Discussion of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at a Social Level





Discussion of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at a Social Level


Heart of Darkness is a book written by Joseph Conrad in 1899 that follows the exploits of Charles Marlow, an ivory transporter, as he travels through Central Africa in the River Congo. During his travels, Marlow becomes fixated on Mr. Kurtz a station chief that he is supposed to meet with in his journey down the river. During this journey, Marlow witnesses a dearth of inhumane acts and aggressions committed by the imperialist forces against the native communities of the Congo. Heart of Darkness was released to little recognition but soon became a widely read title due to its depiction of colonialism, imperialism and the actions of the European powers in Africa. In the novel, Conrad uses the character Marlow to give the reader an outsider’s perspective into the evil nature of colonialism and the barbaric acts that were committed in Africa at the time. Social issues are a key theme in Conrad’s novel as it focuses on matters such as racism, colonialism and the contrasts between what some people might perceive to be a barbaric society and that which is deemed a civilized one. By scrutinizing a range of social issues in his book, Conrad made it possible for his audience to read and understand the evil acts that human beings are capable of committing.

Social Issues in Heart of Darkness


One of the key issues that Conrad addresses in his novel is colonialism. At the time that Conrad wrote the book, colonialism was approaching its peak with the European powers heavily invested in Africa. Conrad was himself involved in this process as he was once employed in Africa, where he commanded a riverboat down the River Congo. Much like the character Marlow, Conrad witnessed the evils of colonialism first hand during his expedition in Africa (Bloom 15). Colonialism in the story is seen through the perspective of Marlow, a character who finds himself participating in a system of which he does not approve. The fact that Marlow is neither a victim of the system nor its proponent allows Conrad to use him as an objective observer, capable of providing an unbiased view of the true nature of colonialism and imperialism.

In Heart of Darkness, the Conrad brings out the issue of colonialism in different ways. Firstly, Conrad brings out colonialism as a brutal and barbaric practice that demeans and ruins the lives of the native communities. The audience perceives this perspective through Marlow’s vivid descriptions of the actions that the Europeans carried out against the Africans. Mr. Kurtz is a good example of the evil nature of European imperialism as presented by the novel. In his report for the “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs”, Kurtz suggested that the whites “exterminate the brute” showing a particular disdain for the native tribes in Africa Conrad 136). The fact that Kurtz openly suggested that whole communities be eradicated was indicative of the attitude that Europeans in Africa had. Additionally, this helped to explain why Marlow regularly witnessed graphic scenes of torture and murder as he travelled down the Congo.

Conrad’s novel also brought out the corrupt nature of colonialism and imperialism. The book depicts the corruption that was rife within European society through its scrutiny from Marlow. While the Europeans justified their actions with the claim that they were going to civilize Africans in the process of acquiring wealth, their conduct in the continent showed that they were greedy and uncaring for the native communities in Africa. Mr. Kurtz is a good example of the corrupt nature of Europeans in Africa. In the book, he openly brags to Marlow about the way he takes the ivory from the Africans forcefully, instead of trading with them (Conrad 129). This approach shows that the Europeans actually went to the continent to plunder its wealth and riches and not to “civilize” the indigenous peoples.

Moral Character of People

Moral corruption is also a key social issue addressed in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The book achieves this by scrutinizing the actions of the colonizers and the crimes that they committed against the Africans. While their being in a hostile region may have evoked the actions of Mr. Kurtz and other Europeans, Conrad seems to imply that the ability to commit despicable acts of evil lies deep inside all people. Mr. Kurtz dying words “The horror! The horror!” imply that there is a sense of remorse within him as he finally understands what he did to the Africans (Conrad 215; Paul 197). Apart from Mr. Kurtz, other Europeans were responsible for acts of a brutal nature committed against the indigenous communities. Some of the white people in Congo failed to do anything about the inhuman acts that were going on, while others participated. The only thing that seemed to matter to the other white people was their own wealth and social progression. The actions of the other Europeans around Mr. Kurtz, add weight to the idea that all people are morally impure and capable of evil acts.

The True Nature of Civilization

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness also raised key issues regarding the true nature of Western civilization. In the novel, the westerners perceived themselves to be far more advanced than the Africans. To this end, many of their actions were guided by racial perceptions that allowed them to justify their brutality with the claim that the Africans were just like animals. By exploiting and brutalizing the Africans, the colonizers were able to generate a large amount of wealth for their empires. However, the colonizers attained this wealth at great human cost to the Africans, an issue that they disregarded. With the imperialists accepting inhuman acts as the norm, the book tends to show European civilization as a culture that is brutal and barbaric, driven only by an insatiable thirst for wealth (Paul 201). Accordingly, Marlow argued that the African jungle brought out the true nature of Europeans and their civilization. Without the presence of authorities and governments to inhibit their actions, the westerners acted without any reservations as they sought to achieve the wealth that they desired. Because of this, Marlow described Kurtz as a person who was “hollow at the core” (Conrad 160). For Marlow, the constant pursuit of wealth and fortune equated to an existential emptiness.


Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is widely regarded as one of the best novels ever written and rightly so. The book presented a harrowing image of the true nature of colonialism and imperialism, forcing proponents of the two systems to come to terms with their ideals and the actions of Europeans in Africa. In the book, Conrad addressed many social issues concerning the treatment of Africans at the hands of the Europeans. Through the critical opinion of the character Marlow, Conrad showed that human beings are fundamentally flawed due to their moral weaknesses. These weaknesses make people capable of heinous and despicable acts a fact that was made obvious by the varying personalities and horrible actions of Mr. Kurtz.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975. Print

Paul, Susie. “Interpretive Notes.” Heart of Darkness and the Secret Sharer. Joseph Conrad. Ed. New York: Pocket Books, 2004: 193-204. Print.








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