Heart Of Darkness: Colonialism, Capitalism, and the Environment

 

A portrait of Joseph Conrad by David Van Gough.

A portrait of Joseph Conrad by David Van Gough.

Heart Of Darkness, though the prototype of post-colonial literature, is not the kind of book that is going to win over readers with its prose and character development, or even plotting.  The value in Joseph Conrad’s famous novella rests in the narrative structure, and the manner in which he engages with ideas surrounding colonialism.  Conrad engages with ecocritical theory while challenging notions of colonialism and capitalism by painting a portrait of flawed characters who operate without a moral compass and are propelled by ambition and greed.  These imperialists rationalize their barbaric behaviour by claiming to do all under the banner of colonialism, but the story’s narrator ultimately undermines colonialist ideals.  Though the narrative is not compelling, the novella remains haunting dissection of human behaviour worthy of close examination.

 

NARRATIVE STRUCTURE

 

Conrad's narrative bears a structural resemblance to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Conrad’s narrative bears a structural resemblance to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

The narrative structure frames Heart Of Darkness as Victorian/Colonial incarnation of narrative from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as several men listen to a story while they try to pass time on a journey, only rather than being on a pilgrimage to the holy lands, the capitalist ‘pilgrims’ (and this is a term Conrad uses throughout) are navigating the Rivers Thames.  What makes the frame narrative so jarring from a contemporary reading is the length of the story.  The actual narrator is an unnamed seaman who is recounting a narrative told to him by Charles Marlow, who served as a captain steamboat captain for a company that traded in ivory.  Almost the entire 110 pages is in quotes as the unnamed narrator recounts Marlow’s story.  This structure does two things from a contemporary perspective.  Though it would be anachronistic to think the Conrad structured narrative with an eye on the future, the fact that Marlow is able to speak for no less than five straight hours without interruption demonstrates the drastic shift in the attention span of a typical person.  Since the time Heart Of Darkness was first published, the world has seen the advent of the radio, the television, and the internet.  Each of these inventions offers audiences immediate gratification and multiple sensory experiences.  Being able to sit in a classroom for even an hour proves challenging to youths raised on Sesame Street’s rapid-fire lesson plans.  Likewise, the unnamed narrator is able to not only listen to Marlow’s entire account, but is able to recount it in great detail, demonstrating how people were able to retain information.  Today, with people relying on the internet to recall information, few are able to develop retention required to do this.  The novella then serves as a testament to the disappearance of oral traditions in developed counties, but also legitimizes the oral traditions of the native African cultures by demonstrating how they are used by Europeans as well.  Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim that the ‘medium is the message’ can certainly be applied to Conrad’s work as the length of the frame narrative demonstrates the dramatic shift away from the oral culture that is the means of narrative transmission of in Heart Of Darkness and the cognitive skills used to share such narratives.

 

COLONIALISM

 

heartofdarknessThe commentary on the shifting ways in which we impart narratives was likely not as central for Conrad as the commentary on colonialism, and it is the West’s unquestioning allegiance to colonial goals that Conrad critiques.  The role of ‘colonialist’ impacts the way in which the characters perceive themselves, and just as the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated, when people are placed in a role, they frequently adopt the characteristics of the role even when they are contrary to their innate personality. A steamboat captain named Fresleven, for instances, is described as “the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs”, but once “he had been a couple of years” engaged in what Conrad euphemistically refers to as ‘the noble cause’, he ended up going “ashore… to hammer the chief of the village” over a disagreement about chickens.  Fresleven was killed in the assault (11).  Through this portrayal of colonialism, Conrad notes that by adopting the role of conqueror and embracing the social expectations associated with that, the virtue of men like Fresleven is corrupted, leading to violence and potentially death.  Even if the men do survive, the loss of their humanity could be seen as more devastating given that most colonizers work under the pretense that they go to foreign countries to civilize the ‘natives’.

 

 

Sir Francis Drake, British hero and trader of human flesh.

Sir Francis Drake, British hero and trader of human flesh.

Conrad opens the narrative speaking about how Britons remain proud of colonialist figures like Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Franklin (5).  Drake, though, was a slave trader who was linked with a massacre in Ireland, while Franklin was heavily involved in the colonization of Canada and was rumoured to have participated in cannibalism when trying to survive a harsh winter.  Whilst Britons may pride themselves on the strength and success of explorers conquerors like Drake and Franklin, holding onto the fallacy that they were on “a heavenly mission to civilize” natives (9), Conrad writes that one’s “strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others” and that the colonization of foreign lands is “just robbery with violence, aggravated murders on a great scale” (8).  Rather than being a moral mission meant to enlighten ‘savages’ or ‘heathens’, Marlow states that the “conquest of the earth… mostly means… taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter nose than ourselves” (8).  Of the fruits of this violent robbery, Marlow states that accepting the profits of such imperialist brutality is akin to “taking possession of an accursed inheritance” (49).  This process then, as Conrad frame it, is nothing to take pride in, but rather something that ought to be the source of shame.

