The Horror Of Colonialism Behind Heart Of Darkness

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Through describing a life changing journey experienced by protagonist Charlie Marlow in the Congo River, Joseph Conrad successfully exposes the loathsome evil and savage horror within the center of European colonialism. In the novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad challenges a dominant view by exposing the metaphorical “darkness” placed within the hearts of European colonialists. Portraying the European colonialists as “blind light bearers” who claims to bring civilization and education to the African Natives, yet are blind of their actions, Conrad establishes his critique of European colonialism through contrasts and oppositions of the light and darkness within a series of primary and secondary characters.

With his unbalanced priorities presented through the extreme importance given to the obtainment of ivory and the mere interest in human lives, the manager signifies the total darkness within one soul, and in this case, the darkness behind the facade of “light” that colonialism claimed to bring. At the beginning of the book, Marlow, upon contact with the accountant, encounters “the grove of death” (Conrad 23), where black workers who are no longer able to function adequately were left to self-defect and die. At the same time, Marlow also witnesses the horrible sighting of “six black men [advancing] in a file” with “iron collars [on their neck], connected together with a chain” (Conrad 18). These abominations against the African natives that tortured slaves so emaciated that “every rib [could be seen]” and every “limp were like knots in a rope” (Conrad 18) are the results of the activities of the manager, a character who sees lives merely as tools required towards the ultimate goal of ivory. Therefore the manager, who is supposed to be the “bringer of hope” that pushes culture and improvements for the natives is, in fact, the real darkness that hides behind the mask of light, representing the evil that lives alongside the European colonialism in Africa.

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To further demonize colonialism, Conrad utilizes Marlow and Kurtz to illustrate the oppositions of light and darkness behind it. Marlow, who pushes against the idea of colonialism, is at first shocked and horrified by the frightening results due to the ivory company’s dreadful treatment of the natives and ultimately rejects the white brutality in favor of the civil and reality he sees within the black natives. Marlow’s ability to cling onto his moral goodness led to his ascendence as the “light”: what Kurtz would have become if he did not lack the restraints he did. Starting from the beginning of the story, Marlow establishes forefront his thoughts on the European colonialism, “[a] robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a greater scale, and men going at it blind-as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness”. (Conrad 7) For him, the white Europeans were “no colonists” but “conquerors only [using] brute force”. (Conrad 7) This establishment illustrates Conrad’s message that although European colonialists are being described as light bearers, they are in fact taking actions blindfolded, and it could bring nothing but darkness: exactly what violence and murder would bring. As Marlow moves further onto his journey, he slowly realizes the potential damage that European colonialism can cause. He states,

“I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! These were strong, lusty, redeyed devils, that swayed and drove men—men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weakeyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther”. (Conrad 19)

This repetition of devil emphasizes Marlow’s thoughts on the brutality that lies within European colonialism. In Marlow’s sight, colonialism is destroying more than just the natives, but also the nature for their gains and benefits. At the same time, the choice of the word “pretending” is ironic as it not only describes in context that it is a “pretending” devil, but also emphasizes colonialism as a pretending light bearer, one that does not bring real benefit for the African natives. At the end of his journey, Marlow was “so changed by [his] experience of the Congo that they turned against imperialism not only there but everywhere”. (Hawkins 287)

On the other hand, Kurtz who seemed almost identical to Marlow when he was first employed at the ivory company, is unable to hold on to his moral senses through the extreme hardships from the manager and eventually descends as the “dark”: what Marlow would have become if experienced the same hardships Kurtz did. become if he faced the same hardships as Kurtz did. Being a strong representation of order and power, Kurtz surrounds his hut with skulls of men who do not obey him. With 'their face turned [towards] the house', Kurtz wants his power to be recognized by the natives. The sole idea of killing the natives who do not obey his power directly reflects the brutality and violence behind the supposed “light” that colonialism is said to bring. However, although reflecting the “darkness” that colonialism brings, Kurtz ultimately makes a turn and grasps onto his morality upon his death. As Kurtz reflects on his violent life led by greediness and cruelty, he realizes the terrible consequences that his actions had caused and at the same time, finally recognizes the pathetic fact that, even until the end, he still remains a puppet of colonialism, unable to escape. The realization of his “despicable and tragic losing battle against [the] corrupt colonialism” (Kuehn 20) and regret of his cruel undertaking is the reason behind Kurtz’s dying words of “The horror! The horror!”(Conrad 86) Being the powerful figure that symbolizes the Europeans who imposed colonialism upon the African natives, this directly depicts Conrad’s perspective of the “horror” behind the acts of European colonialism: dark, violent, and consuming. Kurtz’s ultimate realization also reveals another layer of meaning behind his writing of “exterminate all the brutes!” (Conrad 62) at the end of his report. The brutes did not refer to the natives for the conventional depiction of white as good who brings “light” and black as evil who brings “darkness”, the true brutes were, in fact, the white pilgrims in this story. While the white pilgrims are characterized as materialistic, violent, and savage ivory seekers who possess “dark souls”, the black workers are in fact portrayed as civil and spiritual with “light souls”. Presenting Kurtz as a victim of colonialism and portraying a reversal of the conventional light and darkness, Conrad successfully delivers his message on the evil and darkness that lies behind the white Europeans colonialists who claim to bring good and “light” to the black natives. This division of light and dark between Marlow and Kurtz also acts as the critiques for the European Colonialism as the true “light” half of the soul, Marlow, ultimately rejects the white “colonial light” that caused Kurtz’s shift towards darkness. This is yet another reversal of dark and light that proves the real darkness is from what is seen as the “light”, the White, European colonial society.

As Marlow describes Kurtz’s painting, he ultimately brings together all of the past and future contrasts of light and dark that Conrad delivers as a message of his critique towards colonialism. Marlow states the painting as a “sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber—almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister” (Conrad 30). The woman directly presents the ivory company, and thus colonialism, as blind light bearers who claim to enlighten the African natives. However, in the end, the only “light” they shine is on themselves, their “face”. The use of the word “sinister” further illustrates Conrad’s thoughts on the evilness of European colonialism, for him, colonialism is just like the ivory company, and the only good it brings is greed and materialism. Still another layer of meaning lays within the painting. The mere fact of Kurtz being the one who painted the picture shows Kurtz’s understanding of his position within the ivory company and thus, critiques the European colonialists of knowing the damage they may cause, but still choosing to continue. The fragile and impermanent torch light is again another symbol critiquing colonialism: that although they claim to bring “light” in terms of civilization and education, it is just a flash in the pan, and what comes afterward is the true darkness full of violence and cruelty.

The journey into the heart of darkness is more than a story between the two primary characters, Marlow and Kurtz. By presenting the darkness within the manager and the contrasting light and dark relationship between Marlow and Kurtz, Conrad successfully conveys his extreme rejection and deep critique towards the “greed and thirst for power [that] lay behind [colonialisms] claims to progress”. (Raskin 118)

Works Cited

  1. Hawkins, Hunt. “Conrad's Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness.” PMLA, vol. 94, no. 2, 1979, pp. 286–299. JSTOR,
  2. KUEHN, JULIA. “One Colonialism, Two Colonialisms: Teaching Heart of Darkness in Hong Kong.” Victorian Review, vol. 38, no. 1, 2012, pp. 20–25. JSTOR,
  3. Raskin, Jonah. “Imperialism: Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 2, no. 2, 1967, pp. 113–131. JSTOR,
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The Horror Of Colonialism Behind Heart Of Darkness. (2021, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
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