Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness

Civilisation is relative. When Joseph Conrad published his eponymous novella Heart of Darkness in 1899, the Belgian colonial exploration and exploitation of the Congo were seen not just as acceptable by most of his contemporaries, but admirable. The courage of adventurers in leaving the civilised world of Europe and exploring the hitherto unknown, dark interior of Africa was unquestioned, as was their profiteering from plundering Africa’s resources. However, since the advent of modern critical theory in the twentieth-first century, critics have been able to look at Conrad’s novella through the “post-colonial” lens, which re-evaluates the assumption that non-European societies are necessarily inferior, and the “feminist” lens, which asserts the perspective of women in ways in which late nineteenth-century Europe did not.

Modern-day readers think about what constitutes a civilised society with these critical advantages, as well as having the benefit of hindsight. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ostensibly reinforces the dominant ideology of the Victorian era’s British society.

From a 21st century perspective, Conrad’s use of language and characterisation provide a substantial critique of European society and imperialism.

After Marlow’s steamer leaves the Central Station and proceeds up the “satanic snake” of the Congo River towards the Inner Station, Conrad presents Africa’s eerie, luxuriant vegetation as the inherent symbol of Africa’s “Otherness”, which is emphasised to present the negative measurement of the Africans and their world against the civilised rightness of the Eurocentric world. The Congo River is depicted as a stream of primitivism, “like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world” when “vegetation rioted” the earth — seen by the colonisers as an alien land.

Post-colonial critic Chinua Achebe highlights to those in the modern era the importance of repudiating Conrad’s attitude to Africans in the Congo as inferior beings in an alien jungle who deserve their subordination by their disgusted civilised conquerors. Through Marlow’s frame narration, Heart of Darkness reveals the wide gap between the aspirations of the official doctrines of colonialism and its actual practices. Marlow’s observations upon his arrival in Africa illustrate the material essence of the colonists. Achebe maintains that ‘you cannot diminish a people’s humanity and defend them’. Noting the identification of Africans as not just part of the wilderness, but being ‘savage’ beings themselves as evidenced by Conrad failing to provide Africa and its people their complete and complex humanity. Comparatively, Marlow’s descriptions of women similarly promote the perception of women being “ignorant”, “out of touch”, confined by a “world of their own”. In the same vain, Gabrielle McIntire suggests that Conrad merely permits the few women of the text’ conceptual knowledge of either Africa or Europe’. Contending that, Conrad is thereby reducing women to a representation of their geography and their context to men. Ergo, such limited depictions of women consequently support the patriarchal position of Conrad’s society, for it is a story told by a man, intended for men.

In Conrad’s hegemonic novella, featuring a world ruled by men, a handful of women are given bit parts; as if to say they are so marginal that their lack of presence is immaterial. Conrad, therefore, is limited in his ability to realise the plight of women in his text due to the superior standards which he holds men. As McIntyre describes, ‘The male protagonists possess both empirical and abstract conceptual knowledge of the colonial enterprise in both Africa and Europe’. Preoccupied with the physicality of women, Conrad’s androcentric novella ensures the “others” in his narrative are left effectively nameless, focusing instead on their race, appearance or context. The women, the fiancée and the Mistress of Mr Kurtz, are only known in reference to him – his fiancée as his Intended and the African woman merely as his beautiful “savage” Mistress. The narrator, Marlow, often depicts these two female characters as two-dimensional parodies instead of genuine people, striving to confine them to their geographic and proverbial station throughout the text. Though the women in Heart of Darkness are often relegated to the margins of the text, they are simultaneously unimportant and vitally important. The Intended and the Mistress are nonessential characters in terms of textual attention and spoken voice, yet they are imperative to Marlow, for they represent foundational symbols of colonialism. Their structurally and thematically notable role, then, is the representation (and consequent disruption) of civilisation and savagery, order and chaos, purity and sexuality respectively. Through the framed narrative, Marlow’s descriptions of women also reflect the notion of women being “ignorant”, “out of touch” and caged in a “world of their own”. Such a narrative structure upholds the patriarchal views of Conrad’s society, as it is a story told by a man, intended for men. In kind, Gabrielle McIntire suggests that Conrad merely permits the few women of the text’ conceptual knowledge of either Africa or Europe’.

