Heart of Darkness


The modernist movement of the early 20th century significantly altered the way literature and art was perceived in human society. Most themes illustrated in modernism are diverse, difficult and disturbing to understand.

Heart of Darkness is one of the literary works embracing modernism. Conrad’s work in Heart of Darkness bridges the gap between the Victorian values and the ideals of modernism. Cobley illustrates that like most of the Victorian predecessors, Heart of Darkness anchors itself on the traditional principles of heroism (16). However, the principle of heroism is attacked in the evolving world and in spheres away from England. Over the ages, women and historical issues have dominated Conrad’s expose in Heart of Darkness. For instance, women are seen to hold conventional roles as arbiters of domesticity and morality. Hence, Heart of Darkness has represented them in this unique perspective. These include being influential, hardworking and having a different perception among men.

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Perhaps, this uniqueness shaped the way they contributed to the society during their time, and their evolving roles in modern society. While Conrad’s insinuates the characters’ experiences for example, violence, illness and conspiracy, he does also embody an idealistic disposition of this issues present in modern society. During the 18th century and upwards, African exploration was popular among the Europeans. Though exploration was an opportunity of discovering new lands, it is evident that the urge to explore Africa was compelled by reasons other than the spirit of adventure (Davis et al, 432). We can, therefore, deduce that women had a great impact in society, whereas the exploration of Europeans led to the establishment of imperialism in places where they explored.


Over the ages, change in the roles of women has been observed across the world. Rather than being home keepers, women have increasingly taken different roles. These roles have been changing.

Though the traditional roles have been reflected in modern society, they continue to assert more influence and new responsibilities overtime (Davis et al 39). Women in different cultures had different roles compared to men; for example, white women were still strategists and powerful because of their shrewd network and influence in the male dominated business. The African woman was viewed as a good homemaker and was elegant. Heart of Darkness perhaps utilizes the importance of women and the role they played in the modernism period. Heart of Darkness illustrates the changing role of women in different perspectives. Traditionally, men were regarded as the breadwinners of the family (Cobley 136).

The society demanded them to work hard in all their endeavors to sustain this goal. However, due to modernity, we see the trend shifting. Women have assumed the traditional role of men in the society of being the breadwinners of the family.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad portrays women knitting black wool to earn an income. This illustration indicates the determination of women in the society in assuming new roles or challenges (Damrosch and Dettmar 44). Beauty was a common attribute which was connected to every woman in the society.

Perhaps, this was a requirement that every woman ought to have to attain a man’s attention. Marlow argues the unique beauty of the native woman. Cobley contends that she is “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent and tempting” (293). Marlow has been used by Conrad to explain how men view women in society. Marlow represents many other men who were of the opinion that women live in the realm of their own world, governed by rules. Marlow connects this perception to the two women he meets in the company’s office knitting black wool. Perhaps symbolizes the fate that safeguards the “door of darkness” (Conrad 15). Women had different perceptions in the eyes of men during the imperialistic periods.

For a white, she was viewed as a mistress, wealthy and naive. In Heart of Darkness, the naive women were mirrored in Kurtz’s Mistress; the mistress was represented by the native African woman, whereas Marlow’s aunt personified the wealthy widow (Cobley 196). The women’s perceptions reflected on how they were treated by the society and the imperialistic administrators. For example, Conrad notes that society and imperialists treated a white woman with dignity because of her status and influence in the society (85).

The native African was seen has a mistress and was treated with statues fitting the title (Damrosch and Dettmar 200). Moreover, the characteristics of women during the Victorian and postcolonial periods were distinct (Cobley 182). The women had two sets of characteristics: seemingly, the accepted Victorian values and the postcolonial values.

The Victorian reading would show the Intended as compassionate, beautiful and saintly, rightly in mourning, even a year after Kurtz’s death. Her innocence would suggest her purity. The Intended would have symbolized civilization. The mistress would show us determined, savage, care of her loved one leaving.

The African woman would have symbolized the savage unknown that was Africa. According to Cobley (204) the postcolonial reading would show the Intended as foolish, mourning a man she barely knew. Her innocence would suggest her naivety; her faith based on a lie. The mistress would appear as erotic, living on in independence without Kurtz. The African woman here would have symbolized Africa not in need of Britain’s ‘salvation, contrary to the British belief, based on a lie, propaganda symbolized by the Intended’s faith (Damrosch and Dettmar 64). Another issue that comes out in Conrad’s work is imperialism came about with the advent of colonialism, a major movement which was taking place during the 18th century across the world (Davis et al 67).

