Marlow and Mrs. Moore

John A. McClure writes in Kipling and Conrad that "as the twentieth century opened, the artists and intellectuals of the age increasingly came to believe that imperial rule, if inevitable in the short run, was an inglorious enterprise that deformed both those who ruled and those who submitted" (153). Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster were among these artists and each expressed their misgivings about the "inglorious enterprise" and its "deforming" effects in Heart of Darkness and A Passage to India respectively. I will attempt to analyze some of these effects among a range of British characters in both novels in terms of the connections between ideologically motivated cultural assumptions, personal attitudes and behavior, and psychological crisis.

Vladimir Lenin describes imperialism in his work Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism as the "product of highly developed industrial capitalism. It consists in the striving of every industrial capitalist nation to bring under its control or to annex larger and larger areas of...territory, irrespective of what nations inhabit those regions" (155). When the industrial nation allows its citizens to settle in the conquered territory the area is then a colony and the settlers are colonizers whereas the people native to the area are the colonized. The fundamental motive of imperialism and colonialism is economic: profits are large because investment in the conquered area is nil and native labor is cheap, and this situation is maintained by depriving the colonized peoples of political and economic rights. However, as James Kavanagh points out in his essay "Ideology," such a "social situation embodies an implicit tension that can at any time erupt into open conflict, and thus every class society has certain repressive mechanisms (police, armies, courts) force social subjects to accept the relations of subordination and dominance between classes" (308). But ideology, defined by Webster's Dictionary as "the integrated assertions, theories, and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program," is a more efficient way to manage social contradictions because it provides a comprehensive picture of the society in which social and economic inequalities are represented as natural and inevitable. The aim is to make the subordinate classes feel it would be futile to attempt to change their situation and "dominant-class subjects themselves are freer to believe that their wealth and power are after all justified" (Kavanagh, 309).

Much of the standard British ideology regarding the Empire runs along the lines of 'Britian is the most highly developed civilization in the world and we are actually elevating the people of the regions we control through their exposure to us and our culture,' so that the British and the native peoples are both encouraged to view the imperialistic relationship as good for everyone. Yet, at the same time, a system of cultural assumptions is put forth based on emphasizing and exaggerating the differences between the colonized and colonizer and citing these differences as evidence that the colonizer is "naturally" suited to govern as the colonized is to be governed (Memmi, 71). This strategy can take the form of rascism since ethnicity and/or skin color are often the most immediately observable differences between the two groups.

The relations between the colonizer and the colonized affect both psychologically. Heart of Darkness and A Passage to India feature British characters who have internalized the ideological assumptions of their natural superiority to the Africans and Indians respectively yet many, when actually carrying out their imperialistic duties distant from the mother culture, often find their assumptions strained not only because of the stress of the tropics but also because these assumptions are not inherently "true" but are components of a version of reality that justify the British Empire's existence. The characters in both novels deal differently with the fundamental contradiction between systematic dehumanization for economic gain and the ideological justification of "civilizing" the natives. For some, the received cultural asssumptions become more entrenched as E. M. Forster so clearly shows in his portraits of the members of the English Club in Chandrapore. Others are not able to resolve the contradictions and sink into madness, as Kurtz does in Heart of Darkness, or are not able to recover from disillusion like Mrs. Moore. Still others experience a psychological crisis like Miss Quested and Marlow but learn to live with their revelations.

Many of the novels'characters, under the stress of representing the Empire in a "foreign" culture, take the British cultural assumptions wholly to heart. The brickmaker of the Central Station, in describing Kurtz to Marlow, sums up the British rationale: "He is an emissary of pity and science and progress...the cause intrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose" (92). Yet, the company Doctor warns Marlow before he leaves for Africa about the way the Europeans in the colonies really behave. The Doctor says those who go to the colonies are changed psychologically, "the changes take place inside, you know" (75), and he warns Marlow to "avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun" (76). Journeying with Marlow up the river, the reader does indeed meet a number of men who lose control and take out their frustration on the natives. Among these is Fresleven, the captain Marlowe replaces, described as "the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs" (72) who nevertheless beats a village chief savagely in a minor dispute. McClure concurs that this pattern is typical: "the victims of imperial invasion are made to pay for the frustrations of the invaders" (134). Yet, beyond the physical acts of excessive cruelty, many of the European characters express deep loathing for the natives. The Company's chief accountant, whom Marlow admires for his discipline, exclaims "When one has to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages-hate them to the death" (84-5). No one but Marlow questions such sentiments as unjust or questions the assumptions on which they are based, thus the Europeans feel entitled to act cruelly and hate unreservedly.

