How does Heart of Darkness address British imperialism in the 19th century?

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Heart of Darkness presents British imperialism as a cruel, exploitative system that destroys the lives of indigenous people for the benefit of their colonial overlords. At first, Marlow is incredibly enthusiastic about heading out to Africa. Unlike his aunt, however, he doesn't see the imperial project as a noble cause that brings the benefits of Western civilization to the poor, benighted natives of the so-called Dark Continent. He understands that this is largely a gigantic economic enterprise designed to enrich the mother country. But the further he travels up the Congo river, even cynical Marlow becomes more and more disillusioned by the whole project.

To be sure, the Congo was in Belgian, not British, hands. But the evils that Marlow discovers on his travels are equally applicable to his own country's vast empire. Here, as elsewhere, imperialism has a disastrous effect not only on the indigenous people, but also on the colonialists themselves. And Kurtz is the paradigm example of this.

Caught between two worlds—those of the Europeans and of the so-called "savages"—Kurtz loses his mind, unable to gain a handle on any kind of fixed identity. Neither one thing nor the other, he no longer knows who or what he really is. The part that Kurtz has played in the imperialist project is undoubtedly responsible for this tragic condition.

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The novel begins with Marlow telling his story to others aboard a ship on the Thames river. This location causes Marlow to ruminate on imperialism as a universal attribute of powerful nations. Marlow imagines the Romans coming into Great Britain and having to deal with the conquest of a "savage" people, just as the British and other Europeans in his era, the nineteenth century, have dealt with the conquest of "savage" people in Africa. The Romans, Marlow says, setting a frame for understanding nineteenth-century imperialism, simply came to Great Britain and performed

robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale...

That more or less sums up European imperialism in Africa as well.

The novel then goes on, not surprisingly, to critique nineteenth-century imperialism for not living up to its claims of bringing order and civilization to Africa. In fact, the system Marlow finds in Africa is chaos. The continent is simply being exploited by the Europeans for the wealth it can garner them. The great exemplar of this system run amok is Kurtz. He brings in the most ivory of any station manager in the Belgian Congo, which makes him a valuable asset to the Europeans; but he achieves these goals through corrupt means and goes insane, insisting the natives worship him as a god. While Marlow, in some ways, admires him for the purity with which he understands imperialism, he is the symbol of how imperialism is evil and brings unspeakable violence, destruction, and pain to native peoples.

Marlow addresses British imperialism as a great evil: one that has to be hidden from such innocent symbols of civilization as the women left at home, who are protected from true knowledge of what is going on so that the illusion that the Europeans are a civilizing influence can be preserved.

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Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1899 and 1902) remains his best-known work, and a classic in the genre. It has been adapted to film twice and is loosely based on a true story in Conrad's life as a British merchant marine Captain.

Despite the far reach of the British Empire into Africa at the time of writing, it remained a mysterious and dangerous place for Europeans. Most believed it to be a place where progress and time had not penetrated, populated by savage tribes and strange animals. The varied atrocities performed there by both natives and colonizing whites were the main influence on Conrad when writing Heart of Darkness.

In the story, the character of Marlow travels into Africa to find a missing man. He is met with horrors in the jungle, including cannibal natives and merciless ivory-hunters; at the time, any white could commit crimes against natives and be condoned by law. Of special note are the well-recorded atrocities of Belgian ivory traders, who were granted carte blanche by King Leopold II to take what they wanted; this removed their need to justify their hunting with "spreading civilization" and so they simply invaded. Marlow recounts his difficulty in finding Kurtz, since the Company men want Kurtz to continue sending ivory, regardless of his other actions.

Another example is the disparity between the native tribes of Africa and the "civilized" Europeans. Marlow compares their interaction by supposing a visit to Ancient Britain by a Roman of the time, and the strangeness that "civilized" man would have felt. Despite an attack on his steamer by natives, Marlow comes to see that the false civilization brought by Kurtz and those like him is in fact more atrocious than the natives, who he had previously considered little more than animals.

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