Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness". The Display of Victorian Values in a Context of Crisis

Hausarbeit, 2015

14 Seiten, Note: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Meaning of Space: Europe vs. Africa

3. Revision of Past Beliefs: Cracks in Victorian Morality
3.1 Marlow‘s Disillusion
3.2 Good Boy Gone Bad/Mad: Mr. Kurtz
3.3 Europe as ʺthe Sepulchral City“

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

During the Victorian Age, named after the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901), Great Britain seized overseas territories in order “to increase its own holdings and enhance its prestige, to secure trade routes, to obtain raw materials and to produce a market for its own goods” (The Norton Anthology of British Literature: Victorian Imperialism). Between 1870 and 1890 Great Britain acquired colonies at rapid speed, particularly in Africa. However, other European countries were also interested in the acquisition of African colonies. This resulted in a run for African colonies, known as the “Scramble for Africa”. By the end of the twentieth century Great Britain was the center of a global empire that fostered trade and cultural exchange with its new territories, though the exchange was most of the time unequal. Victorian’s belief of their own superiority served a as justification for the forceful taking of the territories. The assumed superiority was also the reason for the hierarchical relationship between the Empire and its colonies. Victorians sought to prove this superiority with reference to biological and social theories. Victorian sciences stated that “(…) non-Europeans were less evolved, biologically and culturally, and thus unable properly to govern themselves or develop their own territories” (ibid.). This racist view was also reflected in literature where native African people, who were perceived as “the imperfectly evolved colonial subjects”, were described as “as fearsome cannibals and beasts, hardly human at all” (ibid.). Therefore, Great Britain declared the taming of the wild Africans a ‘civil mission’. They justified their expansion, in which they took other people’s land, by claiming “a civilizing mission based on its own moral, racial, and national superiority” (ibid.). In practice, however, this ʹsuperiorityʹ was constantly challenged. The colonial officers, who were sent to the colonies, struggled with the new environment which was different from Europe in many ways. They had difficulties in adopting to the new setting which they perceived as a “nowhere” place, a place far off from civilization where people live after their own rules. Being in the wilderness, the colonial rulers were not subjected to supervision and judicial authority like in Europe. The paper at hand seeks to explore the influence of the African setting on the colonial masters with reference to the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The claim is that exposed to the African environment, Victorian values no longer prove valid. This thesis will be discussed with reference to the novel’s protagonist Mr. Kurtz, who is depicted as a colonial agent working in the Congo for a British trading company.

2. Meaning of Space: Europe vs. Africa

Marlow starts his journey near Gravesend in England. Traveling down the Thames he states that “(…) this [England] also (…) has been one of the dark places of the earth” (HD: 5).1 He continues to allude to the former darkness of this place by stating: “we live in the flicker - may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday” (HD: 6).2 His utterances refer to the time when England was colonized by the Romans. Marlow tells: “I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here (…). Light came out of this river since (…). Like a flash of lightening in the clouds” (HD: 6). Until Roman invaders brought civilization to England it has been an uncivilized and dark place. Marlow concludes that colonialism is justified through the spread of civilization. In his perception cultural progress in underdeveloped places is only possible through the forceful taking over of an advanced power. The positively perceived aspects of the Roman conquest serve him as a moral justification for the acquisition of overseas colonies. The quotations also show that Marlow equals civilized places with brightness and light while he associates uncivilized places with darkness. In this respect, his travel from the civilized England to the ʹuncivilizedʹ Congo can be read as a travel from light towards darkness (cf. Schefold: 92). Throughout the narrative light and shadow constantly alternate. On his travel on the Congo Marlow reflects: “going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world (…)” (HD: 42). For him, Africa represents a former type of human existence. Marlow perceives himself and his crew as “(…) wanderers on a prehistoric earth (…)” (HD: 44). In his novel, Joseph Conrad works with dichotomies. He depicts a civilized and bright Europe, as exemplified by England, ʹa place of culture and civilizationʹ. The author contrasts this with the picture of the ʹuncivilizedʹ, ʹprimitiveʹ and ʹdarkʹ African continent, as exemplified by the Congo, ʹa primal place of wildernessʹ. Therefore, Conrad has often been criticized for presenting racist ideas in his novel. Nigerian born novelist Chinua Achebe harshly criticized Conrad in his essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darknessʹ. He accused Joseph Conrad of being a “ʹthoroughgoing racistʹ for depicting Africa as ʹthe other worldʹ” (Achebe: 2f). He presumed Conrad a "residue of antipathy to black people" (ibid.). However, it is crucial to keep in mind that the novel was written in 1899 at the end of the Victorian Age (1837 - 1901) and at the peak time of Colonialism/Imperialism. The historical background of the novel is the fact that England, like many other European countries, participated in the “Scramble for Africa”. At the Congo Conference (1884-85) in Berlin the European countries agreed on the partitioning of Africa. In Europe, colonization of Africa was justified on the grounds that it would civilize and educate the ʹsavageʹ African natives. Thus, the colonial effort was declared a ʹnoble missionʹ. Marlow states: „Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing“ (HD: 41). Besides, it was a widespread belief that the possession of African colonies would also bring wealth to Europe. This was actually the major purpose of the colonial mission; the colonizing countries were mainly seeking to profit from the African soil by exploiting its natural resources. This profit seeking was mixed with racial ideology. During Victorian Age it was a common belief that European culture was superior to African culture. Last but not least, this idea was promoted by studies of the ʹcolonial sciencesʹ claiming differences between the ʹracesʹ. The novel Heart of Darkness, which was written during this time, attempts at portraying the practices of colonial rule and effects it had on the colonizers and the colonized. It also addresses Victorian’s fear of degeneracy by inferior cultures. This anxiety regarding primitive cultures, such as the African, were deeply rooted in Victorian perception. In the colonies, this fear was much more real than in England. Most of time, the colonial masters tried to maintain clear cut boundaries between them and the natives. Nevertheless, there are also examples of cultural crossing. However, to intermingle with the native population was socially not accepted and sometimes also penalized.3 In Heart of Darkness this fear of degeneracy is present in the character of Mr. Kurtz, who is - contrary to the other colonial masters - ʹgoing nativeʹ.4 This case will be addressed in more depths in chapter 3.2.