 

Such violence breeds violence, as we have seen most recently with groups like ISIS committing a series of beheadings.  Conrad does an exceptional job of articulating this culture of violence by noting through Marlow that the natives of Africa carried “staves in their hands” at all times and likely “took sticks to bed with them” (35).  Marlow also details a scene where human heads are placed atop pikes as a warning to those entering a village.  Sadly, this symptom of colonialism is still present today.  A French journalist was tragically beheaded in Algeria recently, a region in which the French have committed atrocious acts of violence during a colonial period that lasted over 150 years.  It is no coincidence that groups like ISIS has been able to recruit people given atrocities like the gang rape and murder of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi and the torture and unlawful confinement of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.  Whilst it is understandably tempting to dismiss acts of terror, it is important to contextualize them so that the source of the violence might be understood.  Conrad makes and effort to understand the context of the violence exuded by the natives of Africa, stating that what was later “alluded to as an attack was really an attempt at repulse.  The action was very far from being aggressive—it was not even defensive, in the usual sense: it was undertaken under the stress of depression, and in its essence was purely protective” (60).  Unfortunately, when some try to understand violence, they are accused of endorsing it or defending it, such as happened to Bill Maher after he made comments about the nature of the violence linked with 9/11.  Tragically, as generations of violence has increased, so too has the response, making Conrad’s words prove to be prophetic and not simply an accurate documentation of what was going on during the colonization of Africa in the Victorian era.

 

 

Sir John Franklin: explorer, colonialist, and rumoured cannibal.

Sir John Franklin: explorer, colonialist, and rumoured cannibal.

Part of the way that the violence linked with colonialism is rationalized is through the dehumanization of the natives being colonized, which is often accomplished through misrepresentative stereotypes.  Conrad’s narrative works to defuse these stereotypes.  One of the most common myths was that cannibalism was rampant in African.  Marlow observers that the native ‘cannibals’ he worked with were “Fine fellows… [and] were men one could work with”.  He also notes that he is “grateful to them” observing that “they did not eat each other before [his] face” and that “they had brought along provisions” (48).  The myth that they were cannibals is further debunked when Marlow asks “Why in the name of all the gnawing devils of hunger [the cannibals’] didn’t go for” Marlow and his crew given that they outnumbered them “thirty to five” (57).  Even when the natives grossly outnumber the European colonizers, and even when facing starvation, they do not indulge in the cannibalistic stereotypes.  Marlow contextualizes this restraint, noting that   “It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger” and that “these chaps… had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple”, praising their restraint (58).  Not eating people might seem like a lowering of the bar in terms of offering praise, but given that it is noted that Sir John Franklin was seen as a figure worthy of pride in England and he was rumoured to have relied on cannibalism to survive an expedition, it is not praise that is entirely out of place.  In the context of a country who has pride in a man that may have resorted to cannibalism, the fact that the natives who were dismissed as cannibals show more restraint than a British hero, lifts them over their colonizers.  Tragically, though, this stereotyping of Africa and its people still takes place today, though the stereotypes have change. Groups like Oxfam are doing goo work that challenges these stereotypes.

 

CAPITALISM

 

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Aside from stereotypes, the brutality of colonial was often rationalized by economics, and Conrad’s work seems equally as critical of capitalism.  It is important to note that the expedition that Marlow relays to his shipmates was not a military action enacted in self-defence, nor was it a group of missionaries, but rather traders in ivory, or in other words, merchants.  Marlow criticizes the men he works with for having a “devotion efficiency” (8), using the word ‘devotion’, whose original use was linked specifically with piety and loyalty to a faith explicitly.  Instead of having devotion to religion, the men have a devotion to efficiency.  Marlow also describes the motives of the men as being closely linked with greed, stating that the men of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition were “greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage” and notes that “there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them” (42).  There is an utter lack of virtue in this description of the men.  In naming their group after El Dorado, the mythical city of gold, they demonstrate an preoccupation with gold/wealth, and the fact that they lack foresight demonstrates the biggest flaw of the capitalist system: the people that operate within the system lack the foresight to ensure the long-term success of the system/society.  We see this in contemporary business as companies often forgo environmental concerns for short term gain, creating long term environmental issues that could potentially destroy the planet.  This was perhaps demonstrated most effectively by Robert E. Kehoe, who was paid by gasoline companies to defend the use of lead in gasoline, despite the fact that it was poisoning the environment and shortening the lifespan of the world’s population.  The men on the expedition use violence without any concern regarding its long-term impact.  They fail to realize how it creates a culture of violence and endangers their own lives.

