Degeneration of Kurtz, Colonialism, and Imperialism in Heart of Darkness

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Degeneration of Kurtz and Colonialism in Heart of Darkness

Kurtz was a personal embodiment, a dramatization, of all that Conrad felt of futility, degradation, and horror in what the Europeans in the Congo called 'progress,' which meant the exploitation of the natives by every variety of cruelty and treachery known to greedy man. Kurtz was to Marlow, penetrating this country, a name, constantly recurring in people's talk, for cleverness and enterprise. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a portrait of the degeneration of the ideal of Kurtz symbolizing the degeneration of the ideal of colonialism as 'civilizing work'.

The fading of the idealist mirage of 'civilizing work' in Africa has to be one of the central themes of Heart of Darkness. This theme forms the background of the whole story, from beginning to end, before the character of Kurtz is even introduced.

The focus of Heart of Darkness is not on the direct effect of the colonial presence on the native population, but on the reflected effect on the colonial occupiers. Centrally, the whole story being told directly is the effect on Marlow of his colonial adventure. Marlow here reflects or represents his Western ideological origins coming to terms with the reality of the Congo. It was not merely the economic relations of commodity exchange which so often in the colonies, it was the respectability of society; it was the very identity of the occupying force and it was the emptiness of the western colonial myth of individualism. The degeneration of Kurtz is thus inseparable from the 'other' degeneration.

Marlow, on his return to civilization, learns from Kurtz's cousin that he was a "universal genius" (Conrad 71). What ...

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...ause the heart of humanity does not lie in the individual, it lies outside, in society, in language, in active engagement with a human world. Kurtz was more capable than anyone else of conquering the world, but the world, and the savagery, conquered him.

Works Cited

Adelman, Gary. Heart of Darkness: Search for the Unconscious. Boston: Little & Brown, 1987.

Bradley, Candice. "Africa and Africans in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." (24 Jan. 1996). Online Internet. 3 October 1998. Available:

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. 17th ed. New York: Norton, 1988.

Rosmarin, Adena. "Darkening the Reader: Reader Response Criticism and Heart of Darkness." Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.
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