An Analysis of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of
Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
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The title of Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness" refers both to the depths of the "Dark Continent,"
Africa, which the story's narrator Marlow penetrates looking for the mysterious trader Kurtz, and to the corrupt
heart of Kurtz himself. The story's most puzzling aspect concerns the way Kurtz changes, after only a few years in
the jungle, from an idealist committed to helping the African natives to a colonial just as determined to exploit
them. But, as Conrad demonstrates, the changes Kurtz undergoes have as much to do with the foundations of Western
colonialism as they do with the corruption of one individual man.
Conrad wrote "Heart of Darkness" in 1902, when white culture was quite confident of its superiority, and there
would have seemed nothing arrogant or bigoted about a white man's intent to "redeem" heathen Africa from itself. In
fact, the idea of native Africans having any culture worth preserving would have been considered laughable by even
Conrad's most educated readers. They probably wouldn't even have noticed that Conrad treats his African characters
with a great deal of dignity; along with Marlow, they are by far the most sympathetic characters in the book.
Kurtz, however, has no respect for the Africans. At first he treats them like naughty children in need of
correction, but it is not long before he becomes so frustrated with this approach that he concludes that the only
way conditions in Africa can be improved is to "Exterminate all the brutes!" If he can't fix them, he apparently
reasons, just throw them out. He does not realize that "the brutes" -- meaning human beings -- aren't broken in the
Kurtz certainly does enough exterminating -- Marlow reports seeing what appeared at first to be round balls atop
Kurtz' fenceposts, but which later turn out to be impaled human heads -- but what troubles Marlow even more is
Kurtz' fascination with dark primitive rites. We are never told precisely what these rites entail; Conrad leaves
that to the morbidity of our own imaginations. But we are assured that Kurtz' participation in them is utterly
At the time the book was published, Conrad's readership would have easily condemned Kurtz for "sinking to the
level" of the Africans, for turning his back on his superior Western heritage and "going native." But is this
really what Kurtz has done? Not really. Conrad, who had been to the Congo and was much impressed with African
culture, was not suggesting that African culture is itself depraved. In fact, he makes it quite clear that the
indigenous culture was not depraved until Kurtz got there. Admittedly, long before Kurtz, African tribal rituals
included death and dismemberment. But these acts were done in response to a religious connection with the earth and
its powers, not out of a brutality born of greed.
It was Kurtz and others like him who introduced into Africa an entirely different attitude which proved destructive
to the natives' spirituality. In addition, the white traders brought "advanced" technology such as guns, which, as
they fell into native hands, gave the indigenous people no real advantage but held the potential of much harm.
(Indeed, all of the promise of technology which was so extolled at the end of the nineteenth century is reduced in
Conrad's novel to nothing more than guns.) Before Kurtz came to Africa, the natives were presumed to have been
living in a state of uncivilized innocence, which was then corrupted by the "civilizing" influence of Kurtz.
In all likelihood, Kurtz was sent by the company on a commercial expedition with as little preparation as Marlow
received. But Marlow went with no other thought in mind than to enjoy an adventure; Kurtz went into the "Heart of
Darkness" to enlighten and change an entire people. In other words, Kurtz' seriously misguided purpose was more
damaging than Marlow's lack of any purpose at all. It also set him up for a profound moral disintegration.
Kurtz wanted to redeem the natives because he felt that he was in possession of the Truth, with a capital T. His
preconceived notion was that the primitive Africans were somehow dark in soul as well as in skin, and they needed
to be enlightened. Obviously the black people Kurtz encountered were in no need of enlightenment at all, but his
unbridled power over them, combined with his cultural and spiritual isolation in Africa, unhinged Kurtz' brain and
drove it into a darkness more profound than any he could ever have imagined.
Metaphorically, Kurtz could be said to represent everything that was wrong with society at the beginning of the
twentieth century. Industrialism had changed society drastically, and the optimistic Victorians had promised that
this change would bring great gains for all. New technology would reduce work and increase leisure; faster, safer
travel would make the British Empire easier to manage; techniques of mass production, even when applied to social
venues such as education and health care, would streamline the antiquated, time-consuming one-on-one procedures
which had characterized human interaction up till then. It was possible, experts enthused, to render every aspect
of life practical, uniform, and efficient, and with the twentieth century just on the horizon, no one doubted that
this could be done.
Kurtz went to Africa with many of these goals in mind. Clearly, he felt, for the African natives to behave in this
savage and superstitious fashion, something must be wrong with their thinking processes, and they needed to be
retrained to think and behave like subservient Europeans. That he intended to do so is evident from his early
report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, written soon after his arrival in
Africa. In this paper, he asserts that the white man in Africa must "necessarily appear to them [savages] in the
nature of supernatural beings -- we approach them with the might as of a deity. . . By the simple exercise of our
will, we can exert a power for good practically unbounded." Kurtz does not understand that the Africans are doing
just fine all by themselves, and they do not need white missionaries and traders, who are completely ignorant of --
and contemptuous of -- African customs and beliefs, coming in trying to "do good."
Kurtz never does understand this, really; as he marvels at how easily the natives can be manipulated, he remains
ignorant of the real meaning of their ways. In his attempt to subjugate Africa, he becomes drawn into and finally
overwhelmed by a culture he does not comprehend. Because he tried to out-native the natives, Kurtz is destroyed as
well, descending too far into what became for him the "Heart of Darkness."
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Works of Joseph Conrad: (25+ works) Includes Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, The Secret Agent,
Under Western Eyes, Lord Jim, Nostromo, Under Western Eyes and more.