Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness is a story filled with overwhelming condemnation of imperialism. This dark allegory describes the journey of the narrator, Marlow, into the dark interior of the African continent and his fascination with the mysterious Mr. Kurtz who dominates the inhabitants of the region. The power Mr. Kurtz holds over the natives enables him the ability to be the best and most economically savvy in the ivory trade. As Marlow moves through the story he becomes aware that the darkness surrounding him is not caused be the native culture or the natives themselves. The darkness lies in the greed-filled heart of the white men that use the guise of a helping hand to capture the life and wealth of the undiscovered continent.
Marlow describes Africa as being a great "blank space," "a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over"(Conrad 5). When Marlow was a child, he thought of Africa as a mystical place to be explored and discovered. By the time he was able to travel there though "it had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery" (Conrad 5). The rise of imperialism in Africa had changed its meaning to him.
Europe has used the same reason for their imperialism and forced colonization of the "uncivilized" world for years; they claimed they were bringing civilization to savage lands. In the opening pages of the novel, Conrad includes powerful description of imperialism: ""The conquest of the earth...is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea..."(Conrad 4) The real reason that Europe was so aggressive with their imperialism was the economic rape of nations that were unaware of their value and ripe with resources. In Heart of Darkness the nation is Africa, and the resource is ivory.
Marlow travels to Africa in a boyish daze longing to travel the river that "fascinated [him] like a snake would a bird- a silly little bird" (Conrad 6). When he arrives, Marlow is submerged in the ivory "trade" that was taking place. While at the station base, Marlow meets the accountant, bookkeeper, for the trading post. The incorporation of an unimportant member of the company is telling. The accountant doesn't do much for the story except for introduce Mr. Kurtz. Any character could have done this, but Conrad included the accountant to show how much importance was placed on the profit margin. The accountant is there to ensure the economic value of the project at all times. It is strange that one leg imperialism tries to stand on is bringing Christianity to the savages, yet there is no mention of a preacher or priest of any kind throughout the novel. There is the accountant though which is what really matters. Marlow spends a lot of time with the accountant learning about Mr. Kurtz, a "first-class agent" that "sends in as much ivory as all the others put together" (Conrad 16). Kurtz is idolized for his economic value. The man is nothing more than a man, but because he is able to bring in profit, Kurtz is considered to be above most men, even the white ones.
Also at the base station, Marlow is forced to face the realities of how the natives are being treated. He describes how he could "see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope" (Conrad 13). Marlow tries to move away from this image by going somewhere else, but then he encounters more of the natives "clinging to the earth...in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair" (Conrad 14). He acknowledges the fact that this is happening to the natives because they have been brought from the coast, lost in surroundings, and fed unfamiliar food. These factors all contributed to Marlow believing "they wee dying slowly" (Conrad 14). Marlow also acknowledges that "they were not criminals" and "they were not enemies" and yet this is happening to them (Conrad 14). The second leg imperialism tries to stand on is bringing civilization to the savages. The European treatment of the Africans is the opposite. The Europeans use them to get their ivory until "they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away" (Conrad 14). The only goal being maintained by imperialism is the one of reaping in the profit while destroying a nation.
Marlow sees that this is wrong. He rejects this idea of using the natives, but he still longs to meet the fascinating Mr. Kurtz. Marlow begins to travel deep into the African wilderness to try and figure the mystery of Mr. Kurtz out. When he and the company arrive at Kurtz's station, they find that he has gone "native." The men of the company believe him to be mad now, but in reality Kurtz is only doing what he must to get more ivory and more profit. Marlow believed that his "soul was mad" (Conrad 61). Kurtz had given himself up to the ivory trade. The Russian that was infatuated with Kurtz claims that "He hated all this, and somehow he couldn't get away" (Conrad 52). Kurtz was consumed with the darkness that had enveloped him, the greed that claimed his heart. In the end, Kurtz gives his life for his work.
This story is filled with all the opposite of what imperialism claims to be. There is no Christianity. There are no helping hands being given to the natives. The Europeans come in and take what they want. Their only mission is to bring profit into their own nations and leave the African continent bare of its plentiful resources.