Civilization and the Primitive
The central theme around which this story revolves is civilization versus wilderness. The symbolism that represents this theme is the opposition of light versus darkness. As in much of European art and literature, the imagery of ‘ ‘light” is associated with Western culture, civilization, knowledge, and the conscious mind. The imagery of’ ‘darkness,” on the other hand, is associated with Third World cultures (such as Africa), the “primitive” or “savage,” the unknown or mysterious, and the psychological unconscious. Many of the themes in Conrad’s story are based on this set of oppositions. Thus, European culture is contrasted with African culture, where African culture is seen to represent the primitive, unconscious mind of the white European man. Marlow’s narrative of his journey down the Congo River, and his encounter with Kurtz, expresses the anxiety of the white man who is tempted by his foray into the “wilderness” to “go native,” lose the trappings of civilization, and revert to a more “primitive” state of mind. As writer Chinua Achebe has pointed out, this conceptual construct on the part of Western cultures in their perceptions and representations of African culture is thoroughly racist. Other critics have argued, however, that Conrad’s story is a critique of the racist colonial mentality of the Europeans in Africa.
Conrad’s story is critical of the “methods” of the white European ‘ ‘Company” that, motivated by pure greed, exploits African resources and labor. Conrad’s commentary is in part based on his own experiences with the ivory business in the Congo, and is supported by historical records that make it clear that the ivory trade in Africa was brutal on a par with the slave trade. Conrad mocks such European trade practices through his ironic representation of the generically named “Company,” which clearly stands in for the presence of European companies in Africa. The Company management is also portrayed ironically, such as the manager who maintains a high starched white collar in spite of the signs of suffering and cruelty that he perpetuates in the treatment of the Africans. Conrad also satirizes the values of “efficiency” practiced by the Company as both irrational and inhumane. The character of Kurtz, whose “methods” are “unsound,” represents the height of hypocrisy—the “methods” of the Company seem to be thoroughly “unsound,” from a moral perspective.
Race and Racism
Whether or not one concludes that Conrad’s story is racist, it is clear that the issue of race and racism in the European colonies is a central theme of the story. Marlow links colonial conquest directly to racism in the often-quoted passage: ‘ ‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” At the same time, however, the modern reader is struck by Conrad’s nonchalant use of the term “nigger,” which is now considered thoroughly racist.
Marlow’s narrative includes an underlying theme regarding lies and lying. Marlow explains to his listeners his disdain for lies and lying:
“There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick like biting something rotten would do.”
And yet, when faced with Kurtz’s’ ‘Intended,” at the end of the story, Marlow deliberately defies his own values in choosing to lie to her about Kurtz’s final words. Unable to bring himself to do ‘ ‘justice” to Kurtz’s dying wish that he be properly represented, Marlow refrains from repeating those haunting words, “The horror! The horror!” telling her instead that Kurtz had died with her name on his lips. Feeling that he has sinned in telling this lie, Marlow half expects ‘ ‘that the heavens would fall upon my head,” but concludes that’ ‘the heavens do not fall for such a trifle.” Aware that he has betrayed Kurtz through his lie, Marlow’s justification seems to be a desire to protect the white woman from the truth of the true evil that lurks in the soul of man: ‘ ‘I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether.”
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2001.