 

Marlon Brando as Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppalla's adaption of Heart of Darkness titled Apacolpyse Now.

Marlon Brando as Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaption of Heart of Darkness titled Apocalypse Now.

Conrad also delves into issues related with the morality of profiting off of violence.  Upon the death of Kurtz, an ivory trader, the company that both Marlow and Kurtz worked for sought to obtain the papers Kurtz made.  Marlow notes that he “had two rows with the manager on the subject” of the documents Kurtz had given him and that the Company claimed it “had the right to every bit of information about its ‘territories’”, invoking the name of science by suggesting that the “knowledge of unexplored regions must have been necessarily extensive” and would amount to “an incalculable loss’” should they not be retrieved (101-2).  This seems reminiscent of issues surrounding the ethics of using information gained by Nazi doctors who conducted inhumane experiments on Holocaust victims.  While some saw the information procured by Nazi doctors torturers as valuable, others suggested it was unethical to use the information because it in some ways validated or profited from the torture of the victims.  In the case of Heart of Darkness, it could be argued that the Company might not have known about violence employed to procure this information, suggesting that their ignorance absolves them of guilt, but Conrad is careful to note that Marlow tried giving Kurtz’s work titled “Suppression of Savage Customs”, which outlined the violence he employed.  The Company refuses this document, demonstrating that they were fully aware of the violence and simply opted to remain willfully ignorant.

 

ECOCRITICISM

 

Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard, Marlow's counterpart in Coppala's Apocalypse Now.

Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard, Marlow’s counterpart in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Heart Of Darkness also includes some compelling ecocritical elements that are as forward thinking as Conrad’s commentary on colonialism.  In his praise of the natives, he notes that they possessed “bone, muscle, a wild vitality, [and] an intense energy of movement that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast.  They wanted no excuse for being there” (18).  Whilst it is problematic that Marlow compliments their physical prowess exclusively, it is important to note that he praises them by linking them with the natural realm whilst he criticizes the Europeans he works with and aligns them with the world of colonial and capitalist constructs.  This alignment between the African natives and nature is reinforced when the Europeans torture an African they suspect of being responsible for a fire.  Marlow notes that the victim rests in the shade or a tree whilst recovering before he went into the forest where “the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again” (32).  The Europeans are again framed as the antagonist, whilst the Africans are linked with nature.  When an assault occurs later in the narrative, Marlow notes that the donkeys died, but that he knew “nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals”, by which he means the members of the European expedition.  He concludes that they “no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved” (46).  By framing them as ‘less valuable animals’, Conrad suggests that the natural realm is uplifted over the human realm, whilst suggesting the imperialists, himself included, deserved the death they met.

 

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Conrad not only links some figures with nature, but takes the time to uplift elements within nature.  He harkens back to the golden age, not doubt influenced by the Romantic poets and Transcendentalists, stating through Marlow that “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings” (46).  This anthropomorphizing of nature, suggesting that trees were kinds and plants ‘rioted’, places the natural realm on a par with the human realm and suggests the golden age was when nature ruled.  This anthropomorphizing appears again when Marlow notes that he often felt the jungel’s “mysterious stillness watching” him (47).  This is literary tool is perhaps most effective when Marlow recounts when Kurtz stated that the ivory, station and river all belonged to him with an excessive use of the personal pronoun ‘my’, and states that this claim to ownership over nature made him “hold [his] breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into prodigious laughter” (68).  This suggestion that nature would laugh at Kurtz not only suggests that nature is elevated above the human realm, but also criticizes the notion of property laws.  Conrad clearly holds the natural realm in high regard.

