Essay about Heart of Imperialism

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Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness, reflects his time as a steamboat captain, sailing in Belgian Congo in the late 1890s. During this time period Europeans were discovering the goods and valuable items located in different areas of Africa, they also began using the Native Africans to retrieve these items. This time brought slavery and genocide to the Congo. Having no laws or regulations allowed the European invaders to make the native people work as slaves and miners, and were even murdered or abused if they refused or fought this oppression. The reason so many Europeans came to this area for profit and without certain human rights they found it quite easily. This is where Conrad found work as a steamboat captain and the inspiration for this novella. The European invaders were able to continue with these morally incorrect actions because they claimed to be “civilizing” the people of Congo. This idea is spoken of by Marlow early on in the book and was represented throughout by Mr. Kurtz.

In the beginning of The Heart of Darkness, Marlow begins describing this idea of civilizing the natives. Before he had left for the Congo, he said, “The conquest of the earth which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea–something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .” (Conrad, find page #) The “idea” Marlow was referring to was the civilization of the Congo and its people. He probably like many others going to this “heart of darkness” genuinely believed in this idea of civilization of the “savages”, but his ideals change to greed once he arrives there. Once the men employed by The Company begin their work, they see all the potential profit and they abandon their original idea of meeting their goal in a morally good and civil way. They see there is a much easier way to get things done but they intentionally block out the pain and suffering they’re causing in order to meet these goals. The “idea” of making them civilized turns into, if we make them civilized enough and turn a profit from it, does it really matter how uncivilized we become in the process?

When it gets to that point the idea becomes just that, an idea. Not an action or a plan, but just something to put on a shelf and smile when you look at it. No one digs deep enough or if they get too deterred by the money involved to make the idea anything more than it is. The idea of civilizing groups of people would be redeemable if it were put into action. Since it is not, it does not redeem the conquest of the earth at the expense of those people. Marlow makes this apparent when he says, “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them in the nature of supernatural beings – we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded. . .” (Conrad, find page #) For Marlow as much as for Kurtz and for the other men in the Company, the Natives Africans are mostly objects: Marlow refers to his helmsman as a piece of machinery, and Kurtz’s African mistress is at best a piece of statuary. Conrad makes it apparent that Heart of Darkness participates in an oppression of the natives that is much more sinister and much harder to rectify than the open abuses of Kurtz and the Company’s men. The Africans become for Marlow simply a backdrop where he can play out his philosophical and existential struggles. This sort of dehumanization is harder to identify than colonial violence or open racism.

Kurtz was the most brutal and greedy of the men working for The Company, which is why he was at the innermost part of the jungle. He set himself up to be a god to the native people and this is how he became so successful. In his mind, if he becomes a god to these “civilized creatures” he can lead them to civilization, and perhaps also to collect the natives supply of ivory; “Kurtz got the tribe to follow him, did he?” I suggested. He fidgeted a little. ‘They adored him,’ he said. . .What can you expect?’ he burst out; ‘he came to them with thunder and lightning, you know-and they had never seen anything like it-and very terrible.” (Conrad, find page #) Kurtz’s god-like status is ironic because he was worshipped and looked upon by the natives just as the idea was worshipped and looked upon by The Company. All of the men went in with the idea for change for the better but they become deterred by the ivory. He is the prime example of how the jungle changes the men and how the idea becomes just an idea. The jungle changed him, it drove him mad and he was never able to recover from it and go back to his original state. A prime example of this is when Marlow says, “You should have heard him say, ‘My ivory.’ Oh yes, I heard him. ‘My Intended my ivory, my river, my-’everything belonged to him.” (Conrad, find page #) This is exactly what happens with the “idea” Marlow spoke of. Kurtz arrived with the ideals to humanize and civilize the people in the Congo. The same as all the others, he came to make a difference. But he became greedy once he saw all the ivory and profit there was to be made and he abandoned his ideas for change. He became power hungry and the longer he stayed, the more corrupt he became and the more he began to see the world for what it really was, which horrified him.

Kurtz finally has a deep reckoning as he begins to realize the damage he has done to this land and the people living here. His last words, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad, find page #), reflected his time in the Congo and his ultimate recognition of what he has done. Kurtz eventually slips into a total madness, both mentally and physically. The time he spent in the jungle has driven him to have a god like depiction of himself. He believed that everything, people, ivory and land, belonged to him. It is ironic because the man who made himself into a good to the natives ends up as a weak, sickly man alone and unable to support himself in any way, “And yet I had only supported him, his bony arm clasped round my neck-and he was not much heavier than a child.” (Conrad, find page #) Yet even in this state the natives still look up to him and obey his commands. When he became sick, no one knew about it because the natives still treated him the same.

Kurtz’s sick body reflected his sick mind and soul. The longer he stayed in the Congo the less self control he had over his power hungry self. Kurtz proves this when he says to Marlow, “‘Sick! Sick! Not so sick as you would like to believe. Never mind. I’ll carry my ideas out yet—I will return. I’ll show you what can be done. You with your little peddling notions – you are interfering with me. I will return.” (Conrad, find page #) In this moment Kurtz is apparently ignoring the fact that he is as good as dead, he still believes he is going to win. Not only did he convince the natives that he was a god, he himself is now convinced that no one is more powerful than he is. It is not until slightly later in this scene that he was able to look into himself and recognize the sins he had committed. His last words are his realization of all he has done and why. The ideals that he came in with had been thrown aside and he had done far more harm than good for the native people. This is the same as the “idea” Marlow discussed.

In conclusion, Marlow spoke a lot about the idea that take place in the Congo and how it was put up on a pedestal. Throughout the story we come to realize that Mr. Kurtz is the physical manifestation of the idea. He came in with plans for change and ways to civilize the people in the Congo, but those plans were quickly dropped. The same goes for the “idea”, it is there to justify all of the wrongdoings that occur in the jungle but it slips further and further away the more time spent in the jungle. It does not justify those uncivil actions and it represented by Kurtz’s death. HIs actions did not go unpunished, he was punished with his slow and painful death.

Work Cited:

  1. Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012, 1953-2011.
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