Essays and Criticism
Colonial Exploitation and Human Nature
Conrad's Heart of Darkness is both a dramatic tale of an arduous trek into the Belgian Congo (the heart of darkest Africa) at the turn of the twentieth century and a symbolic journey into the deepest recesses of human nature. On a literal level, through Marlow's narration, Conrad provides a searing indictment of European colonial exploitation inflicted upon African natives. Before he turns to an account of his experience in Africa, Marlow provides his companions aboard the Nellie a brief history lesson about the ancient Roman invasion and occupation of Britain. He claims that the Romans were ‘‘no colonists’’ for ‘‘they grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was for robbery and violence, aggravated murder on a great scale.’’ The reader is initially encouraged to consider that enlightened European colonists of Marlow's day were motivated by objectives far loftier than those of the Romans. Thus, Marlow's aunt who arranged his commission with the Company proclaims that the white man's purpose in Africa is to wean the continent's ignorant savages from their ‘‘horrid ways.’’ Marlow himself says that modern efficiency and the ‘‘unselfish idea’’ of conquering the earth, rather than some ‘‘sentimental pretense,’’ is what "redeems’’ the colonial enterprise in which he has been enlisted.
But when Marlow arrives at the mouth of the Congo River, it becomes immediately apparent that uplifting the natives from their savagery is not the driving force behind the European mission. At the Company's Outer Station, Marlow sees six black men yoked together and realizes that these pathetic figures ‘‘could not be called enemies, nor were they criminals.’’ They are, in fact, brutalized victims ‘‘brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient and were them allowed to crawl away and rest.’’ In its actual practice, the controlling value of efficient colonial administration consists primarily of working the natives until they die and then replacing them with still more victims. The European pilgrims that Marlow encounters are equipped with modern weaponry for the ostensible purpose of defending themselves against feral savages. In fact, the natives pose very little threat to the white conquerors. As Marlow's craft steams up the Congo...
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The Intertwining of Philosophical and Colonial Themes
The original publication of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was a three-part serialization in London's Blackwood's Magazine in 1899. It was subsequently published in a collection of three stories by Conrad in 1902. The date of Heart of Darkness should be noted, for it provides a historical context which illuminates the story's relation to both the contemporary turn-of-the-century world to which Conrad responds in the tale, and also the influential role Conrad plays in the subsequent progress of twentieth-century literary history.
Traditionally there have been two main ways of approaching the interpretation of Heart of Darkness. Critics and readers have tended to focus on either the implications of Conrad's intense fascination with European colonialism in Africa and around the world, or they have centered on his exploration of seemingly more abstract philosophical issues regarding, among other things, the human condition, the nature of Good and Evil, and the power of language. The former interpretive choice would concentrate on the ways Conrad presents European colonialism (of which he had much firsthand experience, being a sailor himself), while the latter would primarily investigate Conrad's exposition of philosophical questions. Even a cursory reading of the tale makes it clear that there is ample evidence for both of these interpretive concerns. What is perhaps less obvious, but equally important, is the way the...
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An Image of Africa
Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘‘the other world,’’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where a man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting peacefully ‘‘at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.’’ But the actual story takes place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that ‘‘going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world.’’
Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. What actually worries Conrad is the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames, too, ‘‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.’’ It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque, suggestive echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and of falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings.
I am not going to waste your time with examples of Conrad's famed evocation of the African atmosphere. In the final consideration it...
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Ingress to the Heart of Darkness
The tragedy of Kurtz and the education of Marlow fuse into one story, since for Marlow that tragedy represents his furthest penetration into the heart of darkness. As Marlow enters the forest to intercept Kurtz on the way toward the ceremonial blaze he senses the fascination which the savage ritual possesses. In the light of Conrad's other tales we know that it is because he is guided by well-established habits that he is able to complete his mission and carry Kurtz back to his cot, though not before he himself has apprehended the lure of the primitive. He has duplicated in his own experience enough of Kurtz's sensations to have good reason to wonder what is real and what is a false trick of the imagination. It was this fascination and bewilderment that Conrad aimed to suggest, and the presenting of Kurtz at the most intense moment of his yielding to it was to transcend time and bring a unity of impression.
When Marlow, soon after, hears the dying pronouncement, ‘‘the horror, the horror!’’ he has more than a mere intellectual awareness of what the words mean; and as we have vicariously shared Marlow's quasi-hysterical emotion on the trip toward the camp fire, we feel likewise the completeness with which Kurtz has savored degradation. He is a universal genius because he has had both the dream of sweetness and sacrifice in a cause shared by others and the disillusionment of being, in the very midst of the savage adoration, irretrievably alone,...
(The entire section is 1277 words.)