into question. Cormac’s novel brought about darkness through the terror of 9/11 and the rising crime rate of drug-related businesses. On a separate note, Conrad’s novel brought it about through the racist and ignorant ideas of imperialism ruining the lives of many innocent natives. Both stories are completely different, however, they both share the fact that darkness resides within humans and can be brought out with the right conditions. Having said this, in both stories, the main characters experience human darkness in different ways, this item also allows readers to experience human darkness in different ways.

Evil and darkness are very big themes in Heart of Darkness. It is through Marlow’s journey that readers get to experience the dark treatment of the Congo’s native people. As Marlow ventures further into the jungle, readers are exposed to the evil of man while they are away from civilization. It gives insight into man’s tendencies to commit the most savage acts when prompted with having no consequence in doing so. “THE journey to Kurtz is an enlightening one. In him, we see the worst that we are capable of becoming. It’s a terrifying specter, but one with which we have no choice but to become familiar, for he is of this world. He is all too common”. This is a quote by Hoffman, that essentially explains how Kurtz had become consumed in darkness ruling his station with an iron fist. Kurtz believed that he was a god to the natives, he had gone insane over his obsession with ivory and was completely consumed with his greed. Without the confines of civilization, he was no longer restricted by anything, and thereby let his dark urges control him. Much like any man, Kurtz has given into desire when prompted with having no consequences for doing otherwise. Hoffman also elaborates on how “he is all too common” shining light onto the fact that Kurts is not the only man capable of these dark deeds. Across the world, many exist that indulge without consequence. As the Europeans give into their darkness, the treatment of the natives becomes ever so cruel. The people living in the Congo are turned into slaves and are viewed as nonhumans. Racism is rampant and there is nothing stopping the white men from acting out their wills. “They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now—nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom”. This is a quote by Marlow describing the condition of the natives that he first encountered when he reached the first station in the Congo. This encounter establishes from the beginning that the colonists aren’t there to civilize the Congo but instead profit from it. Marlow’s description reveals the mistreatment of the natives by the very people that were supposed to civilize the Congo. The European imperialists preach about civilizing the Congo, but then turn around and kill, enslave and plunder the resources of the innocents of Congo. “It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice”. This quote said by Marlow simply means that he is loyal to his country and not any other. His country simply being another nightmare from the many to pick from. The quote illustrates the darkness that plagues the nations of the world. These individuals show the issues of not being able to see people for who they really are, their inability to see what’s right and wrong, and the deception that occurs daily. The Europeans who live in the Congo embody the ignorance of these issues, but instead of being unable to see the injustice, they are unable to see the right and wrong they are committing. Through Marlow’s experience, the readers are exposed to the truths about man’s darkness coming to light when there are no consequences for their actions. They are shown the cruelty and brutality of these actions, especially towards those who are different from white men. Furthermore, they are led to understand how through man’s greed and lust they are unable to distinguish what’s right and wrong.

Although the darkness within humans isn’t as easily noticed in Cormac’s novel, it is definitely there. As readers are brought along on the characters’ travels, they’re exposed to many evils along the way. Following the path of Chigurh especially, shows how far into darkness a man can be and the evil such a man can commit. “He was gurgling and bleeding from the mouth. He was strangling on his own blood. Chigurh only hauled the harder. “The nickel-plated cuffs bit to the bone. The deputy’s right carotid artery burst and a jet of blood shot across the room and hit the wall and ran down it. The deputy’s legs slowed and then stopped. He lay jerking. Then he stopped moving altogether”. This was the introductory narration for Anton Chigurh brutally killing a deputy. The quote instantly establishes the character’s nature and the reader is swiftly introduced to Chigurh’s darkness. As the story continues the readers are brought along as Chigurh kills multiple people, necessarily and unnecessarily to achieve his goal. The audience bears witness to all of Chigurh’s encounters and can see that he fears nothing. It is exactly because he thinks that there is no consequence for his actions that he succumbs to his darkness. He knows that no one can stop him and therefore acts on his impulse. Moss, unlike Chigurh, causes other people including himself to become victims of Chigurh’s nature. “There was a heavy leather document case standing upright alongside the dead man’s knee and Moss absolutely knew what was in the case and he was scared in a way that he didn’t even understand”. This is a narration of Moss finding a case full of two million dollars. The narration shows how some part of Moss knew that taking the case was going to bring danger and that idea scared him. However, he didn’t listen to himself and instead took the case and set the fate of numerous people, including himself of being faced with Chigurh’s darkness. By listening to his greed he had essentially killed himself, his wife, and many innocent civilians as they were now part of this criminal world ruled by people’s dark natures. Chigurh killed many people, including Moss on his journey to retrieve the cash, all the while putting innocents into despair. Bell, on the other hand, is another person who was essentially put into despair by countless criminals. Having witnessed many dark crimes in his age the old sheriff struggles to wonder what is right and wrong in the ‘modern society.’ “It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it”. This quote gives readers an insight into what Bell has come to the conclusion of over the years. He believes that the increase in crime is something that cannot be stopped. As he struggles to save even a single life in the story, he trails along the destruction left behind by Chigurh. He doesn’t believe that he has enough strength left within him and becomes unwilling to keep fighting the increasing ‘evil’ in the world. Bell ultimately retires by the end of the novel and, Moss has died and Chigurh disappears. In No Country For Old Men, darkness is what rules, and nothing stands in its way. Chigurh, the symbolism for darkness inflicts its evil while Moss tries to escape it and unknowingly spreads it to innocents allowing them to suffer. All the while Sheriff Bell struggles to determine what’s right and wrong, in this world increasing with darkness.

Darkness is experienced in similar ways by the characters of both novels. For instance, Kurtz and Chigurh can easily be compared together. They are the main antagonists of their story and they both symbolize darkness in their own novels. As a result of facing no consequences for their actions they freely indulge in the darkness of their nature without a care for anyone else. Another comparison could be made with the racism suffered by the natives in Conrad’s novel and the killing of innocents as a result of Moss’s greed. Both are a result of the dark nature of humans and both give examples of how far humans are willing to go into the darkness to achieve their goals. Furthermore, Imperialism in Heart of Darkness can be compared with Sheriff Bell in Cormac’s novel. In this case, it shows the struggle that Europeans had figuring out what was right from wrong in an uncivilized country and Sheriff Bell’s struggle figuring out right and wrong in a society with an ever-increasing crime.

All humans have darkness that lives within them, some darker than others, but it is still there. Conrad and McCarthy’s novels show readers the evil and darkness within man. They manage to display the ignorance of society to encourage these dark and dreadful acts and even establish an environment that amplified the dark natures of humans. Furthermore, through the experience of the characters in the novels, readers were exposed to the lengths of evil that humans can go to for their own selfish desires. Both books portrayed the darkness within humans perfectly. They were able to give the reader a sense of insight into the man and expose man’s hidden nature. Although there are all kinds of people, those who are kind and gentle and those who are cruel and brutal, everyone carries a darkness within them, it’s simply human nature. 

07 July 2022

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