Grade Course Essay Example

  • Category:
  • Document type:
  • Level:
  • Page:
  • Words:


Heart of Darkness

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novel that generally links the role of culture in shaping the way human beings think, their social structure, politics and even morality. The novel shows an adventure which begins from Thames; way into Africa for what might be called a journey of exploration. Heart of Darkness centres on a frame narrative concerning a young man, Charles Marlow, whose spirit of adventure drives him to West Africa in Congo. He lands a job as an ivory transporter along the Congo River. The description of the river bears a semblance of a snake which covers a greater part of the map of Africa. Conrad describes it as a mighty river which one could vividly see on the map with its head pointing towards the sea, the body dangling and curving far afield on a vast country while its tail sinks on the depths of the land.

During the time he works as a commercial agent in Congo, Marlow, the seaman comes into contact with Kurtz who is an ivory procurement agent (Farn, 2004). Mr. Kurtz, as Marlow later comes to realize through their interaction thereafter, is a man popular among the natives and even the European colonists holds him in high esteem. It seems throughout the story that Kurtz has worked extremely hard to earn a reputation and unlike other European colonialists, he has struggled so hard to build a rapport with the Africans he came into contact with.

The title, Heart of Darkness, is metaphorical in nature and explores some of the traumatizing events faced by characters like Marlow as they traversed along the Dark Continent of Africa and by characters most of whom have been given group names like the pilgrims, the manager and the lawyer (Conrad, 1990). The story represents thematic connotation of savagery and its affiliation to civilization. Throughout the novel, a sense of emotional scale is intensified by the kind of agony characters generally face and the imperialistic greed and selfishness clearly depicted. The escalating agony is also shown by some of the metaphorical terms and phrases such as mournful gloom, green grass, darkness and Gravesend as used in the text.

However, Marlow’s journey into Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is purely in search of truth and not an illusion. There is a depiction of how the imperialists viewed Africa. Even despite being the cradle of mankind, the imperialists’ perception about Africans has never changed according to Conrad. Conrad’s work serves to criticize not necessarily imperialism but also the effects of the new religion brought by the colonialists.

This is seen through the actions of some characters like Kurtz. African religion dates back to prehistory. Africans had their unique way of worship based on their beliefs and traditional practices. Much later during the colonial and even the post colonial period, the beliefs and perceptions about the supernatural being Africans worshiped was viewed by the colonialists as barbaric and backward. Many scholars, philologers and philosophers have tried to analyze religion based on the sole purpose to humanity. A good example is one of the greatest philologers and philosophers of his time, Nietzsche (Hochschild, 1999).

Nietzsche believes in the significance of religion but again criticizes religion based on what he argues is the hypocrisy that has ruined the meaning of spirituality especially with the Christians. Religion has been founded out of the confusion that has arisen due to conflict between modernity, morality and social order. This social order is reflected by the way Colonialists viewed civilization. In the novel, Conrad best describes how religion sometimes acts as a unifying factor in the society and sometimes can be the basis of alienation.

It can be vividly observed that Conrad is a strong critic of religion even from the traits he gives to the characters. For instance, the pilgrims and the natives are in some way affiliated to certain faith. However, the pilgrims are as immoral as the natives even though they view their religion to be more superior to African religion. One outstanding character is Kurtz who tries to provide a balance between Christianity and the African religion. Conrad describes him to be highly enthusiastic about Christianity as with African religion but he is not an extremist. Marlow is one character who is attracted to Kurtz and strongly admires his personality and the fact that Kurtz is not quick to judge religion based on whether it is African in nature or whether it is the new Christian faith.

Nietzsche’s genealogical perception about the effects of modern moral systems in his book The birth of Tragedy can be said to occupy a central place in the novel, Heart of Darkness (Cochran and Harpending, 2009). Just like Nietzsche, Conrad also views what goes on in the minds of his characters in terms of their self belief in the bad and good moral systems and the relevance of that paradigm shift from bad and good morals to evil and good morals. In this context therefore, Marlow is able to observe the kind of suffering the Africans are subjected to. There is a lot of hunger and frustrations over what they are subjected to by their colonial masters. He even comes to realize that Africans who cannot bear the burden imposed on them by the colonial masters end up committing suicide.

