Imperialism in Heart of Darkness

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Before being published in the present form of the novel, Heart of Darkness was printed in a serial form in 1899 and then part of a volume entitled Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories in 1902. Based on Conrad’s own personal experiences after the African country of the Congo and the famous Congo River flowing through this country the story assumed the present novel. It was in this year 1890 that Conrad had performed his sailing trip upon the river Congo as a captain or skipper of a Belgian steamship.

During his trips, Conrad studied at first hand the conditions which prevailed in the Congo and formed his own impressions of the kind of life which the savages were leading under the imperialist Belgian rule. Conrad also observed the attitude of white traders and their manner of treating the native savages. His reaction to the treatment was unpleasant and, in fact, he was greatly dismayed and even shocked at what he observed. We find in his novel, Heart of Darkness, more or less a record of all this which experienced during his own travels through the Congo and the Dark Continent.

The title of the novel Heart of darkness signifies simply the interior of the dark country known as the Congo. The theme of Heart of Darkness is the conditions prevailing in the Congo under the imperialist rule of the Belgian King, Leopold II. These conditions include the impact of white traders and explorers on the life of the African savages, and the influence of the native way of life on the white man, with special reference to one man who is given the name of Kurtz. In fact, Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness has several themes, one of which is the theme of imperialist exploration of a backward country.

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In this essay I’ll show imperialism intervened with his life and Conrad as a victim of imperialism; the experiences of Conrad in the dark country of the Congo where the white man had become unsuccessful in performing civilizing function. I will end my essay discussing the white man’s callous treatment towards the native savages and demonstration of their hypocrisy in the novel. Joseph Conrad (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) worked as sailor on French and British ships before becoming a ‘naturalized British subject’ in 1886. He developed an elaborate and beautiful English prose style.

His work was adventurous and ‘darkly pessimistic’. “One of the most noted practioners of literary impressionism, Conrad offered a fictional rendering of subjective response that had a profound impact on writers like Ford Madox Ford and Virginia Woolf. He wrote that the primary task of the novelist was “to make you see. ”” Conrad was born in the city of Berdychiv in Russian-controlled Ukraine, on December 3, 1857. Conrad was orphaned at the age of eleven. His father was imprisoned by the Russians for his nationalist political activities. At the age of seventeen he went to Marseille to become an apprentice in the merchant marine.

He was hired to take a steamship into Africa, and according to Conrad, the experience of firsthand horrors of colonial rule left him a changed man. Heart of Darkness is a fictionalized exploration of his life. Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness is largely a record of Conrad’s own experiences in the dark country of the Congo. The character named Marlow, the chief narrator in the novel, is largely none else but Conrad. Marlow, like Conrad, experiences a strong sense of disillusion and disappointment after observing the behavior of the white traders and also the conditions of the natives.

There is a lot of resemblance between Conrad’s Congo Diary and the contents of the novel Heart of Darkness to justify such an assumption. It might be said that Marlow’s view of philosophy of life is very much the same as that of Conrad himself. Conrad in the novel talks about the unproductive efforts of the white-men to civilize the savages. The white-men instead became exploiters. At the time the Congo was being governed by the Belgian King, Leopold II, the Belgian trading companies were sending their agents into Congo for trading purposes.

The chief commodity these Belgians found worthy was ivory and to the native savages ivory was of no use. The white traders collected ivory and sent it to Europe where it could be used profitably. We can see, throughout the novel, the mention of ivory is constant and dominates the thoughts of almost all the white characters, like the manager of the Central Station, the Brick Maker, and many others. They loiter around the country in search of ivory and Marlow describes these agents as “faithless pilgrims”. ‘Subsequently we find that ivory not only dominates the thoughts of Mr.

Kurtz but has become an obsession with him. ’ Marlow is told by the manager of the Central station that Kurtz collects more ivory than all the other agents put together. Thus, ivory becomes the symbol of greed in the novel, symbolizing the white men’s greed and commercial mentality. We have the failure of Mr. Kurtz to civilize and uplift the savages of the Congo. Even Mr. Kurtz who has begun to identify himself with the savages, has done nothing for the uplift of the natives. Instead of improving their mode of life, he has himself become a savage in their company.

He has begun to satisfy his various lusts without any limits. Even in his prime of life, when he had supported the view about white man’s civilizing role, he had written down the following words conveying an opposite message “Exterminate all the brutes. ” Instead of a civilizing effect in the novel, we find the white man’s callous treatment towards the savages. The sight seen by Marlow after getting down from the streamer is very disheartening and freighting. This reflects the wretchedness and the misery of the natives of the Congo. Marlow sees a lot of black people mostly naked, moving about like ants.

Later he sees half a dozen men chained to one another, and each wearing an iron collar in his neck. Marlow feels deeply upset to see the sight. Alongside, there are quite a few other scenes which clearly demonstrate the hypocrisy of the white men. They are simply wasting time and effort to show that some kind of constructive work is going, while in actuality there is none. There is a project to construct a railway line in this region; but Marlow sees that a rock is being blasted with gunpowder even though this rock doesn’t stand as an obstruction. Then he also comes across some pieces of decaying machinery, and a large heap of rusty rails.

The whole effort of the white man is completely misdirected. The futility of the white man’s efforts becomes clearer when we come across certain employees of the trading company. Marlow’s description of the brick maker is satirical. He describes him as a “paper-mache Mephistopheles” because of this man’s cunning. In the end we may say that Conrad has exposed the Belgian imperialism in Heart of Darkness. There are wider implications of the Belgian imperialism as depicted by Conrad in his novel. It conveys to us the deceit, fraud, slave-trading and other cruelties of the Belgian rule.

But Conrad here is not only exposing the hollowness and the weakness of the Belgian imperialist rule over the Congo, but also indirectly remind us of the British imperialist rule over the countries of the world of his time. Heart of Darkness is an autobiographical novel, in the sense that the book contains indirectly Conrad’s own experiences in the dark country known as the Congo, and is a firsthand account of his own voyage upon the river also named as the Congo. But the novel is not a straight biography as Conrad doesn’t speak in his own person but through the character of Marlow and also through another narrator.

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Imperialism in Heart of Darkness. (2017, Apr 10). Retrieved from

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