Marxist theory, the belief, in part, that achieving and retaining economic power is the sinister motive behind all behavior, is a strong component of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 work Heart of Darkness (adapted later into film as a Vietnam war tale in Francis Ford Coppola's classic Apocalypse Now). This tale of Marlow, an agent for a Belgian ivory outfit simply referred to as The Company, and his journey through the Congo in a search for the mysterious Kurtz, is rife with examinations of the tenets of Marxist theory, such as the evils of imperialism, the problems of classism, and the faults of religion. Conrad’s book is a rich one, full of ideas and challenges.
Heart of Darkness, in spinning its tale, highlights the class struggles between The Company, its workers, and the Congo natives. The bourgeoisie vs. the proletariat, or the affluent and powerful vs. the poor, working, and exploited, is a central theme, including Kurtz’s primary reason for traveling to Africa for The Company at all. Kurtz originally went to the Congo and entered the ivory trade to make money, so he could marry his beloved, described as a woman of a “higher class.” Kurtz has since become The Company’s top agent, nestled in the heart of Africa, and moving more ivory than the rest of the outposts on the continent combined. How does he do this? This obvious struggle to accept his place, his yearning to climb up the class ranks, is indicative of Marx’s thoughts. " Eventually, the proletariat would become class conscious - aware that their seemingly individual problems were created by an economic system that disadvantaged all those who did not own the means of production.“ Once the proletariat developed a class consciousness, Marx believed, they would rise up and seize the means of production, overthrowing the capitalist mode of production, and bringing about a socialist society ("class").
However, the fall into madness and gluttony suffered by Kurtz does not fit quite so cleanly into Marxist philosophy – Kurtz becomes the embodiment of imperialist and religious greed, the embodiment of the all-powerful “Company,” which was not an outcome that Marx had foreseen in his theories. Kurtz has set himself as a king, a god, and has taken as willing slaves the natives. He has become greedy, insatiable in his quest for more – constantly, more. As Marlow remarks, regarding Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, “'My ivory.' Oh, yes, I heard him. 'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my-‘everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him – but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own."
The Company, that nameless, all-powerful agent of capitalism, had expanded its “empire” into the Congo, but not to instill Western beliefs or society, but simply to take advantage of the natives for what amounts to slave labor, and to appropriate the ivory from this untamed, new land. As Hochschild writes, quoting a governor in Africa during this time in history, " As soon as it was a question of rubber, I wrote to the government, 'To gather rubber in the district...one must cut off hands, noses and ears" (Hochschild 165). Profit was the only consideration - humanity, morality, and goodness were but casualties in the ever-raging war for money and power.
Kurtz has become the brutal embodiment of this capitalism. In no way do the natives benefit from the ivory trade. In no way do they reap the spoils of their native goods. Instead, they collect the ivory for their “master” – Kurtz, the newest member of the bourgeoisie. Kurtz, the newest god in Africa, a god with an appetite for power and adoration. A man whose original purpose in Africa had become so lost in his living personification of the phrase “power corrupts. “[Kurtz’s methods] only showed that Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts,” Conrad wrote. “I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men." Kurtz’s actions reflect that of most of Europe at this time, taking brutal advantage of the continent of Africa in the West’s relentless expansion.
This empire of The Company, though, is seemingly no match for that of Kurtz. Marlow and his shipmates are attacked upon arriving at Kurtz’s station after 2 months of river-going. Already, the characters have ascribed a legendary feel to Kurtz – Marlow just aches to hear his voice, as if Kurtz was a religious icon come to spread the good word. And why do the natives attack? They do not want Kurtz, their god, their master, to leave. They attacked the interlopers as would a swarm of bees protecting their queen. They truly have simply become his drones. Kurtz has gathered around him an army of natives, willing to die for him, and he has so ingratiated himself into their lives that they don’t at all see the madness of the situation. The “white man’s burden” had become the white man crowning himself divine. “As for the announcement of Mr. Kurtz's death by the ‘insolent black head in the doorway’ what better or more appropriate finis could be written to the horror story of that wayward child of civilization who willfully had given his soul to the powers of darkness and ‘taken a high amongst the devils of the land’ than the proclamation of his physical death by the forces he had joined?” (Achebe). Upon Kurtz’s death, Marlow has proven to also have been pulled into the sect, and The Company’s agents turn against him, as they will not have The Company replaced by a false god.
"Kutz’s actions reflect that of most of Europe at this time, taking brutal advantage of the continent of Africa in the West’s relentless expansion."
Conrad continually reinforces the idea that the European’s arrival on the continent is not a god-send for the natives – they don’t benefit from the interlopers’ presence. Early in the book, Marlow observes many natives starving and sick and dying. He offers one some food, but the man dies right before him. The white man is not the savior, and cannot take it upon himself to fix the situations he has thrust himself into, Conrad seems to be saying. No good has come of Europe’s trespass. At one point, Marlow even recognizes a “remote kinship” with the natives in the jungle around him, almost as if he is coming down from on high to try and understand what the natives are about. This Christ symbolism is there with Marlow, but is much more explicit with Kurtz.
Heart of Darkness is filled with similar religious imagery and allusion, most set to comment on the issues of religious fervor and fundamentalism. The Congo natives are portrayed as feeling the Europeans are gods, especially notable in their relationship with Kurtz. Conrad repeatedly calls the white men from The Company “pilgrims,” with all the religious implications of that term – are they searching themselves for spiritual or religious answers or freedom? Or, instead, are they merely toys of The Company, fooling themselves into thinking that they are they former? The men are simply there as pawns of The Company in its ravenous search for profit. Kurtz becomes a threat to The Company in this way – he is withholding his gains, and has set himself up as an alternate deity, a trespasser in what had been The Company’s sole domain. The natives are entranced, and soon fall into line behind their new god.
This segues into Marxist theory, of course. “The term ‘fetish’ was taken up by Marx as a way to characterize the importance placed on possessions by a capitalist society…merchandise loses its real value and comes to have a sort of magical value” (Gillard 91). The oft-spoken of “trade secrets” in Heart of Darkness is the magical fetish. As Gillard notes, “The savages are offering to trade with Kurtz, exchanging human sacrifices for whatever kind of magical power they expect to get from him." He is a Christ figure, the natives his apostles. What would they do without him? When he dies, his Intended remarks “It is impossible…that such a life should be sacrificed to leave nothing – but sorrow…Something must remain. His words, at least, have not died." She speaks almost as if she would write the gospels of the god Kurtz, just to have something left of this life he built.
In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz had gone from loyal company man with a noble mission (marry the woman he loves) to an unchecked, all-powerful slave-owning Emperor – according to Marx, he was the horrors of capitalism, imperialism, and religion all wrapped up in one terrible package. The terrible European intrusion into Africa and the Congo was given voice by Joseph Conrad, and the strong Marxist overtones would, of course, prove prescient in Europe in the years after the book was published. The West continues to make similar incursions throughout the world, be it in the Middle East or Southeast Asia, and one could easily apply the issues Conrad discusses in Heart of Darkness to current situations. The current rise of right nationalism hasn't curbed the United States's or Europe's interests in far-off lands. The days of true Communist and Marxist power may be past, but some beliefs of the doctrine still ring true.
- Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.'" Massachusetts Review. 1977: 18. Web. 10 October 2018.
- "Class conflict and Marx." Boundless.com. Web, 9 October 2018.
- Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
- GIllard, Gary. Empowering Readers: Ten Approaches to Narrative. Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2003. Print.
- Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost—A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. New York: Mariner Books, 1989. Print.