Imperialism and Identity in ‘Heart of Darkness’

VingtAnnees 286
The word “ivory” rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed.  You would think they were praying to it.

This has been my second reading of Joseph Conrad‘s arguably most-famous classic.  The first time, I was mesmerized by it without quite knowing why.  Closer, more careful reading has given me a few more hints as to why it is a bona fide masterpiece, but I know I’ll be analyzing Heart of Darkness (5/5 stars) for the rest of my life.  Each layer of the book is magnificent in itself, and together they project an enigmatic picture that changes slightly at every angle.

The book begins on the river Thames.  Marlow, the narrator, suddenly recalls another river, a river that took him through the ivory-trading business in Africa.  Marlow is just the steamboat captain, but he gets caught up in the intrigue of the ivory traders, particularly the famous Mr Kurtz.  But who or what is Kurtz, and why is he adored by so many–or feared?


The “heart of darkness” could be aptly attributed to the Europeans’ invasion of Africa, where they exploit (and virtually enslave) the local people in order to reap ivory/profits.   

Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives – he called them enemies! hidden out of sight somewhere.

Creeping along the river through the jungle, Marlow alone finds another perspective:

It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.

Some view Heart of Darkness as a racist book, but I think it is exactly the opposite.  Conrad was writing for an audience where racism was accepted and openly practiced, yet again and again, Marlow–a character that would otherwise be typical–is seen to be of a different mindset, one who recognizes the connection between all people and essentially asserts that we are all equal.  His overall respect for the African people increases, while his opinion of his fellow white men (whom he dubs “the pilgrims”) becomes increasingly disgusted and sardonic.  Kurtz gains Marlow’s fascination, but that, too, turns into horror.


Heart of Darkness  And who is Kurtz, the king of ivory trading?

The Manager of the Central Station has no respect for Marlow, but a great amount of respect for Kurtz, resulting naturally in the opposite reaction from Marlow.  A few pages later, Marlow is defending Kurtz, whom he has not even yet met, defending him as if he were defending “inhabitants in the planet Mars.”  He wants to believe in him.  Curiosity and expectation have given Marlow (and the reader) a vague, apprehensive picture of Kurtz, but still he remains a mystery, attractive by his name, enigma, and energy alone.

Finally making some progress down the river, Marlow contemplates a future verbal showdown between him and Kurtz, ending in “What did it matter what any one knew or ignored?  What did it matter who was manager?”  Nothing has changed, but psychologically, steamboat captain Marlow has progressed to the position of a central character, zero to not-quite-hero–filling in, as it were, the emptiness left by Kurtz’s absence.  Maybe the real question is: who is Marlow?  How/why does he become a key figure in the story?

Marlow, at any rate, is horrified by Kurtz’s collection of heads outside his cabin.  The closer Marlow comes to Kurtz’s cabin, and symbolically Kurtz himself, the more accurately Marlow sees who Kurtz is beneath his fame.  Even those who had backed Kurtz up before are not as eager to do so now, though they are also unwilling to leave his ivory behind them.  Kurtz is a centralized, magnified look at brutal imperialism, and Marlow doesn’t like what he sees.

Yet Marlow is the only person in the world who knows him, and it is Kurtz’s “magnificent eloquence” and fighting spirit that make Marlow remain inwardly loyal to his memory, however horrible a memory.  Marlow ends up where he began, with an understanding, an inexplicable empathy–rather than sympathy–towards Kurtz.  And Kurtz’s Pyrrhic victory. 

The vision seemed to enter the house with me—the stretcher, the phantom–bearers, the wild crowd of obedient worshippers, the gloom of the forests, the glitter of the reach between the murky bends, the beat of the drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heart—the heart of a conquering darkness. It was a moment of triumph for the wilderness, an invading and vengeful rush which, it seemed to me, I would have to keep back alone for the salvation of another soul.

The wilderness being sin, and “another soul” being Kurtz’s girlfriend, to whom Marlow must convey his parting words.  He has not the ability to tell her that Kurtz was a fiend, that he (as I hypothesize) took advantage of another woman for the sake of ivory, that he lived in “The horror! the horror!”

