Heart of Darkness – A portrait of decay and oppression

Un mio brevissimo saggio su “Cuore di tenebra”  di Joseph Conrad, studiato durante un corso di Culture dei paesi di lingua inglese:

During this class we’ve had the opportunity to focus on the psychological and literary features of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

From my point view, instead, there are several sections in the book where “class” (some would say “Marxist”) elements emerge, and are to be carried out in evidence.

One feature is the way Conrad represents the natives as constituting the oppressed class who are at the mercy of the property-owners class represented by Director of Companies, Kurtz and his cohorts.

Since the very beginning of the narration, we have several examples, just like in the description of the Director of Companies, introduced as the owner of the yacht – a pleasure merchant ship (p.5).

Others are mere seamen and workers. Even Marlow has to go through a particular ritual in order to be employed (p.15). The director is in affluence. He is in control of “so many millions.

There is no even distribution of wealth in the society of Heart of Darkness. Other whites are also poor. Class disparity in the Congolese society could be said to have its roots in Europe.

It was poverty that drove the imperialists to Africa in the first place.

Vivid evidence is the fact that Kurtz could not afford to marry beyond his class, so he left for Congo to trade in ivory so that he could get enough money to marry his intended wife. Though there is no demonstration of class-consciousness in the novella, nonetheless we see the lack of any sort of “civilizing” education in the natives mirrored in the hypocrisy of the “pilgrims” of the western civilization.

Even Conrad himself, through his narrator, believes that the white may not be better than the natives in some respect. He subtly portrays this in the statement of Marlow who metaphorically refers to the white imperialists to as “whited sepulcher.” They bring decay, violence, injustice: the core of western modern civilization, of capitalism.

Through his speaker, Conrad condemns the actions of those who capitalize on the weakness of the natives:

“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”(p.10)


The work has also a lot to say about oppression, not only in Congo but also in the whole of African continent. Oppression exists in the work at two levels. There is general oppression at one level and specific oppression at another level. It is an act of oppression for the Director to send the workers to get ivory for him.

From the general point of view, Kurtz is an embodiment of all the evils created by free enterprise in a capitalist system. His inordinate passion for ivory in the Congo can attest to this. Everything seems to belong to him: “You should have heard him say, ‘My ivory.’ Oh, yes, I heard him. ‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my-‘ everything belonged to him.” (p.70)

This characterization of oppressiveness should not shock anyone, it’s just a matter of seeing it for what it really is: a product of European capitalist system.  There are other physical examples of oppression and victimization in the novella. A case study is the pathetic story told by the chief speaker about a native who was beaten up by one of the white imperialists, Fresleven:

Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people watched him, thunderstruck, till some man—I was told the chief’s son-in desperation at hearing the old chap yell, made a tentative jab with a spear at the white man.” (p.13)

Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”, an English edition of which I had the opportunity to find when I was living in Beer Sheeva, Israel – curiously enough, a centre of modern colonialism – is a book which came more than once to my mind while reading Conrad’s H.o.D., in particular some of its quotations on colonialism and imperialism from a neo-Marxist point of view:

“The basic confrontation which seemed to be colonialism versus anti-colonialism, indeed capitalism versus socialism, is already losing its importance. What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”

This next quotation is particularly useful to underline that some of the disasters colonists brought to Africa, during the XX century begun to be understood:

“It is a question of the Third World starting a new history of Man, a history which will have regard to the sometimes prodigious theses which Europe has put forward, but which will also not forget Europe’s crimes, of which the most horrible was committed in the heart of man, and consisted of the pathological tearing apart of his functions and the crumbling away of his unity. And in the framework of the collectivity there were the differentiations, the stratification and the bloodthirsty tensions fed by classes; and finally, on the immense scale of humanity, there were racial hatreds, slavery, exploitation and above all the bloodless genocide which consisted in the setting aside of fifteen thousand millions of men. So, comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her.”

Europeans had very little to teach to other peoples. This Conrad needed to say, even if not politicized, even if isolated and uninvolved, and he said it quite plainly too.

Andrea Lisi

April 19th 2012


This book is awesome, don’t miss it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s