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Enter the Darkness

The 19th century was an age of conquest, of development, of expansion, of imperialism, and of colonialism. European countries colonized more than half of Asia, and almost the entire African continent. Just like Great Britain had power over the Indian Subcontinent, and the Dutch had control over South Africa, Belgium, and it’s king, Leopold II, established and reigned over the Congo Free State[1]. The goal for the creation of the Congo Free State was to utilize the locals to extract natural resources.

In 1890, Joseph Conrad was appointed by the Belgian Trading Company[2] to serve on one of their steamers on an expedition sailing up the Congo River to retrieve lost resources. During the expedition, the Captain of the steamer fell ill, and Conrad had to assume Captaincy. Based on this expedition, Conrad wrote one of the most anti-imperialism novellas of all time known as The Heart of Darkness[3] (1902).

The Heart of Darkness is, firstly, an exploration of the hypocrisy of imperialism. Marlow, the protagonist, who is heavily based on Conrad himself, sails up the Congo River to make sure that one of their bases for ivory accumulation has not come into any predicament, and to make sure that the person in-charge of that base, Kurtz, is well. On his journey up river, he witnesses various instances of torture, and even murder of the local people by the colonizers. When he reaches the base, he realizes that by colonizing these vast lands, they weren’t making the lives of the locals better in any ways. Rather, Marlow sees them in terrible conditions; being enslaved, tortured, and murdered. In a part of the book, Marlow notices a number of human heads impaled and arranged along the shores of the river. He asks who they were. He is told that they were “rebels.” They were people who wanted their lives back.

Second, The Heart of Darkness is a thoughtful study of the nature of evil. Conrad shows that evil, which is supposed to universal, is actually relative. While reading the book, I felt repulsed by some of the atrocities committed against the locals of Congo. I felt enraged at the colonizers, and especially at Kurtz, who was seemingly so mad that he just did not care for human lives. However, that was before Kurtz’s part actually started in the book. After getting to know Kurtz more, I couldn’t help but sympathize, or should I say, understand him. Kurtz intended to “civilize the savages” and “kill all the brutes.” For the locals, Kurtz personified evil; but for Kurtz, the ways of life of the locals was what evil entailed.

There are, of course, many other themes, motifs, and symbols hidden in the novella, and every one of them are just as spine tingling as the above two. The first time I read the book, I remember I couldn’t sleep the night I finished it. The book conjured up too many thoughts I did not want to have, but also enjoyed gleefully. It is not a book you will read just once. The Heart of Darkness has inspired two Hollywood movies. One, of the same name as the book, Heart of Darkness by Director Nicolas Roeg, and another by Director Francis Ford Coppola, called Apocalypse Now. Both the movies share the same themes, as the book. Although, Apocalypse Now is inspired by the Vietnam War, rather the Congo Free State.

A link to the book for your enjoyment:

-Jigme Choerab






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