Heart of Darkness


Joseph Conrad



-The Colonized and the Colonizer in "Heart of Darkness"

-Forms of Dominance

-Loss of Innocence in "Heart of Darkness" and " White Heron"



The Colonised and the Coloniser in “Heart of Darkness”: Equal Victims?

By Ziebono Nagbe


Colonialism, one of the most brutal forms of oppression and domination the world faced in the nineteenth century, has been a common theme in many literary works. Numerous contemporary writers discussed colonialism, specifically focusing on its destructive effect on the colonised. Joseph Conrad, in his novel, “Heart of Darkness”, relates dreadful events that took place during the colonisation of the Congo in Africa. Unlike many of his counterparts for whom the colonisers are guilty of the victimisation of the colonised, Conrad views colonisation as a damaging force for both the oppressed and the oppressor.


Before he depicts the negative toll of colonisation on the natives and the White invaders, Conrad first exposes its initial purpose, which supposedly, was to civilise the natives. The philanthropic idea of colonisation is made evident in the novel through Kurtz’s believing that “each station should be like a beacon on the road toward better things, a center...for humanising, improving, instructing” (Pickering 302). The International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, which hired Kurtz, perhaps shared this same idea. The view of colonisation as beneficial for the colonised was also commonly shared and spread by the colonialists around that era: Adam Hoch child’s King Leopold’s Ghost exemplifies it. Marlow’s aunt was excited that her nephew would play a great part in “weaning those ignorant [the natives] millions from their horrid ways” (Pickering 286). Conrad progressively moves on in the novel to expose colonisation’s hideous face and drawbacks for the colonisers and the colonised. First, he starts out detailing the narrative of colonisation’s oppression by emphasizing the gruesome treatment of the Africans in the Congo. The natives are called “criminals”, “savages” (Pickering 289), “brutes” (Pickering 302), seen as “enemies” (Pickering 288) and accordingly treated as such. They are forced to hard labours for the colonised. Oftentimes, they did objectless blasting and other pointless but dangerous work in the Whites’ “philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do” (Pickering 290). The colonised are treated like working animals, forced to carry heavy loads (Pickering 292), ill-fed, chained (Pickering 290) inhumanly treated and beaten continuously to death. The Whites disciplined the natives by beating them savagely carrying long staves for that purpose, (Pickering 293). Horrifying death permeates the daily life of the “brutes” who must all be “exterminated” (Pickering 316). In “Heart of Darkness”, evidence of the appalling and dreadful treatment natives suffered under colonisation is given. They were discriminated against and lived under an unbearable oppression. However, Conrad does not stop there. He also writes about the negative facet of colonisation on the oppressors, depicting them as the hidden victims of their own system. It then comes to no surprise to find out that in “Heart of Darkness”, nobody “bears a charmed life” (Pickering 299), not even the pilgrims symbolizing the White oppressor.

For Conrad, colonisation makes the White settlers indolent, it reveals their weakness, puffing them up with the vanity of being White on a savaged and conquered land; it also fortifies the intolerable hypocrisy with which they, in general, hide their egotistical endeavours. Colonisation causes the colonisers to hate and bring out the evil from within them. The appearance of the Company’s chief accountant:“high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket...under a green-lined parasol” (Pickering 291), while around him everything else is chaotic and people are dying , can only be validated as an example of the White’s vanity, egocentrism, megalomania, indifference, and hatred. This hatred is even more evident when the accountant tells Marlow that “one comes to hate those savages...to death” (Pickering 292). Another aspect of the wild side of colonisation on the coloniser is greed. Greed, symbolized toward the exploitation of the natives’ resources, led the Whites to engage in inhuman acts, perpetrating awful crimes. To this effect Marlow notices, “The conquest of the earth...is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”, but probably in the name of profit, there were no scruples, (Pickering 292). Conrad finally exposes the idea that colonisation dramatically transformed the settlers, making them different from what they initially were. Marlow who said to be appalled by lies because it, “makes [him] miserable and sick” (Pickering 298) is forced to lie to Kurtz’s wife. Even though it could be argued that he lied for a good reason, the fact still remains: he became what he hates, a liar. It can be said that a part of Marlow died in Africa because of the effect of colonialism. Kurtz’s transformation is even more tragic. Previously an altruist and good-intentioned-person, he now feels the need to “exterminate all the brutes” (Pickering 316). In the end, he becomes mentally instable and dies in a savage land, haunted by what he helped install, “the horror!” (Pickering 334).


