Type: Literary Analysis
Pages: 9 | Words: 2425
Reading Time: 11 Minutes

Restraint is one of the central themes in both J. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T. Mann’s Death in Venice. The lack of restraint and succumbing to one’s instincts and passions become the fall of the characters in both books, as abandoning their self-restraint has inevitably lead to the death of Mr. Kurtz and Gustave von Aschenbach. Conrad’s words “Restraint? What possible restraint?” may be viewed as a sort of summing up the topical idea of both books.

Depiction of Restraint in J. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad depicts restraint as an essential element of human nature, the absence or abandonment of which inevitably leads to the deterioration of human nature. Marlow tells a story about his travel to Congo while revealing the dark secrets concerning the behavior of seemingly civilized white men in the land ruled by primal instincts and passions. Mr. Kurtz is the once promising agent of the trading company with the talent of eloquence and persuasion is depicted as the man who has lost any semblance of restraint in Africa. He has fallen victim of the wild land, where all inhibitions and key concepts of the civilization may disappear under the allure of darkness and complete freedom. If a person has a weak sense of self and weak will, he/she is bound to lose all restraint under the deteriorating influence of darkness, as it has happened with Mr. Kurtz in the land where man is responsible for his actions only before himself. There is no law and no society with high moral standards to hold people accountable for their deeds. Therefore, it becomes unbelievably easy to commit atrocious from the Western perspective deeds and remain unpunished. Nonetheless, the author shows that the punishment of losing restraint and succumbing to the evil is death, which is obvious from the life outcomes of Mr. Kurtz and the helmsman. The latter dies because he leaves the steer for the sake of shooting some aboriginals. He shows no restraint concerning the satisfaction of his desire to kill without repercussions. The same applies to the pilgrims who lose any semblance of civilization in the jungle behaving as if they are the lords of everything and everyone just because they have guns. The manager displays no restraint in his greed towards ivory. His jealousy towards Mr. Kurtz’s success is the main reason why the steamboat travels into the jungle. He attempts to preserve the cool and reserved façade, yet it is obvious that it is only a play: “He was just the kind of man who would wish to preserve appearances. That was his restraint”. He makes good excuses for his actions, yet in fact, he possesses no more restraint than the rest of characters. The Russian sailor shows no restraint in terms of his admiration and devotion to Mr. Kurtz, whom he views as an immortal and infallible deity. Being a well-educated and obviously kind man, he closes his eyes on the sins committed by his hero and is ready to defend him with his own life.

However, the most vivid example of the lack of restraint is Mr. Kurtz. There is little known about his life prior to his travel to Africa; but the end of his life is the logical outcome of him falling victim to his instincts and passions. He has been unable to leave the land where he has become a deity for the local tribe. His greed knows no boundaries: “mu Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my – everything belonged to him”. Unable to walk on his own, he tries to crawl to the gathering place of his worshippers to participate in their rituals and ceremonies described as something unspeakable by Marlow. Although Marlow clearly sees the faults of others, he lacks self-restraint as well. He was enchanted by Mr. Kurtz and decided to “be loyal to the nightmare of my choice” despite the comprehension of Mr. Kurtz’s lack of “restraint in the gratification of his various lusts”. The bizarre thing is that only people who display some restraint in the story are the cannibals serving on the ship. Despite immense hunger and their ability to subdue the White representatives of the crew, they restrain from killing and eating people. They are the only ones who can resist their urges and lusts, even though they do not possess the kind of morale spread in the Western civilization.

Theme of Gradual Degradation in T. Mann’s Death in Venice

The lack of restrain becomes the reason of the death in T. Mann’s Death in Venice as well. However, the author depicts the gradual degradation of the once sophisticated and civilized individual who loses his will and his moral inhibitions under the influence of Eros. For decades, he has led a controlled and reserved life, strictly following numerous rules he has made up for himself. “Aristocratic self-command” and the ability to subdue his passions and wishes even in the early youth were once his dominant character features. Although he is a writer, he has never succumbed to chaos or impulse prior to his decision to travel.

Having met Tadzio in Venice, Aschenbach slowly, but irrevocably loses his restraint and control over his life. He turns into a stalker obsessed with the beauty of a young boy and unable to resist his desire to see his beloved at all times. At first, he is satisfied to watch the boy from afar and admire him as an artistic man with a sense of beauty, yet he gradually becomes too obsessed with his love and his behavior loses any semblance of control and logic. He half-heartedly attempts to leave Venice and the young beauty that possesses his mind and soul, but he fails. After that, it is too late for him to be saved, as he succumbs to his passion, fueled by the boy’s acceptance of the old man’s attention. “Passion is like crime: it does not thrive on the established order and the common ground, it welcomes every blow dealt the bourgeois structure, every weakening of the social fabric, because therein it feels a sure hope of its own advantage”, as well as Aschenbach now welcomes every passionate thought of the boy and enjoys his lust. He attends the barber, tries to look younger, and turns into a man he has despised so much on the boat that took him to Venice.