The good and bad values are generally aristocratic values and the castes of the early civilization. In some way, it is strongly linked to Homeric Greece where being good was associated with a state of being in a position to possess wealth, health and even power. On the other hand, being bad was akin to being a slave. Historically, the aristocrats ruled over slaves who were somehow weak and poor, and were pitiful objects who were very disgusting. These conditions made the ruling class to not necessarily hate them but to have a sense of pity on them. Nietzsche views the condition of slave morality as a state of being pessimistic and likens it to the traditions of the Jewish and Christians (Witt, 2001). He also sees ‘good’ as that condition where one possesses virtues such as piety, meekness, charity and even a state of being submissive. On the other hand, he sees evil as a state of worldliness, selfishness, desire to possess much wealth and even aggression.

This can be linked to Marlow’s experience with the reality he encounters in his adventure to African continent. He experiences a sense of culture conflict and power struggle that takes place between the whites in Congo and the natives. Parallel to the popular belief that African culture is associated with much evil, Marlow later recalls his experiences with much regrets and has a different opinion over the imperialists; and that it is the imperialists in actual sense who are evil. The appearance of the white man, for instance, heralds a sense of new order. They use force and firearms in order to gain power and authority over Africans who in turn have to remain submissive because they are weak.

Ivory in the Heart of Darkness is used as a symbolism of wealth and it is mostly the reason why there is need for power struggle between Africans and the white men. The demand for ivory is the reason behind the white men’s presence in Congo. They have a purpose to harvest as much ivory as possible in order to become rich. The manner in which Conrad portrays Kurtz’s mistress is unique and worth noting. She is a beautiful woman clad in all manner of jewellery and her first site depicts a charming but ferocious woman all together. She is probably the only character who has a strong affinity for jewellery unlike the rest of the characters, this is absurd and in some way has a close Marxist disassociation from what they consider to be good and yearn to harvest (Murfin, 1989).

Nietzsche’s theory of culture therefore serves best to explain culture conflict that happens in the contemporary society. One of the influential personalities who developed conflicting theories of culture, Karl Marx, believes that the economically dominant classes of people or groups often come up with some unique forms of culture which serves their interests best. This form of conflict always leads to aggression as seen in the novel between the imperialists and the Africans where culture imposition is the order of the day (Porter, 2000).

Marlow’s discovery that real darkness did not really exist in Africa but rather in Europe is not fictitious. This is evident in the manner in which the whites practiced economic exploitation in Africa and the manner in which the authority uses people like Kurtz to get ivory only as long as they are efficient and dumps them at their deathbed. However, in his illusion, he considers Europe to be light because of his perception of civilization and the cannibalistic practices of Africans. This is paradoxical of what he later discovers; that European invaders of Africa are morally dark.


Cochran, G., and Harpending, H., 2009. The 10,000 year explosion: How civilization accelerated human evolution. New York: Basic Books.

Conrad, J.,1990. Heart of Darkness Unabridged. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-486-26464

Farn, R., 2004. Colonial and Postcolonial Rewritings of «Heart of Darkness» – A Century of Dialogue with Joseph Conrad

Hochschild, A., 1999. «Chapter 9: Meeting Mr. Kurtz». King Leopold’s Ghost. Mariner Books. pp. 140–149

Murfin, R. C. (ed.), 1989. Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness. A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-00761-2.

Porter, J. I., 2000. The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on The Birth of Tragedy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Witt, M. F., 2001. The search for modern tragedy: aesthetic fascism in Ital Benson, Bruce Ellis (2007). Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith. Indiana University Press. p. 296. y and France. Cornell University Press. pp. 139–41.