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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
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What is the relationship between Europe and Africa in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness?

Heart of Darkness: Africa as Other

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It's clear that the relationship between the continents, as depicted by Conrad, is a dysfunctional one. The Europeans are carrying out an extended project of exploitation and theft of both labour and resources from Africa. Though the process is a systematic one, it is also inefficient. When Marlow arrives at...

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It's clear that the relationship between the continents, as depicted by Conrad, is a dysfunctional one. The Europeans are carrying out an extended project of exploitation and theft of both labour and resources from Africa. Though the process is a systematic one, it is also inefficient. When Marlow arrives at the colonial outpost, he sees a chaotic situation where equipment is lying about unused and men are being mistreated and are sick and dying.

The mystery surrounding Kurtz is emblematic of this warped dynamic. The madness into which Kurtz has been plunged, the megalomania of setting himself up as a god over the "natives," is a kind of parable of the larger scenario of one people (the Europeans) abusing and robbing another (the Africans, and what would later be referred to as "third-world" people in general). Interestingly, none of this is stated with any real explicitness by Conrad. It would be several decades before George Orwell, for instance, in essays such as "Shooting an Elephant" and "Marrakesh" would spell out these facts directly, without the ambiguity and irony that mark Conrad's Heart of Darkness and other works of fiction from the period around 1900.

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Europe represents the colonizer, while Africa represents the colonized. European nations such as Belgium, France, England, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Germany had been a part of aggressively invading and colonizing parts of Africa throughout the 19th century. From a white supremacist perspective, Europe may be seen in the novel as the "progressive" and "enlightened" continent, and Africa is the "backwards" continent. However, it should be clear that if any nations are "backwards", it is certainly the invading nations of Europe that brought slavery, genocide, and brutal resource extraction and land theft to Africa and Africans. Conrad seems to want to emphasize the brutality of the Europeans and how that stands in stark contrast to the racist tropes of Africans as the "savages" or "brutes". It is hopefully clear in the novel to readers that the nations of Europe and the individual Europeans bring the brutality of human nature into Africa.

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The Europeans are clearly in Africa to extract natural resources as cheaply and efficiently as possible. They are exploiters, plainly. Not only do they exploit the African population, using slave labor (Marlowe encounters many of these slaves, sick and dying, in the “grove of death” sequence from the book), but they decimate the wildlife in their greed for ivory.

On the other hand, Africa is not a hospitable place for the Europeans. Conrad suggests that there is something about the jungle that undermines the European ideals of rationality or efficiency. This is shown in part by the haphazard way the company is run; when riverboat captain Marlowe shows up on station, his boat is sunk; repairs are difficult because it is impossible to get the metal plates and rivets together in the same place to patch the bottom. But the true effect of the jungle is seen in Kurtz, whose mental state has been impaired by his experience upriver. It seems that Africa holds a mysterious truth that European civilization cannot counteract or subdue.

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The relationship between Europe and Africa is central to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Essentially, Conrad shows that the relationship between the two continents is based on the exploitation of resources. More specifically, Conrad illustrates how European colonial powers venture into the territory of African countries in order to harvest raw materials and resources and enslave native populations. Thus, in exploring the relationship between Europe and Africa, Conrad is also exploring the ways in which a colonial power exploits other countries for material and/or economic gain. That said, it's important to point out that Conrad suggests colonial excursions don't always work out well for European powers, as he also shows how the evil nature of colonialism corrupts those involved with it. Indeed, several characters (such as Kurtz) end the novel as broken shells and hollow individuals. As such, if Conrad shows how European cultures oppress African natives through colonialism, he also shows how this endeavor irreversibly corrupts the Europeans involved with it.

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