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The Imperialism Of Heart Of Darkness English Literature Essay

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was first published in 1899 during the ‘High Age’ of Imperialism, which took place between 1870 and 1918. Throughout this period, the British Empire experienced one of its most prosperous, powerful and expansive stages, and it is estimated that by 1878 the British and French empires together covered between sixty and seventy percent of the entire world. Throughout the ‘High Age’ of Imperialism the ideology of Imperialism was largely supported by the British public because of the wealth and power that was to be gained through the expansion of the British Empire. Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies between 1895 and 1903, gave an accurate outline of this ideology in his 1897 speech at the annual dinner of the Royal Colonial Institute, where he described Britain’s imperial activity as an attempt to redeem ‘districts as large as Europe from the barbarism and the superstition in which they had been steeped for centuries’. [1] The ideology of Imperialism tended to over-romanticize the prospect of imperial expansion and somewhat neglected the inhumane treatment that the people of many conquered countries were subjected to in the name of imperialism. If this behaviour was addressed, it was often played down, or justified as a necessary action. Chamberlain justified this behaviour by stating that ‘you cannot destroy the practices of barbarism, of slavery, of superstition, which for centuries have desolated the interior of Africa, without the use of force’. [2] Imperialists argued that by invading foreign countries they were giving the native people a ‘gain to humanity’ [3] by helping them to develop a more western sense of civilisation. However, it seems more plausible that this alleged desire to culturally enrich people from distant countries was merely ‘a set of values and ideas which rationalize the exercise of a power which is usually oppressive; and one way it does this is by making this oppression seem natural and inevitable’. [4] 

In this essay I shall attempt to determine whether or not Heart of Darkness is for or against imperialism and the ideologies which sustained it. If Heart of Darkness appears to support the racially oppressive and morally ignorant behaviour which was celebrated in Chamberlain’s speech, then it would be fair for us to conclude that the text does reflect the popular Imperialist ideology that was prominent when the text was being written. This would substantiate the argument that Heart of Darkness is in favour of imperialism and the ideologies which sustained it. If however the text does not support imperial expansion, then one could conclude that Heart of Darkness does not reflect the ideologies in which it was written, and is therefore against imperialism and the ideologies which sustained it.

Louis Althusser developed the theory that art ‘permits us to ‘feel’ and ‘perceive’ the ideology from which it springs.’ [5] This theory dictates that literature is often heavily embroiled in the prominent ideologies from the time in which they were written. For Althusser’s theory to be true within Heart of Darkness, we ought to see evidence of support for the ideology of imperialism. This would prove that the text does indeed allow us to ‘‘feel’ and ‘perceive’ the ideology from which it springs’. It has been argued that Heart of Darkness does express the ideologies of imperialism. Chinua Achebe described Joseph Conrad as a ‘thoroughgoing racist’ [6] and described Heart of Darkness as ‘a novel which celebrates [...] dehumanization’ [7] and ‘depersonalizes a portion of the human race’ [8] . Achebe’s main argument is that Conrad portrays Africa as a dark and primitive land, and the Congolese people as inhuman, barbaric and animalistic. Throughout the novel we see examples of Conrad using the theme of darkness to describe the African landscape that surrounds him. Marlow tells us how he felt that Africa ‘had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness’. [9] By using the word ‘darkness’, Conrad implies a sense of obscurity, iniquity and wickedness, as ‘dark’ is a word often used to describe something that is mysterious, enigmatic, cruel or evil. In using this word to describe Africa, Conrad labels the continent with these adjectives. This could be seen as somewhat racially intolerant and ethnically ignorant towards the people of Africa, as one could argue that Conrad has essentially labelled Africa and all of the people within it as evil. This theme is accentuated by the binary opposition created by Conrad between light and darkness. Marlow describes Kurtz as ‘the pulsating stream of light [...] from the heart of an impenetrable darkness’. [10] ‘Light’, in complete opposite to ‘dark’ is a word often associated with the idea of purity, cleanliness, innocence and good. When looking at this quote, we ought to bear in mind the fact that Kurtz is the only white man to be living amongst a group of darker skinned Africans. This therefore suggests that he is the only moral, honourable and civilized person to be living within the ‘darkness’ – which refers to both the people of Africa and Africa itself. This image reflects the ideologies of imperialism, as outlined in Chamberlain’s speech, thus adding value to the interpretation that Heart of Darkness is in favour of imperialism and the ideologies which sustained it.

Edward Said wrote that Conrad ‘could only imagine the world carved up into one or another Western sphere of dominion’. [11] We see evidence to reinforce this theory where Marlow looks at a map of the world. He remarks that he notices ‘a vast amount of red’ [12] on the map, which he feels is ‘good to see’ [13] . The colour red was traditionally used to indicate which areas on a map belonged to the British Empire. The fact that Marlow is pleased to see that a large amount of the territory on the map is under the control of the British Empire suggests that he supports imperialism and approves of the idea of having many countries controlled by one powerful Western country. This therefore provides us with further evidence to suggest that Heart of Darkness promotes a pro-imperialist message.

