Heart of Darkness Analysis – Conrad’s Attitude Towards Imperialism

For an extended period of time, Africa and other far-flung oriental territories always arose interest in the West. For Europeans, these “savages” that occupied unchartered territories presented an opportunity to make contact. Almost all the major powers in Europe participated in this incursion seeking to conquer and civilize those they deemed “backward”. Nowhere is this imperialist attitude evident than in “The White Man’s Burden”, a poem by the celebrated poet, Rudyard Kipling where he succinctly portrays his idea that America and Europe were obligated to shine this “light” of Western civilization to individuals that have been living in “darkness” (Kipling, Beecroft, Powers, & Colt Kipling Collection (Library of Congress), 1956, ). Other scholars such as John Conrad had a different opinion. He penned a novella, Heart of Darkness, seen by many as a critique of colonialism and imperialism. His story is a narration of Marlow who chose to venture into the Congo to bring Kurtz, a white man, who has been living among the natives back to civilization.  Although a work of fiction, the subjects that Conrad brings up in his book stirred up controversy amongst British Imperialist that were working on creating an empire. The purpose of this essay is to discus Conrad’s attitude towards Imperialism with focus on the images he conjures up of civilization versus savagery, light versus darkness and his main bone of contention with imperialism.

Imperialism is a theme that permeates the novel but what is interesting is his take towards the subject. When one reads the assortment of sections that are on imperialism, a different opinion is presented. For instance, in beginning of the book gives a candid description of the destructive nature of Roman imperialism as opposed to that of the British which is said to have been beneficial;

What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that, you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got… The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” (Taylor & Conrad, 2008, p. 13)


He seems to be vehemently condemning imperialism that is inefficient while referring to the British version as the only efficient one. It is, however, important to note that the novel also goes on to scribe in detail, all the negative effects that imperialism can have on a people. In the novel, Conrad presents scenes that elucidate the stark difference that exists between the colonized natives and the British. Marlow’s arrival at the station brings him to grips with the real situation on the ground when he is first greeted faces of diseased, starving before he is meeting with a well-dressed British accountant (Goonetilleke, 2007, p. 67). It is this striking contrast that convinces him that nothing has changed for the natives and if any, for the worst.

The theme of civilization versus savagery in the novel comes to play when Marlow begins making a description of how London was similarly a dark place during its formative years. The novel seems to somehow imply that civilization is created when men agree on certain codes and laws that encourage them to adhere to a higher standard of living. London here is presented as a representation of enlightenment while the Romans, according to Marlow, brought darkness to Britain. In the novel, Kurtz and Marlow are two seemingly antithetical instances of humanity. The imperialists thought of themselves as the light that was meant to shine on this darkness they called “savagery”. It was their desire to rid them of their ancient outdated practices and introduce their version of civilization. Conrad took issue with imperialism when it was used to rob, pillage, and murder innocent natives at a great scale, which was opposite to the jingoistic celebration found in Kipling’s works. The “horror” that Kurtz refers to in his dying breath is the adverse effects that a noble cause such as imperialism has on those colonized.

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