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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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The themes of imperialism and race in Heart of Darkness


Heart of Darkness explores imperialism and race by highlighting the brutal exploitation and dehumanization of African people by European colonizers. The novel criticizes the greed and moral corruption inherent in imperialism, and it portrays the racial prejudices that justify the colonizers' actions. Conrad uses the journey into the Congo to reveal the darkness within human nature and the destructive impact of colonialism.

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Discuss the theme of imperialism in Heart of Darkness.

In order to discuss the theme of imperialism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it is important to do some investigating into the definition of the term. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, imperialism is defined as

state policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control over other areas.

In other words, imperialism describes a situation in which a more powerful country takes over a less powerful country's resources in order to gain additional power for themselves. The theme of imperialism is a major point of discussion in Conrad's novel.

In the novel, the main character describes some of the major implications of imperialism and, in doing so, provides us with one of the most notable critique's of the subject. At one point, Mr. Kurtz is described as a "very remarkable person" who "sends in as much ivory as all the others put together." Not only is Kurtz noted for his ability to bring in more ivory than all the other entities combined, but it is for this very reason that he is pointed out as a "remarkable person."

However, the praise of Kurtz is heavily contrasted with a detailed depiction of the reality of the Congo. Conrad uses dark and violent imagery to describe the main character's surroundings. He writes,

A caravan had come in. A violent babble of uncouth sounds burst out on the other side of the planks.

It is explained that "the population had cleared out a long time ago," making it evident that the Europeans are not welcome in the Congo.

One important thing to note is the use of the word ivory in the text: the commodity is glorified and becomes a symbol of economic freedom and social advancement for Europeans. Conrad writes,

The word "ivory" rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.

Conrad's vivid depiction of ivory is crucial; at the time, it was emblematic as a resource taken from a less developed country by a more developed one to benefit themselves—at the expense of morals and ethics. The main character continues to say,

I've never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.

The speaker's imagery suggests Conrad's criticism of imperialism. In the quote, the main character describes his surroundings as a "fantastic invasion" and conveys the weight of the situation to his audience by using words like "evil or truth" in the same context as "great and invincible."

Toward the end of the novel, the speaker describes the natives as they

stamped their feet, nodded their horned heads, swayed their scarlet bodies; they shook towards the fierce river-demon a bunch of black feathers, a mangy skin with a pendent tail—something that looked like a dried gourd.

The main character continues to describe the natives as

they shouted periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language; and the deep murmurs of the crowd, interrupted suddenly, were like the responses of some satanic litany.

By depicting the main character's perspective of the natives so transparently and with such vivid imagery, Conrad puts forth his honest critique of imperialism. Particularly, he describes the landscape and the natives as "foreign" to his own culture and surroundings. In this way, the locals' behaviors and practices are depicted as "responses of some satanic litany."

This description is significant to the theme of imperialism because Conrad is heavily emphasizing just how unfamiliar the Congo is from the main character's usual surroundings. The descriptive journey into the "heart of imperialism" is significant because it represents the perspective of many Europeans who benefited from imperialism.

In conclusion, the novel is a deeply effective device for compelling its audience to acknowledge the reality of imperialism, largely due to its ability to put the reader in the perspective of an individual witnessing such an unfathomable situation in a faraway land for the first time, as well as the main character's inability to escape from the limitations of his perspective.

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Discuss the theme of imperialism in Heart of Darkness.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness tells the story of an Englishman named Marlowe who travels to the African continent and encounters a deeply troubling situation as he searches for another Englishman named Kurtz. Kurtz works for a company that is extracting ivory from Africa.

It is the negative aspects of commercial colonialism/imperialism that make the novel’s theme troubling. As Marlowe travels up the river on his way to Kurtz’s station, Conrad describes the condition of the indigenous inhabitants that Marlow encounters. In many cases, these inhabitants are sick, listless, and dying for reasons that Marlow does not specify. Conrad’s point here is to show the destructive effect of English imperialism—it destroys the lives of many Africans. We can deduce that the white men have brought disease that the Africans have not developed an immunity to. They have also forced some of them into labor against their will.

The Africans also affect the white men negatively. The white men often live in fear of their surroundings and the Africans they have subjugated. Thus Conrad describes an imperialistic situation in which both sides suffer. The only winner is the company that profits from the ivory, but it headquartered safely in Europe, far from the devastation it has caused.

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Discuss the theme of imperialism in Heart of Darkness.

