The novel Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad, is centered around a skilled sailor named Marlow and his journey up the Congo River. Marlow was fascinated by the “darkness on the map,” and had a desire to explore. In his novel, Conrad represents time and history by using Marlow’s journey to Africa to expose the reader to a time and place where colonialism and racism exist.
The time period in which the book was written in, colonialism was relevant. In the late 1800s, Europe was being colonized. Europeans wanted to set up connections in other countries, such as Africa. An article written by Ehiedu Iweriebor states that, “Between the 1870s and 1900, Africa faced European imperialist aggression, diplomatic pressure, military invasion, and eventually conquest and colonization.” In the novel, the reason for the colonization of Africa was due to the ivory trade. Colonialism can be defined in the dictionary as, “The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” That is just what the white men did. They came to the foreign lands of Africa and made it their home. They set up their own way of government that they expected the natives to follow. They were going to do things their way, and if the natives did not follow their rules and expectations, they were punished. They exploited the ivory trade and destroyed the land in the process. They gave very little, if anything back to the men. All they saw was the profit that the land and it’s resources could bring them. This illustrates the greediness of the Europeans. One of the main characters Kurtz, claimed that his intentions were to colonize the region. However, later on it becomes clear that his main motive was to get control of the ivory trade. He made a lot of people think he was successful and important, when in reality, wasn’t doing his job justly. By the end of the novel we see that Kurtz was actually a failure and he too realizes it on his deathbed while reflecting on the terrible deeds he had done before mouthing his final words, “The horror. The horror” (part 3 page 11). This can be interpreted as a reflection of how Conrad feels towards the way colonization happened: recklessly and selfishly. The world we live in today is still full of greed and still revolves around exploiting other countries resources for money. But, maybe that is all we’ve come to know since that is how colonization originally started.
In addition to colonialism, time is an important theme within the novel. The river that Marlow is traveling on can be seen as a symbol of the flow of time. Marlow often is talking about what is currently happening in front of him, but describing a civilization of the past. He travels up and down the river, which goes hand in hand with the way he tells his stories in both the past and present. The journey up the river is long and drawn out, which allows suspicion to build the more we learn about Kurtz. Originally, Marlow hears all these wonderful things about Kurtz from other people. He believes that he is the best at his job, and he’s an extremely important man. One person even goes as far as describing Kurtz as a prodigy. Along the way though, he continues to hear bits and pieces of things that makes him unsure about Kurtz such as that he threated to kill the Russian man over ivory that he wanted. The Russian man also said he believes Kurtz might have gone crazy and actually turned into a “savage” himself among other alarming things, all of which makes Marlow grow weary. Marlow encounters lots of issues along the way which causes many different delays in his trip from the delays at the station, to his boat sinking, to his need to repair the boat, the fog that delays his trip further, and so on. He grows impatient which is evident when he says things like, ‘Oh, these months!’ (1.55) and ‘I had to wait in the station for ten days – an eternity.’ (1.45). The reader too becomes impatient as the suspense of the corrupt Kurtz unfolds. Conrad’s use of the delays along the river is intended to build upon the story and create suspense as to what kind of character Kurtz really is, but also to help keep the linear flow of time.
The final important piece of the novel is the way Conrad depicts race. The African people were treated horribly during this period of colonization. The white men referred to them as “primitive savages” (find quote saying this). They were referred to as “criminals,” but they were really treated as slaves who were used to do the heavy, harder labor for the ivory trade company that the white men didn’t want to do (get example of this). They were chained up, starving, overworked and not cared for. Once they were too sick to work, they would be left to die. Marlow describes a time in which he sees the naives and says, “They were dying slowly. It was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now–nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom” (Chapter 1 page 40?). Although Marlow does believe he is superior, he did eventually see the natives as human beings unlike any of the other men. This is a statement about how society was during the colonial times. The whitemen were driven on making a profit and used whatever resources they needed to get it, even if that meant treating the natives like animals. They came, they took over their land, and they took what was valuable. Conrad comments on the dishonest work that the men were doing simply to make money, but justifying what they were doing by saying they were there to colonize the natives when he writes, “It was as unreal as everything else – as the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work. The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages” (chapter 1 page 56?). Thankfully racism in our country has come a long way, but the greed for money and power still remains.
Marlow’s fascination with darkness is symbolic to the time period in the book. The colonial times were in fact a very dark time for people. An article titled Religion and the Founding of the American Republic gives a brief description of early colonial life and states the reason that early settlers left Europe was to escape poverty, persecution, and gain religious freedom. For African American’s, their lives were even more dark. They were slaves and treated as property as seen in the novel. The further into Marlow’s journey he got, the more darkness he saw in regards to Kurtz and his greed, and the power hungriness of his men. In an article written by Nadine Murray a student a NYU, she sums up the main issue of the book by saying, “Heart of Darkness shows the disparity between the European ideal of civilization and the reality of it as is evidenced by the domination, torture, exploitation and dehumanization of the African population.” Conrad uses the notion of darkness to not only comment on the history, but also to comment on the evil of man. We have come a long way as a society, but those are still our roots.
- “Colonialism.”Dictionary.com,Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/ colonialism?s=t.
- Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. B & H BOOKS, 2020.
- Iweriebor, Ehiedu. “The Colonization of Africa.” Africana Age, http:// exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-colonization-of-africa.html.
- John, et al. Religion and the Founding of the American Republic America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century, Part 1. 4 June 1998, https://www.loc.gov/ exhibits/religion/rel01.html.
- Murray, Nadine. Heart of Darkness. http://www.nyu.edu/classes/keefer/nature/conrad.htm.