The Theme of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness
Of the themes in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, imperialism and colonialism are probably the most important. While Heart of Darkness is actually set on the Thames River, the events Marlow describes are set on the Congo River. "The Congo is the river that brought about the partition of Africa that occurred from 1880 to 1890" (McLynn 13). This event marked the beginning of the colonization of Africa. In 1884, European nations held a conference and decided that every European country should have free access to the interior of Africa. "Thus began the colonization of Africa, without any consideration that the land was already inhabited" (McLynn 18). King Leopold of Belgium already had, from a previous investment, control of a large part of Africa surrounding the Congo. King Leopold had, in 1878, hired Henry Stanley to establish trading stations along the Congo River. It was in this setting that the events Marlow described in Heart of Darkness took place.
To the Europeans, the colonizing meant bringing civilization, religion, and order into a world devoid of these elements. What Marlow saw, however, was the inefficiency and the horror that resulted from the colonization and imperialism. The portrait of Kurtz's Intended represents this ironic situation. The portrait is of "a woman draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch" (Conrad 92). The girl represents the Europeans and the light is the civilization they hope to bring to savage countries but that they themselves are not enlightened by. The abandoned equipment, the "flabby... devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly" (p. 81), the pail with a hole in it used to put out fires, and the abandoned helpers left to die, all show the inefficiency and savagery of colonization and imperialism. Another enduring theme throughout Heart of Darkness is racism. Some critics, such as Chinua Achebe, were alarmed by Conrad's use of the word "nigger" and the use of foreboding images commonly associated with Africa and savagery. The images Achebe found error in included paganism, disease, insanity, cannibalism, polygamy, and excessive sexuality. The charge against Conrad about the use of the word "nigger" is justified by the time Heart of Darkness was written. A quote from The Africa That Never Was by Hammond and Jablow states
No issue was taken with the word or its use at this time, though some in position of administrative responsibility, clearly aware of its pejorative content, eschewed its use. In this connection it is noteworthy that [Sir Harry] Johnston [writing in the 1880's] occasionally lapses into using the word, but discreetly hemmed in quotation marks. Later, when he became Proconsul of British Empire in Africa, he did not use the term at all. (qtd. in Bradley)
Thus it is quite certain that by 1899 Conrad knew the implication of the word when he used it. It is likely that Conrad also used the images that Achebe found so...