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
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
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
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
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