Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness book cover
Start Your Free Trial

How does Heart of Darkness criticize colonialism and civilization?

Expert Answers info

Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2015

write8,962 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Law and Politics

Joseph Conrad offers a critique of British colonialism and exposes the thin veil of civilization throughout his classic novella Heart of Darkness. Conrad criticizes British imperialism by exposing the violent, unorganized nature of colonial conquest in Africa, which is portrayed by Marlow's eye-opening experiences at the various stations. The Company's Outer Station is depicted as an unorganized, inefficient enterprise, where slaves are worked to death and nothing is accomplished. The Company's employees are depicted as unscrupulous, greedy, and manipulative.

In addition to the shady nature of the Company's employees, Marlow reads Kurtz's report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, where he writes that the Company should "Exterminate all the brutes!" (Conrad, 111). This is clearly a criticism of colonial conquest and reveals how colonial regimes perceive Natives. At the Inner Station, Conrad continues to criticize the violent, malevolent nature of imperialism by illustrating Kurtz's obsession with ivory and his treatment of the Congolese natives, who view him as a god. Conrad also exposes the thin veil of civilization in the Congolese jungle, which is void of rules and regulations. In the Congolese wilderness, Kurtz can rule as a maniacal tyrant and hoard ivory without consequences. Overall, Marlow becomes enlightened on his journey after he is exposed to the violent, treacherous nature of colonialism and the absence of civility in the Congolese bush.

Further Reading:
check Approved by eNotes Editorial
accessteacher eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2009

write13,728 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Social Sciences, and History

Given that Conrad was writing in the heyday of British colonialism, it is rather staggering the kind of criticism that he levels at colonialism in general in this powerful novella. Conrad uses Marlow as his voice to gently critique both colonialism, and through this, civilisation, as the reader is forced to ask themselves very carefully if any nation that engages in such terrible acts of oppression and random violence can be actually considered "civilised." Note the following two quotes, both taken from separate sections in the novel, and consider how they critique colonialism:

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 conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it much.

For so many nations at the time, colonialism had a massive mythology supporting it. As Marlow's aunt suggests, it was thought to be about "weaning the ignorant millions" from their savage ways. It was thought to be an act of kindness, of Christian goodness. Marlow, in both of these quotes, cuts through such ideas by stating colonialism only involves "brute force" and is based only on taking land away from those who are slightly different to ourselves. He exposes the underbelly of the colonial project.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

Unlock This Answer Now