In Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness the Europeans are cut off from civilization,
overtaken by greed, exploitation, and material interests from his own kind. Conrad develops
themes of personal power, individual responsibility, and social justice. His book has all the
trappings of the conventional adventure tale - mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, unexpected
attack. The book is a record of things seen and done by Conrad while in the Belgian Congo.
Conrad uses Marlow, the main character in the book, as a narrator so he himself can enter the
story and tell it out of his own philosophical mind. Conrad's voyages to the Atlantic and Pacific,
and the coasts of Seas of the East brought contrasts of novelty and exotic discovery. By the time
Conrad took his harrowing journey into the Congo in 1890, reality had become unconditional. The
African venture figured as his descent into hell. He returned ravaged by the illness and mental
disruption which undermined his health for the remaining years of his life. Marlow's journey into
the Congo, like Conrad's journey, was also meaningful. Marlow experienced the violent threat of
nature, the insensibility of reality, and the moral darkness.
We have noticed that important motives in Heart of Darkness connect the white men with
the Africans. Conrad knew that the white men who come to Africa professing to bring progress
and light to "darkest Africa" have themselves been deprived of the sanctions of their European
social orders; they also have been alienated from the old tribal ways.
"Thrown upon their own inner spiritual resources they may be utterly damned by their
greed, their sloth, and their hypocrisy into moral insignificance, as were the pilgrims, or
they may be so corrupt by their absolute power over the Africans that some Marlow will
need to lay their memory among the 'dead Cats of Civilization.'" (Conrad 105.)
The supposed purpose of the Europeans traveling into Africa was to civilize the natives. Instead
they colonized on the native's land and corrupted the natives.
"Africans bound with thongs that contracted in the rain and cut to the bone, had their
swollen hands beaten with rifle butts until they fell off. Chained slaves were forced to
drink the white man's defecation, hands and feet were chopped off for their rings, men were
lined up behind each other and shot with one cartridge , wounded prisoners were eaten by
maggots till they die and were then thrown to starving dogs or devoured by cannibal
tribes." (Meyers 100.)
Conrad's "Diary" substantiated the accuracy of the conditions described in Heart of Darkness: the
chain gangs, the grove of death, the payment in brass rods, the cannibalism and the human skulls
on the fence posts. Conrad did not exaggerate or invent the horrors that provided the political and
humanitarian basis for his attack on colonialism. The Europeans took the natives' land away from
them by force. They burned their towns, stole their property, and enslaved them. George
Washington Williams stated in his diary,
"Mr. Stanley was supposed to have made treaties with more than four hundred native
Kings and Chiefs, by which they surrendered their rights to the soil. And yet many of
these people declare that they never made a treaty with Stanley, or any other white man;
their lands have been taken away from them by force, and they suffer the greatest wrongs
at the hands of the Belgians." (Conrad 87.)
Conrad saw intense greed in the Congo. The Europeans back home saw otherwise; they
perceived that the tons of ivory and rubber being brought back home was a sign of orderly conduct
in the Congo. Conrad's Heart of Darkness mentioned nothing about the trading of rubber. Conrad
and Marlow did not care for ivory; they cared about the exploration into the "darkest Africa." A
painting of a blindfolded woman carrying a lighted torch was discussed in the book. The
background was dark, and the effect of the torch light on her face was sinister. The oil painting
represents the blind and stupid ivory company, fraudulently letting people believe that besides the
ivory they were taking out of the jungle, they were, at the same time, bringing light and progress to
the jungle. Conrad mentioned in his diary that missions were set up to Christianize the natives.
He did not include the missions into his book because the land was forcibly taken away from the
natives, thus bringing in a church does not help if the natives have no will. Supplies brought in the
country were left outdoors and abandoned, and a brick maker who made no bricks, lights up the
fact that the Europeans do not care to help the natives progress. When Marlow reached the first
station, he saw what used to be tools and supplies, that were to help progress the land, laid in waste
upon the ground.
"I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a path leading up the hill. It
turned aside for the boulders and also for an undersized railway truck lying there on its
back with its wheels in the air.... I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack
of rust rails.... No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building a railway.
The cliff was not in the way of anything, but this objectless blasting was all the work going
on." (Conrad 19.)
George Washington Williams wrote in his diary that three and a half years passed by, but not one
mile of road bed or train tracks was made.
"One's cruelty is one's power; and when one parts with one's cruelty, one parts
with one's power," says William Congreve, author of The Way of the World. (Tripp 206.) The
Europeans forcibly took away the natives' land and then enslaved them. All the examples given are
part of one enormous idea of cruelty - cruelty that the European white men believe because its
victims are helpless. These are mystical revelations of man's dark self.
1. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness: Backgrounds and Criticisms. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall,
2. Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991.
3. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton
4. Williams, George Washington. [A Report upon the Congo - State and Country to the President
of the Republic of the United States of America.] Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed.
Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton Critical 1988. 87.
5. Tripp, Rhoda Thomas. Thesaurus of Quotations. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970.
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