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Authored in the midst of the peak of European imperialistic pursuits, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness documents the subjugation of the native African peoples by their rapacious European colonialist invaders. The primary protagonist and narrator of the text, Marlow, while a member of the colonialist forces, evidently separates himself from the hegemonic Eurocentric cultural paradigm throughout his journey on the River Congo. In using his narrative vehicle as a pariah figure among his fellow Europeans, Conrad reveals his own sympathies as being with those who oppose and are victims of the colonialist endeavor he deems as oppressive and performed for purely economic purposes. Throughout the text, Conrad’s sympathetic depiction of the Congolese and the physical environment they inhabit demonstrates his condemnatory perception of the European intrusion, as does his consistent critique of those who propagate and represent its progress. Ultimately, through a post-colonial lens of criticism, Conrad deconstructs the notion of European anthropological superiority.
Conrad depicts the Congolese peoples, indigenous to the lands invaded by Marlow and his fellow Europeans, as recipients of his sympathy. Although the comments made regarding the Africans made by Marlow seemingly suggest that Conrad’s attitude towards them is one of contempt and disrespect, they are instead used sardonically, and provide a critique of European assertion of superiority. The pejorative epithets applied to the Congolese by Marlow, such as “phantoms” and “shadows”, ostensibly comments upon their spectral nature and insubstantiality as human beings. However, the “uncongenial” impositions made by the Europeans, including the “chains” that imprison them, have a wholly detrimental impact upon them, leaving them with “all the attitudes of pain, abandonment and despair”. When followed by Marlow’s exasperated critique “The work!”, Conrad’s sympathies illumine, evidently being a shock and disbelief for the abhorrent consequences of the colonial practices upon the natives, culminating in their description by Marlow as being “nothing earthly now”. The connotations of belonging to humanity within the adjective “earthly”, when accompanied by the adverb of time “now”, highlights Conrad’s belief that the European intrusion in Africa has stripped the natives of their human agency. Furthermore, this phrase implies that this quality was was in fact present prior to a European presence, contrary to the essence of the European colonial discourse of the time. Moreover, unlike his compatriots, Marlow forms a notable relational bond with the Congolese, depicted by Conrad in order to reveal his own sympathies with the vicissitudes of the natives, despite it being dissonant with the hegemonic European perception. During the death of the helmsman of Marlow’s boat, an “intimate profundity” is denoted in the eyes of the native. Conrad uses the deeply personal connotations of the adjective “intimate” and the extensive depth of knowledge and insight inherent in the noun “profundity” dually to emphasise his sympathies for the Congolese as both relatable and complex beings deserving of European respect and the bestowment of their personal dignity.
Conrad’s descriptions of the actions emerging from colonial practices upon the physical landscape make clear his own aversion to the avaricious agenda of the imperialists. The tendency of the Europeans to act in accordance with their own desires and to ignore the ramifications is evidenced in Conrad’s description of the “detonations” on a cliff face, which he describes as being “not in the way of anything”. The adverb “not”, when combined with the pronoun “anything”, highlights the all-encompassing purposelessness of the exercise, critiquing the actions of the Europeans as being nothing beyond an assertion of power upon the physical landscape. However, the fact that “No change appeared on the face of the rock” highlights Conrad’s perception of nature as immutable. Further, Conrad contrasts this quality with the transience of human constructions, evidenced in the “rusty rails” and “decaying machinery”, with each adjective stemming from the semantic field of deterioration. In doing so, the author’s respect for the unchanging and immense power of nature is made clear, due to it being a force that withstands the gross European pillaging and destruction. In addition, Marlow deems the sun to be “fierce” and the wilderness as in a state of “gloom”, pejorative descriptions used by Conrad to highlight the European notion of the environment being a physical and metaphysical barrier to their progress. In presenting the European and environmental relationship in this way, Conrad presents the environment as an opponent to the exploitation of the colonists, but one with they incessantly combat wrongly in order to satiate their avaricious intentions. Conrad’s esteem for the natural environment and criticism of those that interfere with it culminates in his description of the land as an “Inferno” after viewing the degradation of its native peoples. This intertextual allusion to the epic poem by Dante elicits a parallel between the hellish nature of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and the one present in the Congo as a result of European imposition, a wholly pejorative comparison that condemns the colonists as destructors of the land.
The characters within Heart of Darkness that embody the values of the colonial venture each receive the criticism of Conrad as emissaries of a barbaric and destructive vision. The Accountant who resides in the Outer Station appears as a caricature of the values of the Company, and by extension of colonialism as a whole. He remains dressed elegantly in “high starched collar” and “varnished boots”, apparel symbolically dissonant with the heat of the African continent and the poverty of the surrounding Africans. In doing so, Conrad illuminates his perception of the colonists as focused upon materialistic standards, despite their presence in a space of utter alterity to their own, and a lack of awareness of the place in which they reside due to their own socio-cultural paradigm. The focus upon financial gain is furthered in the Accountant’s complaints regarding the “groans of [a] sick person” in his office, as they could cause a “clerical error”, included by Conrad to indicate the favor of European capital success rather than paying attention to the damages caused by their enterprise, which manifests in the illness of the Company agent. Furthermore, the iconic European Kurtz earns the infatuation of Marlow, and his consistent desire to interact with the Company’s “prodigy” forms a cautionary message by Conrad as to the potential danger of succumbing to the allure of colonialism. Marlow’s comment that the boat travels exclusively “towards Kurtz” implies a separation from the initial business with which he embarked, and a shift to engage with the object of his desire, Kurtz. Following finally meeting him and becoming aware of his barbaric and inhumane nature, Marlow attempts in part to separate himself, stating that Kurtz was “no idol” of his, and denoting of his rapaciousness in desiring to “swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him”, which is amplified by the anaphora of “all”. However, Conrad renders complete reduction of the magnetism of Kurtz by Marlow impossible, as Marlow still refers to him as a “remarkable man”. The connotations of adulation within the adjective “remarkable” suggest that Marlow remains in awe of the achievements of Kurtz, and which is done so by Conrad in order to warn his readership of the dangers of becoming excessively fascinated by those implanting the values and enterprise of colonialism.
Throughout Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad seeks to expose the deceptive nature of the European colonial intrusion within Africa as one that seeks to satiate a financial avarice, rather than a prescribed ‘enlightening’ of the native populace. While the character of Marlow renders the author’s own sympathies superficially inaccessible, the narrator is in fact used as a vehicle by Conrad in order to reveal his own opposition to the Eurocentric attitudes towards the indigenous peoples and their land, as well as the figures who the promote the advancement and intensification of colonial practices. Ultimately, Conrad determines colonialism and its imperialist underpinnings to be worthy of critique, and to contain a destructive and abhorrent rapaciousness at its core.
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