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Humanitarianism and Joseph Conrad


When most people read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for class, they finish the novel, maybe write an essay about it, and leave it at that. Erica Ivins ’21, however, took the extra step and designed a research project around Conrad’s life, flew to England, and had a “one-on-one” with Conrad by examining his personal letters in London and Oxford.

Since reading Heart of Darkness for an English course in high school, Ivins has questioned whether Conrad had a humanitarian agenda in writing the book. The novel details the nineteenth-century voyage of the fictional Charles Marlow up the Congo River, highlighting themes of racism and imperialism along the way. According to Ivins, Conrad scholars have long debated Conrad’s intentions in writing the piece, and as a fan of the novel, Ivins wanted to research Conrad’s aims herself. She said, “I couldn’t help but feel that if this [book] was so disturbing for me, Joseph Conrad must’ve been disturbed into writing it.”  

about Erica Ivins ’21

Majors: History, archaeology

Hometown: West Boylston, Mass.

High School: Wachusett Regional High School

read about other student research projects

Ivins described her research project as one that addresses “political issues, a literary outlook, and a historical outlook.” In learning more about Conrad, she has analyzed late nineteenth-century humanitarian politics and Conrad’s involvement in them, read Conrad’s other works and his correspondence with others, and applied details of Conrad’s life to the resources she has gathered.

Through her research, she concluded that though Conrad believed in humanitarian action, he did not believe in the politics surrounding the humanitarian movement. “He is a supporter of the humanitarian movement, but he doesn’t think that appealing to the government, appealing to the religious affiliations is going to be the way to target the audience and to make people question imperialism,” she said. Instead, Ivins argues, Conrad used literature to express his political frustrations.

For Ivins, one of the most fulfilling aspects of her research project was being able to come to her own informed conclusion about Conrad. In reading scholarly articles and traveling to both the British Library and Oxford University in search of primary documents, she felt more assured of her claims and as if she had gained valuable academic research experience. “…Being able to take this person who has been framed so many ways and being able to take my own framework on it was really fascinating,” she said.  Her adviser on the project is Kevin Grant, the Edgar B. Graves Professor of History.

Ivins’ interest in humanitarian issues extends across her academic and professional life. She said that part of the reason she chose to come to Hamilton was its history and acknowledgement of the college’s connections to the Oneida people. “We realize that it’s important to recognize that other people had this land before Samuel Kirkland, and that’s really important to me,” Ivins said.

From her career aspirations to her Conrad research, Ivins seeks to bring issues of inequality and human rights abuse to light. As a history and archaeology double major, she will ultimately continue to address humanitarian issues during her final years at Hamilton and into her subsequent work.

Ivins is one of 200 Hamilton students conducting research or completing an internship supported by the College this summer.

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