In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the dangers of imperialism - and the line between man and beast - are explored in detail, through the story of Charlie Marlow and his encounters with Mr. Kurtz. The place and the right of civilized man to command and control other cultures that are less technologically advanced is explored, as is the transition of men between good and evil. While many physical objects are used in literature to denote certain things, Conrad's use of the Africans in his book constitutes, just as easily, the same narrative and thematic purpose of an object. To that end, the fact that Kurtz and the other whites in the book, including Marlow, use and treat Africans as objects is indicative of their inherent feelings of mastery over them, and their imperialistic desire to see themselves as above other races. This book is essentially a study of the differences between good and evil, and what societal forces (like greed and materialism) lead to the destruction of man’s inner good.
The treatment of the African as an object is largely indicative of the colonialist and imperialistic attitudes put forth by Conrad in the writing of this book: Africans, whenever they are shown or discussed, are noted as savages - unintelligent, imbecilic, and overall ignorant of the sophisticated nature of modern European man. Ivory seems to be the overall goal of the white man, and Africans are part of the means by which this precious material is cultivated. When Marlow first arrives at the Central Station, he marvels at just how preoccupied everyone is to gather this miracle material. In this passage, Marlow enters Central Station and gets his first impressions of the men who work for the Company: “I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life” (Conrad 111).
Marlow, at this point in the story, is at a crisis of conscience; he needs to “hold on to the redeeming facts of life,” and is therefore looking for purpose (Conrad 111). To that end, his examination of the men working at this station acts as a potential template for his new purpose. The men, nonetheless, stroll “aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard,” making it seem that their actions are meaningless to him – “I asked myself sometimes what it all meant” (Conrad 111). Their work reminds Marlow of “faithless pilgrims,” as they seem absolutely entranced by the possibility of gaining and profiting from ivory (Conrad 111). The Company men are entranced by the rule of capitalism, and lust for the possibility of wealth by worshipping ivory itself: “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life” (Conrad 111). This is the most importance sentence of the passage, as even Marlow’s sympathy for the imperialistic Company is muddled by the nearly animalistic, base worship of ivory he sees in the men’s work.
This dim suspicion of meaning that Marlow sees, attributing it to some strange fog of comprehension in the innate savagery of man, is the closest Marlow truly comes to treating them like humans. However, he cannot quite make that leap into true understanding and acknowledgement of their humanity, due to their 'ugly' behavior. He never questions whether or not he might be equal to them - just that he may never understand the strange goings-on that he sees in the villages. In many ways, this description of people as 'wild and passionate,' as a barometer for finding things inhuman, is an interesting bit of irony presented in Conrad's novel - the white men, who are stiff, civilized and logical, consider themselves to be less of an object than the primitives they find, despite their behavior being considered much more 'alive' than perhaps their own. However, Marlow clearly sees the people working for the company as equally meaningless, savage and evil, making the two groups seem more alike than it might seem. Marlow's own viewpoint of blacks is far from glamorous, and is only positively favored when compared against the nearly-evil Kurtz's treatment of them.
In conclusion, the initial impression of the company workers in Heart of Darkness shows just how little Marlow thinks of them, and provides an insight into the greed and capriciousness of the ivory trade. The world of the book is presented as a tacitly acceptable system, where white men invade Africa and hunt for ivory, while the most primary concerns available to them are avoiding the natural dangers of the wilderness, which include the aforementioned 'savages.' Those who have been 'domesticated,' like the helmsman, are treated like pets and tools without any consideration for their equality to man, and attractive native women are ogled and considered exotically beautiful without considering their personhood. The result is an incredibly imperialistic and ill-mannered culture that values traditional sophistication to the exclusion of all else; Marlow's attempts to return Kurtz to civilization are the primary goal, with his effects on the native people being a secondary concern. With this initial impression, Conrad provides ample evidence that something about the world he is about to enter is not right – the materialistic, imperialistic Company members all have one goal in mind: ivory.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Blackwood's Magazine, 1899. Print.