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Ethical Issues in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad Essay

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Updated: Jul 2nd, 2020

The novel Heart of Darkness was written in 1899 by Joseph Conrad but published in 1903. The novel is considered to be among the greatest books in English language. The book is a dreamlike tale that relates adventure and mystery in central Africa. It also tells a story of man’s journey which is symbolic in nature and his inner being.

The story mainly revolves around Charles Marlow who is the narrator of the book. Conrad vividly detailed symbolic and literal level of contributions in the story that brought out the ambiguity in the novel which led to contradicting interpretations of the meaning of the story.

The following is a description of how Conrad presents ethical issues in the novel Heart of Darkness based on modern ethical decision issues which Kurtz wrestled against.

Conrad takes us on a geographical journey in the novel Heart of Darkness through the heart of Belgian Congo; a journey considered as moral is search of ethical response to uncertainties that were felt during the two centuries. This journey can be termed as psychological since it enters the subconscious heart of the narrator.

The final destination for the journey is what opens the readers’ eyes to realize the darkness that kind of darkness that inhabits and surrounds our own core. The novel Heart of Darkness is mainly about Charlie Marlow a seaman and the experience that he faced as a young person working in a company involved in illegal trade of Ivory in Africa.

In the beginning of the novel, Marlow’s mind is frustrated of whether to get involved in the immoral actions selling illegal goods for the company he was working for (Conrad 12).

Marlow believes that all these immoral actions conducted by the company are as a result of ignorance of tension between capitalism and moral enlightenment. Marlow recognized the dehumanization of labourers in the company which was something that many members of the company management were not aware of.

The nature of work that Kurtz was comprisable, Kurtz is presented by Conrad as a rich ungovernable ivory collector. He is a bright man who is very talented with painting skills and journalist skills. He can be termed as universal genius, an all-rounder man. However, despite having power and riches, Kurtz is a man who cannot be trusted. Marlow saw the fear in the manager of the company since Kurtz could not be trusted in any way.

Kurtz is a great threat to the entire organization especially the powerful position of the manager of the company that Marlow was working with. The manager of the company wished that he had the power to execute one of Kurtz assistants (Conrad 89). This shows some unethical behaviour that is present in businesses. Kurtz had the power to control and dominate over any person he met whether they were aimless traders or not.

When Marlow and the management team arrived at Kurtz’s station, they found that he had managed to persuade the Russian travellers to treat him as a god. He had also led brutal raids in search of ivory in the entire surrounding they were in despite the fact that Kurtz was not feeling well health wise.

Kurtz also took control of women since he had power and money. Marlow managed to identify a young enigmatic and inspiring African woman at Kurtz station who was Kurtz mistress (Hochschild 140).

Kurtz had refused to step down from a god-like thrown he had built in the wilderness. This is why he did not step down to honour the Russian travellers instead Kurtz made them to honour him and treat him like a god. The Russians only learnt from Marlow about their mission to execute Kurtz from the throne since he was a threat to everyone including the position of management in the company the Marlow worked for.

Marlow also learnt through the Russians that it was Kurtz who was responsible for the attacks at the sea. Conrad portrays Kurtz as unethical person who use his power and position to undermine other people (Hochschild 144). Kurtz situation or state is present in the companies in the modern world where you find most leaders misuse their position.

Kurtz has a dark heart and surrenders to it and this is evident through his actions throughout the book. He has rejected the deceptions and facades of the society to favour and recognize his dark heart. He is an ambitious man who gets away with anything he does and also acquires everything he wants not caring how many people gets hurt in the process. This is unethical act and a disgrace to the society.

Kurtz actions are not moral; they are all based on selfish ambitions. He lived his life with desire for more money and power and that is why he forced the Russians to treat him like a god. Kurtz is a pride man with a lot of power which he misuse by taking advantage of other people.