Overall, Conrad, in “Heart of Darkness”, fiercely criticises colonisation. On one hand, he exposes colonialism’s hidden purpose, which was robbing the natives of their resources and thereby, treating them inhumanly. On the other hand, he depicts the colonisers’ misery from being in a foreign and unwelcome environment where horrible treatments were committed and also met. For Conrad, beyond its initial intents, colonisation can only bring “the horror!” (Pickering 330) victimizing both the coloniser and the colonised. It can be argued that the amount of drawbacks the oppressor and the oppressed face were not the same. However, in the end, both do suffer. In fact, Conrad’s perspective on colonisation is that nobody escapes from its appalling consequences; the coloniser and the colonised meet the same demises. “Heart of Darkness” exposes the oppressors and the oppressed as victims of colonisation, leading Conrad to question whether colonisation has any advantages. The answer to Conrad certainly lingers in the view of colonisation as a necessary evil. But for Marlow and all the victims in “Heart of Darkness” colonisation, and especially its effects will remain the “fascination of the abomination” (Pickering 282).

Works Cited

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. New York:Mariner Books, 1999.

Pickering. H, James. Ed. Fiction 100: an Anthology of Short Fiction 12th edition. New York:

Longman, 2010.


Forms of Dominance

By Rye Stevenson


Within the literary world, social inequality is not a new topic. As early the beginning of the 1700's when Jonathan Swift penned Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal, writers have worked to criticize the suffering that results from oppression. Since inequality has many forms, there are a great number of examples of which it would be impossible to make a conclusive list. However, within many works, especially modernist texts, we are able to find observations about the injustice and conflict between those who wish for freedom and those who dominate.

These are various ways that dominance can be exerted. My intention is more to explore some of the types that are visible within various literary works from different periods and locations. While the study of social inequality tends to be divided into subtopics such as feminist studies and post-colonial studies, I would like to examine the theme of dominance by looking at some specific roots and mechanisms of the inequality.

Racial and ethnic inequality is possibly one of the most visible forms of social domination since it has received so much attention in the last few decades. It manifests itself as when a social group seeks to reduce or marginalize the value of another nation and frequently leads to various forms of abuse and profiteering. Joseph Conrad's masterpiece, the novella Heart of Darkness, deals heavily with these problems. It is the story of steamship captain who decides to take a job within what was perceived at the time as “savage” African Congo. Within the story, the utter disdain and contempt that the Europeans feel for the natives is frequently central in the observations of the storyteller, Marlow. A striking example occurs in the comment made by Marlow's aunt where she talks about the the importance of “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways”(p 286). Another example of this is when Marlow tells the fate of the preceding captain who, after feeling wronged about a trade involving two black hens, proceeds to violently beat an old native. Marlow interprets it as the act of a man who “probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way” (p 283). The story also contains powerful descriptions of the way the natives were treated. Marlow describes coming across a group who are suffering from overwork:

They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. (p 290)

Another form of domination is that which is motivated by social connections. This form of domination is much more subtle and happens when a relation is not reciprocal, when one party profits far more than the other from social conventions. Even today, this is a difficult form of inequality and domination to examine since it is so commonly accepted. It is the central theme in The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

  Within this work, Kafka tells about a young man, Gregory Samsa, who works as a travelling salesman to support his parents and his sister. While his family is very grateful for his efforts, when the protagonists undergoes a horrible and unaccountable transformation, it becomes rapidly apparent that they appreciated his efforts far more than they appreciated him. As we continue to explore Gregory's experiences, it becomes clear that Gregory is bound so tightly by his obligations to his family and work that he spent his life doing something he hated. He describes his work thus:

Oh God, he thought, what an exhausting job I've picked on! Traveling about day in, day out. It's much more irritating work than doing the actual business in the office, and on top of that there's the trouble of constant traveling, of worrying about train connections, the bed and irregular meals, casual acquaintances that are always new and never become intimate friends. (Kafka)

In contrast to this, he goes into an utter panic when he realizes that he is unable to go to work because he has been transformed into a giant bug. I believe this is an extremely valid reason for one to call in sick. Unfortunately for him, he is condemned by his family for the transformation and unhappily spends his last days as a monstrous vermin to them.

Kafka challenges the idea that we are not free to make our own choices. While parts of Gregory's situation with his family and work seem reasonable on the surface, they are nonetheless causing him to suffer, and preventing him from achieving happiness.

An even more subtle way that that social dominance can be examined is through the question of who is viewing whom. There is a superiority in being the one who has the right to look at and judge those around us. It is a sort of one-way mirror where the observer looks down on those around them. This idea is played with by Katherine Mansfield in her story Miss Brill. Within the story, an older lady decides to spend a Sunday afternoon in the park, and she tell herself stories about the people she sees. As harmless as this is, it is still a form of dominance. The story ends with the situation being reversed and she is very hurt when she suddenly becomes aware that other people are judging her too (p 877). This story ends on a sad note with Miss Brill sadly retreating into her apartment. While this story is more poignant than revolutionary, it makes an excellent point about the position of power and control that we assume when we look at other people.

  These are just a few examples of how dominance can be viewed and studied within literary texts. There are many more examples that I have not touched on such as sexual dominance, class dominance, and gender dominance. As readers is it important that we become aware of these realities and look within what we read so as to be able to examine closely what is happening in terms of power.