Heart of Darkness Essays and Criticism
by Joseph Conrad

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Colonial Exploitation and Human Nature

Conrad's Heart of Darkness is both a dramatic tale of an arduous trek into the Belgian Congo (the heart of darkest Africa) at the turn of the twentieth century and a symbolic journey into the deepest recesses of human nature. On a literal level, through Marlow's narration, Conrad provides a searing indictment of European colonial exploitation inflicted upon African natives. Before he turns to an account of his experience in Africa, Marlow provides his companions aboard the Nellie a brief history lesson about the ancient Roman invasion and occupation of Britain. He claims that the Romans were ‘‘no colonists’’ for ‘‘they grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was for robbery and violence, aggravated murder on a great scale.’’ The reader is initially encouraged to consider that enlightened European colonists of Marlow's day were motivated by objectives far loftier than those of the Romans. Thus, Marlow's aunt who arranged his commission with the Company proclaims that the white man's purpose in Africa is to wean the continent's ignorant savages from their ‘‘horrid ways.’’ Marlow himself says that modern efficiency and the ‘‘unselfish idea’’ of conquering the earth, rather than some ‘‘sentimental pretense,’’ is what "redeems’’ the colonial enterprise in which he has been enlisted.

But when Marlow arrives at the mouth of the Congo River, it becomes immediately apparent that uplifting the natives from their savagery is not the driving force behind the European mission. At the Company's Outer Station, Marlow sees six black men yoked together and realizes that these pathetic figures ‘‘could not be called enemies, nor were they criminals.’’ They are, in fact, brutalized victims ‘‘brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient and were them allowed to crawl away and rest.’’ In its actual practice, the controlling value of efficient colonial administration consists primarily of working the natives until they die and then replacing them with still more victims. The European pilgrims that Marlow encounters are equipped with modern weaponry for the ostensible purpose of defending themselves against feral savages. In fact, the natives pose very little threat to the white conquerors. As Marlow's craft steams up the Congo River toward the Inner Station, they are attacked from the shore by a group of natives who shoot arrows and hurl spears at the craft. Yet as the narrator recalls this assault, ‘‘the action was far from being aggressive—it was not even defensive, in the usual sense: it was undertaken under the stress of desperation, and in its essence was purely protective.’’ We later learn that the purpose of this attack was merely to prevent the party aboard from taking the tribe's ‘‘god,’’ Mr. Kurtz, away from them. With the exception of a few ‘‘improved specimens’’ who are transformed into cogs in the machinery of exploitation, the European colonists are engaged in their own form of ‘‘murder on a great scale,’’ showing no interest at all in bettering the lot of the Congo's inhabitants.

Hypocrisy is a salient theme in Heart of Darkness. Marlow's account repeatedly highlights the utter lack of congruence between the Company's rhetoric about ‘‘enlightening’’ the natives with its actual aims of extracting ivory, minerals and other valued commodities. As one of the fevered pilgrims whom he meets on his overland trek tells Marlow, it is not a virtuous idea or even efficiency per se that moves the colonists to treat the natives as members of an inferior species: it is, instead ‘‘‘to make money, of course.’’’

The colonial enterprise extends beyond the Company to an International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Marlow is told that this organization entrusted Kurtz to prepare a...

(The entire section is 9,146 words.)