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Themes of Oppression and Imperialism in Literature

Joseph Conrad wrote the “Heart of Darkness” to portray a Congo River journey during colonial times. The “Heart of Darkness” shares themes of oppression and imperialism with “The Epic of Gigamesh” and “The Tempest.” Oppression can be defined as an act of treating a person with no respect for their wishes and by exercising force to control them. The theme of imperialism is interconnected with oppression because the Europeans’ efforts to explore the world and expand their empire ultimately resulted in the oppression of the natives. Hence, these themes complement one another, they show how imperialism manifested through oppression despite the Europeans’ claims that they want to civilize the African people. This paper will analyze the themes of oppression and imperialism in the “Heart of Darkness,” “The Epic of Gigamesh,” and “The Tempest.”

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The lens of oppression implies the impact that this act has on the oppressed person, in most cases, the result is their loss of identity. The themes of oppression and imperialism present a promising combination because they supplement one another. As history and the literature shows, imperialism is linked with oppression. When the Europeans traveled to explore the world and establish new colonies of their empires, they oppressed the natives, forcing them to work for free and adapt to the Western culture. If one defines imperialism as one state gaining control over other territories, then oppression is the natural consequence of this control. This is because the imperial state uses economic, military, or other forces to control people’s lives in these lands.

These themes interconnect in the “Heart of Darkness” because one of the fundamental ideas Conrad portrays is absurd of the European expansion, the imperial ideas, and the justifications of imperialism. This desire to civilize Africa turned into a mission to enslave the people who lived there. Marlow travels through Africa, encountering the native tribes and deepening his understanding of the European’s actions by getting to know more about Kutz. As the main antagonist, Kutz’s character serves the purpose of showing how the claims that the Europeans bring enlightenment to the African nations are false. Kutz is a great supporter of imperialism, which is evident from his contribution to creating the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. As Marlow later learns, the original version of the pamphlet that Kutz created contains a call to “exterminate all the brutes!”(Conrad, 1999, 50). Hence, in his novel, the proclaimed ideas of imperialism are shown as efforts to oppress the natives.

Thus, the themes of imperialism and oppression were selected to analyze the “Heart of Darkness” because the central idea of this work is that there is no difference between the so-called “civilized people” and those who lived in African colonies. Yet, the imperial ideals and the desire to exert force upon others cannot be separated from one another because they exist to serve the same purpose. Imperialism never implied a respect for native cultures and their way of life. It was a way of exporting and gaining control over territories and resources.

Oppression and imperialism can be seen in the way Marlow describes the natives. For example, while traveling through the river, Marlow says, “it was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman” (Conrad, 1999, 20). He describes the natives as something inhumane, although he feels the connection with them. Later on in this novel, they attack the ship with crossbows, which is their way of protesting against the Europeans conquering their land. As Marlow passes through the villages, he hears unfamiliar noises — drums, howls, and others (Conrad, 1999). This excites him and shows a core problem of imperialism and colonization: these rituals that the natives used are a part of their culture and their daily lives, while the Europeans came to destory this. In essence, the efforts to “civilize” the natives through force result in them losing their identity, culture, and connection to their land and ancestry, which is how oppression informs imperialism.

The combination of the themes of oppression and imperialism limits the exploration of the “Heart of Darkness” in a helpful manner because the two themes are inseparable — imperialism manifested through oppression. Moreover, Marlow’s fascination with the native men and his exploration shows that the people behind the imperial expansion failed to recognize the humane features of the Africans they conquered. Hence, the combination of these themes allows narrowing the focus of the analysis and exploring the issue of the Africans, to whom Conrad (1999) dedicates little attention in his novel.

The three stories, “The Tempest,” “The Epic of Gigamesh,” and the “Heart of Darkness,” these themes show the same idea. In “The Tempest” and “The Heart of Darkness,” the foreigners come to the native’s land and use power to oppress them. As a result, Caliban and the Africans forget that they are masters of their land. Prospero and his daughter take full control of Caliban’s island, and he is left to serve them (Shakespeare, 1985). In “The Epic of Gigamesh,” Enkidu is a character who represents the natives. He is described as a “wild man” and a person created by gods to oppose Gigamesh (Sandars, 1972). Enkidu, Caliban, and the Africans all face the attempts of the “civilized people” to change their behavior. Moreover, “The Epic of Gigamesh” also excellently portrays the theme of imperialism since Gigamesh is a conqueror.

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In all three books, the idea of the Europeans’ conquest has led to suffering and oppression can be seen. When applied to “The Epic of Gigamesh,” these lenses help the reader see Enkidu’s experience, first as a native man and then as part of the civilization created by Gigamesh. The latter represents the imperial efforts to conquer without regard for the people. Although in the “Heart of Darkness,” there is little focus on the Africans and their lives, they are portrayed mainly as savage men living in primitive conditions. However, considering the time when this book was published, the author’s critique expresses for the ideas of civilizing Africans, which in essence is an oppression of the natives and their customs, is remarkable. Notably, there are differences in the way these themes function in the stories. For instance, Enkidu befriends Gigamesh, allowing the reader to gain more understanding of the other’s motives. The experience of Caliban is portrayed in great detail, unlike the lives of native Africans in the “Heart of Darkness,” allowing them to comprehend the problem of oppression better.

In summary, oppression and imperialism are worthwhile discussing in relationship with one another because they are interchangeably linked. As Marlow finds out, the calls to civilize the African natives, which are used as a justification for imperialism, are in reality the efforts to either exterminate them or use them as free labor — oppress their culture. Similar ideas are presented in “The Epic of Gigamesh,” when Enkidu is forced to live in a civilized world, and in “The Tempest,” where Calibal loses his island and becomes a servant.

References

Conrad, J. (1999). Heart of darkness. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview.

Sandars, N. K. (Ed.). (1972). The epic of Gilgamesh. Harmondsworth, United Kingdom: Penguin Group.

Shakespeare, W. (1958). The tempest. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press.

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