This movement did not only occur in Africa, but also in other continents such as Asia and Latin America. The motivation of most European powers to colonize was the urge to gain more wealth and make their countries back at home stable economically. Conrad supports this assertion has he illustrates the colonialists were hunters of gold and pursers of fame” (6). This illustrates that the colonial masters pioneered new lands to find more money and fortune overseas. The movement led to the development of imperialist powers in places where colonialism happened. The novel explores Congo as the epicenter of colonial influence and imperialism. Conrad uses the colonialism and personifies the British imperialism through Marlow, who recognizes the huge amount of red on the Company’s map, symbolizing the British protectorate. Marlow is happy that colonialism work has been achieved.

In this case, he means the colonist has succeeded in influencing the culture, commerce, salvation and religion aspects of Congo society. Conrad illustrates some of these realities by saying “I am not disclosing any trade secrets” (118). This suggests one of the motivations of imperialist for colonists overseas was trade. The reality of colonialism is symbolized through the District Manager who takes the position of an imperialist and the colony as a whole (Conrad 118).

In the 1890’s, Conrad notes that most of the world’s “Dark Places” were being occupied by European powers (6). The Europeans were stretched, trying to find alternatives to govern and protect the new massive and far-flung empires. In this case, Conrad refers to dark places as African continent. He asserts that, it was not smooth sailing for the European imperialists because their expansion mission drew cracks or divisions. These cracks caused anxiety to white men living in distant lands of the won empires. Conrad notes this is natural. He argues that when men are granted permission to work outside a social establishment of checks, balances and power; and specifically power over other fellow beings, they become inevitably corrupt (Conrad 20).

As evidenced from history, the Europeans use all the means they had to ensure they secured a colony in Africa. This meant that they could use force and wars to entice African chiefs among other tactics. Marlow contends that “… they were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force…. Is just an accident arising from weakness of others” (Conrad 9).

He continues and says “it was just a robbery with violence” (9). This remark indicates the nature of colonialism. Rather than stealing they added a fight on top of it. Racism is a contemporary issue which has attracted global attention.

Hence, the colonialism did not divorce it from their colonization process. They capitalized on the issue because they viewed themselves as superior to other races. Marlow says that “… the conquest of the earth meant taking away from those people who had different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves” (Conrad 9). Marlow is referring to the Europeans annexing the land belonging to the black people because they were of a different color. Hence, Marlow is embracing racism. Marlow, in most occasions uses racial remarks and the language which dehumanize the blacks. For example, he says “… a horn tooted to the right… I saw the black people run” (Conrad 22). This suggests the blacks were being utilized as slaves.

The horn was calling for them to react to it. Overall, Kurtz symbolizes Europeans’ state when they began to realize their harm to Africa (Davis et al 112). Kurtz’s relationship with the mistress reflects the passion for Africa by whites, which is only temporary. His terminal illness is a representation of the eventual death of imperialism as they cannot adapt or respect the existing African culture (Conrad 90). In the end, Marlow tells Kurtz Intended that his last words were her name.

This is symbolic of the imperialist noble act to explore and try to do good in her honor and to African continent respectively. Heart of Darkness illustrates the industriousness of women through finding a source of livelihood to support them. They are also seen as apt strategists. Women also have been labeled as beautiful in the novel; perhaps, this is why men have a natural urge towards them. Imperialism was a major factor contributing to European expansion interests in Africa.

As Heart of Darkness notes, European powers were much interested in accumulating more wealth for their countries back at home. Rather than embracing a justice system, the imperialist created more problems in the society (Damrosch and Dettmar 93). As discussed in the paper, blacks were dehumanized, race factor was common and use of force to rule and acquire wealth was a common phenomenon. We can learn that the novel helps to bring out the ideals of colonialism and independence and the changing roles of women in society.

Thus, Heart of Darkness can be viewed as a modernist work of literature.

Works Cited

Cobley, Evelyn. Modernism and the Culture of Efficiency: Ideology and Fiction,Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Print. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Oxford: Bibliolis Books, 2010.

Print. Damrosch, David and Dettmar Kevin J H. Longman Anthology of British Literature, London: Longman, 2009. Print Davis, Paul, Harrison Gary, Johnson M David and Crawford F John. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Modern World, 1650-The Present. Boston/NY: Bedford/St.

Martin’s, 2009. Print.


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