The Battle Between Light and Dark

Here it is, as promised, the essay I wrote last year about the book The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and how it compares to the television show LOST. On Saturday, I will be sharing the first part of a short children's fairy tale I wrote, and I will be posting the second part next Saturday, so after that I will do two regular posts in a row on the Saturdays, since this is a lot of my writing all at once. I'm writing this little introduction very quickly, so pardon me if it is not phrased very, um, coherently. So yeah. Here is that essay. I hope it makes you want to, if you have not already, read the book and watch the show, and I also hope that you understand my insights about corruption of power, the strength of love, and privilege of choice.

The Battle Between Light and Dark

In Joseph Conrad's novella, The Heart of Darkness, a man, Charles Marlow, embarks on a journey to a company's Inner Station in Congo. As he travels down the Congo River, he meets many of his shipmates — natives, savages, cannibals, pilgrims alike — who all admire the ambiguous Mr. Kurtz, leader of the Inner Station. Marlow's sole mission is to reach this mysterious man. All the while he must interpret rumors, avoid arrow attacks, and discover the truth of light and dark, good and evil. This story appears to have influenced the television series LOST, which follows the exploits of a group of survivors of a plane crash on a mysterious island. There, they — including a man, John Locke, who has been healed from paralysis by the island’s extraordinary powers — meet strange people who are keeping dangerous secrets, especially the truth behind the omniscient leader and protector of the island, Jacob, and the Smoke Monster, which shreds people who it deems useless in the game of fate. In LOST, Locke desires to discern the significance of fate versus free will, which is akin to good versus evil and light versus dark. The omnipresent battle between light and dark is symbolic in both LOST and The Heart of Darkness, taking precedence over the many other uncanny similarities.

Both Marlow and Locke have a different world view than their accompaniments. The pilgrims, as Marlow calls them, only have one motivation: to collect ivory for money in their own self-interest, whereas the plane crash survivors just want to live. However, Locke and Marlow are wise and understand that there is more to their situation than it seems. Since he is healed after the crash, Locke concludes that it is their fate to be stranded on the mysterious place. He is driven to understand how he was healed. When the natives of the island, which the survivors call the Others — akin to the restrained cannibals and savage natives in The Heart of Darkness — reveal that Locke is meant to be the new leader, he seeks out Jacob with the sole purpose of discovering the truth. Locke's search is quite similar to Marlow's search for the truth from Kurtz. As the pilgrims around him continue to hoard ivory, Marlow discerns that he must speak to Kurtz. When he finally reaches the man, after the boat sinks and native attack him with arrows — events which also occurred on LOST — he learns that Kurtz is dying of a terrible illness and that the natives blindly follow him. Eventually his illness, both of his disease and of his corruption, consumes him. He dies repeating the words: “The horror! The horror!” His last words signify that he realized his corruption of power as he looked into his heart of darkness. Jacob too is faced with an immense darkness. After Locke reaches his hideout, Jacob is brutally murdered by the Smoke Monster’s influence, leaving no one there to protect the light at the heart of the island from its wrath. In both of the leaders’ deaths, though caused by dark forces, a light is shed on the truth. However, the truth is only revealed to Marlow and Locke who fully understand and appreciate its importance.

Not only are Marlow and Locke similar, but many other characters from LOST resemble those from The Heart of Darkness as well. The Smoke Monster only becomes a monster once he attains power. Before he was corrupted, he was only a man, known as the Man in Black. He, both as the monster and the man, has a similar demeanor to Kurtz. They both desire the powerful light and both suffer a horrifying fate. The Man in Black is dehumanized, transforming into the Smoke Monster. Kurtz dies in vain, realizing that his efforts had destroyed the lives of dozens of people. The "advisor" Richard Alpert bears a striking resemblance to the Russian, who respects and follows Kurtz's orders. The Russian states, “I am not so young as I look,” and Richard does not age, which is a gift from the powerful Jacob. Both men, loyal to their leaders, after making certain Marlow and Locke meet them, escape the dangers of the treacherous jungle: Richard from the Man in Black and the Russian from the manager. This selfish, intimidating man, the manager of the Central Station, and the bug-eyed manipulative leader of the Others, Benjamin Linus, both have control over their subjects and resent those above them. Just as the manager plots against Kurtz, Ben, under the influence of the Man in Black, stabs and kills Jacob, unaware that he is the evil Smoke Monster. Their devilish and sly yet pitiful character, not solely their actions, defines their similarities. Yet another striking pair is the fireman and Desmond Hume. Underground, Desmond pushes a button every 108 minutes for three years because he is told and he believes that it prevents the end of the world — actually it prevents the light from being released into the world — just as the fireman is instructed to watch “should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance” (Conrad 61). These characters, in addition to Marlow and Locke, tie the television series and Conrad’s novella together all the more clearly and contribute greatly to the theme which resonates throughout both: good versus evil.

At the heart of the island, there is a bright, warm light, which Jacob explains is inside every person. He and the Man In Black have conflicting views about peoples' reaction to it, just as Marlow and Kurtz disagree about the corruption of power. Furthermore, the seventeenth century philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke argued about human nature in the same way. The LOST character's namesake, John Locke believed that people are naturally good and will fight for the good of all people, whereas his opponent Thomas Hobbes argued that that people are selfish. Joseph Conrad took this age-old argument and materialized it into Marlow's story. Kurtz attains this power, this "light," and becomes corrupt, greedily attempting to gain more control. In his death, he realizes this "horror" of how people selfishly scavenge for power, just as Hobbes asserted. However, when Marlow is enlightened, he is humbled, taking Locke's approach and protecting people from the truth. The Locke of LOST looks into "the heart of the island" and sees that "it is beautiful," believing that he and the other survivors are there for a reason: to protect this beautiful and powerful light. And he is right. Guarding it is Jacob's job. He and the Man in Black had argued for decades over whether the truth really needed protecting. Furious at the Man in Black's attempts to free this light from the island, Jacob throws him into the heart of darkness, where he suffers "a fate worse than death." This fate is the same as Kurtz's. Once he obtains this light from the heart of the island, the Man in Black becomes the Smoke Monster, destroying all those who come between him and his desire to leave the island. LOST, The Heart of Darkness, and the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are all connected by their symbolism of darkness as the desire to control one's own fate and the fate of others, and light as the truth that this obsession, which ironically makes people out of control, must be prevented. The battle between fate and free will, which is omnipresent in the television series, does not necessarily have a winner. Each person has a little bit of free will, a little bit of control inside of them, and they always want more. Jacob, Marlow, and Locke understand this, while Kurtz and the Man in Black spiral out of control once they obtain this power.

Jacob loses his battle with the Man in Black just as Kurtz loses his battle to his illness of corruption. John Locke and Charles Marlow both find the light that shines somewhere in the heart of darkness, and they try to protect it. Their companions aid them and hinder them, even those who appear for only a few pages or episodes. The coincidences are overwhelming, but one thing is for certain; the self-knowledge that Marlow and Locke receive at the end of their long journey is exactly what they need in order to fight the evil forces that appear to have overridden the good ones.