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Colonial and Postcolonial in "Heart of Darkness"

By Joseph Conrad

Literary Criticism

Prepared by
Lulav Mustafa


Postcolonial" was initially used to describe the period that started after the Second
World War with the retreat of colonial expansion and the rise of liberation movements
in colonized countries. Building upon such understanding, postcolonial literature
tended to be regarded as being that specific literature written by the members of the
formerly colonized countries after the removal of colonial rule; that is, if the word
"post" is seen as meaning "after", then the starting point of postcolonial literature
was after the end of the colonial period. Therefore, In Heart of Darkness, Joseph
Conrad, the British novelist (1857-1924) is preoccupied with sea and sea voyage in
his work. Conrad tells us the story of Captain Marlow, who went deep into Africa by
the river Congo in pursuit of Kurtz, in whom evil won a victory over good when he cut
all his ties with civilization. Conrads use a sea and sea voyage symbolically, base his
story on his personal experience, and it mainly concerned with the human nature and
the existence of good and evil.In Heart of Darkness, Some social issues are carefully
taken up and severely criticized by Conrad; he points out in details the evils side of
colonialism in Africa. Conrads strong objection to colonialism is given at the very
beginning of Heartof Darkness. It is the aim of this Paper to find Joseph Conrad's
attitude towards colonialism in the light of the different critical readings of Heart of
Darkness. (Conrad, Joseph; 1983)

Conrad Purely Anti-colonialist

Heart of Darkness is obviously an anti-colonial novel, which criticizes the crimes
committed in the Congo in the name of civilization. What has complicated the matter
and caused a division among critics is that Conrad has made several hints here and
there in the novel which reveal his ambivalent attitude towards colonialism as a
whole. A close reading of some passages of the novel leads us to discover ideas
about the civilizing mission and colonialism in general which stand in clear contrast
with Conrad's supposed anti-colonial standpoint. At the beginning of the novel,
Conrad makes a parallel between the role of the explorers who carried the torches of
the light and the "sacred fire" (28) of their inherited civilization to unknown places,
on the one hand, and the role of the colonizers and their civilizing mission, on the
other. This is clearly implies that Conrad sees the civilizing mission as equaling the
torches of light and sacred fire. Yet, how can Conrad be both glorifying and
condemning the principles of colonialism at the same time? In fact, in more than one
incident, Conrad condemns the way the Europeans use such ideals to justify their
colonial activities. Still, it should be kept in mind that he is not against such ideals
absolutely. He believes deeply in the idea, but he is completely against the practice.
Such view is quite clear in the famous quotation made by Marlow at the beginning of
the novel:
The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those
who have a different
complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you
look into it too
much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental
pretence but an
idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea-something you can set up, and bow down
before, and offer

a sacrifice to . . . (31-32).
Conrad draws a clear distinction between the Roman conquest which was nothing but
a robbery accompanied by violence, and European colonialism which is supposed to
have a noble idea behind it. According to this view, Conrad seems to believe that
conquest can be justified only if it achieves some useful work in the colonies. That is,
if conquest is not something good in itself because it involves assuming lands from
its owners and causing a lot of killing, it is in need of a strong idea to redeem it; and
this idea is seen in terms of the moral aim behind such activity; that is, the noble
idea of civilizing those people who live in immense darkness. It is the failure to
achieve the noble cause which motivated Conrad to condemn colonialism and its
ways. Thus, Conrad is for the dignified idea but against the terrible practice; still,
even the idea itself is not purely innocent and the civilizing mission is not even
among the
aims of colonial enterprise. After all, nothing on earth, whatever it is, can offset the
evils caused by colonialism.
Conrad cannot tolerate the violence, the exploitation, and the evils committed
against innocent people, but at the same time, he is a loyal son of the European
civilization. That is what has caused his complex attitude. Although he has witnessed
all the crimes committed in the Congo and discovered the reality about the false
civilizing mission and the tyranny of Kurtz, Marlow lies to Kurtz's intended. He
decides to hide the truth aboutKurtz, that he is a murderer and even a devil. In
"Heart of Darkness: Response to Critics" (2001), Kaisen Lin speaks of Marlow's
confusion which is typical of Conrad himself: "Marlow was merely confused about his
position on imperialism . . . Instead of telling his own experience with Kurtz such as
Kurtz's order to attack his ship . . . Marlow decided to concur . . . about Kurtz's glory"
(4). Marlow "could not tell her the truth; he could not make her suffer as he himself
suffered when reaching darkness. . . . By disregarding this reality, Marlow chooses to
make her live a fake light-an illusion- which he finds better than living in true
darkness" (Maakaroun, Shirley,2003:5). Marlow does not want to enlighten the Intended
about Kurtz's reality; he covers up his experience and chooses to be part of the
pretence. He finds it better for the historical reality of European colonialism to be

covered up for life to continue. This is the sort of lies one needs to pursue his way of
life; that is, by giving his back to the darkness of the past. "Normal life", David
Daiches notes in The Novel and the Modern World (1987), "can only go if we ignore
that darkness" (41).

