Abuse of Power in Heart of Darkness and in Frankenstein

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How is the abuse of power shown in the two works that you have studied? The works I have studied and will be exploring in this essay are Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’ and Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. In ‘Frankenstein’ the abuse of power is most clearly exhibited by the protagonist of the story Frankenstein himself, his abuse of power results in his isolation and could serve as a warning to people, telling them not to play with forces that they can not control.

In ‘Heart of Darkness’, Conrad abuses his power as the author to distance himself from the novella and in a sense absolve himself from any racist criticism the book may induce. The abuse of power is also a key theme in the novella itself. Firstly there is a sense of hypocrisy in the novella where the abuse of power is concerned, Marlow seems to have a slight reluctance to abuse his power over the natives, however, he abuses his power before he even gets to the Congo, when he attains the job unfairly through the position held by his aunt in the company.

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Secondly, the idea that the white western men have a superior culture and feel the need to impose their civility on the outrageous and almost in-human savages inhabiting the Congo is the most obvious abuse of power implicated in the short story. Overall the abuse of power in both novels is shown to end badly for the party involved. Marlow sees the abuse of power leave people without their minds, and Shelly’s novel also demonstrates this to some degree but highlights more clearly the way that the abuse of power can leave you isolated.

Conrad abuses his power as the author in his novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, by writing in the form of a framed narrative. This leaves him distanced from the story, and allows him to make rather outlandish comments throughout, as he can claim that the views expressed in the book are not his but Marlow’s. The framed narrative makes it difficult to hold Conrad responsible for the more controversial opinions expressed in the novella, for example: ‘But what thrilled you was the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.

Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough’ Throughout the book Marlow refers the natives as ‘ugly’ and strips them of humanity. Looking at Conrad’s masterpiece from a formalist point of view would certainly lead us to believe that he is distancing himself from his work to avoid racist claims that comments like this are inevitably going to provoke, however during the period that Conrad wrote the book (the late 1890s) framed narratives were very popular, -for example wuthering heights- and one could argue that he is simply writing in accordance with the fashions at the time of the book’s conception.

However one can conclude that the use of the framed narrative shows that Conrad is abusing his power as the novelist, particularly if you look at the text from a formalist point of view. The abuse of power is in a much more obvious way an underlying theme of the book. At the very beginning of the book, Marlow describes the western men as ‘Messengers of the might’ going into ‘the darkness’ to bring civilization to the ignorant races. They have no respect for the natives in the Congo and impose their superior culture on the people, and even have the arrogance to display it almost as a favor to the seemingly subservient race.

The theme of oppression is constant throughout the book and is highlighted dramatically towards the closing of the novella when it is revealed that Kurtz’s abuse of power has driven him mad, and left him to surround his house with a line of natives heads displayed on sticks. This powerful image summarises two main themes of the novella, both linked to the abuse of power. Firstly it shows how the abuse of power can leave you delirious, clearly shown by the character of Kurtz, through his mental and physical deterioration.

Secondly, it reveals the extreme extent to which white western men maintained supreme power over the natives. Contextually the abuse of power demonstrated in this novella is reflective of the real-life exploitation of the Congo during the late 1890s and early 18th century. King Leopold was abusing his position of power to exploit the Congo for its raw materials, it can be said that the vivid cruel and gruesome images Conrad conveys in the book are merely mirroring the harsh reality of the brutalization in Africa.

One could, therefore, conclude that due to Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo he has to tell his story through a framed narrative, as it may be too difficult for him to share his story in the first person. Whether this was the case or not, it is clear than in ‘Heart of Darkness’ Conrad reveals the abuse of power to be ever-present in the colonial age that Conrad lived in, and he demonstrates the abuse of power as something to be wary of and to fear, as it can result in madness.

Finally, the abuse of power in the Congo also demonstrates the hypocrisy of Imperialism through the corruption observed in ‘the company’. Before Marlow travels to the Congo itself he reveals that it was very difficult for him to ascertain a job, which would result in his exploration of the river which had charmed and fascinated him from childhood. It is at this point that Marlow decides to ask his aunt for help, and she manages to get him a job, which will take him where he desires to go. This clearly demonstrates that Marlow’s abuse of power right at the beginning of the book.

He then proceeds to judge others who are abusing power when he is in the Congo. For example, when the man in the white suit asks Marlow for a similar request that Marlow asked of his aunt, Marlow is appalled and immediately rejects the request and describes the man as ‘hollow’. The Hypocrisy here is evident. This demonstrates how the abuse of power can be perceived and tolerated differently by different characters in the story and could slightly undermine Marlow’s position as a credible narrator of the story.

Similarly, Frankenstein is written in a framed narrative, but in this instance, I do not believe that Shelly is abusing her power as a narrator, but is simply using the framed narrative to ease the audience into the novel, which will allow the story to seem more realistic, in terms of the scientific phenomena’s achieved by Frankenstein. One way that the abuse of power is shown in the novel is that the upper classes abuse their wealth, power, and education to satiate their frivolous desires. Frankenstein -who is such an important character his name lends to the title- is the clear symbol of the abuse of this power going wrong.

The second title of the book ‘the modern Prometheus’ implies that Frankenstein has power comparable to that of a God, however, the novel shows that the abuse of this power leaves Frankenstein isolated and eventually he ends up under the power of his own creation. One could interpret this as a warning, that the book is telling people not to interfere with powers that should be beyond human control. The frightening physical description of Frankenstein could embody the ugliness of un-godly creations, and show what the consequences of such acts would be.

One can conclude that Shelly is showing that the abuse of power is dangerous, revealed by the fact that Frankenstein’s abuse of power leaves him alone and scared, his closest family and friends are eliminated by his creation- an embodiment of his un-holy abuse of power. Contextually this theory is supported by the events taking place in the late 1790s and early 17th century as this was just after the Darwinist period where alternative theories were challenging the supremacy of God as a creator.

The fact that Shelly mentions Darwin in the preface to her book shows that her novel really could have been aiming to explore the consequences of challenging God and abusing power obtained through wealth and education. The idea that the obsession with power will not end well for those involved is furthered in ‘Frankenstein’ by the fact that Frankenstein’s creation ends up controlling every aspect of his life. The monster prevents Frankenstein from getting married; “Could I enter into a festival with this deadly weight yet hanging round my neck bowing me to the ground? and leaves Frankenstein living in constant fear of the monster. A discourse is observed as the monster slowly administers power over Frankenstein, where initially Frankenstein held all the power as the creator. This reinforces the idea that the book is a warning to man to be wary of abusing power. To conclude Conrad abuses his position of power as the novelist to distance himself from the novel, and both Heart of Darkness and Frankenstein show that the abuse of power eventually has terrible repercussions.

In Heart of Darkness, those who abuse power are eventually driven insane and are depicted in many cases as evil-one man in the book is even described in ways that one would only use to describe a devil; “paper Mestophilies” and “hooked nose” whereas In Frankenstein the abuse of power leaves the guilty party isolated and powerless. Both books also have a heavy contextual link and show that what was happening at the time of the writing of the books (people abusing power-Darwin and Colonists) were having or could have detrimental effects on society and/or to the individual involved.

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Abuse of Power in Heart of Darkness and in Frankenstein. (2016, Sep 27). Retrieved from


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