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Joseph Conrad’s novels, which take advantage of his sea-knowledge as well as his understanding of the colonial impulse of 19th century Europe, have as their major structural element the contrasting cultures of civilization and primitive words, and Heart of Darkness is arguably his most successful fictionalization of this contrast. A sailing ship is a highly structured, semi-isolated society all by itself, with its own chain of command, rituals, and end-goals; Marlow bridges the gap between European colonialism and ship-culture. The same is true of European colonialism, until confronted with the rules and standards of a so-called primitive society. What Kurtz discovers and what is meant by “The horror! The horror!” is that, despite the seemingly grotesque practices of the natives of the jungle (deliberately vague and mysterious to the reader), European colonialism is equally grotesque to other societies. The three societies here (ship, Europe, and native) are presented to us in a vital structural order, with the final scene in which the fiancée is told of Kurtz’ fate, tying the three cultures together in a very effective way. Conrad’s other fiction continues to explore this major theme—all cultures are grotesque to other cultures.
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