Interestingly, the colonizers as depicted in the novel feel constantly threatened by the indigenous people. However, this threat is not an actual one; it is rather a subjective feeling that they have. The threat does not come from the outside but from the inside. The colonizer’s fear of being threatened only exists in their psyche. This psychological phenomenon can only be understood with reference to Victorian’s fear of degeneracy. The colonizers feared that their suppressed primitive drives and passions take over in the African environment (cf. Frank: 144).5 Although they presented themselves as civilized and superior force, they felt that the Africans resembled them in many ways. Marlow states: “The danger (…) was from our proximity to a great human passion let loose” (HD: 54).

“(…) the men were - no, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it - this suspicion of their not being inhumane (…) what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity - like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar (…). If you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you - you so remote from the night of first ages - could comprehend” (HD: 45).

Marlow does not perceive the African people as inhuman and uncultivated. In opposition to the colonial masters, he does not stress the differences between Europeans and Africans but their kinship. He acknowledges that the Africans culture has its own meaning and entitlement. In this way, he is different from the colonial rulers.

3. Revision of Past Beliefs: Cracks in Victorian Morality

3.1 Marlow’s Disillusion

At the beginning of the novel Marlow gets employed as a captain on a river steamboat for an ivory trading company. Traveling down the Congo to the company’s station Marlow hears about the dubious Mr. Kurtz, a successful ivory trader and chief of the Inner Station. Marlow is told by the leader of the company’s station that “(…) Mr. Kurtz was the best agent he had, an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the Company (…)” (HD: 27). Mr. Kurtz, the commander of the Inner Station, is the most successful ivory trader. He is admired by the other agents for having gathered vast quantities of ivory. Marlow tells “(…) I had been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he [Mr. Kurtz] had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together” (HD: 59). An agents tells Marlow that Mr. Kurtz “(…) is a very remarkable person. (…) [He] was at present in charge of a trading post, a very important one, in the true ivory country, at the very bottom of there. Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together…” (HD: 23). In the course of his journey on the Congo, Marlow becomes fascinated by the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, who is described as “(…) a prodigy (…)” and “(…) an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else” (HD: 31). Marlow is unable to tell Mr. Kurtz’ profession because he seems to be gifted in so many ways. In retrospection he has difficulties stating which the greatest of Mr. Kurtz’ talents was: he “had been essentially a great musician” but at first he “had taken him for a painter (…) or for a journalist (…)” (HD: 92). Marlow finally concludes that “he was a universal genius” (HD: 92). This passage reveals that Marlow holds a high opinion of Mr. Kurtz who is believed to combine the best of European culture and Western civilization. Mr. Kurtz appears to be a symbol, an ideal representative of European Civilization because “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (HD: 86). He is “the embodiment of all that's noble about European civilization, from his talent in the arts to his ambitious goals of civilizing" and helping the natives of Africa. To sum it up, Mr. Kurtz is depicted as a man of great intellect, talent, and ambition. Although Marlow states that “he [Mr. Kurtz] was just a word for me” (HD: 33) he increasingly identifies with him. On his travel he hears so much about Mr. Kurtz that he has become an invisible companion to him. He admits that every “(…) now and then I would give some thought to Kurtz. (…) (HD: 38). Later, after Mr. Kurtz’ death, he sums it up as following: “as it happens, I am Mr. Kurtz’s friend – in a way” (HD: 80). Marlow feels emotional connected to Mr. Kurtz due to the stories he has heard about him. When he hears about rumors that a very important station was in jeopardy, and its chief, Mr. Kurtz, was ill, he hopes that this was not true and tells that he “(…) felt weary and irritable” (HD: 27). Long before meeting Mr. Kurtz, Marlow is equipped with a preliminary image of him created through discourse. He seems to partially know Mr. Kurtz already and is eager to meet up with him in person: “I was then rather excited at the prospect of meeting Kurtz very soon” (HD: 42). Marlow states that he “(…) was cut to the quick at the idea of having (…) the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz” (HD: 60). Marlow longs for mutual understanding and intellectual exchange with Mr. Kurtz. He tells:

„(…) that was exactly what I had been looking forward to – a talk with Kurtz. (…) the point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating (…)” (HD: 83).


1 Stressing that “(…) this [England] also (…) has been one of the dark places of the earth”, Marlow draws a parallel to Africa which - in his perception - still is a place of ʹdarknessʹ.

2 The statement „We live in the flicker - may it last as long as the old world keeps rolling!” implies that brightness is just a short-time illusion. It’s merely a short flash in an everlasting darkness (cf. Schefold: 92).

3 „Kulturellen Überläufern drohte neben der Ächtung oftmals auch die Bestrafung durch ihre Landsleute“ (Frank: 60).

4 Dt.: Kultureller „Überläufer“ (cf. Frank: 58).

5 Frank calls this “anxiety of reverse colonization” (144). 4

Ende der Leseprobe aus 14 Seiten


Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness". The Display of Victorian Values in a Context of Crisis
Technische Universität Carolo-Wilhelmina zu Braunschweig  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Victorian Cities
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
650 KB
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Victorian Age, Colonialism
Arbeit zitieren
Anna Buchroth (Autor:in), 2015, Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness". The Display of Victorian Values in a Context of Crisis, München, GRIN Verlag,


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