Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Marlow says that "cannibals" were running his boat. Did he really think they were actual cannibals or did he use that word to represent something else?

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Bruce Bergman eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One of the major themes of Heart of Darkness concerns a perceived/conceptual conflict between savagery and civility. The cannibals who make up Marlow's crew are one element within this conflict. And, yes, they are actually cannibals who Marlow believes have eaten human flesh. 

Notionally (or abstractly), cannibalism also becomes a sub-theme within the context of the savagery-vs.-civility conflict. 

Whatever brutishness is associated with the cannibals in the novel can be linked also to the colonial interests that Marlow and Kurtz both represent. 

“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force--nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.” 

The ability to exploit (by literally consuming a foe or by co-opting his life and resources) can be said to derive from the same source for each of these parties. (The morality of that exploitation is another question the text raises.) 

We might look at the situation...

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