Imperialism In Heart Of Darkness

Discuss the theme of imperialism in Heart of Darkness.

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e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Corporate imperialism and commercial colonization are the twin forces that stand behind all the action of the novel. It is in the interest of business that Marlow and Kurtz both come to the Congo.

They take part in a violent and (somewhat) organized form of exploitation and pillaging, working for a company that hauls ivory out of Africa, exploiting the local population as a labor force and destroying the local ecology.

Claiming to educate the natives, to bring them religion and a better way of life, European colonizers remained to starve, mutilate, and murder the indigenous population for profit.

Imperialism of this type is rather roundly condemned by Marlow in the narrative, yet it remains the driving force behind his journey, following Kurtz, into the heart of the jungle and into moral chaos.

This division between belief and action borders on hypocrisy and characterizes many of the characters working for the Company, Marlow and Kurtz included. 

Hypocrisy is a salient theme in Heart of Darkness. Marlow's account repeatedly highlights the utter lack of congruence between the Company's rhetoric about ‘‘enlightening’’ the natives with its actual aims of extracting ivory, minerals and other valued commodities.

Extending the discussion of hypocrisy and self-conflict to Kurtz, we need only point to the notebook entry Marlow discovers where Kurtz outlines his desire to help improve conditions for the native Africans. At the end of the journal entry, a statement is scrawled across the page, reading, "Exterminate the brutes."

Kurtz wants to help alleviate the damage of the commercial project he is a part of. He also wants to wipe out the native population. 

This schism in Kurtz is reflected in the distance between the Company's stated goals in Africa and its actual treatment of the population. 

Ultimately, the novel's commentary made on imperialism is clearly and strongly negative, condemning the nameless corporate men running the Company in Belgium as well as the agents of the Company working in Africa. Though Marlow cannot be simply extracted or exonerated from his role as an employee of the Company, his view are distinctly set against any belief that the Company is doing humane work in Africa. He is, then, against the project of commercial colonialism and the larger projects of imperialism.

Marlow, both as narrator and as a character, stands apart from the culture and actions that he witnesses. He does not belong to the Company, does not believe in its imperialist work, and does not blithely accept or represent it as its other agents do. 

The Central Station manager says to Marlow, ‘‘you are of the new gang—the gang of virtue."

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness tells the story of an Englishman named Marlowe who travels to the African continent and encounters a deeply troubling situation as he searches for another Englishman named Kurtz. Kurtz works for a company that is extracting ivory from Africa.

It is the negative aspects of commercial colonialism/imperialism that make the novel’s theme troubling. As Marlowe travels up the river on his way to Kurtz’s station, Conrad describes the condition of the indigenous inhabitants that Marlow encounters. In many cases, these inhabitants are sick, listless, and dying for reasons that Marlow does not specify. Conrad’s point here is to show the destructive effect of English imperialism—it destroys the lives of many Africans. We can deduce that the white men have brought disease that the Africans have not developed an immunity to. They have also forced some of them into labor against their will.

The Africans also affect the white men negatively. The white men often live in fear of their surroundings and the Africans they have subjugated. Thus Conrad describes an imperialistic situation in which both sides suffer. The only winner is the company that profits from the ivory, but it headquartered safely in Europe, far from the devastation it has caused.


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Heart of Darkness

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