‘The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.’
-A Far Cry from Africa by Derek Walcott
The novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is not a critique of European colonialism and imperialism in the post-colonial term. Certainly when the novel was published the colonialism was an accepted matter all over the world. Nobody questioned the audacity of colonialism. As a novelist Conrad himself is much criticized by post-colonial thinker like Chinua Achebe for his anthropocentricism and Eurocentricism. In spite of all these the novel contains many elements that are definitely post-colonial in nature and can be interpreted as an attack on the ruthless colonial exploitation
Now let’s, like Marlow himself, make a journey into Heart of Darkness to see Conrad’s treatment of colonialism in Africa. Imperialism was not just the practice of the European acts of colonization of other lands and people; imperialism was a philosophy that assumed the superiority of European civilization and therefore the moral responsibility to bring their enlightened ways to the "uncivilized" people of the world. This attitude was taken especially towards nonwhite, non-Christian cultures in India, Asia, Australia, and Africa. This idealistic view of imperialism was represented by Marlow. But through the disillusionment of Marlow the novelist shows the false basis of this imperialistic philosophy.
Marlow as a device
In fact Marlow is a device through which the novelist shows the real picture of the colonialism. Marlow believes that European men truly represent the good of imperialism. But the truth is just the opposite. The reality of European imperialism in Africa is total greed and evil. Marlow begins outside of London then travels to Brussels, then to Africa, the Outer Station, the Central Station, and finally, the Inner Station (detailed below), where Marlow meets Kurtz and has his last remaining illusion shattered.
Picture of colonialism is same
The picture of colonialism is same all over the world. It knows no time and no boundaries. This picture of colonialism is given at the beginning of the book. ‘I was thinking of old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago’. ‘ … may it at last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday’. Marlow describes the struggles of the Romans with the weather, disease, savage inhabitants, and death while conquering the British Isles. He also states that the Roman explorers were "men enough to face the darkness." This reference to the early Romans' hardships and conquest in England is parallel to the hardships of the British in Africa. Marlow compares these ancient explorers to the modern European explorers, whom he regards as lesser men. For Marlow the only thing that "redeems" the "robbery" of imperialism is that there is a pure idea behind it. So we see that this is same thing that happens to the African people. This so-called bringers of light were themselves agents of darkness.
Marlow sings a contact with company
After he signs a contact with the trading company Marlow visits his aunt who supports the business of the company enthusiastically as if it were purely altruistic. She regards Marlow as "something like an emissary of light" and she talks of the Christian missionary goal of "'weaning those ignorant millions of their horrid ways.'" Marlow believes that his aunt's ignorance about the profit motive of the company arises from women's inability to deal with the reality of the world. Feeling like an impostor, Marlow sets sail for Africa, what he calls the "center of the earth," (which is also appropriately known as the location of hell).
Marlow’s first impression at the outer station
Marlow’s first impression of colonialism is horrible. At first he arrives at the Outer station. He watches the "sordid farce" of imperialism and begins to think that his trip is not a pilgrimage but a nightmare. Marlow himself sees the Outer Station as "a scene of uninhabited devastation."
As Marlow approaches the company offices, he sees the waste -- the discarded machinery laying about in disrepair, he hears "objectless blasting" of dynamite nearby, and he sees a chain gang of Africans who look starved and animal-like to Marlow. He descends further down the hill to get away from the chain gang and comes upon a gloomy place--what he calls a "grove of death"--where a number of Africans is dying. They are starving, wasted creatures gathered in "contorted collapse." Obviously, there is no sympathy on the part of the Europeans to the plight of the natives, as evidenced by the accountant's callused attitude and by the picture of death and destruction caused by the white man's greed for ivory and money resulting in the horrors of the "grove of death."
Marlow turns and quickly walks toward the station. When he is near the buildings, he sees a white man, the Chief Accountant, who is dressed in starched, neatly ironed and brilliantly white clothing; in total contrast to the dying black natives he has just seen. Marlow respects this man, in an ironic way, for keeping up appearances even though he looks like a "hairdresser's dummy." However, it is appropriate that the man who keeps the books for the ivory operation is perfectly dressed in white, with a perfectly ordered office, while all around him is found the dark chaos caused by the ivory trade.
Marlow comes to know about Kurtz
Here the Chief Accountant tells Marlow of Mr. Kurtz, a first-class agent, a "very remarkable person,". This creates some hope about the idealism of European colonialism.And from now onwards Marlow will seek to know about Kurtz throughout the remainder of the story.
