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Historical Context in Heart of Darkness

European Colonialism: The historical context of Heart of Darkness is firmly rooted in imperialism and European conquests across the globe. Though almost purely an economic operation, European colonialism was often justified through a "civilizing" myth. Colonizers claimed that they sought to "civilize" native populations of foreign countries by spreading Christian doctrine and European lifestyle. This reasoning is also built upon the notion that white Europe represented the epitome of civilization, whereas indigenous populations were primitive and ignorant. In many cases, this so-called benevolent colonialism merely served as a thinly veiled justification for the exploitation of foreign resources.

The Belgian Congo colony, where Heart of Darkness is set, was one of the most brutal and exploitative colonial regimes in history. While the original intention of the 1899 text was to reveal and condemn the misconduct of Europe’s colonial project, modern readers will notice that the novel does not escape the racist ideology of its time period. Kurtz and Marlow promote the idea that white men are “civilized” and native populations are “savages.”

Historical Context Examples in Heart of Darkness:

Chapter 1

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"and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .”..."   (Chapter 1)

European colonialism was often justified as an effort to save (enlighten, improve, etc.) native people in other lands—people who were considered backwards, ignorant, and uncivilized. Marlow is only comfortable with colonialism (taking the earth "away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves") insofar as it serves the better interest of the people being colonized.

"‘He is a very remarkable person.’..."   (Chapter 1)

Kurtz troubles the philosophy of nineteenth-century British colonialism. Great Britain, among other European nations, justified its invasion of third-world countries as an act of goodwill: the white man considered himself to be the epitome of civilization, so it was his moral duty to "save" uncivilized native people from the darkness of ignorance. Kurtz, however, is in the Congo for financial reasons—saving the native people is only a secondary priority. Kurtz's character invites us to locate the hypocrisy in so-called benevolent colonialism and expose its foundation of greed.

"Had to start without me...."   (Chapter 1)

Notice how this short and clipped sentence is actually a sentence fragment. Conrad mimics natural human speech, as verbal communication is often less formal than written communication. Heart of Darkness is regarded as a precursor to literary modernism, a movement known for its similar stylistic features that represent reality differently than in past literary traditions. Conrad continues this naturalistic style of writing through the paragraph.

"particularized impression..."   (Chapter 1)

Impressionism was a late-19th-century art movement whose style was intended to represent an “impression” of a scene, rather than a highly detailed depiction of it. Impressionism greatly influenced Modernist writing styles, as it marked a shift away from realism. It also entertained the idea of ambiguity, a major theme in Heart of Darkness. Marlow can only get an “impression” of the Congo, suggesting that the ethics of European dealings there were ambiguous.

"set the women to work..."   (Chapter 1)

Many 20th and 21st century feminist scholars have called Heart of Darkness sexist for its dearth of female characters, and the few women who do feature in the novella are portrayed negatively. In this passage, Marlow describes how his aunt helped with finding a job. He scoffs at the notion of asking for a woman’s help, and his tone is nearly that of embarrassment.

"a kind of light..."   (Chapter 1)

While Heart of Darkness predates Modernism, Conrad’s literary style influenced many Modernist writers. This paragraph marks the beginning of Marlow’s backstory, and the narrator quotes his entire monologue. This produces a stream-of-consciousness effect, as if the reader has direct access to Marlow’s mind. It is enhanced by the repetition of the phrase “a kind of light.” It suggests this story hasn’t been perfectly formed, but rather that the narrative is moving at the same pace as Marlow’s memory. This style can be seen in Modern novels such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

"What redeems it is the idea only..."   (Chapter 1)

Marlow claims imperialism is good but only in theory. This sentiment is echoed as a theme throughout the text, leading some scholars (most notably, Chinua Achebe) to criticize Heart of Darkness on account of its racism and xenophobia towards African people. It’s important to take a text’s historical context into consideration when reading, but it can’t be denied that the image of Africans in the novella is rather derogatory and potentially reflects the author’s own views.

"THE NELLIE, A CRUISING YAWL..."   (Chapter 1)

A “yawl” is the small sailboat often rigged to a ship. Conrad spent nineteen years as a merchant marine and many of his stories and characters were influenced by his experiences. Heart of Darkness was particularly influenced by his three-year stint on the Congo River.

"The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell?..."   (Chapter 2)

As the boat moves deeper into the "heart of darkness," it is as though Marlow and his companions are moving back in time—back to when humankind was at its most primitive. European colonialists often associated native people with primitive human history as a justification for colonizing their lands—and, of course, enslaving them. Conrad clearly invites us to question this justification.

"they were not inhuman..."   (Chapter 2)

Marlow recognizes a basic kinship with the Congolese that terrifies him because if he can recognize the humanity they share, it will be more difficult for him to treat them poorly. The Three-Fifths Compromise regarding slaves in the United States is an example of how denying another’s humanity has been used as an effective mode of oppression and exploitation.

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