The Idea of Colonialism in Heart of Darkness

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It can be argued that what makes Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ such an iconic, as well as divisive novella, is how it tackles major themes such as imperialism and even begins to criticize the intervention of European nations in Africa. It questions the morality of colonialism itself and is one of the first western novels to truly challenge it. It is considered a ground-breaking story in how it shows the flaws of colonialism and the hypocrisy of it, how Mr. Kurtz travels to the Congo to ‘exterminate the brutes’ and yet by the time that Marlow meets him he is one of them.

It argues that the African way of life is actually the natural one. When viewed from a post-colonial perspective it is the attempts of the colonizer to civilize Africa that appears unnatural and that ultimately has the greatest negative impact. On the other hand, the almost exclusion of any well-developed native characters appears essentially racist from Conrad. Postcolonialism revolves around a sense of equality in power and the fact that a novel set in the Congo relies so heavily on white Europeans for its entire narrative is a massive drawback.

Colonialism is a process through which one society is forced upon another, one world attempts to civilize another. The impression created of Africa and the colonized has always been negative, Africa is a world to be controlled, a place of opportunity for exploitation. The natives are simple and uncivilized. Despite all of this perception, Conrad’s novella provides a new view, contrary to the concept that it is only normal for the white European world to control and use Africa. Africa exists only to be colonized.

Conrad proposes that it is in fact the western European civilization that is unnatural. To live as the natives do in Africa is ‘like traveling back to the very beginnings of the earth’. The river Congo as Conrad presents it is the natural world at its purest, the tribesmen are living as man is meant to. Marlow speaks of ‘this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you..’ This is a large extract from text but is essential in assessing Conrad’s commentary on colonialism. The African way of life is natural it calls out to Marlow and what is truly unnatural is the western way of life ‘between the policeman and the butcher’ a world in which ones primal and natural instincts are suppressed and replaced with civilization.

‘The Earth is a place to live in’ and this is how Conrad presents his Africa. It is a primal world so far detached from the unnatural and unearthly ‘white sepulchral city’ of Europe. Something in the actions of the tribesmen calls out to a part of Marlow and in presenting this revolutionary concept, it can be argued that Conrad is a pioneer for anti-colonial critics and it goes some way to suggesting the timeless quality of the novel. Conrad is among the first to suggest that not only is colonialism inhume and even morally compromising but before anything else it is unnatural. What is most evil about imperialism, is not the mistreatment of workers to the extent that they ‘are dying slowly’ until they are no longer considered by Marlow to be ‘earthly’ but rather this attempt top enforce one civilization upon another. This is ‘the horror’ that corrupts Marlow, he is driven insane in this alien world that colonialism has created.

In his commentary of British imperialism through his acclaimed short novel ‘Shooting an Elephant’, George Orwell claims that ‘when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys’. Nowhere is this more evident than through the character of Kurtz. He travels to the Congo to ‘exterminate the brutes’ and yet it is this task that kills him, he loses control of even his own mind. This is the hypocrisy of imperialism, it is so centred on increasing power, wealth and reputation and yet Kurtz finds himself imprisoned in his own mind. This is perhaps why Post-Colonial critic Albert J. Guerard of Stanford University described Heart of Darkness as ‘among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language’. It transcends its genre and even time period as these universal themes of power, control and human nature go so far beyond even imperialism. It can be argued that in ‘Heart of Darkness’ Conrad has produced a progressive masterpiece that not only questions the morality of colonialism but also human nature.

On the other hand, it can be viewed that Heart of Darkness is neither timeless nor a ground-breaking novel, particularly according to acclaimed author and post-colonial critic Chinua Achebe who claims that what is most negative, and most ‘offensive’ about the novella is that it is considered to be revolutionary. Conrad should instead be viewed from this absolute anti-colonial perspective as a ‘thoroughgoing racist’. Conrad intends no real comment upon colonialism, if he did there would at least be some focus upon the natives themselves. Heart of Darkness actually goes beyond imperialism, it is a commentary upon the human soul, upon evil. So weak is the influence of imperialism upon Conrad that ‘Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the human soul’.

For the question to be realistically answered, the colonizer and colonized must be equals, Conrad refuses to do this, to Conrad the natives of the Congo are no more than tools ‘not human’. The natives are the embodiment of evil, the embodiment of this ‘unearthly earth’. Conrad presents the natives as simple, as something to be controlled. Even when they attempt to attack Marlow’s vessel, they use weapons that ‘look as though they couldn’t kill at cat’ and yet the only man affected is the helmsman, the native who Conrad portrays as dressed in Western clothes to be ‘as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches’. To Marlow, these are not men but rather untamed beasts. The natives are presented as the embodiment of evil, and to Achebe Africa is the chosen setting ‘for the disintegration of the human soul’.

Africa is presented by Conrad as ‘the center of the earth’, the effect of the ‘horror’ of the ‘wildernesses’ on the colonizer will always be negative, any attempt to humanize this place is futile, it brings out the worst side of the human to the extent that even Marlow wants ‘to hate those savages to death’. The only real positive presented throughout the novel is the presence of Kurt, his reputation is presented throughout the novel and all along the river as standing out ‘pre-eminently’ his ‘gift of expression’ Kurtz is a ‘pulsating stream of light … from the heart of impenetrable darkness’. The only possible thing that can make this truly evil place appear bearable to Marlow is the presence of a European. Here Colonialism is presented as saving this part of the world, showing it the ‘light’, without the presence of the influence of Europe this region of Africa would be condemned to complete darkness. It would be evil without restraint, without any hope of civilization.

Overall, in conclusion, whilst there is a great substance in the argument presented most by prominently Chinua Achebe in how the works of Conrad are far from timeless, there is evidence of prejudice towards Africa as any real sympathy is presented by Conrad in a, manner that can be viewed as even patronizing. However, despite all of this, it has to be remembered that this novel was written in 1899, the world and what should be seen as acceptable has changed. The fact that Conrad has managed to achieve a commentary that questions not only the nature of African society but also something progressive enough to question the very morality of imperialism.

Heart of Darkness is far from the finished article, it refuses to count natives as real developed people, and it often sees Africa as ‘the antithesis of Western civilization’ but despite this Conrad can be viewed as a pioneer. His progressive perspective on imperialism paved the way for authors like Chinua Achebe, it created an atmosphere for questioning of the very nature of colonization and so I must be in agreement with the statement to an almost full extent. The greatest impact of colonialism in Heart of Darkness is upon the colonizer in Kurtz, this cannot be doubted and so it cannot be doubted that the statement in question is correct.

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The Idea of Colonialism in Heart of Darkness. (2020, Sep 20). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-idea-of-colonialism-in-heart-of-darkness/

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