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Imperialism in Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” Essay

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Updated: Nov 27th, 2021

Joseph Conrad created his works in the period of Modernism and Modernity. This period can be characterized by rejecting the past and viewing the world from the postcolonial perspectives (Lawall 1621). It is named from this perspective that Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness written in 1899 can be considered. This novel presents a framed narration, or a story within another story; Marlow, the main character, tells about his trip to Central Africa to his colleagues. Back then, his main task consisted in finding one of the company’s agents, the ivory collector named Kurtz. The biggest part of the novella is dedicated to Marlow’s traveling across the tropic river in search of the ivory collector. The story is full of terrifying details of aborigine life and depiction of colonial oppression. The author critically opposes the material and inner darkness of the British and the Africans. He calls Africa the Dark Continent, and it is not only due to the color of the skin of the biggest part of its population. These people were regarded and treated as something miserable, not worth respecting; they were the savages to who civilization should have been brought. Concerning this issue, Heart of Darkness casts light upon the ideology of imperialism. Heart of Darkness reflects the paradoxes of imperialism in the late 19th century through exposing the exploitation of foreign lands and people, Africa and the Africans in particular; the novel uses its characters and their speaking names to present the paradoxes of imperialism, thus making a contrast between black and white people extremely vivid.

To begin with, Heart of Darkness indicts the imperialism of the 19th century which could be characterized by the cruel and unfair treatment of the subordinate population. To show his attitude towards imperialism, Conrad uses the contrast between Marlow’s ideas about it at the beginning and the end of the story. At first, Marlow is fascinated by the possibilities which imperialism offers him; at the end, however, he reflects on everything he has seen with horror: “He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 153). This was Marlowe’s reflection on what he saw during his trip. He witnessed cruel treatment of the Africans who have been treated as if they were not humans at all. In the course of his trip, Marlow was getting to know the real side of the imperialists who tried to impose the image of helpers and protégés. Thus, depicting the grief which imperialism brought to some countries, Heart of Darkness criticizes this ideology.

In addition, the novella reflects the paradoxes of imperialism through the use of the speaking names of the characters, which points to the inequality that imperialism entailed. These speaking names can be read as the symbols of the darkness of the European mind contrasting to the darkness of the barbaric Africans. Thus, for instance, Kurtz means ‘short’, while Klein means ‘small’. This, even though indirectly, points at how devalued human life was during imperialism. Belgian imperialism is the most ardently criticizes by the author. For example, “even though the company for which Marlow works is Belgian, it is named the Continental Trading Company and, suggesting imperialism in general, Conrad frequently refers to it simply as “the Company” (Papke 592). Imperialism is presented as created by the whole of Europe. Conrad creates this idea based on Kurtz’s name which seems to be German, though, in reality, he has nothing to do with Germany: “His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (Conrad 127). In this way, Conrad uses his characters to present the paradox of imperialism and is rather sarcastic when doing so.

And finally, Heart of Darkness points at how imperialism leads to racial inequality by creating a distinct contrast between black and white people. Imperialism, like any ideology based on domination, presupposed that there was an imperial power; hence is racial and national inequality because, if one nationality is imperial to another, the subordinate one will always be perceived as different and worse. Racial inequality was rather habitual for colonial Africa; in Congo, for instance, “horrific racial acts were part of the normal processes of “pacification” of the natives” (Eze 183). In Heart of Darkness, the Africans are referred to as a separate race, not just as separate people having its peculiarity: “The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of the day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks” (Conrad 66). This shows that imperialism was not only a political ideology; it also largely promoted cultural differences resulting in racial inequality.

In conclusion, Heart of Darkness criticizes the process of imperial expansion in Africa using its main character, Marlow, to show the contrast between what imperialism was meant to be, an ideology giving people numerous possibilities, and what it was in reality, a process which neglected the human rights and promoted racial hatred. These paradoxes of imperialism are revealed through the speaking names of its characters, horrifying details of the treatment of black people, and impressions obtained by Marlow from his trip to Africa.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and the Secret Sharer. New York: Signet Classic, 1997.

Eze, Emmanuel C. Achieving Our Humanity: The Idea of the Postracial Future. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

Lawall, Sarah. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, vol. 2 (8th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

Papke, David R. “Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Literary Critique of Imperialism.” Journal of Maritime Law & Commerce 31.4 (2000): 583-592.

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