Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, is a colonial narrative which discusses the brutality of the British colonialists in Africa. The plot follows the central protagonist, Charlie Marlow, as he transports ivory down the Congo River. The novel presents a number of paradoxes with regard to its presentation of imperialism. The central paradox to all imperialism is obviously the enrichment of the colonial state which is juxtaposed with the decreased amount of national liberties; when the British Empire assumed control over Africa, they ploughed money into the nation which arguably, helped to improve the African standard of living but equally, the British control removed the African ability to live a traditional life. Imperial power was paradoxical, in this sense, throughout the British Empire. The purpose of this essay is to discuss some of these paradoxes and how they are represented in Conrads Heart of Darkness.
At the beginning of the book, Marlow is presented as being fascinated by imperialism and he discusses it at length, concluding with “What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea -” (Conrad 20). It is this idea which presents a central paradox of imperialism: the idea ‘at the back of it’ can often be presented as a redeeming feature of imperialism but also, as Conrad clarifies, it is just “robbery with violence” (Conrad 20). It is this idea which is central to the imperial paradox, as mentioned briefly before. The drive behind imperialism is to exploit and manipulate other nations to conform with your own (for example, the British Empire pushed the English language and Christianity on to its colonies). For many nations, the British presented their imperialism under the guise of trying to ‘improve’ the barbarism of the culture – in Africa, the British introduced Christianity as an alternative to the tribal gods that were worshipped before. It is this which presents the reader with a further paradox of imperialism: the view that civilisation can be barbaric (Bloom 21). By its very definition, the western perception of civilisation is one which conforms to a certain set of standards. However, civilised behaviour does not necessarily mean the correct use of etiquette and adhering to ethnocentric preconceptions of religion, politics and social behaviours. It is this paradox which is central to all imperial notions – civilisation is defined differently depending on the culture and its values.
Another major imperialist paradox is the idea that society prevents us from corruption but that society itself is corrupt (Bloom 21). This is presented in Heart of Darkness through the metaphor of the ivory. Marlow is commissioned to transport ivory up the Congo River – it is a legal form of income for him which allows him to be a functioning part of ‘civilised’ society. However, the ivory trade is infamously corrupt and violent and so, whilst it does provide Marlow with a legitimate form of employment, it also furthers the corrupt nature of that society. This imagery is furthered by the character of Kurtz – an unscrupulous ivory tradesman. However, he is also described as being a civilised man by various characters who describe him as an “essentially a great musician” (Conrad 200), “a universal genius” (Conrad 201) and a “journalist who could paint” (Conrad 201). These three statements present Kurtz as being the pinnacle of civilisation but in practice, he is a man who is furthering the uncivilised and immoral trading of ivory. This metaphorically presents ivory as being the social paradox: it is both preventing Marlow and Kurtz from corruption whilst involving them in a deep and dark corruption. Equally, this indicates another imperialist paradox which is that human beings need morality but that in actuality, morality is a sham because it is yet more social expectations which differ from society to society.
Ultimately, imperialism is a paradox because it is presented as being an ‘answer’ when actually, there was no problem in the first place. Heart of Darkness holds a mirror up to the various paradoxes which imperialism poses; the main one being that whilst one person may perceive a culture as being barbaric because they do not value the works of Shakespeare or worship the Christian god, but from another perspective, their culture could be the greatest on Earth. Some have claimed that Conrad’s presentation of imperialism’s paradoxes amounts to “political fence sitting” (Collits 108) and arguably, yes, it does but it is a novel first and foremost – a work of fiction, and it is not written anywhere that an author must take a strict political stance. However, Conrad has cleverly presented the duplicitous nature of imperialism for his reader to experience and judge for himself. Conrad does not patronise his reader into assuming anything other than his own view and as such, Conrad manages to avoid a potential paradox himself – that where the author writes about the paradoxical nature of imperialism and examining the ethnocentrism which leads westerners to favour their culture over anyone else’s, whilst forcing the reader’s hand to take the same view. Conrad gives his reader room to breathe whilst presenting him with the facts; he examines the nature of imperialism and chooses to not take the same route.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.
Bloom, Harold. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008. Print.
Collits, Terry. Postcolonial Conrad: paradoxes of empire. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.