Critiques Imperialism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness revealed the horrors behind the rhetoric of nobility and idealism in which Europeans cloaked their imperialism.

Summary of Event

In 1874, seventeen-year-old Joseph Conrad left his Polish family to travel to Marseilles, France, to become a seaman. He sailed on vessels of several nations, but he became a British citizen in 1887. In 1890, he left the high seas to travel up the Congo River into the heart of Africa. His trip into the Congo Free State (later Democratic Republic of the Congo) inspired Heart of Darkness, which was published as a serial in Scotland in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in early 1899 and in book form in London in 1902. Heart of Darkness (Conrad) Imperialism;Congo [kw]Heart of Darkness Critiques Imperialism (1902) [kw]Imperialism, Heart of Darkness Critiques (1902) Heart of Darkness (Conrad) Imperialism;Congo [g]England;1902: Heart of Darkness Critiques Imperialism[00280] [g]Scotland;1902: Heart of Darkness Critiques Imperialism[00280] [c]Literature;1902: Heart of Darkness Critiques Imperialism[00280] [c]Colonialism and occupation;1902: Heart of Darkness Critiques Imperialism[00280] Conrad, Joseph

The story opens at dusk on board the yawl Nellie, anchored in the Thames River at London. Five men are on board, all bound together by their connection with the sea. An unnamed primary narrator repeats to the reader a story told that evening by a seaman, Marlow.

As the primary narrator looks out into the night, he thinks back to the days when men such as Sir Francis Drake sailed out from London. Suddenly, Marlow breaks into his reverie, saying, “And this also . . . has been one of the dark places of the earth.” Conrad thus signals to the reader that his story is not going to be a romantic song of praise to empire.

Marlow goes on to recall Roman adventurers who came up the Thames nineteen hundred years before. They were only conquerors: “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.” Marlow suggests that imperial adventures are justified only if they embody “efficiency” and “an idea.” Do efficiency and an idea, such as the carrying of European civilization into other areas, justify imperialism? Marlow seems to think so, but few assumptions remain unexamined as his story goes on.

Earlier in his career, Marlow had been hired to command a steamboat for a Belgian company that traded on the Congo River. As he journeyed among company stations along the river, he quickly began to be stripped of his illusions regarding efficiency and idealism. He walked among the litter of abandoned, rusty machinery and noted the waste of aimless, inefficient railroad building. He found chain gangs of African workers dying in misery of starvation and disease. He met the company’s general manager, a greedy careerist unencumbered by either efficiency or ideas. He was surrounded by rootless European “pilgrims” who spoke the word “ivory” as though they were praying to it. Company employees were empty men: “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

Marlow heard people talk of Kurtz, who ran the company’s Inner Station far up the river. They whispered his name in the worshipful tones they used to discuss ivory. His efficiency flooded the company with ivory, and his “idea” inspired others. Kurtz is a prodigy, a special being, one man said: “He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress.” In contrast to the company men who surrounded him, Kurtz began to appear to Marlow as a beacon on a path toward a better world.

Marlow moved on upriver into the heart of darkness, toward Kurtz. His boat carried twenty cannibals, culturally rooted men with whom he worked and toward whom he felt gratitude, unlike the manager and pilgrims who also traveled with him.

As the old steamboat slowly approached the Inner Station, Marlow saw human forms moving along the tree line, decayed buildings filled with ivory, slim posts decorated by little round balls—which he belatedly realized were severed heads—and then a white man, a Russian, dressed in multicolored rags. While the company men scurried around loading the ivory, the Russian told Marlow that Kurtz was ill. The Russian was a Kurtz disciple, captivated by Kurtz’s ability to articulate “an idea.” “He made me see things—things,” the Russian said.

They brought the dying Kurtz on board. The manager was distraught because Kurtz had organized the natives into a personal army to drain the whole district of ivory. The disruption of Kurtz’s leaving would force the company to shut down operations there. Marlow found Kurtz horrifying—a man who pushed “the idea” to the point of insanity—but not as disgusting as the empty greed of the manager and his company. As Marlow brought the steamer back down the river, he spent as much time as he could with Kurtz and heard his last words: “The horror! The horror!”

