Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

During the last decade of the 19th Century, also known as the Fin-de-Siècle, anxieties about the state of the nation, and the species, were rife. The British Empire was in decline and imperial guilt haunted Britain. Novels like Dracula and Herland laid bare unconscious fears of suffrage and the bohemian New Woman, but it was the matter of race that loomed heaviest on the Victorian mind. If the Empire could stagnate, what then of humanity? – specifically, white Europeans. New genres arose to explore these anxieties. H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine ushered in the scientific romance, proposing a bleak future involving devolution and the collapse of civilized society, while Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray shed light on the seamy, decadent lives of the aristocracy. But of all these stories, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was perhaps the most impactful and enduring, for “the conquest of the earth […] is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” (Conrad, p. 7)

Imperialism and Colonialism

Perhaps the most egregious international scandal of the 20th Century, the spectre of the Congo Free State continues to haunt Europe and Africa even today. Belgian King Leopold II founded the colony in 1885, successfully procuring it at the Berlin Conference during the Scramble for Africa.

King Leopold II of Belgium

He did so under the guise of humanitarianism and philanthropy, however, Leopold’s rule soon garnered criticism, namely for its brutal exploitation of the Congolese people. It became his private domain, a playground ruled with an iron fist, an exotic land abundant in natural resources, but it was the lust for ivory that drove the annexation from the beginning – and drove Kurtz mad.

The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. (Conrad, p. 23)

Ivory and rubber were among the chief exports of the Congo Free State

As such, Conrad’s novella is frequently preoccupied by the rampant, brutal exploitation of the Congolese, whose mass enslavement helped flood Belgium with wealth:

Six black men advanced in a file toiling up the path. […] Black rags were wound round their loins and […] I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope, each had an iron collar on his neck and all were connected together with a chain (Conrad, p. 15).

Here Conrad depicts “the labourers starting work on Leopold’s railway” (Adam Hochschild, ‘Meeting Mr. Kurtz’) before Marlow’s departure upriver, and like his alter-ego, Conrad also travelled on a steamer up the Congo River. During his time in the country, he witnessed first-hand the twisted logic of European imperialism that justified the Belgian occupation of the Congo, and the civilising of the natives through forced productive labour.

[Most] of the cruelties practiced in the Congo were not traditional but the recent effects of exploitation. The cutting off of hands was a punishment for non-cooperation […] (Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness British Literature and Imperialism, 1830—1914, p. 259).

Just one example of the numerous brutalities perpetrated by the Congo Free State.

Many critics interpret the novella “as an exposé of imperialist rapacity and violence” (Brantlinger, p. 256), in which Conrad employs stereotypical language of his day, language which has garnered him scathing criticism from writer Chinua Achebe. For Achebe, Conrad’s story “projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” (Chinua Achebe, ‘An Image of Africa’)

[Similarly] just as Conrad had seen little or no evidence of torture, so he probably saw little or no evidence of cannibalism […] [and] much of the horror either depicted or suggested […] represents not what Conrad saw but rather his reading of the literature that exposed Leopold’s bloody system (Brantlinger, p. 259).

At the beginning of the book, Marlow distinguishes between British imperialism and that of the other European powers (Brantlinger, p. 256), noting that British territories, denoted by large red areas on his map, were “good to see […] because one knows that some real work is done in there” (Conrad, p. 10). But “[he] entertained no illusions about imperialist violence” (Brantlinger, p. 256) and the text often carries an air of imperial guilt: “their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more” (Conrad, p. 7).

[…] there exists in Africa a Congo State, created by the act of European Powers where ruthless systematic cruelty towards the blacks is the basis of administration, and bad faith towards all other states the basis of commercial policy (21st Dec 1903, Collected Letters, 3:95).

Then again, Conrad loved his adoptive home England and would certainly have been invested in the actions of its Empire. A prolific investor to a gold mine near Johannesburg, this conflict of interest complicates his stance on imperialist practices. On the one hand, he seems to be “[criticising] imperialism during the heyday of empire” (Brantlinger, p. 39), while on the other, his own interests run parallel to it. As such, he is at once “anti-imperialist and imperialist, progressive […] [and] self-deluding” (Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism).

Degeneration and the ‘Other’

Degeneration has often been presented as an invasive non-British source in literature, (i.e. the Yellow Peril). Conrad likens the Africans, with their swaying arms, rolling eyes and their chanting of strange incantations, to prehistoric man, betraying Europe’s lingering unease about the Dark Continent. But it is not the natives who are under critique. Imperial power is the text’s object of scorn, with Conrad positing that the “dark places of the earth” (Conrad, p. 1) bring man to his knees, causing him to regress, unburdening his inhibitions. Marlow’s experiences left him irrevocably changed, but while he merely entered the Heart of Darkness, Kurtz succumbed to it body and soul, and all for so trivial a commodity as ivory.

Heart of Darkness, like The Time Machine, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, confronts readers with the uncomfortable truth that, as Marlow says, the degenerate ‘other’ may have been much closer to home. Marlow’s opening lines on the banks of the Thames estuary lay bare his disillusionment, likening “the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth” (Conrad, p. 1) to the darkness at the end of the Congo River, the place wherein Kurtz resides:

‘And this also,’ Marlow said suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the Earth.’

