The Themes of "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad

May 28, 2020 by Essay Writer

“The Heart of Darkness” by Conrad is one of the great novels of English literature. This novel exposes the greed, malice and selfishness of the European men. They exploit the wealth of Africa in the name of civilizing the natives. They take away their ivory and in return gave them hunger, destitution, poverty, degradation and death. The English men of this novel lack morals and conscience. Conrad observed the hypocrisy of his country men and exposed it in a marvelous way in this short piece of art.

Feder (1955) is of the view that Heart of Darkness is an allegory that takes into account the soul’s journey through purgatory and hell to salvation, and that expedition is analogous to the pursuit for the Holy Grail or is equivalent to expedition of Dante’s Inferno. (p. 290) Conrad major objective in writing a sea-voyage is best expressed in one of his letter that manifests that his major concern was that the “public mind fastens on externals, on mere facts, such for instance as ships and voyages, without paying attention to any deeper significance they might have.

” (Jean-Aubry, 1927, pp.320-321)

The theme of Imperialism:

“The Heart of Darkness” is another expose of imperialism like Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress”. In “Heart of Darkness” Conrad vehemently denunciated imperialism and racialism without damning all men who through the accident of their birth in England were committed to these public policies. According to Eloise Knapp Hay (1963), “ to a man for whom” “race” meant “nation” more than “pigmentation”, and for whom “nation” was a sacred image, the nineteenth century civilization of racialism as a means of commercial profit through tyranny was history’s most agonizing chapter.

In conveying the effect upon his mind, he could only imagine the worst torments of hell invoke Virgil and Dante who had seen as if hell with their own eyes…..and add to their testimony what he had seen with his eyes in the Congo. Yet, like Virgil and Dante, Conrad lived in  a historical moment …everything that was good in England had been thrown, along with the bad, into the “ competition in the acquisition of territory and the struggle for influence and control”, which, according to William Langer, “was the most important factor in the international relations of Europe” between 1890 and 1910.

It seemed that when Conrad actually began the writing of “heart of darkness”, he was deeply absorbed in two questions: his loyalty, both as man and as writer, to England, and his acute mistrust of the way the “civilizing work” was being accomplished by the European powers in south-east Asia and in Africa.

In this novel he brings before us the nature of “western superiority” in primitive lands. Reading this story repeatedly, we know that the dark English coast before him recalls for Marlow the darkness of modern Africa, which is the natural darkness of the jungle but more than that the darkness of moral vacancy, leading to the atrocities he has beheld in Africa. This moral darkness of Africa, we learn later, is not the darkness of the ignorance of the natives, but of the Whiteman who blinded themselves and corrupted the natives by their claim to be light-bearers.

Talking of the roman conquest of England, Conrad says, it was “just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and men going at it blind-as is very proper for those who tackle darkness”. What Romans had done in England, the English did in South Africa.

Marlow admits that English conquests, like all others, “means the taking away it from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves,” though Kurtz went to the African jungle with an idea to civilize the natives; he saw his mission in Africa as that of torch bearer for white civilization. But very soon he starts extracting from the natives human sacrifices to himself as god. Finally, his hatred for the natives plunged to the depth out of which came his prescription of the only method for dealing with primitive people: “Exterminate the brutes!”

Marlow will establish in his more lucid moments that what is black in Africa is what has a right to be there. If whiteness finally emerges as moral vacuity, blackness finally appears as reality, humanity and truth. The matter is more complex still, for along with the physical blackness of men and the metaphoric blackness of unchartered regions of the earth; the darkness Conrad has been suggesting all along is the forced expulsion of whatever is displaced by “light,” whatever is displaced by civilization-the expulsion of Africa’s native virtues by Europe’s self-righteousness.

The European Whiteman in Africa is parasites; they are hollow; they have no personal moral vision of their inhumanity and folly. They are also collapsible, because their society’s institutions are incapable to hold them up. Ivory has become the idol of the foolish run of European pilgrims; and Kurtz is no exception.” all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”

Criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness:

Walter Allen (1955) believes that, “The Heart of Darkness of the title is at once the heart of Africa, the heart of evil- everything that is nihilistic corrupt and malign – and perhaps the heart of man”. (p. 122) According to Conrad (1958) himself, the story of “heart of darkness” is about the “criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing working Africa”. (p. 37) In the story Marlow makes much of the inefficiency and selfishness he sees everywhere along his journey in Africa. But it is the criminality of the civilizing work itself that receives the heaviest emphasis in the novel as a whole.

J.W.Beach (1932) believes that Kurtz is the representative and dramatization of all that Conrad felt of futility and horror in what the Europeans in the Congo called “progress”, which meant the exploitation of the natives by the white men. Kurtz was to Marlow, penetrating this country, a name, constantly recurring in people’s talk, for cleverness and enterprise. But there were slight intimations, growing stronger as Marlow drew near to the heart of darkness, of traits and practices so abhorrent to all our notions of decency, honor and humanity that the enterprising trader gradually takes on the proportion of a ghastly and almost supernatural monster symbol for Marlow of the general spirit of this European undertaking.

On his journey up the Congo, Marlow comes across the forsaken railway truck, looking as dead as the carcass of some animal; the brick maker idling for a year with no bricks and no hope of materials for making them; the “wanton  smashup” of drainage pipes abandoned in a ravine ; burst, piled up cases of rivets at the outer station and no way of getting them to the damaged steam boat at the Central Station; the vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope- all these and many more are the examples of the criminality of the inefficiency.

Wilson Follet believed that in this novel, “the European is shown drained, diseased, a prey to madness and unutterable horror and death…”   This proves that the white men over there, except the company’s accountant, are inefficient and selfish. They themselves do nothing, whereas on the other hand they exploit the natives to the maximum, they extract the maximum workout of them and pay them three nine –inch long brass-wire pieces a week, which are insufficient to buy them anything. As such most of the natives are starving and dying. This novel is a very faithful accord of the cruelties and atrocities perpetrated on the natives of Africa by their European masters.

The Historical theme:

In Elizabethan times the Drakes and Franklins sailed from the light of England into the darkness of unknown seas, returning with the “round flanks” of their ships bulging with treasure. Nineteen centuries ago the incoming tide brought the Romans from the light of Rome into the darkness of England: the roman conquest of England was an aggravated murder on a large scale.

Modern imperialism-represented by Conrad in “heart of darkness”- is not different from the ancient; the civilized white men of Europe have entered the blackness of Africa, and have united the natives. The white men come as imperialist traders but in reality for the sake of ivory they loot and plunder. For the sake of ivory the whites robed the natives of their very identity and existence. Their lives and their culture were destroyed to the maximum extent possible by the so called civilized men of the world who declared their task as “white man’s burden”.

Works Cited

Allen, Walter. 1955. The English novel; a short critical history. New York: Dutton.

Beach, J. W. 1932. The Twentieth Century Novel; A study in Technique. New York: Century Co.

Conrad, Joseph. 1958. Letters to William Blackwood; ed. W. Blackburn. Durham N.C.; Duke University Press.

Feder. 1955. Marlow’s Descent into Hell. 19 Nineteenth-Century Fiction. 289-292

Hay, E. K. 1963. “The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad”. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jean-Aubry, G. 1927. Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters; Letter to Richard Curle, July 17, 1923.

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