Aschenbach compares himself with Plato, draws parallels with myths of Ancient Greece, and makes up various excuses for his behavior like “we poets cannot walk the way of beauty without Eros as our companion and guide” and “we exult in passion, and love is still pour desire – our craving and our shame”, although he realizes that he would be condemned by the society lest his secret was revealed. Nonetheless, the social morale is soon irrelevant for him as “he no longer avoided men’s eyes nor cared whether he exposed himself to suspicion” because “in his very soul he tasted the bestial degradation of his fall”. Even the danger of cholera does not prevent him from succumbing to his obsession. He attempts to keep the coming hazard in secret from the Tadzio’s family, as he is afraid that they would leave. His irrational behavior becomes his downfall. It is ironic and symbolic that he falls ill on the same day he learns about the departure of the Polish family. He starts believing that there is no return for him from his ultimate moral degradation and his life is meaningless without the lover’s presence in it. His wish to terminate his existence if Tadzio is taken away from him is granted when he falls sick. Cholera is a logical outcome for his lack of self-restraint and may be viewed as a punishment for his dare to abandon self-control and civilized demeanor in favor of illicit lust and unreasonable passion.

Both T. Mann and J. Conrad seem to condemn the lack of restraint as they punish those characters who lose this vital feature with death. All kinds of passion and instincts are depicted as a sure way towards moral degradation, social condemnation, and death. Last words of Mr. Kurtz may be considered as gloomy foreboding for those who follow this dangerous path of self-destruction as “The horror! The horror” is what awaits them once they cross the threshold to the world of unrestrained desires and primal instincts.

The Characters’ Self-Destruction in Stories

Joseph Conrad and Thomas Mann have placed much emphasis on the setting of their stories, as the environment deepens the comprehension of depicted events and assists in understanding better the circumstances that have led to the characters’ self-destruction. Although stories take place on different continents, they are alike in terms of the huge role of the environment in losing restraint and morality of the Western breed.

Events depicted in Heart of Darkness unravel on the boat Nellie on the Thames River, as Marlow and his companions travel in England. However, the setting of Marlow’s story is partially in Brussels and mainly on the Congo River in Africa. Thus, both primary narration and the narration within the narration occur on large rivers, which enables to draw a kind of parallel between supposedly civilized Europe and dark, primitive Africa. Europe is depicted as a civilized world with high standards of morality, yet its true character is revealed when White people show their nature in Africa, where their behavior is not controlled by social rules and laws. On the contrary, dark and primitive Africans are depicted as ordinary people living in harmony with nature and being cruelly subjugated and conquered by the colonists.

The setting of Marlow’s story evokes the atmosphere for further events as it is ominous and dark: “the forest, the creek, the mud, the river – seemed to beckon with a dishonoring flourish before the sunlit face of the land, a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart”. The jungle hides the secrets of the primeval world the Europeans cannot comprehend and thus fear. The pilgrims and other White travelers are always armed as the still unconquered and resisting jungle instills terror in them. However, the same dense forest is a saving haven for the Africans who flee from the colonists and honor nature. This way, the setting reveals the characters of people depicted in the story opposing the White and the Africans.

The jungle holds the dark appeal to the secret part of human nature as it enables people get rid of their civility and succumb to their passions and instincts. It has happened to Mr. Kurtz, who became a deity for the locals and participated in all their rituals. However, what is natural for the locals is against the European nature, hence posing a serious threat to their lives. Only the Russian sailor is able to assimilate in the dark world of the Congo River, as he is a common man satisfied with little and able to make friends with the natives.

Therefore, the jungle is an ambiguous world that appeals to the inner nature of all characters bringing forth their dominant features. Conrad shows that Africa is a rather simple world, where everything is clear and where the darkness is both a lure to the moral decay and a means to salvation if one is strong enough to resist the primeval instincts. On the contrary, the European world is not so clear. It has only the semblance of civilization, while underneath the composed façade there is the darkness and the evil that have evolved into more sophisticated and revolting forms than those in the primitive Africa. The setting on the Thames is depicted as ominous and threatening: “a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness”. Thus, the setting of the story is an essential background of the depicted events that plays the integral role in understanding the heroes’ characters.

Venice is traditionally considered city of love, as well as of contrasts and of indulgent behavior. Hence, it is not surprising that the setting of the book Death in Venice is predominantly this city. Besides, the initial part of the story occurs in Munich, where Gustave von Aschenbach is still a controlled and disciplined man, holding an honorable position in the society. Having obtained an urge to travel, he first visits an island in the Adriatic, but it does not satisfy his cravings. Thus, he decides to go to Venice that is “the incomparable, the fabulous, the like-nothing-else-in-the-world” place.

The atmosphere in the town and the hero’s perception of the surroundings reflect the process of his losing restraint and succumbing to the love madness. At first, he is enchanted by the city as “to arrive by land, at the Venice railroad station, was like entering a palace through a back door, and the only proper way to approach that most improbable of cities was that by which he had now come, by ship, across the open sea”. He views Venice as a magnificent mystery, yet he never deviates from his established route until he loses all self-restraint and starts stalking Tadzio. Prior to his attempted departure, he supposes that the city is suffocating him and yields to the influence of sirocco. Afterwards, he hopes that the weather will change and that his stay in Venice will be refreshing and memorable. At the time of his infatuation with the young beautiful boy, he explores poor districts of the city and finds out that they carry ugliness veiled by the outer ensemble created for the sake of tourists. When Aschenbach seems to have lost all common sense and reason, he notices a faint smell of disinfection and medicine reigning in the city. With every passing day, this smell becomes more pronounced until it is revealed that the city suffers from cholera, which is masterfully hidden by the officials who do not want to scare away rich tourists. The story about the forbidden lust is set in the most romantic city of the world, which is quite ironic, taking into account the final outcome of Aschenbach’s life. The pure and innocent concept of love has been tainted by the illicit lust of the old man for a young boy. Moreover, the joyful and romantic image of Venice has been spoiled by the atmosphere of illness and fear. Therefore, the setting of the story seems to be appropriate and the evolving atmosphere in the city reflects the inner state of the main character.

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