For the Victorian zeitgeist, atavism, or the decline of the species, was of grave concern. Darwin’s theory of evolution posited a shared origin for all races of the world, calling into question antiquated ideas of the racial ‘other’. “Racism in all its forms depends on the fantasy of a pure origin” (Brantlinger, The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel). Nonetheless, the march of progress was a slow one, and national catastrophes like The Indian Rebellion of 1857 still lingered in the public consciousness.

2nd Gurkhas at Delhi, India, 1857.

Beginning as a sepoy mutiny in the garrison town Meerut, wherein the Indian soldiers suddenly turned on their commanding officers, the Rebellion soon snowballed into a widescale revolt against the British East India Trading Company. Though many fought alongside the British in the ensuing conflicts, nevertheless, the Indians’ long-growing resentment, following repressive social reforms and exploitative land taxes, had finally exploded.

“For the first time, an ‘Oriental race’ […] dared to fight against its rulers and, even worse, dared to commit ‘cruelties’ against the two emblems of Victorian domesticity, women and children” (Soverio Tomaiuolo, The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction), many of whom were, allegedly, raped and tortured to death by the sepoys. This only provided further justification for British hegemony, with “the perceived inhumanity of the Orient [becoming] the rationale for subjecting it to the humanizing, civilizing process of British colonization” (Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body, p. 127).

Mistah Kurtz

Stories of traders and explorers “in far-flung corners of the world” (Dennis Walder, The Nineteenth Century Novel: Identities) becoming de-civilized after encountering primitive cultures were rampant during the Fin-de-Siècle. And no character in literature embodies these anxieties more than the elusive antagonist of Heart of Darkness.

Léon Rom, Conrad’s inspiration for Kurtz.

Kurtz’s descent into madness is indicative of contemporary anxieties about degeneration on the Dark Continent. But, most disturbing of all, Kurtz’s character takes inspiration from Léon Rom, an officer in King Leopold’s Force Publique, stationed at Stanley Falls, the “Inner Station” that Conrad himself visited. In fact, much like Kurtz, Rom decorated the flowerbeds surrounding his house with severed heads and even fraternised with the natives. The mixing of races was still taboo during the Fin-de-Siècle and Kurtz’s concubine signifies not only “the desecration of racial boundaries” but also “the consequences that racial contamination had for white male control of progeny, property and power” (McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest).

“Evolutionary theory raised […] questions about sexuality, about the beast within […] If man had evolved […] grown in stature from his appalling ancestor, the ape, […] moving forward, progressing, then could not the reverse be possible – degeneration? Was the terrible beast, the sexual beast, fully exorcised, or was he […] still lurking beneath the façade of civilisation – in disguise?” (Rebecca Stott, The Fabrication of the Late-Victorian Femme Fatal).

“All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (Conrad, p. 39) who is Chief of the Inner Station – a position much coveted by his colleagues. Conrad describes him as “a prodigy […] an emissary of pity, and science, and progress” (Conrad, p. 25) and an emissary of the West’s civilising mission. But as Marlow travels further upriver, it becomes clear “Kurtz has done more harm than good” (Conrad, p. 61) and has “taken a high seat among the devils of the land” (Conrad, p. 49).


Achebe, Chinua, ‘An Image of Africa’, in Heart of Darkness, ed. by Paul B. Armstrong, 4th edn, (New York: Norton, 2006).

Arata, Stephen, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin-de-Siècle (Cambridge: CUP, 2008).

Brantlinger, Patrick, Rule of Darkness British Literature and Imperialism, 1830—1914 (New York: Cornell University Press, 1990).

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, ed. by Paul B. Armstrong, 4th edn, (New York: Norton, 2006).

Cunninghame Graham, R. B., ‘‘“Bloody Niggers”’ (1897)’, in The Fin-de-Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History c. 1880—1900 (Oxford: OUP, 2000).

Hochschild, Adam, ‘Meeting Mr. Kurtz’, in Heart of Darkness, ed. by Paul B. Armstrong, 4th edn, (New York: Norton, 2006).

Hurley, Kelly, The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin-de-Siècle (Cambridge: CUP, 1996).

Ledger, Sally, et al, ed., The Fin-de-Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History c. 1880—1900 (Oxford: OUP, 2000).

Mangham, Andrew, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction (Cambridge: CUP, 2013).

Marshall, Gail, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Fin-de-Siècle (Cambridge: CUP, 2007).

McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London: Routledge, 1995).

Nordau, Max, ‘Degeneration (1895)’, in The Fin-de-Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History c. 1880—1900 (Oxford: OUP, 2000).

Said, Edward, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1993).

Smith, Andrew, Victorian Demons Medicine, Masculinity and the Gothic at the Fin-de-Siècle (Manchester: MUP, 2008).

Stokes, John, ed., Fin-de-Siècle /Fin du Globe Fears and Fantasies of the Late Nineteenth Century (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992).

Stott, Rebecca, The Fabrication of the Late-Victorian Femme Fatal, ed. by Afshar et al (London: Macmillan, 1996).

Talbot, Eugene S., Degeneracy: Its Causes, Signs and Results (London: Walter Scott, 1898).

Tomaiuolo, Soverio, ‘Sensation fiction, Empire and the Indian Mutiny’, in The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction (Cambridge: CUP, 2013).

Walder, Dennis, ed., The Nineteenth-Century Novel Identities: (London: Routledge, 2007).

Written by Michael Conroy

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