If we examine the way in which Conrad presents the Congolese people in Heart of Darkness, we are given further reason to believe that the text does incorporate late nineteenth century Imperialist ideology. The Congolese people that Marlow encounters in the novel are often likened to animals, and are portrayed as inhuman and primitive. When Marlow encounters a group of natives, he describes them not individually, but with one generalized image, in the same way that a zoologist would describe a species of animals. Conrad tells us that ‘they had faces like grotesque masks’ [14] and he explains how ‘black rags were wound round their loins and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails’. [15] We are told how ‘all their meagre breasts panted together’ and that they all ‘passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of happy savages’. [16] The oversimplified nature in which Conrad describes the entire Congolese race is both dismissive and arrogant, and is typical of the views taken by those who would have conformed to the late nineteenth century imperialist ideology. In addition, by referring to the Congolese people as ‘savages’ and stating that they looked as if they had ‘tails’, Conrad portrays these people in the same barbaric and inhuman manner as Joseph Chamberlain did in his speech. Conrad describes the Congolese wilderness as being like a ‘prehistoric earth’ [17] , and tells us that the native people ‘still belonged to the beginnings of time’. [18] This primitive portrayal of the Congolese people gives us the impression that the Congo and the people within it had never really developed a sense of civilization and were still living as they would have done in prehistoric times. This is also in fitting with Chamberlain’s description, as it bears a strong resemblance to Chamberlain’s belief that ‘the interior of Africa’ had been ‘desolated’ by the ‘practices of barbarism, of slavery, of superstition [...] for centuries’. This proves that the text does reflect the imperialist ideology of the late nineteenth century, and therefore adds value to the argument that Heart of Darkness is in favour of imperialism and the ideologies which sustained it.

On the other hand, one could argue that Heart of Darkness does not reflect the imperialist ideology that was popular at the time of the novel’s conception. J. Hillis Miller wrote that Heart of Darkness is a ‘masterwork of irony’. [19] Certainly one could say that Conrad does use irony to negatively portray the exploitative effects of imperialism, and a good example of this is seen where the man with the moustaches complains about the noise made by the dying native man who had been beaten by some of the white settlers for supposedly starting the fire which burnt down the shed. Rather insensitively the man complains, saying ‘what a row the brute makes’. [20] The irony behind such a statement is obvious. The reader is aware that the man with the moustaches is actually far more of a ‘brute’ than the native due to his complete lack of empathy and compassion for the dying man. Conrad’s use of irony serves to mock the intelligence and humanity of the white imperialists, and this in turn criticizes the reality of imperialism. Irony is also used where Marlow sees some native men who had been chained together and were horribly thin building a railway for the white settlers. Marlow ashamedly says that ‘I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings’. [21] The ‘proceedings’ being described are clearly not ‘high and just’, and this irony leads us to question whether imperial expansion is such a ‘great cause’ at all.

However, Conrad does not rely solely on irony to promote an anti-imperialist message, as there are certain extracts within the novel that clearly oppose imperialism and its effects. An example of this is seen where we are told that ‘the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much’. [22] This extract points out the unpleasant reality of imperialism, as it highlights the conceited ignorance involved with imperial expansion and reveals that the process of imperial expansion is never a ‘pretty thing’, though it may take on a more romanticized image at first glance.

In conclusion I believe that Heart of Darkness does not support the ideology of imperialism. Despite the fact that the Congolese people are portrayed as having somewhat savage and animalistic tendencies, the empathy shown towards these people in the text humanizes them and makes the reader resent the exploitative treatment that they were subjected to by colonial settlers. In addition, although to a postcolonial audience much of the language used may appear to be somewhat racist, such as the regular use of the word ‘nigger’, one must remember that ‘literary texts are embedded within the social and economic circumstances in which they are produced and consumed’, [23] and although the use of such a word may seem racist and highly offensive to a modern audience, what we now consider to be racist may well have been a more socially acceptable term in 1899. I am of the belief that Joseph Conrad did not wish either to strongly support or strongly condemn imperialist ideologies in Heart of Darkness. I believe that in writing the novel, he meant to document some of the experiences that he had encountered on his voyage through Africa in 1890 in a racially tolerant and fair manner. By documenting the effects of imperialism in his novel Conrad was able to demonstrate some of the monstrosities associated with imperial expansion. This helped to lessen the appeal of imperialist ideologies; as John McLeod wrote, ‘postcolonial literatures were actively engaged in the act of decolonising the mind’. [24] The social and economic circumstances under which a text is created ‘are not stable in themselves and are susceptible to being rewritten and transformed’. [25] Though literary texts can be reflective of the culture and popular ideologies under which they were written, they are ‘both products of and influences on a particular culture or ideology’. [26] This influence can take the form of dissuasion from a particular ideology represented in the literature, and one could argue that this was the case with Heart of Darkness. The text may not have been written with the intention of putting people off of the idea of imperialism, however the fact that it documented the realities of imperial activity in Africa helped to change people’s ideologies away from the idea of imperialism. For this reason, the text is neither strongly for nor strongly against imperialism; it does however reveal some of the monstrous acts committed in the name of imperialism, and this helped to alter people’s perceptions of it, which ultimately helped to contribute towards the downfall of the ‘High Age’ of imperialism.

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