Monday, October 22, 2012


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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 cant come right out and name it.

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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, Marlows 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--Marlows helmsman, for example, or the Managers rude servant--or the ways in which the wilderness tends to strip away the civility of the Europeans and brutalize them. But certainly, unlike a sociologist, Conrad is not impartial and scientifically detached from these things, and he even has a bit of fun with such impartiality in his depiction the doctor who tells Marlow that people who go out to Africa become scientifically interesting.

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