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Old Wednesday, June 06, 2007
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Default Heart of Darkness: Imperialism

“Heart of Darkness” abounds in several themes. It has the theme of self-restraint, of the working of the subconscious mind, of the exploration, of barbarism and primitivism and the theme of imperialism. Conrad's handling of white imperialism was influenced by his own visit to Congo and his rendering of Marlow’s conscious and sub-conscious thoughts was also based upon his own reactions to what he himself witnessed in Congo.

The keynote of the theme of imperialism is struck at the very outset of Marlow’s narration of the ancient Roman conquest of Britain. Their conquest was “robbery with violence” and murder on a large scale. Marlow says that conquest can be excused only if the conquerors perform some constructive work in the conquered country. The white man certainly has a duty to whom he subdues and if he fails in this duty, his government of the backward countries cannot be justified.

Power corrupts man and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The white man had failed to perform his functions in Congo. Instead of civilizing the savages, they became exploiters. The Belgian trading companies sent their agents into the Congo for trading purposes. The chief commodity which these Belgians found was ivory, useless for the natives, while the white men collected ivory and sent it to Europe. Ivory dominates the thoughts of the manger, of the brick-maker, of the several white agents whom Marlow gives the name of “faithless pilgrims”. Ivory not only dominates the thoughts of Mr. Kurtz but has become his obsession. He collects more ivory than all the other agents taken together. Ivory symbolizes the white man’s greed and their commercial mentality. The greater the ivory collected by an agent, the greater is his achievement and the higher is the promotion which he can expect. Nowhere do we find any service being rendered by these white men in Congo.

The sights seen by Marlow in Congo are very gloomy, depicting the misery of the natives, and the futility of the white man’s seemingly useful work. He sees a lot of naked black people moving about like ants.

A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants.

He sees half a dozen men chained to one another and each wearing an iron collar on his neck. These men are criminals who have violated the laws and are being punished. Marlow feels deeply upset at this sight.

I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck,
and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking.

He sees black figures crouching under the trees, leaning against the trunks, and clinging to the earth, dying slowly.

'They were dying slowly – it was very clear.' They were not enemies, theywere not criminals, they were nothing
earthly now - nothing but black
shadows of diseaseand starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.

Here Marlow feels as if he has entered into the gloomy circle of some inferno. It is obvious that the white man’s indifference and his unconcern are responsible for this state of affairs.

Few other sights also indicate the hypocrisy of the white men wasting time and effort. Marlow sees that a rock is being blasted though it does not stand in the way of the railway line being laid. He sees some pieces of decaying machinery, a large heap of rusty rails and a boiler lying unused in the grass. Marlow had seen a warship firing its guns into the forest aimlessly. He found a touch of insanity in it. This waste of effort and the unused machinery offer a sharp contrast to the starving natives.

The futility of the white man’s actions becomes more evident when we meet certain employers of the trading Company. The manager of the Central Station could inspire neither respect not love nor fear but only uneasiness. Marlow found nothing within this man. His mind is full of fear lest he should be superseded by Mr. Kurtz. The brick-maker is equally satirical and critical. The brick maker is described as a “papier-mâché Mephistopheles” for his cunning. He makes no bricks but acts as a spy for the manager. The men, loitering around the Central Station, are idlers. They only gossip, speak ill of one another and hatch intrigues. Conrad conveys his strong disapproval and disapprobation of these white men most effectively.

The cannibal crew of Marlow’s steamer is most efficient, hard working and strong who deserve encouragement but the way in which they are treated is disgusting. Without this crew the steamer could not have gone ahead and yet the white bosses do not bother whether or not these men are properly fed. The cannibal crew themselves are exercising self-restraint and are not attacking the white men to eat their flesh. Thus the white men are totally unconcerned about the welfare on whose labour and toil they depend.

Mr. Kurtz, who held that the white man should confer huge benefits upon the backward people, has done nothing for the uplift of the natives. Rather, he has himself become a savage in their company.

Where there is no check on a man, the worst of him may come out.

He failed to exercise any self-restraint, and begun to satisfy his various lusts without any limit. Even in his prime of life he had written down the following words conveying an opposite message:

“Exterminate all the brutes.”

“Heart of Darkness” conveys to us the deceit, robberies, arson, murder, slave-trading, and cruelty in the Congo. There is an incident of fire, and there is the long trek during which the natives have to carry a heavy load on their heads. The chief accountant can afford to dress perfectly when the natives around are disease-stricken and starving. In this novel, indeed, the brutal futility of the Belgian imperialist rule is memorably captured in image after image.

Conrad not only exposes the futility and the failing of the Belgian imperialism over the Congo but also reminds us of British imperialism in various countries of his time. Today white imperialism has crumbled and most of the counties have become independent. Conrad's accusation of imperialist rule in Congo had a valuable message for both the exploiters and the exploited.

In the business of exploration, both exploiter and exploited are corrupted.

Today this message has only a historical interest. The evil imperialist rile has ended, but other evils have come into existence.
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