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The Issue of Colonial Conquest in "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad

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In “Heart of Darkness”, Conrad distances himself from the eurocentrism of the 19th century, offering a view of scepticism over dogmatic belief in the duplicities of colonial rhetoric. Through this, Conrad subtly undermines the claim of the colonial conquest as an agent of progress and ‘forerunner of change’.

Conrad reveals the colonial enterprise as an institution of cavalier indifference. Congo, merely reduced to ‘a place of darkness’, is constructed as an omnipresent entity, impenetrable, unfathomable to the European realm of cognition. By referring to Congo as a ‘blank space of delightful mystery’ and a ‘snake’, a sense of triviality is evoked through the denial of historical context and value; instead, the country is summarised as an animal, its exotic nature and “charm” seemed to only serve the purpose of satisfying colonisers’ desire to ‘lose [themselves] in all the glories of exploration.’ There, Conrad renders the colonial conquest’s claim to enlighten as insincere by unveiling Marlow’s sentiments for Congo as a ‘white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over’.

Colonial discourse, as an apparatus of power, is shown by Conrad to disavow its own real motivations. The title of ‘brickmaker’ alludes to a sense of real work being done; the ostensible appearance implies advancement, progress and accomplishment. However, the main concerns of the brick maker is revealed to be about the material, tangible influence, power, rank and position. (‘my..aunt’s influential acquaintances were producing an unexpected effect upon that young man’) Thus, this juxtaposition between the exterior of the colonial rhetoric— to be ‘an emissary of science and progress”— and its interior of inefficiency acts to subtly undermine its claim of ‘progress’.

The evocative imagery of a ‘beaten nigger groan[ing] somewhere’ in passage two acts as an allegory for the barbarisms of the colonial empire. The repetition of ‘pitiless, pitiless’ affirms the false sense of civility amongst the colonial agents, evoking a sense of cruelty and detachment instead. The brick maker’s ironic claim of ‘what a row the brutes make’ is at once rendered hypocritical by the air of decay and death surrounding the description, ‘the hurt nigger moaned’. By exhibiting a strain of savagery within the civilised, Conrad exposes the colonial agent’s own blindness to discern the brutality of the colonial enterprise. The lilting cadence of Marlow’s tone that lingers still albeit the images of wanton suffering, encapsulated by the abrasiveness of “bang!”, undermines his own sentiments for the colonial rhetoric. The frame narrative of the novella thereby introduces a critical distance between the reader and narrator, allowing the former to mediate on what the latter fails to recognise.

The most salient irony in the novella revolts around Kurtz. Kurtz, ‘a man all Europe contributed to the making of’, is constructed as the epitome of colonial imperialism, offering lofty, awe-inspiring ideas on ‘science and progress’. Albeit attaining this air of superiority and ‘virtue’, upon being placed in a landscape outside the realm of European cognition, without the familiar confines and restraints of civilisation, the civilised man frees himself from all moral bounds. The ‘faint sounds’ and ‘dim stir’ of the ‘forest’ creates a narrative landscape of echoes and ambivalent boundaries, rendering moral restraints deliquescent. Kurtz is thus provided a fertile ground where savage tendencies, baser instincts and primordial emotions overpower civilised restraint; the concrete and vivid imagery of hi, ‘wander[ing] alone, far into the depths of the forest’ thus symbolises the abandonment of the civilised self and subverts the power and dominance of civilisation.

Kurtz’s succumbing to his primitive emotions is rendered palpable through his ‘fancy’ to kill ‘whom he jolly well pleased’. In Kurtz’s metamorphosis from a member of the ‘gang of virtue’ to a ‘terrible man’, Conrad elicits a parallel between civilisation and the wilderness, suggesting an interconnectivity and a ‘common kinship’ between the two juxtaposing binaries—Kurtz, whilst still ‘no ordinary man’ and beholds grand, magnanimous ideals regards progress and civilisation, he is also persuaded by his baser instincts. Through this underlining sense of the uncanny, Conrad brings the barbarisms of the colonial conquest to the foreground, rendering its ‘punishments’ as man’s inhumanity to tore men, rather than to ‘brutes’ or ‘savages’.

The honest account of Kurtz ‘rad[ing] the country’ reveals the commercial exploitation behind the duplicities of the colonial rhetoric to be a ‘beacon on the road towards better things’. Through the absurdity imbued in the description of Kurtz having ‘no goods to trade’ ivory with, Conrad shows that, despite being a ‘Company for trade’, the very absence of a standard monetary system only acts to accentuate the failure of the colonial enterprise to instil a system that stands for advancement and progress. Thereby, the duplicities of the colonial rhetoric is made appearance and once more, the futility in the colonial conquest’s efforts to enlighten is exemplified, negating its own claims of efficiency and change.

Hence, by focalising attention upon the implicit truth beneath the veneer of the enlightening, civilising mission, Conrad reveals the inefficiency and inefficacies behind the dualities of colonial rhetoric, ultimately subverting its claim to be the ‘forerunner of conquest, of trade’.

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The Issue of Colonial Conquest in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. (2018, Jun 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 20, 2021, from
“The Issue of Colonial Conquest in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.” GradesFixer, 09 Jun. 2018,
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