Marlow leaves for the central station
Marlow leaves the Outer Station in a walking caravan of sixty men for a difficult two hundred miles trip. He finds the population of the areas through which he walks totally depleted and guesses that the African people have been forced into work for the company or have fled in desperation. After fifteen strenuous days, Marlow again sees the Congo River and reaches the Central Station. He finds that the European men who run the station are faithless and unreal.
When Marlow meets the Station Manager, who is described in detail, he finds him to be poorly educated, disturbing, petty, and shallow. He suspects that "there was nothing within him." The Manager informs Marlow that the situation up river at the Inner Station is dangerous, but its chief, Mr. Kurtz, is his best agent and a very important man to the company.
The portrait of a woman and a positive view of Kurtz
Marlow is invited to visit the room of the brick-maker and sees a sketch in oils of an evil-looking, blindfolded woman carrying a torch. A picture that symbolizes the evil ivory company that is blind to the needs of the Africans. Marlow learns that Mr. Kurtz had painted it. A fact that indicates that Kurtz has an understanding of the horror of imperialism. To Marlow's questions about Kurtz, the brick maker replies that Kurtz is "an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else." He predicts that Kurtz will quickly rise in the company because he has ideas to justify the plunder of African resources. Marlow begins to meditate more and more on Kurtz, who in contrast to the Europeans around him, "had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort."
Kurtz is further idealized
As he finds himself surrounded by European men whom he finds morally repugnant, he begins to identify with Kurtz, the only European who seems to have come to Africa for idealistic reasons. However, stories of Kurtz are contradictory. Even though Kurtz is supposed to be against the Europeans' materialistic presence in Africa, he sends back more ivory than any other agent.
One night Marlow overhears the conversation between the Manager and his uncle.From their conversation he Marlow comes to know about Kurtz's idealism -- that "each station would be like a beacon on the road towards better, things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing."
Marlow for the inner station
Marlow finally begins his trip up the Congo toward Kurtz's station, a long, tedious voyage that takes two months to accomplish. He has only one goal in mind -- to push onward to the inner station in order to meet the mysterious Kurtz, about whom he has heard so much and with whom he already identifies.
He describes a group of twenty African workers on his steamer, who he says are cannibals, but who are fine men to work with. They do a good job of pushing the steamer off sandbars and keeping the boilers burning with wood. Marlow also considers the cannibals on board and wonders why, since they are paid by the Manager only in thin pieces of brass wire and are not fed, they do not attack and eat the Europeans. Perhaps the white men are not even appealing to starving natives, or perhaps they simply have more self-control than the white men display.
In "dark" Africa, with no policemen and no laws to prohibit certain behaviors, the natives act out of their sense of right vs. wrong and faithfulness to human goodness. Ironically, the white men, with their police and their laws to control their behavior, act in inhumane and brutal ways, forsaking the sense of right vs. wrong or human goodness.
The Manager, in particular, represents the inhumane European as he starves the Africans on the boat and as he starves Kurtz at the Inner Station by withholding supplies. The Manager's lies and inhumanity are repulsive to Marlow. The manager is a ‘common trader’ and symbolizes all the immorality of European colonization. His agents have also turned ivory into a god. So Marlow calls them ‘faithless pilgrims’ and that also shows that the cannibalistic appetite for material gain, and also the savage and dualism of colonialism.
The statue of Kurtz falls apart
But all his idealism about Kurtz falls apart as soon as Marlow reaches the inner station and meets a Russian. From the Russian, who is a devoted follower of Kurtz, Marlow learns that Kurtz is a dangerous man.
The savage policy of Kurtz
As the Russian speaks to him, Marlow scans the station with his binoculars and is startled to realize that the knobs on the upper ends of the poles are black human skulls, a symbol of the evil side of Kurtz. Marlow tells his listeners that the skulls indicated to him that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint, that he had something missing from his moral fiber in spite of all his eloquence.
Marlow speculates again that Kurtz was "hollow at the core."
The Russian explains that no one can remove the skulls, for Kurtz wants them there and he alone makes the rules and controls the place. He explains how the chiefs of the surrounding tribes would come to see Kurtz and crawl to him. Marlow abruptly yells for him to stop talking. Marlow tells his listeners that he cannot understand why he finds this information more intolerable than the sight of the skulls on the stakes, but he does. The Russian then tries to convince Marlow that the skulls are the heads of rebels, but Marlow does not believe him, remembering how the starving Africans on the chain gang near the Outer Station had been casually and falsely labeled as criminals. Even as the young Russian talks about the hideous skulls, he defends Kurtz and says that he has been shamefully neglected at the Outer Station, a fact that Marlow knows to be true.