Honesty is another issue that Kurtz was wrestling with. Despite being wealthy and powerful, Kurtz cannot be trusted and this is why the top leading manager at the company where Marlow worked thought of executing him (Murfin 102).

He does not want anyone to defeat him or challenge him and that is why he has strong men who guide his territory. Attacking Marlow’s ships in the sea is unethical act. This act is a clear indication of Kurtz dishonesty which shows that he cannot be trusted in any way.

Through Marlow, we get to find out that the workers in the company he was working with were harshly treated by the management. He accepted to take the pain since he wanted a way of earning a living. This is one ethical issue that most institutions battle with. Companies should respect and honour the employees since they can either make the company to be successful or to fail.

However, most leaders today continue to undermine employees by treating them badly and not caring about their wellbeing. This is because of the fact that the employees are desperately in need of money and that is why they are able to take all the pain inflicted on them at the work place (Sherry 118).

Marley felt that he was treated like a freak when he went for an interview in the company where he was given a test and there were some requirements he was expected to fulfil. The doctor openly mishandled Marley when he was measuring his head. According to Marley the doctor asked him if “Ever any madness in your family (Conrad 15)?” This made Marley to feel less about himself and also unimportant.

This is a clear picture of how workers are being mishandled in most companies in the modern world which is unethical issue which should be dealt with. Through Marley, we get to learn that there was racial discrimination in the company which is a common problem in our businesses today. The black workers in the company were exploited and most of the time looked down upon.

Marley found that things were the same when he reached his destination which was Africa. This was the point when he was not shown any mercy when he felt tired after travelling twenty miles without rest; he saw that things were not going to change; the situation was still the same (Murfin 122). Marley express how the management in the area did not care about the high rate of deaths in the area.

The company did nothing to prevent the situation. The manager of the company was in the position since he was not ill. Marley’s boss was a simple man with no knowledge on management. This is a clear view of how companies deny potential workers the chance to express themselves. Discriminating against other people due to their condition is unethical issue which should be dealt with in the modern world.

Marlow clearly depicts the moral challenges that most young people face in the modern world. Marlow is depicted by Conrad as a good hearted young man who fights himself in a dilemma on whether to act morally or to assume everything and achieve monetary success.

Most young people today go into the business world not fully aware of what is in store for them since they do not have a clear knowledge of what is happening in the world of business (Sherry 115). This is why they are normally confused when they realize what is actually going on in business centres. They find themselves trapped in unethical world full of monetary success.

Very few people always manage to overcome the desire for money by choosing to remain ethical and maintain their dignity. Due to the high rise of economy in the world today, most youths would prefer to obtain monetary success no matter what the cost is. This has led to a rise in the number of young people getting involved in unethical businesses such as smuggling of goods and even ivory trade similar to what Marlow was doing.

Taking into account the kind of business that Kurtz was doing, it clearly shows that most companies are forced to deal with illicit sales in order to gain more profit. They however do not care whether their actions dehumanize the entire work force.

Kurtz is among those type of leaders who did not care about the health of the entire workforce, all he wanted was to see that all the operations on sale of ivory was successful and that he had immersed more wealth. Many people are money hungry and that is they could do sacrifice everything to attain it.

Taking for example Kurtz decision to attack Marlow’s ships at the sea; he intentionally did that to drive away Marlow and his team’s attention so that he can take domain over the Russians who had come to visit Africa assuming that the Russians were wealthy (Hochschild 148).

In conclusion, Kurtz wrestled with many ethical issues in business and this is evident in his actions. Through Marley, since he is the narrator of the story: we get to learn more ethical issues that most companies are dealing with some of which are affecting companies in the modern world.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness & Other Stories. New York: Penguin Group, 1998.

Hochschild, Adam. Chapter 9: Meeting Mr. Kurtz”. King Leopold’s Ghost. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1999. pp. 140–149.

Murfin, Ross. Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness. A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Sherry, Norman. Conrad’s Western World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

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