Corporate imperialism and commercial colonization are the twin forces that stand behind all the action of the novel. It is in the interest of business that Marlow and Kurtz both come to the Congo.

They take part in a violent and (somewhat) organized form of exploitation and pillaging, working for a company that hauls ivory out of Africa, exploiting the local population as a labor force and destroying the local ecology.

Claiming to educate the natives, to bring them religion and a better way of life, European colonizers remained to starve, mutilate, and murder the indigenous population for profit.

Imperialism of this type is rather roundly condemned by Marlow in the narrative, yet it remains the driving force behind his journey, following Kurtz, into the heart of the jungle and into moral chaos.

This division between belief and action borders on hypocrisy and characterizes many of the characters working for the Company, Marlow and Kurtz included. 

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.

Extending the discussion of hypocrisy and self-conflict to Kurtz, we need only point to the notebook entry Marlow discovers where Kurtz outlines his desire to help improve conditions for the native Africans. At the end of the journal entry, a statement is scrawled across the page, reading, "Exterminate the brutes."

Kurtz wants to help alleviate the damage of the commercial project he is a part of. He also wants to wipe out the native population. 

This schism in Kurtz is reflected in the distance between the Company's stated goals in Africa and its actual treatment of the population. 

Ultimately, the novel's commentary made on imperialism is clearly and strongly negative, condemning the nameless corporate men running the Company in Belgium as well as the agents of the Company working in Africa. Though Marlow cannot be simply extracted or exonerated from his role as an employee of the Company, his view are distinctly set against any belief that the Company is doing humane work in Africa. He is, then, against the project of commercial colonialism and the larger projects of imperialism.

Marlow, both as narrator and as a character, stands apart from the culture and actions that he witnesses. He does not belong to the Company, does not believe in its imperialist work, and does not blithely accept or represent it as its other agents do. 

The Central Station manager says to Marlow, ‘‘you are of the new gang—the gang of virtue."

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How are race and imperialism integrated into Heart of Darkness?

Issues of race and imperialism dominate Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The work as a whole has been interpreted by successive generations of scholars and literary critics as providing the reader with a powerful critique of imperialism and all that it entails.

Imperialism, which Marlow describes in the story as “rapacious and pitiless folly,” is based on the idea that the white race is superior to all others, and therefore has the right to lord it over them. This idea was almost universally shared by white people in Conrad's day, which makes it all the more remarkable that he should take aim at the appalling treatment meted out to the Congolese people by their inhuman imperial overlords.

Even so, Conrad's approach to race and imperialism is not quite as straightforward as we might think. His portrayal of Africans has been described in some quarters as, at best, one-dimensional, and, at worst, racist. There's certainly no doubt whatsoever that Conrad's representation of Africans would not be considered acceptable in this day and age.

However, some critics have leaped to Conrad's defense by saying that the portrayal of Africans in the novel is exactly what one would expect to see through the eyes of a white colonialist like Marlow. One should never forget that what we see of Africa in the story is from Marlow's somewhat narrow perspective, so it's not surprising if Africans are portrayed as they are.

This in no way makes their portrayal any less offensive, but it does at least enable us to see that Conrad's treatment of the issues of race and colonialism, while being complex in other respects, is much less so in others.

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How are race and imperialism integrated into Heart of Darkness?

Race and imperialism are integral to the plot of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. As protagonist Marlow travels further up the Congo River in search of Kurtz, he becomes increasingly aware of the toll that British imperialism has taken upon the local communities. At the "Outer Station," for example, he sees that the company he works for has forced the African people into working in inhumane conditions. Marlow himself comes to embody his country's racist treatment of African people; when an African helmsman dies during an attack on his boat, Marlow pushes his body into the water in a callous display of the racism inherent in Britain's colonization of Africa.

Eventually Marlow meets Kurtz, who serves as the face of imperial evil in Conrad's tale. Kurtz has abandoned all concern for morality—he has been brutally massacring villagers, stealing their ivory, and putting their heads on stakes as a warning. Despite this savage immorality, some still use racist ideology to justify Kurtz's behavior; a Russian trader tells Marlow that a local woman with whom Kurtz had an affair was responsible for his corruption.

Perhaps the most profound statement about racism and imperialism found in the novel is the fact that Kurtz never has to face consequences for his actions. He dies in the jungle, and when Marlow returns to England, he lies to Kurtz's widow about her husband's activities. This prompts the reader to wonder what other monstrous acts have been smudged out of history due to the racist narrative of imperialism.

