All that Glitters

By:  Vifa McBride

Academic, 2018 


Considering recent events, it is increasingly unclear as to just who government figures intend to benefit with various policies they deem to be essential for ‘progress.’ As with all history, one only needs a few minutes of research to learn that this is nothing new (assuming, of course, that one can still acquire adequate access to the internet at the time of this reading). Nations all over the world live and have lived suffering under their officials, slowly losing hope in the better future promised to them. It is easy to apply this statement abstractly to foreign systems. However, it was not so long ago that Allied nations faced crises plummeting their citizens into similar paranoia. Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness was written amid the beginnings of structural collapse in the English empire and demonstrates a growing uncertainty regarding her brand of imperialism. George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949 in the throes of the Red Scare, masterfully depicts the citizens’ fear for what their government will become. Together, these present the image of a disheartened England, unsure as to who is actually devoted to the best interests of her citizens. They question the seemingly innocuous promises that the government’s actions are “for the best” and challenge the often-blurred line between economic progress and social comfort. These pieces beg their readers to see that power begets not peace but war, that the changes they suffer over are not a matter of necessity for the meek but of convenience for the powerful. They even go so far as to imply that, in one way or another, finding the truth obliterates the psyche of the individual brave enough to think critically regarding their situation. 

From the beginning of his novel, Orwell’s intention to stimulate serious political thought among his readers is clear. His isolated protagonist is a perfect representation of the paranoia the 16 English citizens faced. As he gets closer to the truth of the Party, he is discovered and captured by their all-seeing spies. The Party tortures all of its enemies to ensure their success, but Winston is lucky enough to offer the readers some insight as to the Party’s motives. Winston’s betrayer and captor, O’Brien, asks why he thinks the Party seeks power. He answers hesitantly that it is for the good of the people, to which O’Brien replies, “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power… pure power. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end” (Orwell 263). Orwell makes this point easy to understand: the Party does not and will not ever care about its citizens, only what it can rally its citizens to do. Conrad’s novel is a bit more convoluted in its language, but a lust for supremacy is a clear theme. Marlow tells his audience of the time he travelled with a Belgian trading company in Africa. As he offers his farewell to his aunt, she wishes him luck in reforming the inhabitants of the Africas, and he “ventured to hint that the company was run for profit” (Conrad 10). Marlow is well aware of the fact that the company exists to make money rather than to assist the natives, but is generally unconcerned as this is, after all, the point of a company. As the story goes on, however, we learn of one Mr. Kurtz, who is known not only for his brilliant speech but also for having “collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen [emphasis added] more ivory than all the other agents together” (Conrad 44), who “will be a somebody in administration before long. They, above… mean him to be” (Conrad 16). Despite the fact that Kurtz is dishonest and immoral, he is being polished for a position of greater power because of his results. The man has the Midas touch, and the company cannot resist such an opportunity to flood their coffers. It may be possible to do well by the natives and to make money, but the exponential increase in funding is all that matters.

Once Marlow returns from his venture, we learn more about Kurtz’s motives. He notes, “Indeed I don’t know whether he had not been a pauper all his life. He had given me some reason to infer that it was his impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there” (Conrad 70). For some, this may show that England’s imperialism is beneficial to the impoverished, but it is indeed quite the opposite. Kurtz was driven to absolute madness by the worship thrust upon him by fascinated natives and fat-wallet executives. Marlow watches as Kurtz suffers, fighting with his very soul for the wretch he has become in the wilderness, and acknowledges that the man himself was not entirely at fault for all that had taken place there. Men like Kurtz would be exactly what the company has been seeking: a pauper having spent his life in misery, willing to do anything to earn his love’s hand and to give her a marvelous life. They purposely overlook the mental and emotional toll that the jungle takes on the unprepared explorers. For some insight as to why this is, consider the words of Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein. Goldstein is the author of a meta-novel within 1984 whose arguments mirror those of Orwell himself. His novel explains, “The competition for raw materials is no longer a matter of life and death. Each [superstate]… can obtain almost all of the materials that it needs within its own boundaries… It is a war for labor… cheap labor” (Orwell 187). Like all of the slaves worked until they crawl off to die, Conrad’s Kurtz and Orwell’s citizens exist only to provide the largest margin of profit as is possible for their respective masters. This is the reason (apart from the racism of imperialist England) for Marlow’s focus on the impact of colonialism on the colonialists rather than their unfortunate captives. The enslavement, rape, and slaughter of whole populations is something that most people can identify as appalling when they are made to stand back from the situation. It is more difficult to grasp the parallel systematic oppression of one’s own people.

In a similar vein, it is a notable difference between the two novels in that Conrad portrays his fallen villain as having been driven to madness in order to create some sympathy for him, such that he may be seen as human whether he is forgiven or not. In contrast, O’Brien and the Party are intentionally refused this treatment. They are no longer human, living only as cold tools in an unforgiving machine. This is not a contradiction between the two but rather a development of one from the other. Conrad laments the tortures forced upon a people whose government begins to think in their own interests over those of their people. Orwell takes it a step further, supplying a protagonist who faces enslavement by a government allowed to continue in said fashion for so long that the population is powerless to fight back. Their representatives become hungry pawns void of all morals who exist solely for their purpose in bolstering the cycle.

A similar change overcomes any innocent citizen unfortunate enough to cross these corrupt institutions. Marlow’s transformation is far simpler than Winston’s. He returns to the city and attempts to fit back into society, but as he walks the streets he finds himself thinking, “They could not possibly know the things I knew… Going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety… like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend” (Conrad 66). Like Marlow’s aunt, the average citizen has absolutely no idea what horrors are taking place across the globe. Respectable people, with lives and loves, are being degraded into insanity until they finally break and leave the world in a flurry of self-hatred and guilt. Winston, on the other hand, is captured for his crime of plotting with those that stand up against the Party and tortured, as mentioned above. This continues until O’Brien manages to completely reform his mind. By the end of 1984, Winston has lost all interest in that which once seemed pleasurable or even necessary. He has no desire to see his conspirators or his lover, he drowns himself in alcohol to forget what he has endured. But even worse than these, he has lost 19 his individuality. He is as the rest of the crowd, accepting and even cherishing the lies handed to him.

While each novel standing on its own offers a partial picture of England’s most recent fears, they combine to show an empire terrified of its government’s intentions. Tracing these through the decades between these books provides a jolting view of what an unregulated government can become. Nobody knows who can truly be trusted. People are afraid that they are living their lives exclusively to fund an insatiable war machine concerned only with expanding its claim rather than improving quality of life as a government should. And perhaps most terrifying of all, they feel that they may be losing their senses of self, becoming no more than the pawns they are treated to be. Both Conrad and Orwell do an excellent job of exposing the powerserving-power dynamic that has ended so many civilizations. Ultimately, the utter dissatisfaction of the people brings uprising that hopes to balance the scales so heavily weighted against the population. Orwell, however, has one last question for the readers, for the people of today, for those inevitably trapped in the same cycle. What happens when the power gap expands so completely that any uprising can be quenched in an instant, turned to ash by an uncaring corporation of a government?