“Civilized” vs. “Savage”

Excerpt:  “It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman.  Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman.  It would come slowly to one.  They howled and leaped, spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.” (p. 32)

This passage in particular stood out in Part II as Marlow is describing what he saw on his journey down the river to the Inner Station.  During this time period, imperialism was an eminent force and Africa remained relatively untouched by the “civilized” world of Europe.  It became a point of interest for European governments, merchants, and religious groups, as well as curious travelers such as Marlow.  Earlier in the novel, Marlow describes the mystery surrounding the spaces on the map that remained empty while these “spaces” everywhere else in the world were being filled by explorers and governments looking to expand their influence.  The exploration of this uncharted territory excited Marlow and many others who felt they could bring their wisdom to the darkness of Africa and enlighten the people, instate order, and make a profit.  The natives already living there were of no importance to the Europeans except to be tamed and used for their labor.  They were viewed as subhuman and referred to as “savages”, but upon closer inspection, Marlow observes that they may be primal beings, but they are certainly humans, just like everyone else.

Marlow’s almost reluctant acknowledgement that the African natives are in fact people shows just how different the ways of life were in Africa and Europe at this time.  Many of the imperialists that traveled to the heart of the jungle as Marlow did refused to even consider the idea that these “monsters” were people, too.  Marlow recognizes that what makes the natives so frightening is there undeniable humanity.  His recognition of their “remote kinship” to himself points out the connection all people have in their nature and physical form, no matter where in the world one is or how “civilized” he is considered.  This acceptance of the natives as similar to himself acts as a realization of his own identity.  The fact that he is capable of the same uninhibited, animalistic behavior causes Marlow to reflect on what keeps him from acting in the same way as these “savages”.

Marlow continues after this excerpt to wonder why he does not act like the African natives in their natural, passionate state when it seems so relatable.  Others are amazed at their behavior but it is unclear whether this behavior is truly so much lower than the misleading, greedy, and paranoid behavior of the “civilized” men he is with.  He suggests in a stream of consciousness-like manner that if he had not been otherwise occupied, he would have been tempted to join the natives in their bizarre yet thrilling dancing and screaming.

The idea that the two types of men are completely separate is challenged as we see how easy it is to revert to one’s natural tendencies, forgetting what is considered “civilized” and acting in one’s own self-interest. Marlow suggests that all men can understand this natural urge to return to thier roots and embrace their animalistic side.  He points this out throughout his dialogue as he describes both the natives as well as the ignorant actions of the so-called “civilized” men.

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