Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published at times when imperialism and power structures were at the initial stages of their development. Nevertheless, human hypocrisy, the desire to conquer unknown lands and to prove the continuous superiority of the white population governed human actions on other continents, and turned the mentioned superiority into the source of financial profits.
The book was written at times when people were gradually discovering the benefits of power, violence, threat, and humiliation with regard to native African population. In this context, Heart of Darkness stands out as a unique combination of social madness, imperial hypocrisy, and the absurdity of violence and evil, which altogether shape the picture of unnecessary immorality and cruelty toward those who also have the right to be considered as humans.
Conrad’s story takes place in an African location, which though without specific name closely resembles the river Congo and its natural surroundings. To some extent, the choice of location and people is not accidental, for the growth of imperial attitudes toward social life and economics in Europe was inevitably associated with the growing violence toward native aboriginal people in Africa. The growth of such attitudes was justified by the need for Europe to establish its colonies and to later use them as the source of economic profits. Humiliation and violence were the two acceptable methods use to turn native people into the instruments of cheap labor. At that point of human evolution, Conrad’s story had to shed the light onto the major economic controversies of industrialization and capitalism (which for Conrad is obviously associated with imperialism). It is very probable that the writer sought to reveal the most complicated and controversial sides of the rapid economic expansion in Europe and as a result, in the world. However, while Europe perceived the benefits of its economic development and actively used its results, African lands suffered severe consequences of European invasion and had but to reconcile with the emerging power structures. “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze and nothing more, I suspect” (Conrad 34). Efficiency and not humanism is what drives colonial attitudes toward native populations, and makes the whole essence of economic development even more absurd.
The absurdity of evil was one of the most relevant and the most complex concepts at times when Conrad was creating his narration. His book is written in a way that makes evil and violence equally acceptable and absurd. The more absurd is the fact that local cannibals continuously restrain themselves from eating white men, which for them would hardly be a difficult task. This fact not only confirms the power of European dominance, but the way in which this dominance disrupts traditional societal structures in Africa and tries to impose the values and opinions, which for those populations are hardly acceptable. That thousands of Africans in Congo are dying in their fight for ivory which Europeans use as the source of never ending financial profits is nothing, compared to the amount of sufferings Europeans have brought along with their steamers, huts, and arms. “They were dying slowly – it was clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, […] they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest” (Conrad 45). This inefficiency, bordering on economic madness and humanitarian hypocrisy creates a realistic picture of Conrad’s days in Africa, where economic benefits are coupled with human diseases and deaths, which also look like the unavoidable by-products of economic activity.
Joseph Conrad has evidently become an essential component of this economic expansion, and his life experience suggests that human deaths and violence cannot serve a reliable basis for positive social growth. These values and attitudes have not lost their relevance until present, and whenever countries come down to use premature instruments of military expansion for the sake of economic benefits, these never lead to anticipated results but on the contrary, heat violent bloody conflicts and cause thousands of innocent deaths. Unfortunately, the form of economic development which Europe chose at the beginning of the 20th century positioned African countries as continuous sources of ivory, with native populations being a mere supplement to tangible economic benefits. For Conrad and his characters, cannibals resemble objects which do not have any human features beyond the inexhaustible power to work. This euphoria of complete power and dominance is something that accompanies Conrad on his way to the end of the story – the euphoria that for some of his characters turns into madness and for some others opens their eyes on the true nature of capitalism. “We will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged for an example, […] why not? Anything – anything can be done in this country. That’s what I say; nobody here, you understand, here, can endanger your position” (Conrad 60). This euphoria was the essential component of the major social and economic restructuring through which Europe was going at the beginning of the 1900s, and the use of numerous economic terms similar to inefficiency or unfair competition by Conrad is not accidental. These terms emphasize the hollowness of economic expansion compared to the human costs it causes. For Conrad, the described journey to Africa is similar to the process of self-discovery, where a person is given a unique chance to look at familiar processes and opinions from a different (more realistic) perspective. Not a single European is aware of the sufferings through which native populations are compelled to go when working for the whites. Not a single European is aware of the “pestiferous absurdity” (Conrad 60) of the evil which European economic development has brought into other continents. Unfortunately, these attitudes and values have not lost their relevance for contemporary readers, and while Conrad’s book could literally produce a social revolution in the hearts and minds of the then economic giants, the modern reader is given a unique chance to reevaluate the current economic values through the prism of the tragic African history.
Unfortunately, we hardly ever realize that those whom we use as the tools of the cheap labor are humans, too. Unfortunately, we cannot grasp the true meaning of our dominance that makes us think of our skin color as the true asset given to us by nature. The imperialistic moods at the beginning of the 20th century have turned into the major sources of misbalanced attitudes toward other nations, and social and economic humiliation became an acceptable form of domination. The realization of the futility of the major economic attempts becomes even more tragic when we think of native populations not as of monsters, but as of humans who also have the right to live. “They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what they thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar” (Conrad 64). Conrad teaches a good lesson: economic benefits cannot grant us the right to impose our economic dominance on those, who cannot resist it. In a present day world, filled with hotspots and conflict areas, the power of economic value becomes even more preposterous. It is very probable that Conrad’s assumptions about the essence of imperialistic expansion will not lose its relevance in the coming decade, and we will have no other choice but to reconcile with the growing unfairness toward those who lack sufficient resources and remain beyond the boundaries of economic prosperity.
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness teaches its readers eternal truth, which has not lost its relevance until today: economic and social humiliation is not the best means to establish power relationships in the world. Those whom we often consider monsters often appear to be humans and have the natural right to live. In the modern world, where countries seek to expand their economic benefits for the sake of humane values, efficiency and unfair competition appear more important than human relationships, morale, and ethics. That is why Joseph Conrad’s book can be fairly regarded as the relevant source of knowledge about the most problematic social spots in the world.
Conrad, J. “Heart of Darkness.” In J. Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Stories,
Wordsworth Editions, 1995, p. 29-106.