The psychological stress placed on the British civil servants by the colonial structure is also evident in A Passage to India. Ronny Heaslop tells his mother, Mrs. Moore, when she first arrives in Chandrapore that there is a doubleness in everything a native says or thinks, and his mother replies, "You never used to judge people like this at home" to which Ronny responds "India isn't home" (33). Those who occupy the posts of authority like the Callenders and the Turtons epitomize the "ideal" British attitude as when Mrs. Turton reassures Mrs. Moore that "You're superior to everyone in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they're on an equality" (42). The long-time English colonialists continually warn Mrs. Moore, Miss Quested, and Fielding about the dangers of interacting with the natives in any social or intimate way because the contact may contaminate them for, as in Heart of Darkness, the implication is that any European who behaves badly must be infected with the native's moral degradation.

All of these attitudes mentioned in both novels wonderfully illustrate two psychological processes. One is examined in detail by Albert Memmi in The Colonizer and the Colonized. He explains that " to be a colonizer means to be a nonlegitimate privileged person...[and all actions are geared to]...transforming his usurpation into legitimacy" (52). The way the colonizer does this is to extol his own merits to the skies and "harp on the usurped's demerits, so deep that they cannot help leading to misfortune" (53). And of course, the more the colonizer convinces himself of the despicability of the colonized, the more he himself becomes a tyrant. The second process is really a mirror image of the first but serves to reinforce it. V. G. Kiernan expresses the idea well: "By thinking the worst of their subjects they avoided having to think badly of themselves. Even years later when they were on better terms with their consciences, Englishmen went on thinking of Indians as hopelessly demoralized by climate, or social habits, or ages of Oriental misrule, and therefore permanently in need of foreign tutelage" (35). A cycle is set up in which the native is criticized so that the colonizer must crack down, yet the colonizer can never examine his own cruelty because the colonized is so reprehensible. The original and primary motive of wealth for England gained at the expense of exploiting the natives made such attitudes necessary for the British, to justify their actions to the world but also, and most importantly, to themselves, for to question these received assumptions is to question one's cultural and personal identity.

Kurtz embodies the extreme case of European imperialist motives and thus their most destructive effects. He believes equally in the rhetorical motives of imperialism as well as the actual motives and methods, and the inherent contradictions drive him mad. Kurtz expresses the official ideological line in advocating that the Europeans should appear as Gods to the Africans because "in the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded" (123), yet he obviously fully embraces the actual accumulation of raw wealth when he sighs over his "ivory" (121), and he knows the human exploitation such extraction of raw wealth really involves when he writes "Exterminate all the brutes!" (123). Though Kurtz's excessive appetites are continually compared to those of the natives, the reader eventually learns that his appetites actually go beyond all restraint and satisfaction because even the cannibals accompanying Marlow exercise self-control. Therefore, Kurtz's madness is less brought on by his actual interaction with the natives and due more to the ideological necessity to impugn the colonized with undesirable qualities. Kurtz eventually identifies with this projection until he begins to become the "native" himself, but he is not imitating the native, as I've shown, because the colonial system itself demands that the colonized exaggerate and mislabel the native's "defects" in a degree on level with the intensity of exploitation. Rather, Kurtz imitates the British "idea" of the native; he "goes native" within the darkness projected by the British psyche itself. This process is explained by Francoise Melzter in her interpretation of Lacan's maxim that "the unconscious is the discourse of the Other": "The way the Subject views, and projects upon, an Other will yield a clue concerning the Subject's relationship to his unconscious wishes and desires...[and this is the place]...where the Subject does not recognize himself" (158). McClure agrees with this idea when he writes that the novel suggests the "European characters acquire their lusts for wealth and power in Europe, where these lusts are also contained. Then they come to the colonial world in search of freedom that will allow these lusts to be expressed...[and] they find it" (142), thus "the forces that brutalize [in the novel]...are at the heart of European civilization" (143). When Kurtz psychologically identifies with the Other, the line between the Subject and Object/Other thins out, finally dissolves, and he goes insane.

