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  • "A Choice of Nightmares":The Ecology of Heart of Darkness
  • Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy (bio)

Nature is at the heart of Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel dramatizes modernity's destructive alienation from the natural world against the backdrop of the Congo's ecological collapse. More intimately, Heart of Darkness uses the competing constructions of nature in turn of the century Britain to haunt readers with a new vision of themselves. In 1899, British readers encountered nature in two primary roles: the passive object of imperial commerce and evolution's meritocracy of fitness. This essay will show these distinct attitudes shaping the novel, and then reveal a third role beyond them both, through which the novel destabilizes the framework of Victorian self-fashioning. Specifically, Conrad's novel offers a vision of landscape that challenges the colonizing subject's confidence, and, simultaneously, forecasts the brewing storm of ecological catastrophe. My reading parses the tangled relation between modern Europe's unfolding knowledge of nature and its changing knowledge of itself. In this sense Heart of Darkness is about the cultural boundaries that separate person from place, and more significantly about repositioning human beings within a new understanding of nature. [End Page 620]


Heart of Darkness shows us a link between the moral and ecological limits of imperialism. A defining background issue for any reading of Heart of Darkness is that the Congo's ecosystem—the object of all this blasting and toting—had become an ecological disaster. Marlow's economic setting is focused on ivory, and just as the land has become "a vast artificial hole" under this European regime (16), the Congo basin's ecology has been disrupted by the compounded exploitation. Ivory is the resource in question for this novel. From 1875 to 1905, Europeans extracted 70,000 tons of ivory from the Congo every year. It decorated Victorian life from the billiard balls and walking sticks at the club, to the piano keys and chess pieces in the parlor, to the combs and crucifixes in the bedroom. And if ivory was everywhere at home, it's on everyone's lips in Marlow's Congo: "The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it" (23). But the elephant in the room, for all the novel's talk of ivory, is the distinct lack of elephants. There are shipments of ivory and commissions to be made, piles of ivory and dreams of ivory generated riches, but not a single elephant. Indeed, though Conrad mentions elephants in a letter home from the Congo, in the novel the word appears to have been hunted to extinction.

Thus Conrad declares an absence. The work obsessively repeats one element to foreground the lack of its complement. The reader knows there is no ivory without elephants, but is led to imagine a landscape chosen for its bounty and at the same time lacking its originary force. When Marlow reaches the Inner Station, there is so much ivory that he wonders if the whole country has been emptied: "Ivory! . . . Heaps of it, stacks of it. . . . You would think there was not a single tusk left either above or below the ground in the whole country" (48). So Marlow describes an economy whose fructifying power is extinct, and thereby renders an environment tipping toward collapse. In the actual Congo where Conrad worked for eight months in 1890, the ivory trade was already beginning to expire.1 Traders turned to digging for fossil ivory, and the ambitious were forced ever deeper into wild areas to find elephants. It seems one of English literature's grandest characters, Mr Kurtz, makes his fateful voyage to the Inner Station and all that rich country thanks to an ecological catastrophe occasioned by a culture of exploitation.

Ivory is the text's most important and most contradictory symbol; it is the novel's objective-correlative of a western logic that shapes all relations between the human and nonhuman world into relations of profit.2 Moreover, ivory demonstrates the epistemology of separation that interprets human beings (and especially white ones) [End Page 621] as separate from the world around them. But there is...


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