The combined exploitative forces of capitalism and imperialism are the objects of Conrad’s social criticism in Heart of Darkness. Conrad focuses his moral irony on the hollow conventions through which people seek to mold the universe to their own specifications. The imperialists’ self-appointed duty to govern and “civilize” nonwhite societies prompted King Leopold II of Belgium to found the International Association for the Civilization of Central Africa in 1875. Dedicated to the propagation of European civilization and Christian tenets throughout Africa, this organization has its parallel in the novella’s International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Kurtz writes a seventeen-page report to the society that concludes with the exhortation: “Exterminate all the brutes!” Marlow opens his narrative by remarking that the Thames River and its environs, the seat of the British Empire, had also been “one of the dark places of the earth.” Once an outpost of the Roman Empire, every bit as primitive as the Congo and the object of unabashed exploitation, England has been both conquered and conqueror, and, as such, demonstrates the blurred line between the two conditions. The civilizing venture proves fickle for both the society whose customs are overthrown and the one whose morals are sacrificed in the name of conquest.
Kurtz’s capitalist mercantile ventures, the handmaidens of imperialism, draw Marlow into the vast heart of a continent and into an actual and a symbolic heart of darkness. These ventures are intended to enhance European wealth and power, but their byproducts are the exploitation of the native population and the moral deterioration of the traders. From Marlow’s first visit to what he calls “a dead house in a sepulchral city” to his encounters with the lost souls at the outposts of progress and his meeting with the insane Kurtz, his experience is expressed in terms of death, decay, and the dehumanizing power of capitalism at its worst.