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Heart of Darkness Seminar

The story by Joseph Conrad follows the journey of Charlie Marlow, who travels from Brussels to Africa via the Congo River. Marlow is tasked with transporting ivory downriver, but he develops an interest in a man named Kurtz, an agent in charge of procuring ivory, and famed to be the best at his job. Kurtz is known as a brilliant man whose purpose is to bring civilization to the natives and is considered a god in “one of the darkest places on earth” (Conrad 10). Marlow suspects Kurtz has lost his mind but proceeds with his mission to retrieve him and take him back to Brussels. Unfortunately, Kurtz does not make it back home and dies on the steam ship.

The book addresses various themes like civilization and savagery. According to the noel, civilizations are created by people who follow a set of codes and laws that push men to greater standards. These laws prevent men from going back to savagery. London is portrayed as enlightened and ‘civilized’. It was viewed as “one of the darker places of the earth” (Conrad, 10) before the invasion of the Romans, and now that definition portrays Africa. Society tries to restrain savagery, but fails, and the primeval tendencies are left to lurk in the background like a black cloth. Kurts represents the struggle between savagery and civilization. According to Hawkins, Marlow views Kurtz as a “man who has been completely fallen off from civilization and has reverted back to his primitive state” (Hawkins 298). This suggests that when a man is removed from societal constraints of rules and laws, they are bound to revert back to savagery. The novel portrays civilization as superficial, and civilization depends on the moral and physical environment an individual is placed in.

Conrad uses black and white to contrast between various elements and periods of time. Black (dark) has been used to symbolize evil, uncivilized, death, savagery and ignorance. White (light) on the other hand, symbolizes goodness, civilized, life, enlightenment and religion. Symbolism of light and dark has been used for centuries to refer to different periods in time. For example, the Dark Ages refer to a time when knowledge and science was still suppressed. In the Heart of Darkness, England is described as ‘dark’ before the Romans just as Africa before colonization. However, in the novel, White symbolizes falsehood, and the ivory trade is dirty and dark, and darkness symbolizes the truth of the native people and their culture.

Insanity is closely associated with Imperialism in the novel. The doctor informs Marlow that his physical health will not be the main concern as he journeys to Africa, rather his mental state (Conrad 15). Marlow is informed that Kurtz is not in his right mind, but the realization of Kurtz’s mental disintegration is relative. The suspicion shifts from Kurtz to the company, with most of the employees looped in a web of conspiracies and greed. Insanity also shifts focus to social fictions. Insanity is a result of extracting individuals from their social context and putting them in an environment where they are the sole arbiter of their actions. Therefore, insanity is linked to both the fundamental fallibility of men and absolute power. With no one to answer to but himself, Kurtz has more authority than a man can handle, thus his inevitable descent into madness.

The whole novel is dominated by Marlow’s mythical journey in search of truth and self. Marlow correlates his journey in the Congo River to Kurtz quest. Kurtz is an enigma and is revered as a god among the native, but his lack of self-understanding and lack of preparation for what awaits him takes him beyond what he can bear. This results in insanity and death. Marlow, on the other hand, does not go beyond his limit and upon his return, does not understand his experience. He views the colonizers as “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly “(Conrad 17). Although the darkness tries to engulf him too, he is able to fight it by resisting the urge to join in the unspeakable rights of colonization. He is saved because, unlike Kurtz, he is self-aware that the mystery of existence needs humility.

The novel greatly portrays the evilness of imperialism, and the immense destruction it has on the African continent. When Marlow arrives in Congo, he witnesses the torture and starvation of the natives as opposed to the lavish wealth of colonizers. The natives are victimized and enslaved on their land. According to Hawkins (291) “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz, Marlow said. It seems the major burden of the story to reveal what Marlow failed to see-that England is in no way exempt”. The Company uses them to enrich itself, using civilization as a pretense for exploitation. After his return, Marlow is not sure which nation is truly civilized and his view of Africa and Europe is completely changed p. 25). “Kurtz had begun as an idealist, and in his report he had quite sincerely proclaimed “we can exert a power for good practically unbounded” (Hawkins 287)

Reference List

Conrad, Joseph, and Carmel Beirne. Heart of darkness. Hear-a-Book., 1925.

Hawkins, Hunt. “Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness.” Pamela 94.2 (1979): 286-299.


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