Into the Congo

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
An analysis of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and how its deeper text speaks to the true history of what was going on with imperialism in the Congo.

Submitted: July 18, 2015

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Submitted: July 18, 2015



Into the Congo: Analysis of Heart of Darkness

“The most frightful of all spectacles is the strength of the civilization without its mercy.” This quote by Winston Churchill is so true when considering the side to imperialism that is seen throughout the course of history and its horrific role in destroying civilizations and replacing them. This is most clearly illustrated in the novella Heart of Darkness, in which Marlow travels down the Congo River only to discover that the European nations who pride themselves so much on their civilization and enlightenment have reverted into “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil(s) of rapacious and pitiless folly” (Conrad 13). In this readers begin to comprehend not only the havoc that ensues but also what occurs when these hapless Europeans are left without the constraints of a façade civilization. Throughout the course of the novel, Conrad demonstrates all the crimes of these avarice Imperialist eventually leaving readers with only one conclusion. That when left to the wilds of the world most people revert to their origins of being greedy animals whose only desires are to survive and dominate. Through the motifs restraint and greed Conrad conveys the idea that this entire experience and every imperialist invasion is a direct result of the arrogance of the Imperialists; this very arrogance causes them to justify their ignorant acts that inevitably bring about the destruction of cultures, countries, and innocent bystanders.

Restraint by definition is characterized by holding back or keeping in check the emotions or actions of a person, while greed is an excessive desire to acquire or possess more than one requires or deserves. As Western culture has become such a big advocate of developing other countries, it is often forgotten that once this country had been a colony with people who lived here and had for many years before the first Europeans began creating their empires. However with the wave of newcomers to the Americas these people were tossed aside and forced to assimilate. Often this was done with no regard to ownership of the land or even consideration for those already living there because the simple fact was that they were not of this high European standard of “civilization”. This is the same concept in the Congo state when Europe split it between different European nations since the belief was that they held this sacred light of civilization and that no one else could be of their standard. With these lurid motives of assimilating the populace and draining the country of any resources, they set forth.  Europeans began to set up business within the Congo and forced the “simple” Africans to become enslaved to these businesses so that they could acquire the most valuable resource Africa had to offer,ivory, which is a  hard white substance which is the tusks of elephants. Because of this one item the Europeans abused a people and destroyed their society in place of work camps and cruelty. In Heart of Darkness such examples of slavery and there results can be seen in the outer station, mostly  under the loathsome Grove of Death. As Marlow makes his first encounter with the insanity of the Congo he is trying to receive rivets to fix his boat so he may continue his job up and down the Congo. Upon arrival he finds that important equipment is rotting in the grass like that of scattered bones, Conrad further sets the mood by speaking of the overwhelming light of the sun giving this setting an ultra realistic feel. In the background there is failing attempts of building a railroad so that they are able to transport ivory between stations, which from an onlookers view seems like wasted effort, showing the utter bedlam of this station. However the most appalling occurrence is when Marlow steps under a tree to find hundreds of dying Africans, suffering the pains of slavery with the collar of these foreigners wrapped around their necks tightly.  From this the only logical conclusion to reach is that the Europeans are completely destroying a nation and its sense of being, yet the Europeans cannot even see the wrong in their doings for they are already so blinded in trying to transport the ivory they cannot care enough about the humans that they are massacring. Continuing on this idea of lack of restraint in exploiting others for personal gain is when Kurtz is shown to dominate over a single tribe for he is their false god. Kurtz’s intentions were pure originally, ones of saving people and helping them succeed, but like so many of his fellow countrymen, avarice stole any of these ambitions from him, leaving him to only remorselessly consume. In his attempt of total domination he told the villagers he was a malicious god and thus they worshipped and praised him. This without questionable doubt is vindictive, but essentially brought on without reason therefore showing what materialism and lack of social pressures allows. Conclusively it is only reasonable to state that Conrad is against all acts of greed for it not only destroys a man but also his integrity.

