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Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness delves into the nature
and question of imperialism. Though both sides have been argued vehemently, the
question of whether or not Conrad himself supports or denounces imperialism avoids
a clear answer, and moreover actually loses significance when the text itself
is examined. This is due to the fact that through close examination, Heart of Darkness provides insight into the nature of the British
Empire’s imperialistic mechanism itself, specifically the events in Africa. Through
the mouth of the character Marlow, Conrad defines the experience of being
involved in the imperialistic exploitation of Africa by “superior” Western
society. Using combinations of devices such as dialogue, imagery, and inner
revelation, Conrad allows the reader to mirror and thus comprehend Marlow’s progression
of understanding offered throughout the novel in terms of the imperialistic
effort, eventually leading to a decisive puncturing of the façade that is the
imperialistic ideal.

Heart of Darkness’s first glance at imperialism
precedes the narrative’s descent to the African interior, when the narrator
speaks of the subject in a general historic sense. He mentions the Thames as an
imperialistic conduit for great names of the past, such as Sir Francis Drake,
who he calls “the knights-errant of the sea” (Conrad 67). It is also eloquently
stated that the Thames “had born all the ships whose names are like jewels
flashing in the night of time.” Knight-errantry, a romantic term which involves
medieval knights wandering in search of adventure, is associated with deeds of
bravery and chivalry (OED). Coupled with the image of “jewels flashing in the
night of time,” this statement exudes an unavoidable aura of romanticism.
However, the words are those of a bystander and therefore offer a contrast to
what the narrator Marlow, who has experienced the effects of imperialism to a
great extent, will say. Indeed, Marlow soon offers his first commentary on the
nature of imperialism; in reference to the expansionistic Romans who likely
viewed Britain itself as a savage darkness, he says “the conquest of the earth,
which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different
complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when
you look into it too much” (Conrad 70). Though directly referring to the
ancient Romans, this comment alludes to the stereotype of dark-complexioned
Africans with flat noses and, therefore, Marlow’s journey into Africa. This
statement marks Marlow’s most clearly voiced anti-imperialist sentiment, an
issue which is later referred to much more indirectly.  Kevin Grant, in his book A Civilized
Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, supports such a reading in his remark that “Marlow’s tale
is loosely based on Conrad’s own experience during a visit to the Congo Free
State as a ship’s captain in 1890, an experience that prompted Conrad to
question the motives and morality of Europe’s civilizing mission” (Grant 11).
Placed so early on within the novel, such a line serves to set the reader
within Marlow’s frame of mind. In the next sentence, he explains that “what
redeems it imperialism is the idea only.” This shows that though he realizes
conquering a land is an ugly business, a strong belief in the cause of progress
makes it acceptable. This belief allows Marlow to embark upon the journey to
Africa, though his travels will soon reveal images that question the “idea at
the back of it” (Conrad 70).

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story reveals that ever since a child he has always delighted in losing himself
“in all the glories of exploration” (73). This echoes the narrator’s earlier thought
about knights-errant embarking on romantic expeditions to the dark corners of
the earth. However, Marlow soon begins to see that the conquest of another land
is not as ideal as once thought. When discussing how he got the assignment in
the first place, he tells how Fresleven (Marlow’s predecessor) is killed by a
native in an argument over hens. Later when Marlow arrives there, “the village
was deserted, the huts gaped black, rotting, all askew within the fallen
enclosures” (73). This is the first of a series of images that demonstrates the
effects of European imperialism on the African continent. The Danish Fresleven was
only one man, but even after his death his haunting presence causes rot, gaping
blackness, and the desertion of an entire village. This image is symbolically reminiscent
of the imbalanced effect white man had on the enormous continent of Africa, as
the empty homes serve to represent the erasing power the colonizers have upon
the people who live therein. Another similar but opposing image is witnessed by
Marlow on his sea voyage. They come upon a lone ship, which:

in the empty immensity of
earth, sky, and water, sat there, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.
Pop, would go one of the six inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a
little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble
screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of
insanity in the proceeding. (Conrad 79).

Though the village scene
shows that Europeans are able to wreak havoc upon some small part of the
continent, Marlow here presents a powerful image of the futility and insanity
inherent in a small number of Europeans trying to conquer such a vast entity by
showing an attack on the land itself. As Kevin Bell puts it, “Disappearing
into the void they are supposed to combat, the shots’ sound and image provide
the only testimony to the actual movement of imperial decision, power, and
progress” (Ashes Taken for Fire 8).  However, though the inconsequence of such a proceeding
is made clear, Marlow himself as yet only expresses the idea that Europeans
have either little or negative effects upon the land of Africa itself; he does
not yet have an issue with the effects upon the people of Africa. In fact, at
this point Marlow does not make much distinction between the land and the
people that populate it, seen above in the empty blackness into which fires the
ship’s six inch guns. Soon after, Marlow describes resting workers as “black
shapes crouched … in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair”
(Conrad 83). Then, in the next sentence, says “another mine on the cliff went
off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet.” These adjacent
sentences, describing people as “shapes” and personifying the land by saying it
“shudders,” effectively combine the suffering of Africa itself with its native
people, therefore proving that Marlow has no sympathy for the African
population. This is shown also by the controversial passage a few pages
earlier, when he describes “black fellows” as having “faces like grotesque
masks,” and being comforting because “they wanted no excuse for being there”
(79). This view of Africans as inhuman and primitive is what allows Marlow to
equate the native populace as merely a part of the land itself, and indeed is the
root of the idea that in the rape of Africa Europeans were bringing
civilization to an uncivilized and primitive land. However, Marlow will soon be
confronted with a truth that shakes the foundation of these ideals.

