Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness is a detailed examination of the imperialistic movement of European civilization to invade the blank spaces of the global maps and stamp their culture and economic dominance over the colonized region as seen through the travels and travails of the sea-man narrator Marlow in the heart of the Congo basin. In Heart of Darkness Conrad laid bare the dark foundations of the imperialist undertaking in characters whose souls are wrecked by their experiences.
The novel argues Conrad’s problematic approach to colonization, analyzing European notions and values that form the fundamental basis of their enterprise, shrouded in Eurocentric ideologies. At the center of the colonizing desire is a mercenary drive for commerce at the expense of native blood. “They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade” (Conrad 73)
For the atypical sailor Charlie Marlow, his stories are not the simple yarns of seamen, but rather his subjective interpretation on the lives, foreign and natives inhabiting the worlds he explores as part of his sea-voyage.
His perspective of imperialism is not one of condemnation and judgmental criticism; rather it is an ambivalent observation of the colonial activities in the dark heartland of Africa. Even the title is the result of the colonial master’s confrontation with the realities of the land they invade, the ‘darkness’ of their unawareness as they penetrate to view the truth behind the ignorance. Right from the beginning of the novel, Marlow clarifies his idea of the imperialistic nature of the Belgian Company over Congo, referring to the city of the Continental Trading Company as “whited sepulchre”. Unlike George Orwell’s rigid anti-imperialistic stance and investigation of the social conscience in his Burmese Days, for Conrad’s Marlowe it is not the exploitation of the colonized populace that is the fundamental wrong of the imperialistic system; it is the total inefficiency of the strategy, the lack of a guiding philosophy in the arrogant display of power of the colonist over the weak native. “What saves us is efficiency — the devotion to efficiency… They were no colonists… They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness” (Conrad 69). For the narrator Marlow, the philosophy is imperialism stands much higher than the mere power-grabbing of greedy traders over the native treasures of the dark unknown expanse of Congo: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . .” (Conrad 69-70).
Throughout the text, Conrad deals with the colonial enterprise in a detached way, without impressing his subjective criticism. The imperial expansion is described through the colors of maps: “a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red — good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer”(Conrad 73). The episode of his forty-five seconds’ interview and instant appointment, the ominous bare atmosphere of the company office seem to be deprived of the usual trapping of ceremony associated with grand enterprises. Everything was under wraps, secret, very hush-hush. Marlow was sworn to a confidentiality clause, though ironically, none return from the continental voyage, reiterated time and time to Marlow. The picture of the knitting ladies guarding the Gate of Darkness, waving never-to-return adventurers to their trading mission anticipates the unknown dangers lurking in the darkness they were about to penetrate. It is interesting to note the contrast in the views held by the doctor and Marlow’s aunt about the Company men down in the centre of Africa. The doctor implies that these “messieurs” (Conrad 75) are mere fools, that streaks of hereditary madness forces them on such missions, and the exploration completely metamorphoses the individual from inside – “the changes take place inside” the crania( Conrad 75). On the other hand, for the Aunt (representative of the general society at large) the European imperialist is hailed as the beacon of hope and light for the uncivilized race of the dark land: “like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle… She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’… I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit” (Conrad 76). The ultimate aim of economic profit, the greed motivating the necessity of the dangerous journey is masked by the feel-good civilizing duty undertaken by the white man. In this context, the portrait of Kurtz is interesting as well as misleading: ‘He is an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,…for the guidance of the cause intrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose’ (92). The supposed altruistic motive overriding the economic purpose of the imperialistic enterprise speaks of the glorified myth presented to feed the imagination of Western society.
Marlow narrates that he was like an imposter heading towards the center of the earth. Even the physical relief of the region seemed forbidding – the dark-green, almost black jungle coast lined with white surf as seen from the sea-vessel navigating forced entry into the unknown to raid its native treasures in the name of colonial trade. The man-of-war shelling the coast, apparently engaged in war, seemed the first oddity in Marlow’s ordered universe of Western assumptions, his first view of the “merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb” (Conrad 79). The sun or the country was too much for the Swede who hung himself on the road. Again, the death of the Dane captain Fresleven as a result of the scuffle over hens exposes the wildness of the European isolated from the western eye of civilization and relegated to the struggle for survival in the pit of God- forsaken wilderness.“Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs. No doubt he was; but he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way”(72). The backlash on the colonial enterpriser consequent of the imperialistic imposition and confrontation with the native world is cited recurrently in Marlow’s narrative. The mindless detonation on the hillside, the chained savages compelled to toe the line by the armed white man, the overturned machinery contributed to Marlow’s apprehension that he would encounter in this heartland of darkness “a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly” (81). Marlow’s horror at the pathetic scene of black death in the inferno of the hillside shade is a strong statement on the cruelties perpetrated by the white outsiders and his offering a biscuit to the groaning dying shape seemed a hopeless attempt at salvation.
They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now — nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.
Conrad emphasizes the white man’s greed in contrast to the Eurocentric myth of the white man’s noble intention of painstaking civilizing of the savages. He brings to notice the “conspicuous objects of imperialistic desire, the gold of Almayer’s Folly, the ivory of Heart of Darkness and the silver of Nostromo [which] serve as emblems of avarice” (Parry 5). Gary Adelman comments, “As the journey proceeds from the Coastal Station to Kurtz’s outpost, darkness increasingly becomes associated with savagery, cannibalism, and human sacrifice, with Africans as the embodiment of these ideas”( Heart of Darkness: Search for the Unconscious). The novel explores the facets of the colonial reality as well as comments heavily on the race factor which gives the European outsider the apparent right of superiority. The natives are called brutes by Kurtz calling for their extermination, their annihilation. They may be subjected to extermination the way animals are considered pests and killed consequently. (Firchow 152) Conrad’s indictment of the Belgian Company’s imperialism subverts any evidence of civilization that was brought to Africa by the Europeans ( Firchow 65). Kurtz’s success is a tirade of forceful exploitation of the African reserves of ivory and his character is emblematic of the real face of colonization.
