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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
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Explain the irony in what happens to Fresleven in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

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The irony in Fresleven's fate in Conrad's Heart Of Darkness mirrors a broader theme of the story in which white colonialism seeks to tame, subdue, and overpower the jungle and its people, who are often described as "savages" or "monsters." Seeing Fresleven's death through that broader theme, the irony lies...

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The irony in Fresleven's fate in Conrad's Heart Of Darkness mirrors a broader theme of the story in which white colonialism seeks to tame, subdue, and overpower the jungle and its people, who are often described as "savages" or "monsters." Seeing Fresleven's death through that broader theme, the irony lies in Fresleven's mission to overpower the "savage" residents and in the fact that the residents ironically overpower him. This scene in which Fresleven is murdered by the tip of a spear mirrors the resistance of the tribal people to white colonial advancement throughout the world. Another form of irony is presented in how Fresleven is described, as he is presented as a gentle and caring man, only to die in a viciously violent manner. His death parallels the tactics—murder and pillage—that colonialists used to "save" these "savage" and "underdeveloped" tribes.

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Fresleven's death shows the terrible effect colonialism can have on even the kindest, most gentle of souls. Fresleven was widely regarded as a fine and decent man. Yet not long after setting foot in the jungle, his whole personality changed, and he committed an act of senseless violence.

Fresleven's fate reveals, once again, the true nature of colonialism. In the novel, even those who are regarded as decent people start to display cruelty and violence when they come into contact with the indigenous population in their roles as colonizers. The ultimate irony here is that the white colonialists present themselves as saviors, bringing the benefits of Western civilization to the supposedly poor, benighted "savages" of Africa. Yet they themselves, even men like Fresleven, who was always so thoroughly kind and decent back home, are the real savages.

An additional irony comes in the fact that Fresleven, like his fellow colonialists, was determined to conquer and subdue the jungle for his own gain. Yet as the grass grows through Fresleven's bones, Conrad makes it clear that it's the jungle that has the real power here.

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Fresleven was a boat captain who worked for the Company, and his death created a vacancy that Marlow is hired to fill.

Fresleven, a Dane, is described as a peaceful and gentle person, yet his death came about by his own actions; while in the African interior, he quarreled with a tribal chieftain over a matter of two chickens. When Fresleven began beating the aged chief with a stick, one of the tribesmen, presumably the chief's son, killed Fresleven. The villagers fled, abandoning Fresleven's body and the village, and Marlow finds his body, untouched, but reduced to bones, lying where he died, nearly hidden by the grass that had grown there.

There are two ironic aspects to Fresleven's fate. One is that he is described as the "gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs" - and yet he mercilessly beat an old man with a stick. The second ironic aspect is more of a metaphor. The villager who killed Fresleven is described as making a "tentative jab" with his spear - perhaps suspecting that he will be unable to kill the white man because of some terrible power the white man possesses. Indeed, the villagers immediately flee when they see Fresleven is dead, fearing that some calamity is sure to ensue. Yet, Fresleven lies where he fell, his bones overgrown; while in life he may indeed have been a powerful European, embarking upon a "noble cause" as Marlow sarcastically describes it, in death he is little more than jungle fertilizer.

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