English Literature » Notes » Imperialism In “Heart of Darkness”

Imperialism In “Heart of Darkness”

Alternate theme: Discuss the Theme of Imperialism In Heart of Darkness.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a classic novel which reward individuals with their dark nature. The darkness that the characters face within themselves is the anchor towards the main theme of imperialism. Native Africans, around the early 1900s, were victims of imperialism in the novel. The Europeans saw themselves as prodigies and felt everyone redundant wanted to be like them for they perceived themselves as extraordinary.

The Europeans thought so highly of themselves that they wanted to civilize what they perceived the Native Africans to be—savages. Ironically, the process of civilization became imperialism, and the Europeans were the definition of savage while the Native Africans perceived themselves as civilized. Conrad strategically evolved this theme with the narrative of his novel and the various tones and symbols he used revolving around imperialism. These literary strategies and devices led readers to understand the secret of the darkness in the European heart, which was European imperialism.

Entering the novel, Conrad has the narrator explain:

It was difficult to realize that his (the Director of Companies) work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him within the brooding gloom

Here, Conrad’s use of pathetic fallacy forewarns his audience from the very beginning that the European companies are working in an unlawful matter. The Europeans are vague, and the fact they are working within the dark makes them more malicious.

This behaviour leads to having an imperialistic nature because in order to have the desire to take over a race, in this case the Native Africans, one needs to already be in tuned with their dark nature. Conrad includes a second narrator, the protagonist to The Heart of Darkness, who makes a remark to the beautiful sunset over the Thames river in London saying:

And this also…has been one of the dark places of the earth

or Marlow to reveal a beautiful image of England as being “one of the dark places of the earth” (Page 1), tells individuals that the Europeans are morally corrupt (Shmoop. om). For the Europeans to do the morally bankrupt task of ‘civilizing’ the Native Africans, whom they acclaimed them to be the morally corrupt, only infers that the Europeans committed an offence to be proven guilty of the false accusation. The offence being imperialism; to be remarked as morally corrupt suggests that they encountered savage-like behaviours against the Native Africans. Therefore, through the narrative at the very beginning of the novel, one can infer that imperialism evolves as the Europeans are justified to have the dark nature to civilize a nation.

Conrad sets the tone by casting a “mournful gloom”, atop London. And,

The air was dark above Gravesend and farther back still seems condensed into a mournful gloom…over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth

This infers that darkness is bestowed on the purity of the “greatest town on earth”

Conrad decides to incorporate a mood-shifter to infer that the Europeans are victims to a form of darkness and that negative events will follow. Since their goal in the novel is to civilize the Native Africans, it is forewarned that they will try to civilize them with dark power leading to imperialism.

Another area where Conrad sets a dark, gloomy mood would be when Marlow talks about humans being drawn to their madness hidden within their darkest self.

The fascination of the abomination—you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate

Marlow’s words bring out the theme of curiosity; the curiosity of what lies within the darkest areas of an individual. This quote states that humans are fascinated with their abomination because they have not yet experienced it; but once they have, they feel powerless and yearn to escape, but the abomination overtakes them.

This certain curiosity of evil and darkness is what reigns over Europe. They are so curious of their own darkness that they themselves get lost within it and become the culprits of imperialism. Thus, through the moods and tones Conrad implants at the very beginning of his novel, he brings forth the coming of events which evolve into the realization of imperialism. Conrad uses symbolism in The Heart of Darkness to heighten the approach towards imperialism. For example, the reader’s encounter with the Accountant of the ivory trading Company in the outer region of Africa.

Marlow describes him as an elegant dresser:

…I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision

Here, Marlow enters the beginning of his journey to the heart of Africa, and seeing the Accountant dress beautifully makes him seem like some kind of “miracle” (Page 16) since their setting at the particular moment is in contrast. The Accountant symbolizes the Company and its excellence, professionalism, and perfection. Despite the blazing heat and his surroundings of poverty, he always dresses well. This is the professionalism of the Company.

The fact he immerses himself within his accounting books represents the Company’s excellence and perfection. But although he is a man of perfection, the fact that the sight of suffering Native Africans distracts him and causes mistakes in his work, this symbolizes the room for error in the Company. This is an approach towards imperialism because wrong and unjust actions are seen as ‘errors’ in which the Company is a culprit of. Also, the symbolization of flies and its representation of death heighten the approach to imperialism as well. Ever since the devil is nicknamed, the Lord of the Flies, flies have represented death. Flies are seen in parts one and three when slaves, as well as a man named Kurtz, have their life taken away. Since the flies are associated with the devil, this implies that the devil, or the darkness that overcomes Europeans, have a connection with the deaths of human lives. Therefore, Conrad uses different symbols such as the spotless attire of the Accountant and the devil’s flies to inform readers about the imperialistic actions of Europeans. Joseph Conrad uses narrative schemes, sets moods and tones, as well as involves symbolism to approach his major theme of imperialism.

He takes readers to the darkness of the human soul, a space which reigns in every single human being. This allows the individuals to take note that they can be greatly influenced by their darkness: creating the ability to carry out unjust behaviours, such as committing imperialistic actions. Therefore, this novel is a great commentary to human error, such as being past culprits of imperialism, and brings awareness to human morality.

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