Conrad Essay

     If stream-of-consciousness writing is “the impression of actions and not the straightforward telling of actual events,” then the nut analogy applied to Marlow’s narration at the beginning of Heart of Darkness could be taken as the expression of a stylistic approach, as well as an historical vision and assumption about meaning.  Marlow’s “yarn” is concerned with historical darkness, the darkness of all peoples and places (exemplified by England’s history) at a given period of development—namely the time before “civilization.”  “’And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth’” (Conrad, 2002 - Conrad Essay introduction. p. 105).  This observation is the shell of the nut whose kernel is to be the story of Kurtz, and of Marlow’s journey down the Congo to find him.  Marlow’s meaning is: England was once primitive, as Africa is now.  At a period when Social-Darwinist theory was prevalent as a philosophical justification for exploitation of “the weak,” the assertion regarding Western Europe’s civilized superiority will receive, in Marlow’s (and Conrad’s) narration, a retrospectively ironic handling—yet one shrouded in the mists of jungle and river, as in the complex psychology of Marlow’s admiration and disapprobation of the recollected Kurtz.

     Marlow’s story abounds in statements of his sense of the unreality of colonial Africa.  The shelling of the African bush by a French warship, the grove where sick laborers are left to die without food or medical aid, the incomprehensible antics of tribal villagers along the Congo waterway are all suggestive to him of a fundamental and hallucinatory  “wrongness” in the colonial situation—a perception foreshadowed in the text at the point when he has left his aunt’s house to prepare for the outward voyage.  He undergoes “a startled pause.”  He feels that “instead of going to the centre of a continent, I were about to set off for the centre of the earth” (p. 113).  Yet to go to Africa as a European is to go as an exploiter, a man of mercenary propensities, a member of the “superior” race free to advance his personal interests at the expense of any and all “natives” of the exploited locale.  Psychologically, the exploiter is expected to abandon restraints, as the manager and the “pilgrims” of the inner station do.  He also has the privilege of gilding his baseness and brutality with claims of a “higher,” “civilizing” intent—Kurtz will prove the exemplar of this particular form of self-delusion.  The examining physician in Brussels even suggests the possibility of a physical change—an alteration in head shape.  Yet the ironizing doctor also implies that the most usual physical metamorphosis is disappearance: death by some means or other.  “Oh I never see them,” he remarks of the all the outward-bound employees he has examined, when Marlow enquires whether he ever re-examines them.

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     With regard to the issue of motives and their philosophical rendering for purposes of an edifying version of what distinguishes an advanced civilization from a less advanced one, it is worth quoting Marlow on the ancient Roman conquerors in the territory of what is now England.

He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is…detestable.  And it has fascination, too, that goes to work upon him.  The fascination of the abomination—you know.  Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate. …Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this.  What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency (p. 106).

Marlow ascribes efficiency to his listeners, as the civilized trait par excellence.  Yet Kurtz, the gifted and self-justifying exemplar of modern, “civilized” colonialism, becomes in the tale an exemplar also of ultimate degeneracy, final corruption—a fall from heights of exalted dual-purposed-ness whose moral weight is summed up in the incandescent phrasing: “The horror!  The horror!” (p. 178).

     It may be, however, that Kurtz’s degeneracy is not different in kind, though tellingly so in degree, from that of the run of colonials.  With them it is less a matter of being set apart by “efficiency” than by the possession of guns and technologies such as steam-whistles, by which the Congo natives are terrified into submission or flight.  Social-Darwinist thinking amounts to little more than “might makes right,” after all.  Kurtz, with his arsenal of shotguns and rifles, is said to be wielding “the thunderbolts of [a] pitiful Jupiter” (p. 167).  The fact is that Kurtz proves himself, by his success in rounding up ivory by the most violent and exploitative methods, to be the most “efficient” of the colonials, exciting admiration, or envy, universally.  But whether “might” in Kurtz’s case has made any sort of “right” at all—in Marlow’s estimation, or in anyone’s—would necessitate some careful defining of terms and a much longer essay.

Social Darwinism and Civilization in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness





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Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness explores themes of Social Darwinism and the inner truth of civilization for European colonial imperialism, with narrative complexity and ironic effect.

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Conrad, J. (2002). Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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