Heart Of Darkness

Heart of Darkness
In Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness the Europeans are
cut off from civilization, overtaken by greed, exploitation, and
material interests from his own kind. Conrad develops themes of
personal power, individual responsibility, and social justice. His
book has all the trappings of the conventional adventure tale –
mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, unexpected attack. The
book is a record of things seen and done by Conrad while in the
Belgian Congo. Conrad uses Marlow, the main character in the book, as
a narrator so he himself can enter the story and tell it out of his
own philosophical mind. Conrad’s voyages to the Atlantic and Pacific,
and the coasts of Seas of the East brought contrasts of novelty and
exotic discovery. By the time Conrad took his harrowing journey into
the Congo in 1890, reality had become unconditional. The African
venture figured as his descent into hell. He returned ravaged by the
illness and mental disruption which undermined his health for the
remaining years of his life. Marlow’s journey into the Congo, like
Conrad’s journey, was also meaningful. Marlow experienced the violent
threat of nature, the insensibility of reality, and the moral
We have noticed that important motives in Heart of Darkness
connect the white men with the Africans. Conrad knew that the white
men who come to Africa professing to bring progress and light to
“darkest Africa” have themselves been deprived of the sanctions of
their European social orders; they also have been alienated from the
old tribal ways.
“Thrown upon their own inner spiritual resources they may be
utterly damned by their greed, their sloth, and their hypocrisy into
moral insignificance, as were the pilgrims, or they may be so corrupt
by their absolute power over the Africans that some Marlow will need
to lay their memory among the ‘dead Cats of Civilization.'” (Conrad
105.) The supposed purpose of the Europeans traveling into Africa was
to civilize the natives. Instead they colonized on the native’s land
and corrupted the natives.
“Africans bound with thongs that contracted in the rain and
cut to the bone, had their swollen hands beaten with rifle butts until
they fell off. Chained slaves were forced to drink the white man’s
defecation, hands and feet were chopped off for their rings, men were
lined up behind each other and shot with one cartridge , wounded
prisoners were eaten by maggots till they die and were then thrown to
starving dogs or devoured by cannibal tribes.” (Meyers 100.)
Conrad’s “Diary” substantiated the accuracy of the conditions
described in Heart of Darkness: the chain gangs, the grove of death,
the payment in brass rods, the cannibalism and the human skulls
on the fence posts. Conrad did not exaggerate or invent the horrors
that provided the political and humanitarian basis for his attack on
colonialism. The Europeans took the natives’ land away from
them by force. They burned their towns, stole their property, and
enslaved them. George Washington Williams stated in his diary,
“Mr. Stanley was supposed to have made treaties with more than
four hundred native Kings and Chiefs, by which they surrendered their
rights to the soil. And yet many of these people declare that they
never made a treaty with Stanley, or any other white man; their lands
have been taken away from them by force, and they suffer the greatest
wrongs at the hands of the Belgians.” (Conrad 87.) Conrad saw intense
greed in the Congo. The Europeans back home saw otherwise; they
perceived that the tons of ivory and rubber being brought back home
was a sign of orderly conduct in the Congo. Conrad’s Heart of
Darkness mentioned nothing about the trading of rubber. Conrad
and Marlow did not care for ivory; they cared about the exploration
into the “darkest Africa.” A painting of a blindfolded woman carrying
a lighted torch was discussed in the book. The background was dark,
and the effect of the torch light on her face was sinister. The oil
painting represents the blind and stupid ivory company, fraudulently
letting people believe that besides the ivory they were taking out of
the jungle, they were, at the same time, bringing light and progress
to the jungle.Conrad mentioned in his diary that missions were set
up to Christianize the natives. He did not include the missions into
his book because the land was forcibly taken away from the natives,
thus bringing in a church does not help if the natives have no will.
Supplies brought in the country were left outdoors and abandoned, and
a brick maker who made no bricks, lights up the fact that the
Europeans do not care to help the natives progress. When Marlow
reached the first station, he saw what used to be tools and supplies,
that were to help progress the land, laid in waste upon the ground.
“I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a
path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the boulders and also
for an undersized railway truck lying there on its back with its
wheels in the air…. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery,
a stack of rust rails…. No change appeared on the face of the rock.
They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way of
anything, but this objectless blasting was all the work going on.”
(Conrad 19.)
George Washington Williams wrote in his diary that three and a half
years passed by, but not one mile of road bed or train tracks was
made. “One’s cruelty is one’s power; and when one parts with one’s
cruelty, one parts with one’s power,” says William Congreve, author of
The Way of the World. (Tripp 206.) The Europeans forcibly took away
the natives’ land and then enslaved them. All the examples given are
part of one enormous idea of cruelty – cruelty that the European white
men believe because its victims are helpless. These are mystical
revelations of man’s dark self.
1. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness: Backgrounds and Criticisms.
New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1960.
2. Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad. New York: Charles Scribner’s
Sons, 1991.
3. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough.
New York: Norton Critical, 1988.
4. Williams, George Washington. A Report upon the Congo – State and
Country to the President of the Republic of the United States of
America. Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert
Kimbrough. New York: Norton Critical 1988. 87.
5. Tripp, Rhoda Thomas. Thesaurus of Quotations. New York: Thomas
Y. Crowell, 1970.


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