Other British characters in both novels perceive the dichotomy between the reality and actuality of colonial life and allow the knowledge to change their outlook in more positive ways. Mrs. Moore, Miss Quested, and Marlow all experience a measure of disillusionment when they realize that the professed moral purpose of colonialism conflicts with the actual practices. Mrs. Moore is the least successful of these. Her experience in the Marabar Caves leads to the loss of her Christian optimism and cultural idealism. And since she represents in the novel the "humane" British colonialist, her disillusion with her own personal psychological constructs, which are entwined with British culture and identity, extends to the general insight that Britain is not embarked on a noble, civilizing mission in India and that the exploitation inherent in the colonial system is neither useful for the British nor for the Indians. Yet, her age and health prevent her from adjusting to this psychological blow and she dies soon after.

Miss Quested is not so much radically dislillusioned as slowly transformed and the reader senses her transformation continues after she returns to England. What happens to her in the Caves can also be read as an encounter with her subconscious in the form of the projected Other, represented by Aziz, colored by the ideological assumptions of the British colonialist. The nature of her conversation with Aziz before she enters a Cave indicates anxiety about her upcoming marriage to Ronny and, in fact, she realizes she doesn't really love him. There is also the suggestion that she may feel apprehensive about the sexual obligations of marriage. These thoughts are in her mind when she enters the Cave and perhaps the claustrophobic atmosphere inside it leads her to imagine a scenario with Aziz that doesn't really happen. Yet the fact that she mistakenly imagines that Aziz molested her is not only due to her own anxieties regarding sex and marriage but also arises from the European cultural assumption that "the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa" as McBryde says during Aziz's trial (219). Miss Quested has internalized this assumption, as well as being overtly warned by the other colonialists of the untrustworthiness of the Indians, so in a moment of heightened anxiety and disorientation she projects her fear of sexual union and marriage by imagining she must fight off Aziz, a person her culture has taught her will always want her sexually. But as the novel progresses, she sorts out her feelings and not only rightly acquits Aziz but also comes to terms with the realization that she doesn't want to marry Ronny and become what she perceived about the other colonialists from the beginning: They are paranoid, cruel, and misguided. She rejects colonialism not because of a reasoned understanding of its defects but because she realizes it hardens and distorts those who maintain it.

Marlow undergoes a similar transformation. His journey up the river to the Central Station to meet Kurtz is a journey to the rotten heart of colonialism. He reexamines every tenet of colonial ideology, going back and forth in arguments with himself between the rhetoric of Europe's "civilizing mission" and the realities of brutality and exploitation. In his internal dialogue, he admits over and over to the realization that the Africans are not beasts but are just as human as he is and Europeans are not morally beyond the level of savagery that they claim of the Africans. McClure writes, "Like those Americans who went to Vietnam out of a mixture of curiosity, idealism, and adventurousness, Marlow finds himself involved in a "conspiracy" that violates every value he respects and does so, incredibly, in the name of these very values...until at last Marlow comes to doubt all assertions of benevolence, all promises of progress" (145). Marlow is disillusioned by his glimpse of the reality behind the pretence but values his insights as important if painful knowledge. He describes his experience to his campanions on the Nellie, "It was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me-and into my thoughts" (70). After struggling with the contradictions between "selfish and ruthless economic motives...[and the way they] employ the rhetoric of morality as a mask" (McClure, 146), Marlow comes to understand both the reality of imperialism beyond the ideology and the corruption of the men who participate in it and he diagnoses the problem in both cases as a lack of restraint. When Kurtz ceases to exercise restraint, he becomes a brute himself, and when Western civilization does not exercise restraint it systematically brutalizes other peoples and cultures. Marlow also hints at the need for a real faith unconnected to economic gain. He is horrified by Kurtz as the "mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear" (144). Perhaps it is sincere spiritual striving that really civilizes people.

Ideology is part of everyone's cultural identity and filters our impressions of the world around us. Oftentimes, only when people are in extreme curcumstances that seem to contradict their assumptions do people become conscious of them and sometimes, like Marlow and Miss Quested, realize that these assumptions are wrong. Both Conrad and Forster illustrate in these two novels that when injustice is perpetrated on such a grand scale as was done in the British Empire, everone is affected, everyone is guilty and no one can afford the luxury of an unexamined life.


Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Signet Classic, 1983.

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1952.

Kavanagh, James T. "Ideology." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Kiernan, V. G. The Lords of Human Kind. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969.

McClure, John A. Kipling and Conrad. Cambridge, MA: Harvard

Meltzer, Francoise. "Unconscious." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. New York: The Orion Press, Inc., 1965.

© 1995 Shirley Galloway

Back to Lit List