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Heart of Darkness: An Analysis of the Hypocrisy that Shapes the Colonial Period of the Congo Region

The novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad exposes and ridicules the predominant currents of thought that arise from the inherent darkness within every man. The analysis of this hypocrisy is carried out through a study of the geographies and populations of the Dark Continent and its "civilized" northern neighbor. It soon becomes apparent that the nature of men is expressed in fundamentally the same manner in all cultures, and any attempt by the Europeans to expunge the "savagery" of the Africans will only result in the revelation of identical unfavorable traits in the minds of the saviors. Marlow attempts to rescue a "carrier of virtue" from such a fate, and in the process, he uncovers within himself the reasoning that motivates all of man’s actions.

According to Brook Thomas, in the nineteenth century the Congo region is subject to the "...very imperialistic, overseas expansion that drew its ideological justification from the belief that reason, progress, and enlightenment emanated from the west" (242). The Europeans believe themselves to be encountering something apart from their own reality and do not realize that the foreign lifestyles and ideals are merely the concealed section of their own psyche (244). Candice Bradley emphasizes that the white men look upon the colored races of Africa as "...primitive, savage and primordial;" she speaks of an occasion on which a British physician advertises that one particular tribe is not human, and he portrays a chimpanzee skeleton as a deceased member of that community. It is ultimately the "European conquerors who are conquered" as it becomes apparent through their cruel approach to colonialism that they are inherently more savage than those whose character they intend to elevate (245). The land has a powerful effect in mirroring the darkness that the colonialists have previously kept hidden within their hearts.

"Africa was seen as a place of physical darkness... All the images in the book -- the black/green jungle, the black shapes that lay or splay or whirl or stare or die..." (Bradley) detail the dark nature of the continent. Alan Hollingsworth remarks that the failure of the whites’ valiant efforts is due to the overwhelming power of nature; the myriad of dangers in sea and sky as well as the infirmities with which the land is plagued often bring the imperialists’ progress to a halt (177). Marlow’s journey into Africa is described by Antonia Maria Alvarez as "a business of death;" Africa is an impressive place and is not without its sense of liveliness, but it is essentially centered around death, with "streams of death and life in the extremity of an impotent despair."

Europe is, on the surface, the other extreme of the spectrum. "Conrad presents the white facade and inner dark corruption of the ‘whited sepulcher’ of Christian imperialism" (Hollingsworth 179). The city of Brussels is defined using the key traits of apparent purity and stillness. This serves to accentuate the darkness and vitality of the southern continent and to physically separate the images of the two locations so that the fundamental similarities appear even more stunning. A still greater contrast lies between those residents of Belgium such as the Intended "who lives in a tomb in a dead city" and those in the Congo including the wild woman who Kurtz encounters.

The differences between the African and European populations is obvious through Richard Yatzek’s recounting of "...natives in boats who are at home, vital, intense, energetic... a gunboat that shells the continent as if trying to sink it." Though the black men are perceived as somewhat less than human, they are engaged in living life, while the members of the Belgian company are concerned only with their misdirected quest. The Africans and their bizarre rituals are not without an aspect of darkness, but as Albert Guerard determines, the far worse shadow is that of "passivity, paralysis, immobilization" (175) which surrounds the inhabitants of the various stations. It is the author’s opinion that the apathy of the "hollow man" is more frightening than the infernal rites that grow out of the savage passion of the locals. (169) The visitors are characterized by weakness and disease; half of them have died within one year’s time of their arrival, and though the myths of cannibalism amongst the native tribes have been mostly dispelled, the cannibalization of others’ goods and position is an ever-present fact in the camps of the European. (Bradley)

The greatest difference results from the effort by the Europeans to pervade some notion of civilized society in their lives next to the Africans’ typical acceptance of the carnal desires that are the basis for man’s behavior. The locals do have organized kingdoms within their ranks and frequently trade with the Portuguese, but they are generally free of the egotism that leads those of the "superior" race to present themselves as "emissaries of light" (Bradley). The Europeans believe themselves to be saved by the laws and admonitions of others that are present in society, (Guerard 168) but it is the conviction of an entire state that allows for the execution of a crime the magnitude of the Congo expeditions. The overwhelming tendency that almost universally prevents the formation of a peaceful society is the aggression to which man is naturally prone; (Hollingsworth 177) therefore, society "presents the struggle between the instincts of death/destruction and the instincts of life/love" (178) and quite often, the former prevails.