Marlow returned to company headquarters at Brussels, Belgium, and visited Kurtz’s fiancé, the “Intended.” As he rang her doorbell, he seemed to hear whisperings of Kurtz’s last words: “The horror! The horror!” As he sat with her, he was aware of the death and destruction on which his civilization was built, symbolized by the ivory of the piano keys in the quiet drawing room. The Intended had known Kurtz, she said, in all of his nobility and idealism. With every word spoken, the room grew darker. She asked Marlow to repeat Kurtz’s last words; although he wanted to tell the truth, Marlow collected himself and told her that Kurtz’s last words had been her name.

Marlow, who detested lies, had learned on his journey into darkness that civilization is based on lies. Only a few, like Kurtz, were able to look steadily at this truth, the horror that civilization hides from itself.

The men on the Nellie sat quietly as Marlow finished his tale. They silently watched the heart of darkness settling on London.


The twentieth century witnessed explosive change, yet Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written at the beginning of the century, retained its fascination for readers. What readers found in it changed as the century progressed, however. The book has been interpreted as a romantic adventure story, as a slashing attack on imperialism, as a conservative political manifesto that rejects political idealism, as a manifesto for the left, as a psychological journey into the heart of the individual, as a retelling of the ancient myth of the hero’s quest, as an existential study of alienation and solitude, and as a modernization of classical literature’s theme of a descent into hell. One could construct a revealing intellectual trek through the twentieth century just by tracing interpretations of Kurtz’s words “The horror! The horror!”

Joseph Conrad.

(Library of Congress)

Critics have often moved far away from Conrad’s main focus, colonialism in the Congo. Conrad was one of the first Europeans to understand what was happening in the Congo. After explorers penetrated the region, European nations scrambled for a foothold in the resource-rich basin. In 1876, King Leopold II Leopold II Congo;exploitation by Leopold II Belgian Congo of Belgium proposed piercing “the darkness” of the Congo and bringing civilization and Christianity to the region. Such noble words fit the Europeans’ conception of their destiny and burden. In 1884, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, alarmed at the possibility of war among the competing powers, called a conference in Berlin. The conferees turned the Congo over to Leopold as his personal property in return for his promise to open the region for the trade of all nations.

Although Leopold skillfully cloaked his work in the rhetoric of humanitarian reform, he turned the Congo into a personal plantation and skimmed off such resources as ivory and rubber. He closed the region to outside competitors and used his army to reduce the Congolese to slavery. In the 1890’s, stories of atrocities began to leak out. Europeans read of chain gangs and slave labor, with people’s heads and hands being cut off if they failed to meet their quota of rubber or ivory. They read of a Captain Rom at Stanley Falls who used African heads to decorate his flower bed. By 1908, the Congo’s population had decreased by approximately three million. That year, the revelation of the horrors there finally forced Leopold to relinquish the colony to the Belgian government.

Although most Europeans at the time still regarded colonization as an honorable civilizing mission, Conrad’s novel stripped away such illusions. Edmond Dene Morel, Morel, Edmond Dene the leader of the Congo Reform Association, Congo Reform Association called Heart of Darkness the most powerful indictment ever written on the subject. Conrad provided one of the few literary attacks on imperialism in Great Britain before World War I.

As the decades passed and the European empires crumbled, critics formulated brilliant social, economic, and psychological critiques of imperialism. Yet Conrad never passed out of fashion. He seemed to have anticipated every turn in anti-imperial analysis. Each generation found inspiration and reinforcement in Heart of Darkness. For example, in 1979, American film director Francis Ford Coppola used Heart of Darkness as the source of his antiwar film Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Now (film) with the story moved from the Congo to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Not everyone wanted to confer anti-imperial sainthood on Conrad. One group of dissenters believed that Heart of Darkness was a Eurocentric work that portrayed Africans as dark and mysterious beings who threatened civilized humans. In 1975, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe attacked Heart of Darkness as racist. Another group of critics argued that Conrad, or at least Marlow, deplored only Belgian imperialism, not colonialism generally.