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How are race and imperialism integrated into Heart of Darkness?

Racism is the overt justification for the brutal imperialism that European nations exercise in Africa. The racist assumption of the white Europeans is that their European culture and religion is superior to that of the supposedly primitive Black Africans. Nations and private companies whose real goals are to exploit Africans and their resources to the utmost for their own gain manage to convince their populations that humanitarian impulses guide their decisions to take over native peoples.

For example, Kurtz apparently starts out with good intentions toward Africans, sincere in his wish to export civilization to people he deems "savages." When he gets to Africa, however, and realizes that the real name of the game is maximum profit, no matter what, he changes and adopts the openly racist and genocidal attitudes of the European business owners in Africa. Collecting the most possible ivory becomes his obsession, and he is careless of how many Black people he kills to fulfill and surpass his quotas. In fact, his good intentions towards Africans turn into the declaration, "Exterminate all the brutes!" In this, he articulates the underlying reality of European desires. As Marlow says, "all of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz." This is underscored by Kurtz being half English and half French with a German last name.

In short, racism allows Europe's leaders to mask ruthless imperialism under the softer guise of civilizing and Christianizing the African people.

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How are race and imperialism integrated into Heart of Darkness?

Both race (or even racism) and imperialism are treated as the common attitudes of white people at the time the book takes place.  This book is set on the river Thames around the turn of the 20th century.  Generally speaking, the Europeans aboard the ship (as well as most other Europeans at this time) are largely ignorant of the lives of the natives they encounter traveling.  Because these natives look so very different, the general attitude is that they are sub-human - closer to animals than they are to humans.  This is evidenced by the repeated referrals of black people as "niggers," "cannibals," "criminals," and "savages."

Kurtz's treatise, called the "International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs" is yet further evidence of the elitist attitude carried by white men at this time.  It is one thing to merely refer to those peoples in passing as less than human - here is a man (and the characters who support his thinking) who genuinely believes they are harmful to civilized society, so he plans to educate others to fear them.

Marlow is one of the few characters whose thoughts pose an opposition to the general attitude of indifference if not blatant disrespect.  He is often reflecting with sympathy on different situations in which groups of black men are seen working or enslaved.  His thoughts rarely drive him to action and even his actions (like sharing the buscuit with the man on his ship) are as slight as his sympathy - but it is clear the author presents this opposing viewpoint to remind the audience of the humanity of a group of people who are viewed and mostly treated, like animals.

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How are race and imperialism integrated into Heart of Darkness?

The book is a reflection of the reality that imperialism almost inevitably involves the colonizing of a country of darker-skinned people by a lighter-skinned people. Sometimes there is a racial difference, but not always. The colonizing of India, for example, did not generally involve a racial difference, since Indians have been considered Caucasian by anthropologists and India was occupied by the English and the Portuguese, also Caucasian. But this novella concerns a section of Africa that held black native peoples, and since it is the English colonists and merchants who occupy the area, certainly, there is an issue of race.

Since in the Western world, we tend to use darkness to symbolize evil and lightness to symbolize good, a person might reasonably suppose that the title suggests that Africa is a dark, thus evil, continent, colonized by light, thus good, people, but that is not the case. It is the English who have dark hearts, not the native Africans.

Each "scene" as the narrator travels up the river to the heart of this darkness is carefully selected to show the English in the worst possible light, as a people who treat others inhumanely for their own gains of money and power.

There are those who seem to think that Conrad glorified colonialism and portrayed Africans as savages, but I think a careful reading of the story does not support this.

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How are race and imperialism integrated into Heart of Darkness?

Kurtz concludes that Europeans must "'Exterminate all the brutes!'"  Marlow suggests that Kurtz's time in the heart of Africa has caused him to exhibit a primitive, instinctual nature, a nature that Marlow suggests is in all civilized societies, just waiting to re-emerge.

Kurtz becomes a god to the natives because he has unabashedly moved from superego (ethics) to id (desire) in his time in the jungle.  They see him as a grand paradox, able to operate in two words and, in the end, choosing their world instead of his own native one.

Look at Marlowe's description:

"All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz, and by and by I learned that most appropriately the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report for its future guidance." (p.49)

Look at what the Harlequin says of Kurtz:

"'You don't talk with that man-you listen to him.'" (p. 53)

"'I tell you,' he cried, 'this man has enlarged my mind.'" (p. 54)

"'You can't judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man.'" (p. 56)"But his soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad." (p. 66)

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