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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
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How is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad different from other imperialist narratives of the age?

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Heart of Darkness may be compared to other imperialist narratives that center on a white European character who fails in his effort to rule indigenous subjects, but in this novel, Joseph Conrad expresses a deeper critique of imperialism itself. Other works of the same period with such a flawed or doomed main character include Conrad’s own Lord Jim and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King.”

The depth of Conrad’s critique of imperialism is most evident in Kurtz’s descent into madness, which is well advanced by the time Marlow finds him. Even before that, however, Kurtz had not only exploited the Congo’s indigenous people but had physically abused them. At the same time that he craved being worshipped, he actually become dehumanized through his unrelenting cruelty. Conrad implies that imperialism poisons everyone involved in it and that the acquisition of wealth and power lead to moral bankruptcy.

In Lord Jim, Conrad presents similar themes. Jim can be compared to Kurtz in that he ascends to an influential position—in this case, in the Pacific—but his reasons for assuming it and his relations with the Pacific islanders are different. Jim feels guilty about his role in the deaths of the men on the Patna and seeks atonement, not wealth and power. The character of Brown is more comparable to Kurtz in his moral bankruptcy. Conrad’s critique of imperialism in this novel is less severe than in Heart of Darkness, but he implies that the good intentions of a few men are insufficient to shield native peoples from imperialism’s destructive effects.

Kipling’s story presents two characters who clearly set out to rule the indigenous inhabitants and make their fortune; the setting is mountainous Central Asia. The men, Dravot and Carnehan, initially think they have achieved their goals, but they are quickly deposed. Carnehan escapes alive while his partner dies, but he is ruined and soon follows him in death.

While these men’s downfall resembles that of Kurtz, Kipling’s critique is not as severe as Conrad’s. Rather than implying that imperialism is fundamentally flawed, Kipling implies that individual agents with immoral motives taint a system that has more noble than mercenary goals.

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