As Conrad continues to explain the heinous crimes of these Imperialist, he without a doubt alludes to the fact that the Africans are the only ones with restraint and thus in his eyes and those of Marlow, they  are completely justified and in fact far more civilized. Within the novel Marlow states how he hates lying and says those who lie for personal gain are no more than shells of a real human; he continues to go on by stating that he lies but understands that he does, thus repairing his integrity and allowing him to be able to restrain himself in a motley of situations. Through descriptions and praise Conrad paints a picture of a people who despite the fact of being conquered and assimilated into a society that abuses them, they refuse to revolt or even fight against it so powerful is there restraint. Conrad specifically praises the Cannibals by stating “Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its somber and brooding ferocity?” (Conrad 38). Cannibals are often viewed as savages due to the simple fact that they consume the flesh of other human beings however, as shown in this novel there are much more complicated systems for choosing their prey, not only showing their apparent strength but also their true and unbreakable integrity. Not only does Conrad uses the Cannibals as a foil to the Europeans, he also maneuvers them as proof of the origins of a culture. In Europe at the time, there was a belief called social Darwinism, taken from the idea of Charles Darwin, it was twisted so that it appeared that Darwin was stating that individuals, groups, and people are subject to the same Darwinian laws of natural selection as plants and animals. First advocated by Herbert Spencer it lead to this inflated opinion about European countries thus allowing eurocentrism. However Conrad uses the Cannibals as an example that Africa was not full of savages but that they had culture, civilization, and were in fact the same as Europe just with different customs.  This is taken a step further in which the comparison between the integrity of European imperialist and African natives are displayed. Early on Marlow comments on the idea of a papier-mâché Mephistopheles, which is simply a hollow demon who does only the dirty work for the Devil, this eventually becomes the mantra throughout the novel when characters like the brick maker and harlequin make their appearances. Nevertheless the fact is that all imperialist can be considered this due to this idea that the more lies that are told the less wholesome they become thus sinking them into faceless people who have no true essence. This is not the same for the Africans for they continue to strive for the preservation of their identity despite the abuse and penury they experience. While Conrad makes his choices on what roles the Imperialist play versus the Congolese, Marlow’s true nature is decisively less easy to determine due to the character’s hypocrisy when it comes to this abstract idea of integrity. At first Marlow states he hates lying and thinks all liars are hollow and unworthy, yet he seems to lie. Though this comes off as hypocrisy it is later explained to be that lying is acceptable so long as there is admittance. This comes back to explaining how the Africans can have so much integrity while the Europeans are mere hollow shells,  which demonstrates their restraint. In Conrad’s argument, to have integrity one must know when to restrain their desires because then they are not only morally correct but also due to the idea that they have the ability to control their inner beast much like the concept in the Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

While Marlow goes from a man of the sea to a man of the world who is enlightened by his experience in the Congo, many others come in and do not withstand the tides of change. As Marlow sees from the Europeans, these men are often ridiculous and absurd for they expect the same conditions in Africa as there are in Europe. Returning on this earlier idea of Kurtz being a man of integrity to becoming a false god, readers must understand the background of Kurtz. First understanding that he was a commendable man, second that he had harsh realities forced onto him, and finally that in the end he was just that, a man, not this vindictive god he made himself out to be. Kurtz had most likely grown up like many Europeans at the time with the ideas of eurocentrism and social darwinism. Knowing these he believed that his traveling to Africa could help improve their lives so that it was much more European and thus more efficient.  However what he did not count on was who he would meet on his way down the Congo River and how much it would influence his life in the Congo state. Like Marlow, he saw the inefficiency and the cruelty, however he did not take it with disgust but rather brought it an extra step further where he became a false idol so he could control these “simple people” as the Harlequin refers to them as. In Kurtz’s last moments however he realizes the wrongdoings and how much dishonor he has brought upon himself and shouts out in vain, “the horror ,the horror ,” (Conrad 64) then perishes, becoming nothing but a transient idea, that of redemption. Conrad uses Kurtz’s admittance to his heinous crimes to assuage the hate of the readers due to the fact that Kurtz at the very end understood that his actions were abominable and thus repents to Marlow. From enlightenment to madness the Congo seems to have a variegated effect on those who enter, making the real question why, leading to the only idea that again this has to do with morals and whether one has restraint and can keep it intact.

Conrad’s deep disdain for the europeans is expressed through vitriolic language, covered up by a sense of sarcasm. If read for how it was written, this book comes off as racist to readers, however this should be able to be pick up threw sarcastic tone and thus be able to draw to the conclusion that Conrad’s true and final feeling is that of hatred towards all imperialist. This can often be misunderstood however once seen it can be detected throughout the book due to Conrad’s precise wording and underlying tone of hate towards these invaders. therefore the only conclusion readers can come to is that Conrad is not racist but is against the idea of imperialism and the complete destruction of other civilization that vary from this ridiculous standard of a “light of civilization”. Not only becoming an influential idea but also a relevant point as western civilization moves towards the future to continue with its ongoing success. Making Conrad’s point not only significant but useful so that as a whole, the world will not continue to make the mistake of wiping out whole cultures so that they can be replaced, but rather encourage diversity and tolerance.

© Copyright 2019 Nayako Kuramoto. All rights reserved.

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