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Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an Attack Upon Colonialism and Imperialism

Attack Upon Colonialism in Heart of Darkness

It is very easy for a reader to see Heart of Darkness as a depiction of, and an attack upon, colonialism in general, and, more specifically, the particularly brutal form colonialism took in the Belgian Congo. Consider the book from this point of view, and you will be led to those details which depict the mistreatment of the Africans, the greed of the so-called “pilgrims,” the broken idealism of Kurtz, and so on. You will find it important to notice, for example, that French man-of-war lobbing shells into the jungle, or the grove of death which Marlow stumbles upon, or the little note that Kurtz appends to his noble-minded essay on The Suppression of Savage Customs, or the importance of ivory to the economics of the system. As a historian, however, you might also find yourself a little frustrated by the odd fact that the book is so evasive about naming places and people and dates. We can surmise, for example, that Brussels is the city of the whited speculchre, but we might wonder why Marlow can’t come right out and name it.

One reason for the lack of names, I suppose, is that Conrad was not only interested in the particulars of the history of colonialism as it was applied to the Belgian Congo; he was also apparently interested in a more general sociological investigation of those who conquor and those who are conquored, and the complicated interplay between them. In this light, different–more sociological–questions can be raised and different answers found. The details that might be noticed in this context are, for example, Marlow’s invocation of the Roman conquest of Britain, or the cultural ambiquity of those Africans who have taken on some of the ways of their Europeans–Marlow’s helmsman, for example, or the Manager’s rude servant–or the ways in which the wilderness tends to strip away the civility of the Europeans and brutalize them.

Psychological, Philosophical and Religious Elements of Heart of Darkness

Psychological, Philosophical and Religious Elements of Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is a kind of little world unto itself. The reader of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness should take the time to consider this work from a psychological point of view. There are, after all, an awful lot of heads and skulls in the book, and Conrad goes out of his way to suggest that in some sense Marlow’s journey is like a dream or a return to our primitive past–an exploration of the dark recesses of the human mind.

Looking at the book from a psychological viewpoint, there are apparent similarities to the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud in its suggestion that dreams are a clue to hidden areas of the mind, and that at the heart of things–which Freud called the Id–we are all primitive brutes and savages, capable of the most appalling wishes and the most horrifying impulses. Through Freud, or other systems of thought that resemble Freud’s, we can make sense of “the urge Marlow feels to leave his boat and join the natives for a savage whoop and hollar” (Tessitore, 42). We might even, in this light, notice that Marlow keeps insisting that Kurtz is a voice–a voice who seems to speak to him out of the heart of the immense darkness–and so perhaps he can be thought of, in a sense, as the voice of Marlow’s own deepest, psychological self. Of course, we must remember that it is doubtful Conrad had ever heard Sigmund Freud when he set out to write the book. Although a psychological viewpoint is very useful, it does not speak to the whole of our experience of the book.

Heart of Darkness is also concerned with philosophy and religion. This concern manifests itself in the way Conrad plays with the concept of pilgrims and pilgrimag…

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