Greed in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"

Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness” is a look into of greed and personal gain which led to, and perpetuated the European conquest and colonization of Africa, the exploitation of it’s natural resources, and the enslavement of it’s people.

The story is mostly set in the Belgian controlled Congolese Free State in Africa during the height of European Imperialism across both hemispheres, and follows the steamship captain John Marlow’s investigation of the disappearance of the government employed ivory explorer Mr. Kurtz. Bring a young English man, Marlow hears word that Africa is the place to go for anyone with a strong constitution seeking to make a living, and a connected family friend sets him up an interview with a Belgian state owned company exploring the Congo for riches.

An immediate statement on the nature of Imperialism, Marlow arrives in the congo and is right away confronted with destruction, enslavement, inefficiency, and failure. Belgian workmen who were supposed to be blasting away boulders in the path of an intended railway are instead using their explosives to destroy an irrelevant rock cliff in search of precious metals and minerals; instead of construction, there  is destruction. Marlow also soon encounters a chained and bound line of emaciated and enslaved Congolese men transporting baskets of debris, and a secluded cluster of dying slaves.

The Manager of the operation runs his teams not through friendship or strictness or by inspiring respect, but through his naturally uneasy aura, which Marlow struggles to describe, stammering “such a.. a.. faculty….” when Marlow retells his interview with the Manager in Part One of the novella.

Marlow soon discovers that the steam boat that he is to be the captain of has sunk into the mud of the Congo River, perhaps symbolizing that the system of imperialism itself is already doomed, or even that nature itself is attempting to hinder the progress of the European colonialists. Despite a previous station having been abundant with unneeded bolts, there are none to be found in the vicinity of the ship, so the rivets and plates needed to repair the boat must be delivered from Europe, and they take an unreasonable amount of time to arrive, sentencing Marlow and the crew to an extended period of delay.

The world of Heart of Darkness is one understood by its participants in terms of euphemisms and masks, a sign that the purpose of their presence there is knowingly not as legitimate as those involved may wish it to be. For example, the operator of the ship’s engine is a Congolese “savage” with ritualistic facial scarring who according to Marlow “ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank” with the rest of the natives they encountered along the rive. The native manages the ship’s boiler not through advanced knowledge of modern engineering, but an aniministic understanding that the wicked “fire spirit” inside the boiler demanded coal and water, should the demon not “take a terrible vengeance through the greatness of his thirst”, which would be understood by a contemporary engineer as a pressure explosion.

Another example of this can be seen in Marlow’s relationship with the cannibalistic Congolese he had enlisted to help on the ship. “Fine fellows -cannibals… they were men one can work with… ...and I am grateful to them. And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face.” Cannibalism, considered among Europeans as perhaps the most taboo, savage, and reviled crimes one could commit, is mentioned in passing by Marlow, a trivial detail, a mere footnote.

What does this detail reflect upon the European attitude as a whole? In the context of European imperialism, this attitude could be taken to mean that the Europeans can dismiss or ignore their own standards of right and wrong (the Congolese cannibals), so long as there is benefit to be had (Marlow needed a crew), and the wrongdoing is concealed or made covert (“…after all, they did not eat each other before my face”), similar to how the abuses of the imperialization natives in Africa would be concealed to an ignorant average citizen living in a “civilized” city like London or Rotterdam. The cannibalism could even be seen as a symbol of imperialism itself, the Europeans consuming the lives, freedom, and resources of the Congolese despite them being just as much belonging to humanity as the Europeans themselves.

Most of the conflict to be found within Heart of Darkness revolving around gain can be found in the character Kurtz. Mr. Kurtz, an ivory procurement agent employed by the Belgian government, drives the action of the story despite only being present towards the very end of the novella. Discovering the cause of Mr. Kurtz’s disappearance and  lack of communication with the company is Marlow’s first assignment as captain of the ship, and from the coast and in company stations down the length of the Congo River, Marlow hears countless tales of Mr. Kurtz’s cunning and bravery.

Kurtz is openly depicted in the book as being the epitome of European society, and is physically strong, well educated, an artist, a writer, a politician, and is even alleged to be a humanitarian, all things that were being brought to the “cultureless” Africans under the ideal of the White Man’s Burden. On the subject of Mr. Kurtz’s parents (a father who was half English and a mother who was half French), Kurtz is described as a man who “All Europe contributed to the making of…” 

Just like the European civilians hearing diluted tales and rumors of the riches being discovered in Africa, Marlow hears these stories and soon is intensely interested in finding and meeting Mr. Kurtz.

Penetrating what is repeatedly described as the deep darkness of the jungle, Marlow and his crew infiltrate the village where Mr. Kurtz has reigned as a god-king who demands constant tributes of ivory from around the region, and the people live in fear of him. The frighteningly powerful Mr. Kurtz Marlow hears of throughout the story is only experienced first hand as an sickly, shell of a man on the brink of death from a jungle borne illness.

The impact of Mr. Kurtz’s condition may have an effect on the reader similar to the exposing of the Wizard in Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, who uses a machine to appear as a grand ethereal entity when Dorthy reveals him to be a short, un-intimidating charlatan. The outward beauty and righteousness that imperialism represents dissolves the deeper Marlow adventures into the Jungle, just as imperialism is exposed to the reader as the action progresses.

In Mr. Kurtz downfall the illusion of mutual benefit through Imperialism is shattered. The talent and culture Kurtz “delivers” to the natives is overshadowed by his plundering and subjugation of the people in the region is an analog to the greater evil occurring through the imperialization of Africa as a whole.  The immensely valuable supply of ivory tusks collected by Kurtz are hoarded greedily with the intent of denying Belgium the wealth they represent. Wealth stolen from the Congolese people by Kurtz, and then stolen again by the Belgian Empire.

It is in this way that Joseph Conrad uses “Heart of Darkness” to expose imperialism as a fraud and an excuse to justify greed, a fraud that can exist as long as people (like Kurtz’s girlfriend back home in Europe) agree to remain ignorant about it.

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