Heart of Darkness

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20th Century Novels Essay
To what extent could Heart of Darkness be described as a disturbing novel
that reflects some of the major concerns of 20th Century fiction?
Line: 5
Due: 4th June 2004

Joseph Conrad’s literary classic Heart of Darkness serves as a powerful
indictment of the hypocrisy of imperialism and the evils of racism. It
reflects the savage repressions carried out in the Congo by the Belgians in
one of the largest acts of genocide committed up to that time (Brians,
1998). Typical of many of the other modernist literature produced in the
early decades of the twentieth century, Heart of Darkness is also as much
about the human condition of alienation, loneliness and solitude as it is
about imperialism.

We live in a world in which the consequences of nineteenth-century European
imperialism are still being felt. Primarily between 1880 and 1900 many
European governments scrambled frantically for territory(Schmiechen,
1999). During this age of imperialism, in the centre of the African
continent lay the newly colonised Belgian Congo, and the setting of the
novella Heart of Darkness. The issue of Imperialism is explored in
complicated ways in Heart of Darkness. The central character of Marlow
encounters many scenes of torture, cruelty, racist superiority and near-
slavery, and this results in the book offering a harsh picture of colonial
enterprise to the reader.

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The hypocrisy of imperialism is felt to some extent in the novella, for the
most part amongst the characters of the pilgrims and cannibals. The
pilgrims of Heart of Darkness, although appear to be Christian, are not
pilgrims in the religious sense but men from Central Station, who carry
wooden staves wherever they go. They are obsessed with keeping up a veneer
of civilization and proper conduct, and are motivated entirely by self-
interest. They all want to be appointed to a station so that they can trade
for ivory and earn a commission, but none of them actually takes any
effective steps toward achieving this goal: ” They beguiled the time by
backbitting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of
way…They slandered and hated each other only on that account.” (pg.53-
54). They despise the natives and treat them like animals, although in
their greed and ridiculousness they appear less than human themselves.In
an astounding lack of intelligence, the pilgrims attack the jungle,
creating a cloud of smoke which blinds Marlow’s navigation: “The pilgrims
had opened with their Winchesters, and were simply squirting lead into that
bush. A deuce of a lot of smoke came up and slowly drove forward…I
couldn’t see…” (pg. 80) In another incident, the pilgrims throw the
cannibals’ only source of food overboard in what “looked like a high-handed
proceeding.”(pg. 75).

In the novel the natives hired as the crew of the steamer are known as the
cannibals, paradoxically they are surprisinglyreasonableandwell
tempered. The leader of the group, in particular, seems to be intelligent
and capable of ironic reflection upon his situation. Marlow respects their
restraint and their calm acceptance of adversity. “Fine fellows – cannibals
– in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to
them. And, after all they did not eat each other before my face.” (pg. 67).

Whilst narrating his story Marlow not only emphasises the savagery of the
pilgrims by comparison with the “nobility” of the cannibals, extending the
contrast of civilization and savagery, but he also begins to indicate what
it is that deserves some measure of respect. The nearly impossible feat of
withstanding hunger is accomplished by the savage cannibals through some
inexplicable integrity: “No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can
wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to
superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than
chaff in a breeze. Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its
exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity?
Well I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly.

It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of
ones soul…” (pg.76). Although they out number the pilgrims thirty men to
five, The cannibals continuously maintain a measure of self-restraint,
choosing rather, to face near-starvation.

While Heart of Darkness offers a powerful condemnation of the hypocritical
operations of imperialism and the paradoxical human nature, it also
addresses issues surrounding race that can be viewed as evenmore
disconcerting: “The prehistoric man was cursing us” (pg. 68). This comment
reflects the European inclination to


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