"Heart of Darkness" has been called both a justification for imperialism and an indictment against it. How is it possible for one work to be interpreted in such opposite directions?

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"Heart of Darkness" by author Joseph Conrad is a complex work that deals with imperialism in a nuanced manner. The most common interpretation of the story is that it is a harsh indictment of imperialism. The conflicting opinions of the story largely stem from the fact that imperialism and racism are presented as a reality and in a matter-of-fact way. The author does not inject his own opinions into the narrative but rather strives to represent the opinions and ideas of the time through his characters. Many authors have been criticized for conveniently glossing over such topics with characters who are uncharacteristically forward thinking for their time. Conrad's narrative does not fall into this trap and it presents the imperialist zeitgeist of its setting with unapologetic honesty, which has often led to confusion among readers.

Despite Conrad's honest portrayal of imperialism, the narrative does not truly endorse this ideology. In fact, "Heart of Darkness" shows the natural results of imperialism through the lens of its often brutal characters. African natives are treated by multiple characters as if they are subhuman, which is a historically accurate representation of the way in which many native populations were treated during the colonial era. This realism should not be confused with the author's endorsement of such treatment.

Kurtz' writing, "International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs" is often cited as an example of how the story endorses imperialism. However, it is more commonly interpreted as an example of the worldwide movement to suppress nonwhite races and cultures. Kurtz himself may not view the writing as racist or imperialist, but the tone of the story clearly indicates it as such. Kurtz is portrayed as a cruel antagonist and he himself is used to represent European imperialists.

There are many instances throughout "Heart of Darkness" in which Conrad issues anti-imperialist sentiments. A primary example of this is when Marlow witnesses a group of native men whom he perceives as wanting to live with the land rather than working against it as the imperialists do. These examples illustrate the anti-imperialist nature of the text.

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