Heart of Darkness: an imperialist perspective

As expressed by Said, the way in which the “colonized” force obtains its identity is through a power-struggle with the “colonizing force. Illustrated in the following quotation, “What interests me in the politics of identity that informed imperialism in its global phase is that just as natives were considered to belong to a different category – racist or geographical -from that of the Western white man, it also became true that in the great anti-imperialist revolt represented by decolonization this same category was mobilized around, and formed the resisting identity of, the revolutionaries” (Said, p.192).

Informed in this idea is the notion that in order for these two ideas to coexist, they are mutually dependent on each other for the preservation of separate and distinct cultural institutions. Therefore, the revolutionary forces gained their identity only through uprisings with the dominant cultural force that threatened to engulf them. While this is an interesting theory posed by Said, it fails to expand on the concept of where the dominant cultural force receives its own identity.

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Since the minority cultures were forced into forming distinct national and cultural traditions in resistance to the “colonizing” force of imperialism, what invisible hand molded the “colonizing” force? One could assert that the colonizing force was formerly a colonized force that has asserted itself as the dominant culture. Joseph Conrad sets forth this argument by using the literary device of motifs, particularly by contrasting through the mediums of light and darkness. The contrast between light and darkness motifs emphasizes the oppositions between civilization and imperialism.

Conrad uses natural images such as a river to symbolically represent the spread of imperialism as a destructive force within the text. In describing his journey into the center of the Congo, the audience is able to get a very clear picture through Marlow’s attention to scenic details. Marlow states, “… my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion”(Conrad, p.28).

Therefore, the river image no longer symbolizes the spread of light produced by a benevolent empire across the globe. The empire becomes a fiction, or false reality, when contrasted with the river image. The true reality of the matter is that Marlow sees nothing but pretense around him while desperately clinging to the facts, or true reality, he has been accustomed to in the outside world. What the imperialist perspective produced by Western culture has instilled in Marlow is that the jungle is the source of primal barbarity and the unknown.

All who are native dwellers of a land such as this are supposed to act according to the savage identity they are given. However, once Marlow witnesses the true reality that exists while in the African Congo, his eyes are opened and he is forced to revise his presuppositions and prejudices. Expounded in the following excerpt, “Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening…

They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration… they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality… For a time I would feel like I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts”(Conrad, p. 28). Marlow’s ideas evolve once he realizes that he has been living a lie; the true reality he has existed within has become the false reality. The idea that the colonizing forces of civilization give the colonized culture its identity through a power struggle is limiting in two ways.

First, it is incredibly naive to believe that before a struggle between two opposing civilizations took place, the less dominant culture lacked any distinct traditions, customs, and beliefs. As observed by Marlow in “Heart of Darkness”, this presupposition is a false reality because the natives of the African Congo displayed far more humane qualities and distinct traditions than their oppressors. The second concept here is that once members of the dominant Western culture were extracted from their comfort zone of prejudices and falsities, they began to display qualities the savages were to possess.

This paradox of true versus false reality pervades throughout much of “Heart of Darkness”, where the light of imperialism is overshadowed by the darkness of the greedy actions of the explorers who enter the Congo. Therefore, the notion that all homogeneous races and identities arise from the dominance imposed by imperialism begins to break down. The fact that a person’s characteristics are static and unchanging is proven false by the fact that the African Congo changed everyone who dared to enter.

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