It is quite clear in the novel that Conrad's criticism is mainly directed against Belgian
colonialism. He is sharply anti-colonialist as far as Belgium and France is concerned.
The novel focuses mainly on the Belgian Congo and the inhumane attitude of the
Belgian agents; it also describes the French ship "firing into the continent" (41) as
having something insane about it. On the other hand, British colonialism is highly
privileged; this is clearly seen in terms of the red color which covers the British
colonies on the map and shows that "some real work is done there" (36). So, Conrad
as Ian Watt argues in Essays on Conrad (2000), "is not anti-colonialist as far as his
own country is concerned" (99). Such idea also reinforces the suggestion that Conrad
believes in the ideals involved in the civilizing mission. Britishcolonialism, unlike the
Belgian one, is glorified for the real work it achieves in the colonies. Conrad is against
the Roman conquerors, and as such, he is against the French and Belgian models
which followed the same path of the Romans. But he is for that type of conquest
which has "an idea at the back of it; . . . and an unselfish belief in the idea" (31-32);
that is exactly what British colonialism involves. In Criticism and Ideology (1976),
Terry Eagleton argues that although Conrad denounces "crudely an idealistic form of
imperialism, he is ideologically constrained to discover in the British variant a saving
idea" (qtd. in Zins 49). It can finally be said that Conrad "was more against the highhanded Belgian form of colonialism as practiced by King Leopold II and Heart of
Darkness is about what he saw in Leopold's Congo in 1890, not a general outcry
against imperialism" (Ede 2).

It is quite clear that Conrad criticizes imperialism for its brutal ways, yet, he is not
against imperialism just because of the troubles it leaves behind, but also because of
the humiliating conditions of the Europeans in the colonies. Gene Moore argues,
"Conrad hates imperialism in central Africa because of its savageness, selfishness,

and devastation . . . a civilized man can change to savagery when there is no

restriction" (qtd. in Nassab 17). Jacques Berthoud believes that because the
Europeans are taken away from the civilized European environment into a wilderness
which embraces them with its hostility and lawlessness, they are tempted to give
way to their hidden, illegitimate desires and as a result, they become cruel, violent,
and greedy. The civilized man, according to Berthoud, has been "dismayed and
demoralized by the surrounding wilderness, loses his chivalric zest; his struggle with
exhaustion, disease, and death tarnishes whatever ideal of service he may have
brought in with him" (43). The European civilized way of life lost its real meaning and
sense and became useless because it wastaken away from its natural context.
Furthermore, Conrad clearly alludes to the terrible transformations that happen to
the whites in Africa. This is clearly suggested by the medical investigation the
European agents have to go through before going and after coming back from Africa.
This is further suggested in the case of Fresleven, who was known for his gentleness,
but he has transformed into a violent, cruel master whipping a black chief for a trivial

Another example of such surprising change is seen in the case of Kurtz. Described by
his relatives and intended as a noble, generous, genial creature, how does it happen
that he becomes such greedy devil? Conrad explains the matter in the following way:
"The wilderness had patted him on the head . . . it had taken him, loved him,
embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own"
(84); the secret of the change then lies in the wilderness: "But the wilderness had
found him out early . . . I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he
did not know" (97). But how does the wilderness exert such influence? ". . . by the
awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and
monstrous passions" (107). That's how Conrad solves the Kurtz riddle: Kurtz has been
captured by the dark forces of the wilderness, so he takes leave from all the modern
and civilized
principles; nothing controls his forbidden desires or prevents him from pursuing the
wrong path. According to Francis B Singh, "Conrad believes that Kurtz has been
infected and corrupted by the Africans' unspeakable rites rather than by his

unchecked power." (qtd. in Farn 24) In "A Postcolonial and Psychological Approach to










believeseveryman has darkness in his/her soul, but it is masked by civilization. . . .

Heart of Darkness shows how the forces of nature control the man. The jungle
exposes mans weakness (27-28). Conrad here is clearly influenced by his
contemporary the psychologist Sigmund Freud who wrote, Civilization describes the
whole sum of achievements and regulations which distinguish our lives from those of
our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes mainly, to protect man against
nature and to adjust their mutual relationship (qtd. in Nassab 32).

In fact, such view of how the Europeans are transformed under the influence of the
primitive African environment clearly provides an excuse for the violence and greed
of the Europeans. It is not the bad intentions of the Europeans and their cruel, bloody
nature which are responsible for the violence and the crimes committed, but rather
the hostile, lawless environment which seems to whisper to them with evil deeds.
According to Jacques Berthoud, Conrad appears to be quite pessimistic about the
ability of the Africans to acknowledge the real value of what the Europeans may
import to them (49). The Europeans' life and work in Africa is futile and useless
because they are trying to apply a civilized way of life in an alien, passive
environment. Conrad is quite skeptical about the results of civilizing and enlightening
those primitive savages.

After having investigated a considerable number of views about Heart of Darkness
and analyzed the novel in terms of what critics and Conrad himself said about it, we
can finally say that Conrad is not that celebrated anti-colonialist whose novels
represent the most powerful attack made against colonialism, Conrads has been just
recording with ironic correctness his awareness of colonialism in Africa, of the
greediness and selfishness that lay behind the idealistic profession of the trading
companies, Conrad is obviously glorifying the sacred idea behind colonialism: he is
critical of the colonial strategy but not of the civilizing mission as a whole; he is
critical of Belgian colonialism but not of all colonial types; he is against the
Europeans' development of the Africans under the pretext of being more civilized
than those primitive savages, but he is equally against the Europeans' contact with
those savages lest they should lose their civilized manners. To conclude, Heart of
Darkness is mainly a product of its time. It was considered a rebellious work at its
time with regard to the principles prevailing in Victorian England. Edward Said has
justly put it in Culture and Imperialism (1994) that Conrad "could probably never
have used Marlow to present anything other than an imperialist world view given
what was available to either Conrad or Marlow to see of the non-Europeans at the
time" (24).


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