Reinforcing the dominant ideology of Victorian England, Conrad’s protagonist embodies the notions that both women and Africans alike are a means to achieve power. Heart of Darkness depicts hegemony and ascendancy as two privileges of the European man. In Marlow’s perspective, Kurtz’s fiancée embodies the “civilised” woman who is white in all measures of the word – pure, “fair-skinned”, European – while Kurtz’s African Mistress is the epitome of “savagery” and “darkness”. As symbols, these two women are vital to colonialism, in that they justify the racism, ideals and false heroism of imperialist agendas. Kurtz attempts to depict his fiancée, in fact, like the proverbial figure of Justice, yet her appearance becomes an amalgamation of the Intended and the Mistress in such a way that it disrupts the empire of colonialism, which builds itself upon fictitious oppositional categories. The careful effort that Marlow and the other men in the novella perform to hold the two “types” of women separate is therefore threatened in this one sketch, highlighting the reality that the caricatures of the saintly European virgin and the “savage” and “superb” African Mistress are purely creations of the European masculinist and imperialist mind.

As an inquiry into the nature of colonialism and an exploration of cultural imperialism, the text reveals the hollowness behind the high ideals preached by the European colonisers. The Congolese are depicted as being under the totalitarian control of their colonial oppressors. Achebe contends that “Africa as setting and backdrop, which eliminates the African…” establishing that the African people are entirely aligned with the land which is being exploited for the profit and prosperity of the Company and hence, Europe as a whole. Marlow’s frame narrative, though burdened with an ethnocentric bias, is layered with different levels of critique on the colonial enterprise. The capacity to conquer the exotic “others” with brute force is, according to Marlow, ‘nothing to boast of,’ however the strength of this judgement, with Achebe’s assertion that Marlow’s sympathy for the dying African men, is merely superficial, primarily as their ‘darkness’ is later associated with exotically “other”.

Nonetheless, Conrad neither voices that Roman conquering, nor European colonialism are inherently wrong. Serving to elevate European society further, overtly stating that ‘solid pavement’, and a ‘butcher’ and ‘policeman’ are symbols of civility, Europe, and of utter disparity to the ‘darkness’ of Africa. Kurtz characterised as an idealist, a ‘prodigy’ who serves an ‘an emissary of pity’, ‘science’ and ‘progress.’ Initially anticipated to be a representative of the very ideals espoused by Marlow’s aunt, Kurtz is revealed to, rather than spreading the ‘light of civilisation’, Kurtz delivers a contemptible ‘darkness’ into the Congo. Through descriptions of the smell of ‘Primaeval mud,’ and the embodiment of the land as a ‘dumb’ commodity that ‘was perhaps deaf as well’ Conrad delineates a portrayal of a country, devoid of its humanity. The reader is positioned to sympathise with the plight of the Africans who possess no authority over their land. This is exemplified through some of Kurtz’s final words wherein he tells Marlow of “My Ivory, my station, my river.” In effect, exposing the fundamental beliefs held by Europeans.

Furthermore, women are presented as having a lack of agency and control. Through the portrayal and descriptions of the Intended, the reader is confronted by the severe absence of autonomy afforded to women. The irony of the situation where Marlow visits the Intended is accentuated by the ignorance that confines and sustains her — presented as a mild-mannered figure, consumed by the grief of losing the identity, which once provided a sense of place and duty within the Victorian society. Described as a woman “ready to listen” lacking in “mental reservation” and without “suspicion”, a woman without a “thought for herself” Marlow readily deceives the Intended about Kurtz’s dying words knowing she will accept this falsity. Thus he intentionally sustains her position ignorance and her duty to mourn.

Conrad’s eponymous novella Heart of Darkness is reflective of an era in which non-Europeans and women were regarded as mere props, backgrounds to highlight the brilliance of white European men. Regardless of the intellectual lens used to scrutinise and interpret the novella, it’s rendering of the cruelty of European civilisation in treating people of another race as the “Other” remains deeply disturbing. Conrad, as a male British author, is actively constructing British ideals of colonialism, masculinity, and normality in Heart of Darkness, whether consciously or unconsciously. This controversial text delved into the “Heart of Darkness” illuminating the political and social prerogatives of the Victorian Era. While fundamentally aiming to expose man’s susceptibility to evil, the text is ultimately a product of its time. Thus, Heart of Darkness remains necessary, even inevitable, a product of the Victorian colonial imperialism, which continues to shape our contemporary world. Conrad, therefore, simultaneously contributed to the development of modernist literary technique and exposed a crisis within the values of English liberal nationalism.

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