in camp on the continent, Marlow gives another image of the land. He says “outside
the camp, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth
struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting
patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion” (91). Besides again
evoking the image of the European invasion of Africa as “fantastic” and inconsequential
upon the vast landmass, the “truth” mentioned will soon be addressed in a
crucial passage that occurs during Marlow’s “unearthly” river journey into the
heart of the continent.  He again speaks
of the natives, saying they “howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces;
but what thrilled you was the thought of their humanity- like yours – the
thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar” (Conrad 108/9).
Embedded within the overlying degradation of the native Africans seen in this
dialogue, Marlow approaches the truth about man. He calls it an “ugly” truth,
but says “if you were man enough you would admit to yourself” that you
understood the meaning in that noise (109). Admitting an understanding of that
“noise” draws a connection between the African and the European that undercuts
everything the imperialists claim they stand for. Then, in a moment of
revelation, Marlow says “And why not admit it? The mind of man is capable of
anything- because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future” (109).
Here Marlow reveals to his companions the truth he realized, and a dreadful
prospect; the native African with all his apparent primitivism is really no
less of a human than a European. This is dreadful because it shatters all
illusions that the savage rape of Africa is justified. Marlow realizes this is that
invincible “truth – truth stripped of its cloak of time” (109). The only way
Marlow manages to avoid being pulled under by the gravity of this epiphany is
through his work, stating on the same page that “there is enough surface-truth
in these things to save a wiser man.” Otherwise, Marlowe would have been
dragged under the weight of this realization and the guilt that accompanies it.
In addition, Marlow is saved by his meeting of another man who has also come
face to face with the truth: Kurtz.

       In Heart of Darkness
Kurtz represents Europe in Africa; this is a fact proven by Marlow’s assertion
that “all Europe contributed to the making of him” (127). As a result, when Kurtz
is confronted with the same truth Marlow faces on his eerie upriver journey it
has more potent effects, for he is further along in the process. Indeed, it is
important to point out, as Patsy Daniels writes succinctly, that “Marlow
represents the Kurtz who went into the jungle, and Kurtz symbolizes what Marlow
could become” (Daniels 164).  This
comment elucidates the role that Marlow plays when it comes to representing
Europe’s imperial attitude towards Africa, and the complications involved.

Kurtz’s relationship with the continent and its people, Marlow tells how Kurtz had
written an eloquent seventeen-page report, which at one point said “we must
appear to them savages in the nature of supernatural beings” (Conrad 127). Kurtz
does in fact take advantage of this sentiment and begins to play god with the
natives. This role-playing of Kurtz’s is acknowledged when Marlow says the
report must have been written “before Kurtz’s – let us say – nerves, went
wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with
unspeakable rights” (127). What appears to have happened is that Kurtz began to
play the deity, but through too much association with the natives somehow
lapsed into a supposedly savage state of humanity. However, this does not
account for his addition “scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand,”
to “Exterminate all the brutes!” (128). If he had simply fallen into a ‘primitive’
state of mind, Kurtz would have no reason to inscribe such a vigorous invocation
against his new people. In light of this vein of thought, the more probable
occurrence of events is that Kurtz, through such close association with the
natives, came face to face with the same “truth stripped of its cloak of time” as
Marlow. The eloquently worded seventeen-page report is the façade Kurtz and the
Europeans were operating under and the unsteadily scrawled addition is the
truth that devastates them. Kurtz, the representative of Europe, is unable to
accept this truth. When he later “comes to himself” he apparently forgets
about the incident and tells Marlow to take the report back to Europe. However,
the trauma of such a realization is so great after all the atrocity Kurtz has
committed that he falls sick and eventually dies. Kurtz’s oft-cited last words,
“The horror! The horror!” (154), are thus explained; in his final moments Kurtz
is forced to directly face all the horror he and Europe committed under the
pretense that the African is a lesser form of human being. Indeed, Marlow’s
reflection upon Kurtz’s final words say that the phrase “had the appalling face
of a glimpsed truth” (155). It is important to note here that Marlow fails to
tell Kurtz’s fiancé his true last words when he arrives back in Europe, instead
telling her he said her name. As one scholar points out, this act proves that
Marlow’s “aim is not to give an ‘objective account’ of what he saw in the
Congo, but to somehow convey a knowledge about the unknown forces that,
according to his creator, ‘make our life so enigmatic, so burdensome, so
fascinating, so dangerous.'” (Paccaud-Huguet 169). Such a statement signals
correctly that there really cannot exist a truly objective account of history,
which goes hand-in-hand with the realization that an imperialistic narrative
seeks just such a concrete narrative. Marlow’s narrative, which over times
becomes enlightened by the troubling nature of the humanity (and thus a
separate narrative) of the native people of Africa, is evidence of this point.

conclusion, it seems at first that Marlow only gives the reader insight into
the surface atrocities committed upon Africa in the name of conquest and
expansion, or the elusive “greater cause.” Conrad gives images of a suffering
Africa in terms of the land but an apparent lack of regard for Africans as
equal human beings. However, and besides the troubling question of the
historically contingent definition of the term, the nature of Conrad’s
narrative, as well as the fact that it is a fictional narrator speaking, might
disprove the notion that Conrad himself was unapologetically racist, as has
been claimed by Chinua Achebe, for example (Achebe 251-61). More importantly,
through Marlow and Kurtz, Conrad reveals the stark truth about the imperialist
cause in Africa, and perhaps anywhere similar ideals were or are acted upon;
that these humans which are necessarily seen as ‘lower’ in order to engage in
conquest are in fact the same as their conquerors. With the revelation of this
truth there are devastating effects for all involved, especially Kurtz. In
conclusion, though he does not directly state his point, Conrad offers the
audience the opportunity to navigate the density of text in his narrative and,
just as Marlow eventually does through the course of his difficult travel, find
the truth within the obscure heart of darkness. 

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