The philosophy of Kurtz
Marlow then describes a report that Kurtz gave to him for safekeeping. It was written for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs and is an eloquent argument that whites must appear to "savages" as superhuman beings and that whites can very easily exercise great power for the good over the natives. Scrawled at the bottom of the last page, Marlow reads Kurtz's last instruction, apparently written much later: "Exterminate all the brutes!" Marlow is horrified at these words, but tries to explain them away by telling his listeners that Kurtz went insane in the end and participated in "midnight dances ending in unspeakable rites."
Finally Marlow admits that he learned more from Kurtz that he ever wanted to learn, for Kurtz does not live up to his pure philosophies. Kurtz has power over the natives and his charmed them into submissiveness while elevating himself to a godlike position.
The Manager ,more evil than Kurtz
As a sort of moral relief, Marlow turns to an idealized image of Kurtz as a sort of ally.Marlow is repulsed by the Manager's callous pettiness, and sees him as totally vile. He feels he is in the midst of unspeakable secrets, vast corruption, and the darkness of impenetrable night. By contrast to the horrid Manager, Marlow is again drawn to Kurtz as the lesser of two evils. He admits that he has a "choice of nightmares," and he chooses Kurtz, telling the Manager that Kurtz is a remarkable man (and, in truth, he is remarkable to have survived this long when the evil Manager has been trying to cause his death.). Marlow then assures the Russian that he is Kurtz's friend and will safeguard Kurtz's reputation.
Unnecessary bloodshed by the pilgrims
The next day Marlow guides his steamer away from the Inner Station. A large crowd of natives, estimated to be close to two thousand and including the magnificent black woman who is Kurtz's mistress, comes out of the bush to the shore to watch the departing vessel. They call to Kurtz in their native tongue, which Marlow calls "some satanic litany." To avoid trouble from them, Marlow blows the loud whistle on the steamer, which startles and disperses the crowd except for the beautiful black mistress. She walks down to the edge of the river and stretches her arms after the boat that is taking her lover away. As she watches sorrowfully from shore, the Europeans on board the boat take out their guns and fire away, probably needlessly killing the black beauty.
The horror, symbol of colonialism
One night, when Marlow enters his cabin with a candle, he finds Kurtz conscious and with a look full of pride, terror, and despair. He mumbles that he is ready to die. Then at the moment of Kurtz's death, Marlow hears the man softly cry out, "'The horror! The horror!" as if summarizing the whole of imperialism in Africa. Here "the horror" refers to the abominable deeds he committed out there in the jungle. Marlow blows the candle out and leaves the room to join the Europeans in the dining room. Momentarily, he hears the announcement from the Manager's boy, "'Mistah Kurtz--he dead." He is buried the next day in a hole by the river.
Conrad's last chapter contains the end of all of Marlow's illusions and his decision to act in complicity with the ideological supports of European imperialism. Contrary to Marlow's beliefs, Kurtz does not turn out to be the great white hope. Instead, he is totally ruthless. Kurtz, just like the other Europeans that work for the company, has used the ideas of white supremacy and the technology of progress to subdue the Africans in mind and body and to take their natural resources without payment.
Though Marlow feels repugnance for the white man's greed and his brutal inhumanity to his fellow man, yet he longs for evidence that Europeans can display pure purpose, rational power, and benevolent dominance over Africa and Africans. He retains notions of the supremacy of Europeans from his own education and even when he sees evidence which refutes that supremacy, he wishes to retain a belief in it.
Marlow can never see the Africans as fully human and he can never bring himself fully to condemn the imperialist project in Africa. When he lies to the Intended, he participates in the lie that says imperialism is justly supported by sound ideals. By doing nothing to stop the devastation caused by the imperialism in Africa, he tactfully accepts the inhumanity of mankind to its fellow man and allows it to continue on the Dark Continent.
Thus the novel emerges as the first major work on colonialism. Being colonized as a young boy in a Poland under Russian occupation, Conrad had also bitter experience of colonialism. He relays these experiences through the eyes of his character Marlow who is a riverboat captain as well. In his Heart of Darkness he attacks colonialism directly throughout the book. Obvious and scathing statements are made telling of the horrors of colonialism.