Imperialism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Essay, 2002

14 Pages, Grade: A-


‘He [Kurtz} began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, “must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings … by the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded” … It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.’ (Marlow)

Write an essay discussing whether you think Heart of Darkness endorses this view of the colonizing enterprise.

Being a student of history, and of European colonialism in particular, I have had the pleasure to hear of Heart of Darkness several times. Whether it was introduced as a literary bonus to lectures on the notorious atrocities in the Congo or merely served as a vague metaphorical reference in scientific and popular articles, Conrad’s novel seemed to produce unanimous tenor. “[One] of fiction’s strongest statements about imperialism”[1] it was; one that like “[no] other Victorian literary work addressed so radically [this] great era.”[2] Readers like me would thus deny the above quotation in a sort of reflex retort; pointing to the fact that imperial rule might have been immense in its impact on native life but was certainly far from being benevolent. Rapacity and ruthlessness dominated under the spurious cloak of philanthropic interest – just as Heart of Darkness so clearly shows. Apparently.

It is the aim of this essay to dive beyond such well-nigh automatic associations and scrutinise the novel’s treatment of imperialism, equipped with the tools of literary method. In which way does Heart of Darkness really depict the colonial enterprise? And what are the long-term consequences this view entails? I.e. what kind of general judgement can be inferred from the novel? Since imperialism is first and foremost a phenomenon rooted in time, insights from the historical discipline might be helpful and, wherever appropriate, will be used too. Conrad himself expressed this belief in synthesis between history and literature, emphasising that the “novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience.”[3] Nonetheless, it is the novel, his fictionalised account, which remains the basis of any kind of interpretation.

When discussing the plot of Heart of Darkness, it is essential to keep in mind that the main part of the story, the journey up the Congo River as recalled by Charles Marlow, is placed within an over-arching narrative.[4] The latter sets both Marlow and his audience of seamen, including the unknown frame-narrator, far away from the colonialist scene, namely on a yawl waiting to leave the Thames for the open ocean. It is here, near London – the virtual centre of colonialism – that first allusions to imperial values are made. Reflecting on England’s “knights-errant”, the narrator ruminates:

“Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!… The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires (137).”

This eulogy on Britain’s imperial glory is soon to be damped by Marlow. Referring back to antiquity, he calls to memory that even England “has been one of the dark places of the earth (138),” when Roman commanders started back from the barbaric rites of its Gaul inhabitants. However:

“Mind none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of , when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind –a s is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses that ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What seems to be missing it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to….(139f.)

In these very lines is embedded the core content of the whole story to come. Not only does the ‘Roman example’ ironically anticipate the state of colonising affairs as found in the Congo, but it also gives the reader/listener at hand the two important yardsticks with which to measure the success or failure of any imperial enterprise: efficiency and, closely related to it, an underlying idea.

Suffice to say that both are belied by what Marlow is going to revive of his experiences. Take for instance the construction site he passes on arriving at the first station. Amongst the decaying residues of machinery and the den of detonations, he notices: “They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way of anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work going on (154).” An absurdity, or rather inefficiency, which parallels the payment of the cannibal crew on Marlow’s steamer. Being paid with pieces of brass wire, they are doomed to starve, for the currency is practically worthless as a commodity in exchange for food.

As for ‘the idea’, it is quite complicated to determine what Marlow exactly means with this term. According to critic Hunt Hawkins, we are meant to equate it with the notion of the white man’s civilising mission.[5] Hints at such an interpretation are given by Marlow’s initial admiration for Kurtz – one who “had come out with moral ideas of some sort (178),” one whom even his enemies call “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else (169).” The moral standards those expressions imply are naturally broken in the catchment area of ‘the Company.’ While Marlow is still reflecting on the aimless cliff blasting he has just been witness of, a black chain gang crosses his way and reveals the dimensions of civilising approaches. “All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily up-hill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages (154).” No wonder then that the natives try to escape such treatment, try to escape the “outraged law” that stamps them criminals, by fleeing the straps of land accessible to white interference: “[the] population had cleared out a long time ago (160).”

The existence of a rapacious imperialism that constantly violates the criteria of efficiency and moral behaviour presupposes, of course, a generally accepted form of it. Conrad, outlining the novel’s topic, disclosed to his publishers: “The title I am thinking of is Heart of Darkness but the narrative is not gloomy. The criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing work in Africa is a justifiable idea. The subject is of our time distinctly.”[6] As it seems, we are moving within the ideological wake of the author’s contemporaries. Indeed, Blackwood’s Magazine and New Review, the two magazines that published Conrad’s serialised novels, served “an audience still secure in the conviction that they were members of an invincible imperial power and a superior race, […] to whom colonial possessions appeared a natural extension of their own national boundaries.”[7] Conrad, then, made his protagonist use the vocabulary of imperialism to appeal to the world view of these readers; not so much to condemn imperialism as such, but only a special form of it – colonial exploitation as singularly materialised in the Belgian Congo. Both Hunt Hawkins and Jonah Raskin persuasively comment on this connection. Conrad’s experiences while employed as steamer captain under the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo, the historical facts around King Leopold’s regime that have been gathered for that period, they all found record in the novel, depicted in railroad calamity, currency chaos, forced labour, and depopulation.[8] “The Congo Conrad saw in 1890 […] was [yet] a more highly organized and ‘civilized’ region than the Congo of Heart of Darkness,[9] factual details getting lost in the process of transforming the author’s personal experience into a fiction of general historical and cultural significance.


[1] Hunt Hawkins, ‘Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness ’, in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 94, 2, March 1979, pp. 286-99, here p. 286.

[2] Cedric Watts, ‘Introduction’, in Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, edited with an introduction by Cedric Watts, Oxford/ New York, 1990, pp. vii-xxiii, here p. xxiii.

[3] Quoted from Jonah Raskin, ‘Imperialism: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ’, in Journal of Contemporary History, 2, 2, Literature and Society, April 1967, pp. 113-31, here p. 115.

[4] The decisive implications of Marlow’s retelling the happenings in the Congo out of his memory will be dealt with later on.

[5] Hawkins, Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism, p. 288.

[6] Quoted from ibid., p. 286.

[7] Benita Parry, Conrad and Imperialism: Ideological Boundaries and Visionary Frontiers, London, 1983, p. 1.

[8] Compare Hawkins, Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism, pp. 288-93; Jonah Raskin, Imperialism, pp. 113-24.

[9] Ibid., p. 117.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Imperialism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
University of Auckland  (Englisch Department)
Seminar - Victorian Literature, Stage III (5.-6. Semester)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
430 KB
Imperialism, Joseph, Conrad, Heart, Darkness, Seminar, Victorian, Literature, Stage, Semester)
Quote paper
Geoffrey Schöning (Author), 2002, Imperialism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Imperialism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free