The Hypocrisy of Imperialism in "Heart of Darkness"

Essay by moon_vixen33University, Bachelor'sA+, April 2006

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And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, "followed the sea" with reverence and affection, than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames...It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled--the great knights-errant of the sea. (302)

The unnamed narrator sits aboard a pleasure ship called the Nellie, along with four other men, including Marlow. The five men are held together by the bonds of the sea, yet are restless and meditative aboard the ship, waiting for something to happen. As darkness begins to fall, the men recall the great ships and explorers that have set forth from the Thames on voyages of trade and adventure, often never to return. Suddenly, Marlow remarks that the very region they had been admiring, "'has also been one of the dark places of the earth.'"

(302) He points out that England would have been considered a savage wilderness by the first Roman conquerors. This seems to be an odd statement, as the conversation about famous British explorers and their glorious voyages was being conducted in a celebratory tone. Referring to these seamen as "knights-errant" implies that they promoted the splendour of Great Britain, expanded knowledge of the globe, while contributing to the civilization and enlightenment of mankind.

"Heart of Darkness" was written in 1899, a period in which the British Empire was at its peak, controlling colonies and dependencies around the world. While the narrator expresses the common European belief that imperialism is a glorious and worthy enterprise, Marlow contradicts this convention by conjuring images of Britain's past, when it was not the heart of civilization but the savage end of...