Critiquing Imperialism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'"

Categories: Novel


In Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness," the author endeavors to uncover the hypocrisy inherent in imperialism. The exploration unfolds as European explorers, ostensibly emphasizing the importance of helping natives, are simultaneously engaged in their active exploitation. Conrad, using the protagonist Marlow, offers a firsthand account of the horrors inflicted upon African natives during his journey to the Congo. This essay delves into Conrad's critique of imperialism, shedding light on its oppressive nature and exposing the social Darwinist thought prevalent in the late 19th century.

Imperialism and its Hypocrisy

Conrad denounces the oppressive nature of imperialism, portraying it as a hypocritical tool used purely for the benefit of European powers. The late 19th century witnessed the initiation of "the scramble for Africa," wherein major powers fought for control, disregarding the Africans in the process. The Europeans justified their actions with the notion of "the white man's burden," claiming a duty to civilize and help the inhabitants of Africa. However, the hypocrisy lies in the fact that their purported help and civilization actively destroyed native cultures and enslaved the people, as depicted by Conrad in his novel.

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Denouncement of Oppression

Conrad critiques the social Darwinist thought associated with imperialism, highlighting its immorality and cruelty. The author's denouncement is evident in the dehumanization of Africans, expressed through the weariness of rags symbolizing desolation. The inhumane treatment becomes a poignant commentary on the destructive consequences of imperialism. Conrad effectively uses Marlow as a lens to showcase the evil side of humanity, emphasizing its materialistic pursuits and the toll it takes on the oppressed.

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Racism and Dehumanization

Racism is a pervasive theme in "Heart of Darkness," manifested through the dehumanization of the African natives. Conrad vividly portrays the Europeans' cruel treatment, including the use of collars that equate the Africans to dogs. Marlow himself refers to his helmsman as a mere piece of machinery, emphasizing the dehumanizing impact of imperialism. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe further criticized Conrad's novella for denying Africans language and culture, reducing them to metaphorical extensions of the dark and dangerous jungle into which the Europeans venture.

Exploitation for Personal Gain

Conrad unveils the true intentions of European colonists, who sought nothing but wealth and treasures, even if it meant complete exploitation of fellow human beings. The metaphor comparing colonists to burglars serves to underscore their lack of morals, as they pursued personal gain at the expense of the African natives. This stark hypocrisy becomes evident when contrasted with the Europeans' self-belief of helping and civilizing the African people.

Symbolism through Mr. Kurtz

Mr. Kurtz emerges as a symbolic representation of Conrad's stance on imperialism. Kurtz's assertion that everything is his own reflects the imperialists' audacious claim of Africa as theirs, justifying the exploitation of the natives as slaves. Conrad employs the dehumanization of Kurtz to exemplify the consequences of unchecked greed and the inevitable loss of morality in the pursuit of materialistic desires. Kurtz's bald head, resembling an ivory ball, serves as a metaphor for the singular focus on ivory and the moral decay it entails.


In conclusion, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" stands as a powerful critique of imperialism, exposing its hypocrisy and the destructive consequences it inflicts on both the oppressors and the oppressed. Through vivid portrayals of racism, dehumanization, and the insatiable pursuit of wealth, Conrad unveils the true nature of European imperialism. The characters and themes in the novella serve as poignant reminders of the moral toll exacted by unchecked greed and the need to confront the inherent hypocrisy of imperialistic endeavors.

Updated: Dec 29, 2023
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Critiquing Imperialism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'". (2017, Jan 04). Retrieved from

Critiquing Imperialism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" essay
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