Heart of Darkness


In Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness the Europeans are 
cut off from civilization, overtaken by greed, exploitation, and 
material interests from his own kind. Conrad develops themes of 
personal power, individual responsibility, and social justice. His 
book has all the trappings of the conventional adventure tale - 
mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, unexpected attack. The 
book is a record of things seen and done by Conrad while in the 
Belgian Congo. Conrad uses Marlow, the main character in the book, as 
a narrator so he himself can enter the story and tell it out of his 
own philosophical mind. Conrad's voyages to the Atlantic and Pacific, 
and the coasts of Seas of the East brought contrasts of novelty and 
exotic discovery. By the time Conrad took his harrowing journey into 
the Congo in 1890, reality had become unconditional. The African 
venture figured as his descent into hell. He returned ravaged by the 
illness and mental disruption which undermined his health for the 
remaining years of his life. Marlow's journey into the Congo, like 
Conrad's journey, was also meaningful. Marlow experienced the violent 
threat of nature, the insensibility of reality, and the moral 
 We have noticed that important motives in Heart of Darkness 
connect the white men with the Africans. Conrad knew that the white 
men who come to Africa professing to bring progress and light to 
"darkest Africa" have themselves been deprived of the sanctions of 
their European social orders; they also have been alienated from the 
old tribal ways. 
 "Thrown upon their own inner spiritual resources they may be 
utterly damned by their greed, their sloth, and their hypocrisy into 
moral insignificance, as were the pilgrims, or they may be so corrupt 
by their absolute power over the Africans that some Marlow will need 
to lay their memory among the 'dead Cats of Civilization.'" (Conrad 
105.) The supposed purpose of the Europeans traveling into Africa was 
to civilize the natives. Instead they colonized on the native's land 
and corrupted the natives. 
 "Africans bound with thongs that contracted in the rain and 
cut to the bone, had their swollen hands beaten with rifle butts until 
they fell off. Chained slaves were forced to drink the white man's 
defecation, hands and feet were chopped off for their rings, men were 
lined up behind each other and shot with one cartridge , wounded 
prisoners were eaten by maggots till they die and were then thrown to 
starving dogs or devoured by cannibal tribes." (Meyers 100.) 

Conrad's "Diary" substantiated the accuracy of the conditions 
described in Heart of Darkness: the chain gangs, the grove of death, 
the payment in brass rods, the cannibalism and the human skulls 
on the fence posts. Conrad did not exaggerate or invent the horrors 
that provided the political and humanitarian basis for his attack on 
colonialism. The Europeans took the natives' land away from 
them by force. They burned their towns, stole their property, and 
enslaved them. George Washington Williams stated in his diary, 
 "Mr. Stanley was supposed to have made treaties with more than 
four hundred native Kings and Chiefs, by which they surrendered their 
rights to the soil. And yet many of these people declare that they 
never made a treaty with Stanley, or any other white man; their lands 
have been taken away from them by force, and they suffer the greatest 
wrongs at the hands of the Belgians." (Conrad 87.) Conrad saw intense 
greed in the Congo. The Europeans back home saw otherwise; they 
perceived that the tons of ivory and rubber being brought back home 
was a sign of orderly conduct in the Congo. Conrad's Heart of 
Darkness mentioned nothing about the trading of rubber. Conrad 
and Marlow did not care for ivory; they cared about the exploration 
into the "darkest Africa." A painting of a blindfolded woman carrying 
a lighted torch was discussed in the book. The background was dark, 
and the effect of the torch light on her face was sinister. The oil 
painting represents the blind and stupid ivory company, fraudulently 
letting people believe that besides the ivory they were taking out of 
the jungle, they were, at the same time, bringing light and progress 
to the jungle. Conrad mentioned in his diary that missions were set 
up to Christianize the natives. He did not include the missions into 
his book because the land was forcibly taken away from the natives, 
thus bringing in a church does not help if the natives have no will. 
Supplies brought in the country were left outdoors and abandoned, and 
a brick maker who made no bricks, lights up the fact that the 
Europeans do not care to help the natives progress. When Marlow 
reached the first station, he saw what used to be tools and supplies, 
that were to help progress the land, laid in waste upon the ground. 
 "I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a 
path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the boulders and also 
for an undersized railway truck lying there on its back with its 
wheels in the air.... I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, 
They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way of 
anything, but this objectless blasting was all the work going on." 
(Conrad 19.) 

George Washington Williams wrote in his diary that three and a half 
years passed by, but not one mile of road bed or train tracks was 
made. "One's cruelty is one's power; and when one parts with one's 
cruelty, one parts with one's power," says William Congreve, author of 
The Way of the World. (Tripp 206.) The Europeans forcibly took away 
the natives' land and then enslaved them. All the examples given are 
part of one enormous idea of cruelty - cruelty that the European white 
men believe because its victims are helpless. These are mystical 
revelations of man's dark self. 

1. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness: Backgrounds and Criticisms. 
New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1960. 
2. Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad. New York: Charles Scribner's 
Sons, 1991. 
3. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. 
New York: Norton Critical, 1988. 
4. Williams, George Washington. [A Report upon the Congo - State and 
Country to the President of the Republic of the United States of 
America.] Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert 
Kimbrough. New York: Norton Critical 1988. 87. 
5. Tripp, Rhoda Thomas. Thesaurus of Quotations. New York: Thomas 
Y. Crowell, 1970.

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