Religion is "society’s most powerful means of counteracting the hostility of its members..." (Hollingsworth 178) and it is this gift that the Europeans believe they can bestow upon the heathens of Africa. The religion of the inhabitants of the Dark Continent has long been synonymous with paganism, and the Christians who visit there are horrified by the "belief in ancestral spirits" (Bradley). The only faith to which Marlow and the others subscribe, however, is that of efficiency, and this god does not always consider the well being of all members of a population. Thomas Dilworth verifies that "...Efficiency is identified with dehumanization and cruelty," and he points out the manner in which the black workers are put aside and permitted to pass away once they have become sick and "inefficient." "Whatever its advantages... efficiency does not immunize one against hatred" (515). The European saviors cannot begin to help the less fortunate until they discover the limits of the amoral efficiency with which they conduct their lives; it "cannot finally combat corruption and decay, nor can it rationalize these things as the mystical religions can" (Yatzek). Above all, they must realize that the same fundamental religion governs every member of the human race, regardless of his color.

The realization which the characters of the story clarify is that all are driven by "the amoral ichthyosaurus nature that we seek to conceal by means of ethics or burial" (Yatzek). Marlow comprehends the full implications of this truth when he encounters Kurtz, "a white man and sometime idealist who had fully responded to the wilderness: a potential and fallen self" (Guerard 170). Kurtz, who originally intends to bring enlightenment to the savage tribes, accepts a new ideology himself and leads the locals into still darker activities than those in which they are already engaged (Dilworth 511). The initial onslaught of freedom opens his eyes to a world of possibilities, and, in the words of Dorice Williams Elliot, "having become one of the devils of the land, Kurtz wants to swallow, to implicate all humanity" (174). He "...embodies Europe’s most noble ideals," and his weakness in the face of wealth and power signifies the susceptibility of all people to their carnal urges (Thomas 240).

Kurtz "...has broadened the range of human life. Although he may have done barbarous things, he has reached new experiences of the self, and against the indifference of the universe and the insipidity of men, he has felt all the excitement that life has to offer" (Maria Alvarez). Like the maddened German, as the company encounter the full expression of man’s base instincts and the promises that they offer, the suppression of their hidden desires gradually becomes less and less appealing. The want for ivory and for advancement within the organization has driven seemingly sensible men to betrayal of wholly illogical pursuits. One must conclude therefore, that nothing separates the "gentleman" of the city and the "beast" of the forest other than the circumstances from which he is born. The collision between the two extremities of cultured existence acts to express "...the passage from ‘perfect animal’ to thoughtful artist," and works as a "...consideration of the animal and intellectual qualities as they cohabit in us" (Yatzek). This shared identity does not help, however, to prevent the belief of Western civilization that other forms of culture are inherently inferior and that they are in need of the white man’s altruistic efforts.

"Light is used to indicate deceit in Heart of darkness... when something glitters, it does not glitter because it is beautiful or good, but because there is something hidden under the surface, and sometimes something dangerous" (Bradley). The period of colonialism that occurs in the Congo in the eighteenth century begins with the partition of Africa and initially deals primarily with political and economic relationships. However, as the position of the white man becomes increasingly permanent, the focus shifts from a policy of mercantilism to that brainwashing. The new inhabitants are not content to establish a socioeconomic system similar to that of their origin, but they must also mold the backward minds of the region so that the thinking may also adhere to the established ideology (Bradley). Missionaries are introduced to the continent so that the locals may be generously provided with the "correct" religion, and the businesses are structured so as to accommodate new jobs created for the lackluster creatures. Frederick Karl has ascertained that Marlow "believes that imperialism must justify itself with good deeds," but the misguided sailor is soon to discover that the universe does not operate in this manner; "those who can, plunder those who cannot" (126).

