In Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, he uses a variety of techniques amongst characters to bring forth his critical stance towards Victorian and Imperialistic ideologies, which was embedded in the society in which he lived. While Conrad uses the central character Kurtz to convey much of his criticism towards the European mindset, "All of Europe went into the making of Kurtz." (66), he uses an assortment of minor characters throughout the pages to express his socio/historical commentary. By using the minor characters, Conrad is able to give different perspectives on Victorian life and the effects of Imperialism.
One minor character that Conrad uses to express his feelings towards Victorian Imperialism is Marlow's aunt, "a dear and enthusiastic soul." (23). Marlow's aunt represents Victorianism in a number of different ways through her actions and statements. Early in the story, Marlow wants to find work as a steamship captain, so he turns to his aunt who responds with a letter stating "It will be delightful. I am ready to do anything, anything for you." (23). This shows the important bond that family shares within Victorian society. Marlow's aunt states that she is willing to do anything for him, using her power and her connections due to their blood relation. On the other end of the spectrum, all Marlow wanted was help finding work on a steamship, yet Marlow's aunt almost treats it as if it's a lot more important than it actually is. Her specific wording makes it seem forced and fake.
Marlow's aunt goes on to explain in the letter how she knows "the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots of influence" (23). This passage almost seems as if Marlow's aunt is bragging about the important connections that she has, displaying her Victorian style by implying that she herself is of value due to the people that she's in contact with. Marlow ends up paraphrasing her letter, by saying "etc. etc." (23) This technique shows that his aunt rambled more about the different people that she knew that could possibly get Marlow a job. The fact that Marlow said "etc." twice, indicates that he was making fun of his aunt's long-winded rambling and saw through her forced Victorianism and didn't put much thought into what she was saying. It's as if Marlow's aunt was trying to impress him, which was a technique that Conrad used to expose how phony some elements of Victorian culture were, in that Marlow's aunt was trying to impress her own nephew; her own family.
In the next paragraph, Marlow states "I got my appointment â of course; and I got it very quick." (23). This shows that his aunt was actually able to help him, once again displaying the importance of the familial bond in the Victorian era. Marlow states "of course" in an arrogant fashion, as if it wasn't a big deal for his aunt to get him the interview for the job, and it almost sounds spoiled. Though by understanding Marlow's character of having "The pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes" (21), one can infer that Marlow wasn't arrogant in his statement, he just knew that his aunt would go out of her way to make sure that she could help him out. She wanted to be successful in helping Marlow to heighten the image of herself, Marlow was confident that she would do anything she could to be there; to be important. Also, the fact that Marlow received the interview very quick shows that she wasted no time in trying to prove that she could help assist Marlow and that she was of value.
Marlow ends up getting the job on the steamship and decides to say goodbye to his aunt before he sets off. When he visits her, he has a cup of tea with her, "The last decent cup of tea for many days" (27). The act of having tea is essential to Victorian life, and his aunt seems really adamant in displaying the art of having tea time, due to her engaging in it when Marlow comes to say goodbye. They also have tea by a fireplace (27) which seems completely stereotypical of the era, however Marlow's aunt is only representative of the society, and seemingly a slave to their little traditions and rituals.
During the fireside conversation between Marlow and his aunt, she expresses how she wants Marlow to be an "emissary of light" and spoke of how Marlow will be "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways." (27). This displays Marlow's aunt's view of Imperialism, and how she wants Marlow to be an ambassador, spreading Western culture and saving the African natives from their terrible lives. Marlow goes on to express how she made him uncomfortable, thus displaying Conrad's ideologies of Imperialism through Marlow rebuking his aunt's fascination of him helping and saving the "lost" by implementing his culture on them.
In regards to true Imperialism, all is explained in Patrick Brantlinger's cultural criticism on Heart of Darkness when he states "Among the "faithless pilgrims," there are only false ideals and the false religion of self-seeking. "To tear treasure of the bowels of the land was the desire," says Marlow, "with no More moral purpose(Conrad 46)" (Brantlinger 284). This coupling of quotes in Heart of Darkness explains the true nature of Imperialism, seeking everything for personal gain of the nation, instead of spreading the wealth.
Marlow's aunt exhibits a dreamlike-romantic view of the era in which she lived, blinded to the reality of how it actually is. She sees Marlow benefiting the natives that are suffering, taking his God-given blessings and sharing them, however this viewpoint of Imperialism was misconstrued, and not what was actually going on.
Through minor characters, Conrad is easily able to express his viewpoints on Imperialism and Victorian society. Whether it's through a character's simple gestures, or long fabricated statements, he expresses his critical stance on what was occurring during the era.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 2nd Ed. Boston: Bedford Books 1996
Brantlinger, Patrick. "Cultural Criticism". Heart of Darkness. 2nd Ed. Boston: Bedford Books 1996. 277-298