Rather than going through a character arc, Marlow comes full circle, to live again without the presence of Kurtz hovering over him.  Marlow comes home.  Could it be, then, that Marlow and Kurtz are one and the same character?  That Kurtz personifies everything Marlow fears, despises, and runs from in himself?  For only Marlow really knew Kurtz, to his own grief.

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget.

Yet Marlow ultimately chooses to tell a lie, rather than let anyone else in the world know Kurtz, so terrible is Kurtz’s “heart of darkness”.

Mackinder’s Heartland Theory


Who rules East Europe, commands the Heartland
Who rules the Heartland, commands the World Island
Who rules the World Island, commands the World

Though they may be deemed outdated now, Sir Halford Mackinder‘s Heartland Theory and his writings on geopolitics offer some fascinating–and still relevant–pieces of wisdom on the relations between geography, history, and foreign policy.  My poli-sci class inspired me to do some further reading, so I read “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904) and its follow-up, Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919).

The “Geographical Pivot” (5/5 stars) is a succinct description of the Heartland Theory, while Democratic Ideals (4/5 stars) is much slower and more intense, focusing heavily on Mackinder’s historical basis for the theory.  Most of the history went over my head, but the gist of it–sea power vs. land power–provided a good argument for the eminently strategic location of Eastern Europe.

It’s debatable whether the Heartland Theory holds true today: new technology and increasing globalization have certainly altered geographic advantages/limitations.  If nothing else, however, Mackinder masterfully demonstrates the kind of critical thinking and analysis that people (not just politicians) would do well to use today.  Democratic Ideals was written in December 1918, and already Mackinder was hinting at the possibility of WWII, if peace treaties and the League of Nations were not effective.  He also predicts aspects of the Cold War, as in the following quote:

It may be the case that Bolshevik tyranny is an extreme reaction from Dynastic tyranny, but it is none the less true that the Russian, Prussian, and Hungarian plains, with their widespread uniformity of social conditions, are favorable alike to the march of militarism and to the propaganda of syndicalism.  Against this two-headed Eagle of land-power the Westerners and Islanders must struggle.

The last two chapters of Democratic Ideals are the most worthwhile, dealing with the potential success or failure of the League of Nations (and, theoretically thereby, world peace). This is also where he presents additional arguments on certain subtopics, such as the importance of nations’ “balanced development” and local vs. international organization.

There are a few problems in the book.  One is the term “democratic”, which he uses rather loosely.  Secondly, some of his opinions/perspectives seem to be negatively biased by the era in which he lived (though this is unsurprising for a book 100+ years old).  Thirdly, there is his idea of reorganizing/locating certain people in Central Europe.  [Of this last, it is unclear to me whether he really supports the idea (as it seemed to me), or is simply illustrating his low expectations for peaceful relations in that area.]  Read with a grain of salt.

I highly recommend “The Geographical Pivot of History” (online PDF) to anyone, and poli-sci enthusiasts will want to check out Democratic Ideals and Reality as well.

Favorite quotes:

“To the eighteenth-century ideal of Liberty, and the nineteenth-century ideal of Nationality, we have added our twentieth-century ideal of the League of Nations.”

“Productive power, in short, is a far more important element of reality in relation to modern civilization than is accumulated wealth.”

“You may strike at the two flanks of your enemy, the right and the left, but unless your force is sufficient to annihilate you must decide beforehand which stroke is to be the feint and which the real attack.”

“The end of the present disorder [in Germany] may only be a new ruthless organization, and ruthless organizers do not stop when they have attained the objects which they at first set before them.” (Nazi Germany foretold)

“…the lessons of History are not to be learned from a single instance.”

“Civilization, no doubt, consists in the exchange of services, but it should be an equal exchange.”

“…most people today are very open to ‘suggestion’, a fact well known to the experienced in elections, who rarely stop to reason with their audiences.”

“Why were Athens and Florence the wonderful founts of Civilization which have made them the teachers of the world?  They were small cities as we now count the size of cities, but they were sovereign cities both in the political and economic sense.”

“…his [the Londoner’s] life of ideas is detached from his responsible life, and both suffer infinitely in consequence.”