"In the jungle, as in enterprise, only the strong survive" (129); it is this sentiment that pushes the company to exploit the land and its people far beyond the boundaries of morals and civilized laws. A significant part of the interest in Africa is derived from the "...smoothly metallic white... ivory itself;" it is hardly a necessity for the well being of man, and yet, countless lives are enslaved, endangered or extinguished in order to gain the prize. "Traditionally, beauty for the few is gained with the blood of many" (128). The natives are reduced to chaotic shapes by the white man’s endeavors, and Kurtz, the symbol of societal ideals, is transformed into a "...pale, white-skulled, ailing..." man by his own insatiable lust for wealth and prestige (125). Likewise, the manager is prepared to destroy his fellow man in order to insure that his enviable post will not be jeopardized. "It is as though light does not illuminate the darkness, but rather that, in a sense, the light is the darkness" (Bradley). Marlow discovers the extent to which a civil mind may be corrupted by primitive instincts as he journeys in search of the lost agent and quests for the potential for evil and a power over that evil within his own heart.

Marlow’s travels in the Congo are in part a search for a grail, "an effulgence of light," that will give him some insight into the mysteries of the human spirit. "The grail that he finds appears an abomination and the light even deeper darkness" (Thale 181). His initial experience with the "heart of darkness" occurs in his travel through the various stations. "In the company-man evil is a privation; not of goodness but of existence... too self-loathing, too much the victims of their own life-killing prudence..." (184) The persons situated at the Outer Station will do anything in the name of greed; even the accountant who appears outwardly clean, plays his role in the reduction of human beings to "numbers and figures" (Elliot 171). Marlow soon subscribes to the search for Kurtz as his "nightmare of choice," for "anything would seem preferable to the demoralized greed and total cynicism of the others "the flabby devil" of the Central Station (Guerard 168).

Marlow searches for Kurtz so as to ascertain the great truths that the "voice" has to offer. "...(Kurtz) has gone into the jungle without knowing himself, and unprepared for the ordeal, his wrong conduct took him beyond the limits of his heart, paying the price in madness and death." The madness that has ensued in Kurtz from his adherence to the will of the jungle offers a more vivid glimpse of reality than that for which Marlow is prepared. Marlow is able to resist the temptations of the deep, black forest and is denied a complete comprehension of the experience, but he is able to witness the star agent’s final proclamation upon the whole of their existence. "When Marlow at last compares himself to Kurtz, who has felt such a horror, he feels nothing for his life, nothing strong or worthwhile" (Maria Alvarez).

Marlow’s ventures in the Congo are more than a physical exploration; they bring about "the night journey into the unconscious and confrontation of an entity within the self" (Guerard 170). His journey down the river is a search through a world of deceit and lies for the one breath of truth in an impenetrable fog of illusion. The fate of his charge, the brilliant explorer, ultimately seems to stress to Marlow "...that truth is unendurable in the context of everyday life, that what one needs in order to maintain an assurance of safety and comfort is some sustaining illusion to which one can be faithful" (Maria Alvarez).

Heart of Darkness outlines the blatant hypocrisy that shapes the human race when it is nearing the height of knowledge and civilization. It satirizes the white man’s sanctimonious presence on the Dark Continent and impugns the pervading notion of a superior race or creed. It also traces the path to a revelation that mankind is inherently flawed and cannot believe that its efforts are free of fallibility. "It was a time that appeared on the surface to be the height of Empire, a time to be bullish about colonialism in Africa. But Conrad was lurking about whispering "sell, sell" a lone bear on the floor of Pax Britannica" (Bradley).

Jeff DePree