Conrad undoubtedly believed that Africans were inferior to white Europeans. Racism was almost unquestioned in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Conrad did not completely transcend his times. Yet Conrad’s indictment of European atrocities against Africans has seldom been equaled. He avoided turning Africans into stereotypical racial figures or into noble savages. Marlow saw the Africans as humans, not as criminals, enemies, or rebels. Marlow’s language, too, undercut the commonly accepted racism of his time and place. For example, he described the feeling of isolation and fright he felt in Africa: “The earth seemed unearthly. . . . It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman.” He backed away from completing the thought with the racial cliché of his day, forcing the reader also to stop and, presumably, think. Conrad was a cultural relativist who believed that all cultures had the right to exist without disruption from the outside.

Did Conrad and Marlow condemn only Belgian atrocities and support imperialism generally? That seemed to be what Marlow wanted to do as he began his story. He established efficiency and “an idea” as criteria that distinguish strong-arm conquerors from proper colonists. The Belgian company met neither criterion.

Underneath his attack on Belgian exploitation of the Congolese was an indictment of imperialism generally. Marlow interrupted the primary narrator’s opening reverie about the glories of British imperialism by saying that England also had been one of the dark places of the world. Marlow later described finding Kurtz’s eloquent report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs; the report was inspired by the noblest expressions of the imperialist civilizing “idea.” Yet Marlow discovered that ideas (and people) uprooted from their culture become evil. At the bottom of his report, in an unsteady hand, Kurtz had scribbled: “Exterminate all the brutes!”

Kurtz was a product of all Europe, Marlow said, not just Belgium. Kurtz had a British mother and a French father and had been educated partly in England. Nor is darkness found only in the Congo. Marlow ended his tale in the Intended’s darkening drawing room in Brussels, and the primary narrator ends the story in London with the five men sitting silently in “the heart of an immense darkness.” Heart of Darkness (Conrad) Imperialism;Congo

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brantlinger, Patrick. “Heart of Darkness: Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?” Criticism 27 (Fall, 1985): 363-385. This article breaks with most critics who read the novel as a savage attack on imperialism. Brantlinger argues that Conrad unintentionally sanctioned imperialism and racism by using an impressionistic writing style that raises the problem of imperial evil and then backs off under the cover of obscure language.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fleishman, Avrom. Conrad’s Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. Fleishman carefully traces the evolution of Conrad’s political thinking and places it within the context of his time. Conrad valued order and community, both of which were destroyed by greedy, shabby imperialists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hawkins, Hunt. “Conrad and the Psychology of Colonialism.” In Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties, edited by Ross C. Murfin. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985. Hawkins finds that Conrad anticipated brilliant studies of the psychology of colonization by such researchers as O. Mannoni and Frantz Fanon. The colonist, unable to succeed in his own society, goes to a colony where, through no merit of his own, he achieves domination over others. He is cut off from both his own society and that of “the Other” and ultimately disintegrates psychologically.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness.” PMLA 94 (March, 1979): 286-299. Focuses on Heart of Darkness as a case study of imperialism in the Congo, but goes on to argue that Conrad rejected all varieties of imperialism, efficient and inefficient, benevolent and evil, British and non-British. Conrad, Hawkins says, believed indigenous cultures had the right to exist without disruption from outside.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hay, Eloise Knapp. The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Hay’s interesting study distinguishes between the views of Conrad and those of Marlow. She suggests that although Marlow may have sincerely used efficiency and idealism as criteria for judging imperialism, Conrad’s language undercuts Marlow’s views to condemn imperialism generally.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Gene M., ed. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Contains materials intended to convey a deep understanding of the origins and reception of the novel, including Conrad’s own story “An Outpost of Progress,” a memoir by one of Conrad’s oldest English friends, a brief history of the Congo Free State by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a parody of Conrad by Max Beerbohm. Also presents a wide range of theoretical approaches to examining Conrad’s text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raskin, Jonah. “Imperialism: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Journal of Contemporary History 2 (April, 1967): 113-131. Raskin describes the fever of imperialism in the Western world at the beginning of the twentieth century. He asserts that Conrad attacks Belgian imperialism in terms that his British audience of that time could understand and accept; underneath, however, is a subtext that attacks imperialism generally.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swisher, Clarice, ed. Readings on “Heart of Darkness.” San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Collection of critical essays aimed at classes studying Conrad’s novel. Each selection includes a biography, a chronology, and useful introductory notes. The collection ends with the famous attack by Chinua Achebe in which he accuses Conrad of racism.

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