The Importance of Setting in Heart of Darkness

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Joseph Conradr’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness is centered about Charles Marlowr’s voyage into the Congo Free State or the Heart of Africa as a riverboat captain. As he remains at the Central Station in the Congo waiting for parts to repair his steamship, he encounters many horrors of the slave trade and more specifically, The Company. Conrad vividly portrays the Europeans more critically than the Africans. Conrad shows this is in the setting of the novel. The imperialistic companyr’s brutality and cruelty deeply contrasts with the magnificent, vast jungle. Although the settlement appears insignificant from above, its tortuous nature is grandiose and overwhelming compared to the natives being forced into labor. Conrad quotes this in the book saying the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, (page __) This contrast between the native Africans and the men who work for the company is projected throughout the book and it is clearly shown in the book that Conrad was more critical towards the Europeans than the native Africans.

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Heart of Darkness is revolved around Marlowr’s tales to the sailors about his trip to the Congo. Before he arrives, natives appear to be somewhat of an element of fantasy for Marlow. Once he meets them, his views on the natives change drastically. On page 19, Marlow defines the natives as not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now- nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation (page 19). When Marlow first arrives, he can visibly see that the natives were not being treated well and forced to work with no benefits whatsoever. He also notices how inefficient this strategy of imperialism and trade was. The natives were appeared slow and weak when working. Marlow was sure that the reasoning behind this suffering was because the natives were under the control of the Europeans. Once he step foot onto the coast, Marlow was aware the Europeans would most certainly do more harm to earn a profit. This would not only mean working the natives until starvation and eventually death, but destroying the jungles as well. Marlow states once he arrives Ive seen the devil of violence, and the devil of green, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all stars! These were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils (18). This quote clearly shows that Marlow was far more critical of the Europeans than the natives. The repetition of the word devil emphasizes the hellish behaviors of the Europeans. The quote also highlights the cruelty of the Europeans by comparing them to other known evils such as greed and how the slave and imperialistic style of work was unjust.

Throughout the novel, Marlow feels an immense pity for the natives contrary to the other colonizers because of the lack of human recognition the natives are given. Africans were considered the others and only referred as black shapes or shadows, which dehumanize the natives. Believing that Europeans were more civilized and enlightened was a common theme during 17th century Europe and Conrad uses this book to disassociate from that ideology. Conrad succeeded in this by portraying the Europeans as the brute and aggressive characters in the book rather than the protagonists. On page 30, the Europeans viciously beat the natives to prevent conflagrations. One of the men tell the natives as he continues to torture them ‘what a row the brute makes Serves him right. Transgression-punishment-bang! Pitiless, pitiless this will prevent all conflagration for the future (30). The aggression from the European is frightening and troubling to read in the 21st century and it was frightening to read in the 19th century as well. This style of writing criticizes the Europeans for being far more combative and barbaric towards the natives.

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The Importance of Setting in Heart of Darkness. (2019, Jun 10). Retrieved November 28, 2022 , from

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