Heart of Darkness Analysis
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Telling the story of Charles Marlow’s journey to the Congo Free-State via the Congo River, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness creates a parallel between the darkness found in Africa and that which is found in London. In the 1800s, European superpowers set out to bring civilization and advanced society to the “Dark Continent” of Africa.
- Imperialist nations believed they were inherently superior to these primitive savages,
- It was the imperialist nation's responsibility to improve the natives’ quality of life by integrating western cultural practices and beliefs.
However, by presenting his story in the shadow of London, rife with crime, pollution, and the exploitation of workers for profit, Conrad is able to make a clear connection between the savagery the imperialists found in Africa and the savagery that existed on their own doorsteps.
Conrad also presents the reader with considerable insight into the human condition, specifically as it pertains to the idea of behavior for selfish gains and behavior for the betterment of others. Through Marlow’s experiences, he sees hypocrisy on display when comparing the cutthroat, self-serving actions of those imperialists working directly within African society and the moral principles by which they claim to derive justification for their actions. While they say they are taking great personal risk to bring advancement to primitive peoples, they are instead using this new role as a means of securing additional power and authority for themselves. They are not selflessly giving of themselves, but are instead doing what they think is always in their own best interests, further displaying the hypocrisy not only of the individual, but also of western society.
This study critically analyzes the theme European Imperialism as it is presented in Joseph Conrad’s influential book Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness is, at least on the surface, a fable that begins in the fading evening light abroad a yawl anchored in the Thames tidal estuary. The text focuses on the Englishman Charles Marlow as he describes his experiences in Africa to a group of men on the yawl.
Marlow’s adventures begin when a Belgian trading company contracts him as a ferry-boat captain to work in Africa (presumably to the Belgian Congo,) transporting ivory downriver for export to Europe and elsewhere. While performing his duties, Marlow is intrigued by Africa, finding that the voyage down the great (unnamed) river to be “like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world” (Conrad 89). Yet Marlow finds that Africa is hardly Eden: even as “vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were king” there “was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine” and the “long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances” (Conrad 89). In time, Marlow is also intrigued by repeated mention of Kurtz, an employee of the Belgian government with a sterling reputation as a pioneer of a more enlightened imperialism. Kurtz is “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress” who supposedly links his responsibilities in Africa to more noble causes than the mere domination and exploitation of the land and its people (Conrad 65). In due course, however, Marlow is shocked to discover that Kurtz has become whole-heartedly devoted to his pursuit of ivory and the wealth derived from it, heinously and lethally exploiting and abusing the very native whom he is supposed to be civilizing. Moreover, through his own contact with Kurtz and the rest of the mercilessly corrupt European imperialist enterprise in Africa, Marlow finds himself engaged in a bitter battle to save his own soul from the darkness of the continent.