Conrad’s subtle insinuation that Marlow adhered to the belief in the imperialistic mission is revealed in the way the natives are almost dehumanized throughout the text of the novel. The dying in the hillside are just black shapes, the African woman washing the Chief Accountant’s linen has been tamed (how this has been achieved is left to the readers’ imagination), and everywhere the native inhabitants are subverted into an unnamed general cluster. This subtle oppression of nonwhites is much more ominous and incorrigible than the violence of Kurtz or the exploitation of the Company’s men. Africans are for Marlow a background, a human setting for his philosophical and existential struggles.
The picture of endless waiting for the company’s men, suffering irritation, frustration, sickness and madness is presented as evident side-effects of the colonial invasion. The accountant’s continuous filing entries in the midst of work and death, the man trying to douse the blaze with a leaking pail of water, the first-class agent waiting for his supply to manufacture bricks in the pit of Congo wilderness – are strokes of Conrad’s creation to drive home the double-edged impact of imperialism on the colonized as well as the colonizer.
The situation for the colonizer from the experience of Marlow is as difficult physically as it is mentally. The machinery was ineffective, the process unorganized (plates without rivets), sailing vessels broken – needing repair, and a continual wait for progress to be made. The mud was everywhere, the sun and heat irritated the mind, disease afflicted the body – and far away from the scrutiny and amenities of Western civilization, most outsiders became consumed by the darkness of the continent.
Marlow’s interest in Kurtz stems from the latter’s successful integration into the texture of the life in the Congo world, from the western point of view, successful as an ivory trader; the man worshipped by the natives and even in death bed, woefully listing the grand plans he had in his African mission. The more Marlow penetrates into the prehistoric earth, the more remote he becomes from the western world he knows and the dark world of the forested shores that he does not know; the only goal seeming ‘real’ to him is the figure of Kurtz in the Inner Station. The attack through the fog opens questions about the ironic contrast in the conduct between the violent pilgrims and the dignified native-crew. The funeral of the helmsman indicates a point of no-return for Marlow, though he becomes disheartened at the thought of Kurtz’ probable death and never getting to meet the intriguing legend. The blood-soaked shoes thrown overboard are symbolic of Marlow’s shedding his western reserves to plunge even deeper into the heart of the darkness he aspired to comprehend.
The actual meeting with the withered bald, as Marlow says, “disinterred” (121) Kurtz after several second-hand information and mystery hyped up about him is an anti-climax; almost akin to the myth and image created by the white explorers who come as Company men to trade, are hailed as messiahs of civilization by the Western society, and prove their evil facets of their gilded persona in the loneliness of the wild Congo basin. Kurtz symbolizes the aberrant for the Company policy, therefore set up as the scapegoat by the hypocritical ‘pilgrims’; to Marlow, he is the better choice of two nightmares, distancing himself from the Company men as he aligns with Kurtz; to the harlequin Russian, Kurtz is the epitome of knowledge, an eccentric god provoking admiration and awe. Kurtz becomes for Conrad the living illustration of what ‘civilized’ man can regress into, without the watchdog presence of the social and moral policing of the European world. Marlow narrates to his companions on the Thames:
You should have heard him say, ‘My ivory.’ Oh, yes, I heard him. ‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my — ‘ everything belonged to him… Everything belonged to him — but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own… He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land — I mean literally. You can’t understand… how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude — utter solitude without a policeman — by the way of silence — utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness.
The irony of the altruistic myth of imperialism was heightened by the fact that Kurtz was the representative of the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs as his eloquent seventeen-page report attested, before “his nerves, went wrong” ( Conrad 123). The manifestation of the grotesque ornamental skulls entails a close look at the cruel actuality of the jungle existence.
In the post-colonial reading of the novel, the presence of the Intended and the African mistress reflect the darkness and reality of the colonial world. Kurtz remained the apostle of goodness, the higher ideal for his Intended, the image of the moral righteousness of the imperialist; for the bejeweled mistress his truth was the naked individual in the pit of African wilderness, power-mongering, violent, ivory-trader. Interestingly, it is never overtly mentioned that she is his mistress. Maybe, the juxtaposition of the uncivilized with the white man would shake the foundations of the pedestal he was placed onto. Conrad’s gaps and obscurities enhance the readers’ interpretive curiosity on the levels of darkness explored in the narrative.
In conclusion, Conrad urges the reader to explore the darkness in its multi-faceted dimensions – the untraveled terrain, the ‘darkness’ of the geographical wilderness of the Congo basin; the ‘darkness’ of the web of lies and myth screening the harsh actuality of the imperialistic mission in Africa; and finally, the ‘darkness’ within the human soul, the evil madness of the human mind and desires controlled within the bounds of civilization, unrestrained in the lone spaces of the wild jungle. The veil of colonial reality “had been rent” and the truth exposed, as Kurtz cried out on the brink of death – “”‘The horror! The horror!’” (Conrad 147) The horror of disillusionment as the darkness of ignorance dispelled is the fulcrum of Conrad’s captivating story.
Adelman, Gary. Heart of Darkness: Search for the Unconscious. Twayne’s masterwork studies, no. 5. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center. < http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/ >
Firchow, Peter Edgerly. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1899.
Orwell, George. Burmese Days. Fairfield: 1st. World Library, 2004.
Parry, Benita. Conrad and Imperialism: Ideological Boundaries and Visionary Frontiers. London: Macmillan Press, 1983.
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