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In literary works, cruelty often functions as a crucial motivation or a major social or political factor. Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.
In Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, cruelty is used for both political and social gain. One example is by the main antagonist, Marlow’s boss, the Manager, who is shown as a symbol of corruption and callousness. He would use cruelty to his political benefit, leaving others to be harmed on his way to success. One person, the Manager harms is his ill coworker, Mr. Kurtz, which he does out of fear that Kurtz would get a promotion over him. Another way cruelty is shown in Heart of Darkness is through an allegory, which is demonstrated through the life of Kurtz. His plunge into madness can be seen as an allegory for the carnage and colonization of Africa by the Europeans. Cruelty during the time of Heart of Darkness didn’t carry the same moral weight that it carries today, however ambition functions just as powerfully in our society today as it did during the time of Joseph Conrad. By exploring the relationship between cruelty and ambition, Conrad shines a light on the moral ambivalence of his time period and poses ethical questions about the extent to which a person or nation is willing to go in pursuing their own self-interest.
Throughout the story, the Manager is used as a symbol of corruption and callousness. At the beginning of the story, the Manager is introduced as Marlow’s boss, and many would assume that he was a good person but this is proven not the case when Marlow overhears a conversation the Manager had with his uncle. The Manager says, “We will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged”(Part 2 p.104). The Manager not only demonstrates his cruelty but his ruthlessness to achieve what he wants. He shows little regard for human life as he wishes to send Mr. Kurtz into the jungle in hopes of him getting a disease and dying in order to receive a promotion that he falsely believed that Mr. Kurtz was after as well. Despite his strong display of cruelty, the Manager also acts off his own fear, as this drove him to focus solely on his goal and take out any obstacle that stood in his way. The Managers fear is shown in Mr. Kurtz becomes the focal point at which the Manager directs his anger and fear. Another time the Manager used cruelty to his advantage is discovered in part 1.
Marlow explains how the Manager sabotaged his own steamboat that was sending supplies to Kurtz. The Manager is willing to go to great lengths to ensure Mr. Kurtz’s death even if it means destroying a boat that he gave Marlow. Kurtz and Marlow become aware of the lack of care the Manage demonstrate for Kurtz’s health, and this knowledge puts Marlow in an uncomfortable situation and says the Manager “inspires uneasiness”(part 1 p.56). In his desire to review a promotion, the Manager lacks any large sense of subtly, as his actions become obvious to Marlow and Kurtz. Marlow describes the Manager’s lack of remorse because he has no soul, “there was nothing within him”(part 1 p.54) This also shows how powerless Kurtz is to stop his own fate, especially with facing off against the Manager. The Manager also represents a symbol of callousness, this is shown when the Manager seemed very pleased to find out that Kurtz had died.
Fear seeped into Marlow as he stepped out of Kurtz’s room as felt the Manager’s eyes on him, wanting to know of Kurtz’s fate. Another reason the Manager was so eager to get rid of Kurtz was not only for political gain, through which he would get the promotion which would obviously be a step up in his company. It also ties into him benefiting from social gain: with a higher status within the company due to the promotion, he would become more respected and well known. The Manager seems to realize that if he gets the promotion that he would also receive more money. Money is always a big factor in the ways that it can change people’s thoughts, and ultimately make they’ll do stuff that they’ll regret later. The Manager used cruelty for both political and social gain many times, from falsely assuming Kurtz was after the promotion he was after and then sabotaging Marlow’s ship with supplies to Kurtz, essentially killing him. After Kurtz’s death the Manager showed no remorse and was pleased to see that his plan succeeded. Marlow says, “I could feel his eyes trail me as I made my way back up to the helm.”(part 3 p.124). The Manager was a character who lacked empathy, especially for those who stood in the way of his ambitions. This makes him all the more powerful and dangerous because he is not afraid of the consequences of taking another human life in order to fulfill political gain.
In the novel, Mr. Kurtz’s descent into insanity can be seen as an allegory for the carnage and colonization of Africa by Europe which would then lead to political gain as well as social gain. This is illustrated by the fact before Kurtz journeyed into the African jungles he was a completely normal person just like the Europeans were very civilized people before arriving in the unknown land and letting greed take over them. Throughout the story, Kurtz demonstrates an internal battle of the good and evil within himself. This is shown in part 3: his final words before death were “The horror, the horror!”(p.154). While in Africa, Kurtz is seen trying to portray himself to the natives as a superior being, as he mulipitaed them into thinking that he was a good leader which lead to him having a social gain.
Much like Kurtz is pretending to be something he’s not, the Europeans pretended to trade with Africans before killing them and seizing control. Everyone that knew Kurtz in the story, including his fiance, said that he resembled everything that Europe is, Marlow even said, “All of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”(part 2 pg 62). This refers to how ambitious Kurtz is and how he treats himself as a god when he arrives in Africa, much like the original European settlers did when they first arrived. And if Kurtz was shown to be Europe, his fellow Russian companion Harlequin would represent Africa. Their relationship greatly represented that of Europe to Africa, and although Kurtz technically wasn’t Harlequin’s “master”, the way Kurtz treated the Russian was similar to the way it was for Europe and Africa. Throughout Kurtz’s journey into the jungle, he treats Harlequin almost like a slave showing him little respect, much like Europe enslaved the Africans. While in the jungle Kurtz views the natives as inhuman and rather than equals. In part 2, it says, “They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces…the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough.”
This is telling us that the passage Marlow describes Kurtz, much like Europe, was willing to stop at nothing for the political gain of conquering the land, even if it meant killing anyone that tried stopping him. Or as Marlow described it, “Killing whoever they pleased.” (Part 3 p.141). The cruelty that both Kurtz and Europe showed mirrors the allegory about both their dives into madness and their willingness to stop at nothing to achieve their goal. The greed they felt for both political and social gain reflects the ambition of their society where social class was an important component of the value of a human being.
Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, portrays how cruelty is used to people’s benefit both politically and socially. This is shown by the Manager being a symbol of corruption and callousness. He does this by attacking a ship that was sending supplies to ill coworkers, Kurtz, so he could get a job promotion. Another way is when he is shown being happy when he finds out that Kurtz has died. Throughout the novel, the allegory mirroring Mr. Kurtz’s descent into madness and Europe’s conquest of Africa showed how they were willing to go to great lengths for political and social gain. Much like Europe, Kurtz manipulated the Africans to achieve becoming the leader.
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