Imperialism in The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Imperialism has always been a questionable topic of discussion due to its wicked causes and effects. Imperialism is one of the larger concepts in Josesph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Imperialism is often mentioned with negative connotations in Conrad’s fictional world. It is often mentioned that the Europeans merely want to civilize the uncivilized people living in Africa. Conrad reveals the true intentions of men and their goals with imperialism. Conrad uses the symbols of Europe and Africa and the characterization of characters such as the Brickmaker and Mr. Kurtz to denounce the evils of imperialism in Heart of Darkness.

The novel presents the audience with a negative idea of imperialism in the first few pages. Marlow mentions the Romans inhabiting Europe and how they felt “The savagery, the utter savagery” closing around them (Conrad-4). Marlow compares the Romans of the past to the Europeans of the present to show that the reasons for imperialism have not changed in the slightest from past to present. Imperialism gives people the mindset that it is necessary to go into “uncivilized” locations and “civilize” the people living there. Marlow understands the flaw in this concept, which is why the painting of the blindfolded woman amazes him so much (Conrad-21). This painting of a blindfolded woman carrying a torch symbolizes how the Europeans think that bringing light to uncivilized people will help them. The Europeans do not want to witness the results of their actions, so the woman is painted blindfolded. Marlow’s obsession with Mr. Kurtz begins when he discovers that Mr. Kurtz painted the painting. This is because it seems that they share similar ideologies. Africa is often mentioned with negative connotations in the novel as well. For example, the accountant mentions the “True ivory-country, at ‘the very bottom of there””(Conrad-16). In this case “down there” is a comparison to hell. The fear that people have with the unknown is likely a main cause for calling this part of Africa hell. This is most likely why people felt it was necessary to civilize the people living there. The symbols of Europe and Africa in the novel help to prove Conrad’s denunciation of imperialism.

The characterization of the Brickmaker and Mr. Kurtz also prove Conrad’s denunciation with imperialism. Marlow describes the Brickmaker as a “papier-mâché Mephistopheles” (Conrad-23). Marlow points out that this man is almost completely hollow and is worthless as a man. Marlow thinks that the Brickmaker has been completely consumed by imperialism and his role in the scheme of things. Marlow disgusts him for this reason. This vivid description of the Brickmaker permanently cements Marlow’s thoughts on imperialism and the horrors that it brings. But Marlow isn’t the only one who is revealed to the horror. In Mr. Kurtz’s last minutes, he

terrifyingly whispers “The horror” (Conrad-64). While this could be interpreted in many ways, Mr. Kurtz can very well be looking back on imperialism in Africa. It is very obvious because of his painting that Mr. Kurtz is against imperialism in some way. Being exposed to it for a long duration could be causation for his mental breakdown in his final moments. Kurtz can be looking back on the mistreatment of the Africans who viewed him as a god, and realizing how awful the Africans were treated due to his fellow men. At the conclusion of the novel, when Marlow is speaking to Mr. Kurtz’s betrothed, he says that Kurtz’s last words were her name (Conrad- 71). Marlow does this because he wants to hide the true horrors of the world from this innocent woman. She does not know that the world is filled with such horrors to drive a man as mad as Kurtz was. Revealing to her the horrors that Mr. Kurtz speaks of would be devastating to her. Both Kurtz and Marlow felt that imperialism was an evil concept and it even drove Kurtz insane. This once again proves Conrad’s denunciation with imperialism.

Imperialism truly is a maniacal concept. Joseph Conrad excellently portrays his hatred towards imperialism through the symbols of Europe and Africa and the characterization of the Brickmaker and Mr. Kurtz.

Imperialism was a very dark point in the world’s history and that is perfectly represented in this novel.

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