Social Criticism in “Heart of Darkness”

Imperialism, which was prevalent and lucrative in the Victorian era, dominated the foreign agendas of European nations as they scrambled to acquire territories in Africa and colonize them. These attempts were heavily criticized in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He mocks the concepts of civility and efficiency, terming them smokescreens to conceal the savagery that the Europeans inflicted upon the natives. The most prominent illustration of his criticism is the character of Kurtz, who after prolonged time within Africa went mad and began conducting unspeakable rituals. Furthermore, he murdered indiscriminately and cared not whom or what he harmed to obtain his desired ivory. All of these atrocities demonstrate the heinous nature of imperialism, which Conrad captures in Kurtz’s famous dying words “The horror, the horror” (p.83).  


The idea of imperialism was twofold; one, that a nation could obtain the wealth of the nation they colonized and two, that they may civilize the native population. This concept of civility was abstract at best because it provided the civilizing forces with a justification to commit atrocities. For example, the agents of the company that accompany Marlow, the narrator, on his journey are greedy, selfish and prejudiced people. They assault the natives with little to no provocation and murder those they believe deserved regardless of crime or lack thereof. Marlow remarks about the inhumane nature of Africa and how the Europeans are inciting the deterioration of the situation by committing atrocities and decimating the local population. He furthermore states that Kurtz and his savagery and creating a model for further oppression and that people’s reverence of him perpetuated this trend.


The idea that the civilizing mission is a mere front for the machinations of companies and nations is illustrated brilliantly by Conrad through the medium of Kurtz. Kurtz, who was revered by the agents of the company as a genius, was in reality a monster intent on fulfilling monstrous tasks. He demonstrates this savagery with his statement “Exterminate all the brutes” (p.62). This nicely articulates the sentiment that the Europeans had regarding the local population. Conrad uses this to express his condemnation for these ideas by using the narrator to demonstrate that humanity can be retained even in inhumane places and that the people who committed the atrocities had it ingrained as a fundamental character trait, not simply as a product of the circumstances they were in. Marlow is fair with his crewmates and never takes any overt actions against the local population. If he can endure such arduous conditions with no adverse effects, so must all others.

In conclusion, Heart of Darkness is criticizing European imperialism and its civilizing mission stating that instead of civilizing, the colonists are oppressing and inflicting horrors upon the local population. This is most evident with Kurtz when he proclaims that the extermination of the brutes is a sensible course of action. This display of savagery prompts a hasty response from the company that Marlow works for, attempting to rationalize it as prolonged exposure to the local population. This demonstrates their willingness to sacrifice civility for profit as Kurtz was a lucrative ivory trader. Furthermore, Marlow does not exhibit any of these monstrous tendencies. This lends credence to the doctrine that the Europeans were themselves savages and their mission of civilization was a facade to conceal their true lust for ivory and the vast wealth it brought. 

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