Heart of Darkness

What are Marlow's first impressions of the european presence in africa?

Part 1

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The fact that Marlow applies the concept of darkness to conquered territories may indicate Conrad’s negative view of colonialism. We read clearly that colonists are only exploiting the weakness of others. Their spreading over the world is no nobler than violence and thievery. On the map, places that are blank and devoid of outside interference are apparently the most desirable for certain people.

Darkness has another meaning that retains deep resonance—a color of skin. Much of this chapter describes Marlow's first encounters with and observations of the natives of the African Congo. The darkness of their skin is always mentioned. At first glance, Marlow describes them as "mostly black and naked, moving about like ants." While in the shade, "dark things" seem to stir feebly. There is absolutely no differentiation between dark animals and dark people. Even the rags worn by the native people are described as tails. "Black shapes" crouch on the ground, and "creatures" walk on all fours to get a drink from the river. They are called shadows: reflections of humans, not substantial enough to be real. Marlow observes the piece of white string on a young man, and he is taken aback by how much the whiteness stands out against the darkness, thinking about the string's probable European origin. He cannot seem to conceive of mixing black and white. Conrad portrays Marlow’s experience of otherness to such an extreme, and with such literary care, that it is hard to see Conrad simply expressing his own experience through Marlow, although Conrad likely was well aware of his own and others’ impressions of such places and did have a choice in how to present them. Writing through Marlow’s experience is a choice that leads us to look through Marlow’s eyes at the darkness he sees.

It is not accidental that Marlow is the only person on the Thames boat who is named. He is a complex character while, even in England, the others are presented not so much as individuals as with titles that name their occupations. Marlow is distinct from them as well; he belongs to no category. He is a man "who does not represent his class" because he crosses boundaries. His reaction to the African natives may not be sensitive by modern standards, but he is more engaged than the other officers at the stations. The Chief Accountant dismisses the cries of a dying black man as merely irritating. Marlow's gesture of offering a biscuit to the young boy with the white string appears to be somewhat considerate. But it also seems condescending, which seems to be more of a character trait than a racist tendency. Marlow can think of nothing else to do as he looks into the boy's vacant eyes. Marlow means well, and despite his individual character he is partly a product of his society.

Immediately following the encounter with the young boy, he meets the Chief Accountant, who is perfectly attired with collar, cuffs, jacket, and all the rest. He refers to him as "amazing" and a "miracle." We observe at this moment the distinctions between savagery and civilization as perceived by Marlow. The diction demonstrates a type of hero worship for this man. His starched collars and cuffs are achievements of character, and Marlow respects him on this basis. It is far too early for readers to think we understand what Marlow is all about.

Beyond Marlow’s distinction of savagery and civilization, we have a window into Conrad’s distinction when we consider his presentation of colonialism through Marlow and the colonists. The bitter irony here is that those who look the most civilized are actually the most savage. Indeed, the institution of colonialism is referred to as a "flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil." Everything it touches turns sour: the station is an administrative nightmare, and decaying machinery lies everywhere.