 

THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF MEANING AND EXISTENTIALISM

 

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

Though Roland Barthes would not would not publish his essay ‘From Work to Text’ until 1977, the core principles of the text are very much present in Conrad’s work.  When the unnamed narrator is introducing Marlow’s story, he states that to Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (6).  This fits in with Barthes’ observations in ‘From Work to Text’, where he suggests that the value and meaning of a story exists, inside the kernel, or rather the person telling it, but exclusively in its social function, or the outside of the kernel.  This not only applies to narratives, but to people as well.  When Marlow returns to England, he must deliver several documents belonging to Kurtz to various people.  The Company refuses Kurtz’s instruction on the “Suppression Of the Savage Culture”, essentially erasing that portion of Kurtz’s identity and ensuring that the ‘work’, as Barthes puts it, never becomes a ‘text’.  Likewise, when Kurtz’s fiancée asks what Kurtz’s final words were, Marlow tells her that Kurtz spoke his fiancée’s name as his final words, despite the fact that his final words were famously “The horror! The horror!” (98) Kurtz, then, has his own authentic identity, but it can only come into existence socially, through others.  Just as Jean-Paul Sartre’s characters in No Exit (also known as In Chambers) see their identity usurped from them and defined by others in the room, and those who survivor them on earth, so too does Kurtz see his identity usurped from him in death and recreated by others.

 

The pipe-smoking Jean-Paul Sarte.

The pipe-smoking Jean-Paul Sarte.

Existentialist theory prizes the concept of the authentic self outside of the social constructs and Conrad makes room for this as well.  When Marlow hesitates during his narrative, he concedes that it is impossible to convey the story as he experienced, comparing the telling of a story to the sharing of a dream as he notes that “We live, as we dream—alone” (37).  Conrad also speaks to instances where one defines oneself outside of social constructs as Marlow notes that though he doesn’t like work, work offers each person “the chance to find [them]self… not for others”, but for oneself (40).  Conrad clearly believes in what existentialists call the ‘authentic self’ that is defined outside of the social context, or the existence of the self outside of their social essence.  Conrad also speaks to the existentialist concepts of facticity, which is the contextual limits of freedom.  Within one’s own context, there are only a limited number of choices, but within these choices one can assert their authenticity by making the choices most reflective of their authentic selves.  In a colonial world, however, the choices are limited, so it is with a kind of nihilistic existentialist approach that Marlow states that he “should be loyal to the nightmare of [his]choice” (91).  Conrad suggests that though we might be slaves, we should at least be able to choose our own master, or our own nightmare.

 

CRITICISMS

 

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe, an author and critic, had some issues with the work, suggesting that it was “bloody racist” and an offensive book that dehumanized the people of Africa.  Whilst is it understandable that some would take issue with the work given the stereotypes that it engages in and its use of pejorative slurs based on perceived race, the problem is that such a reading completely ignores the context of the these portions of the novel.  The stereotypes are present, but they are challenged, and the African people in the novel dispel the stereotypes.  They also demonstrate more restraint than their European counterparts.  As a European, Marlow is frequently self-deprecating throughout the novel and is critical of ll Europeans.  Though he uses offensive slurs, it is not Conrad saying them, it is Marlow, the character, and it is always problematic to conflate an author with his or her characters.  Suggesting Marlow’s sentiments as a promotion of racism, or that they are a reflection of a prejudicial disposition on the part of Conrad fails to takes into consideration Conrad’s use of the unreliable narrator.  Achebe also fails to take into consideration the historical context.  Though Conrad’s work may not be an ideal presentation of the people of African, it is certainly one that challenges the excepted notions of the people of African during the Victorian era.  Conrad’s portrayal of the people of Africa is far more humanizing that some of the more common presentations commonly included in other works at the time.  Criticizing Conrad without taking into consideration his historical context and his use of literary devices is not going to lead to an effective reading of the work, though Achebe generated a conversation that was important to have.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

The movie poster for Coppola's film adaption of Conrad's novella, set in Vietnam.

The movie poster for Coppola’s film adaption of Conrad’s novella, set in Vietnam.

Though Conrad’s most famous work is only a modest 110 pages long, and though his prose and character development is not on a par with some of his Victorian counterparts, the book is so densely packed with engaging criticisms of colonialism, it is impossible to read the work and come away without engaging with ideas that can shape and reaffirm one’s views on colonialism and capitalism and how they interact with the environment.  The work challenges colonial rule, capitalism, and stereotypes, while being cautious not to simply dismiss the violence perpetrated by African natives as barbarism, but instead reflects on the actions of their European counterparts and considers how Europeans create the culture of violence that they feign disgust with.  Though the works does have its share of deficiencies, and though the plot and narrative style aren’t as entertaining as film adaptations like Apocalypse Now, which was based on Conrad’s work, it remains a relevant, challenging and important work.

 

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to get updates on my latest posts by following me on Twitter @LiteraryRamblings.

 

And if you enjoy this book, be sure to check out William Shakespeare‘s The Tempest, Clint Eastwood‘s film White Hunter, Black Heart, and of course Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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