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English, Literary Criticism - Racism in Heart of Darkness


By Richard Gardner

Achebe viewed Conrad's portrayal of Africa as racist particularly if read as a psychological tale: "Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty mind?" How far do you agree?

Heart of Darkness is a novel written by Joseph Conrad at the turn of the century. It is contemporary to the time and deals with an array of difficult issues. The narrative is primarily told by a sailor called Marlow who recounts a journey to four men whilst sitting in a boat on the River Thames. In the voyage Marlow travels up the Belgian Congo with a group of white agents -pilgrims as he calls them - in search of an enigmatic man called Kurtz who runs the most successful ivory station in the region. As he progresses, he travels further not just into the heart of Africa but also deeper into his own consciousness and beliefs. On one level it is a psychological undressing of Marlow and how an ordinary sailor questions personal morals when confronted by the Darkness of Africa.

Marlow arrives at the Congo unacquainted with the area and its inhabitants. When he first comes across native Africans he appears fascinated by them and goes to great lengths to describe their appearance and actions. They have, 'faces like grotesque masks', (p30), and black cloths around their loins 'wagging to and fro like tails', (p33). This is an image Marlow will provoke again and again as the story progresses. By the time he reaches the inner station they are depicted as having, 'horned heads…a pendant tail', and uttering, 'words that resembled no human language…like the responses of some satanic litany', (p108). Why is Marlow trying to portray these natives as being satanic? He couldn't understand the language they spoke but surely he wouldn't describe them as resembling no 'human' language unless there were added meaning to the words. Marlow also refers to Kurtz as having 'taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land', (p81). Couldn't Marlow be suggesting that the whites are enlightened representing order whilst the blacks are satanic and represent chaos?

The jungles and natives of Africa are constantly referred to as being prehistoric, 'Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the earth', (p59). As they travel further into the darkness of Africa, the surroundings become more savage and primitive. The darkness represents areas outside of the British Empire with the colonisation of Africa bringing to them light. This is symbolised by Kurtz's oil painting, 'a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre - almost black'. It is also mentioned with Marlow's first words, 'And this also…has been one of the dark places of the earth', (p18). Here he is comparing the River Thames to the River Congo, saying that The Thames was once savage and unruly. He then goes on to talk about the Roman invaders coming to Britain and finding, 'precious little to eat fit for a civilised man', (p19). In this comparison with the Roman Empire Marlow is stating that the British were once 'savages' too, but since the Romans 'Light came out of this river', (p19).

Throughout the book there are numerous further examples of light contrasting with darkness, 'The light representing civilization or the civilized side of the world and the dark representing the uncivilized or savage side of the world', (University of Texas, 2002). The natives are cast as the savages, likened to prehistoric men, devils and referred to as inhuman. White is seen as enlightened and civil whilst black is savage and chaotic. Taken in this context, he would be saying that whites are completely the opposite of their black counterparts to the extent that he calls them human and inhuman. If this is the case then isn't what Marlow is implying distinctly racist?

There are several incidents in the book that cast shadows of doubt over the integrity of any suggestions that Heart of Darkness is racist. Upon the boat with Marlow and the pilgrims are a group of cannibals hired as crewmembers. Given that these people would be viewed as the epitome of savagery isn't it interesting that Marlow admires their fortitude? He wonders why they haven't killed and eaten him and the pilgrims when the cannibals outnumber them thirty-five to one. After considering this and how awful starvation is, 'It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly', (p71), he starts to look at the pilgrims in a new light saying they are 'unwholesome' and rather fittingly 'unappetising'. This represents a change in the way Marlow perceives both the natives and pilgrims, 'The cannibals seem to deal with the hardships of the voyage better than the pilgrims', (Marketgems, 2002).

Another incident where this change of feeling is furthered is the death of Marlow's helmsman. You always felt that he had a grudging respect for the man, even before his death he was referred to as 'an improved specimen: he could fire up a boiler', (p63). But it is only after he has dies that Marlow realises the 'subtle bond' that has developed between the two of them. He refers to the look they exchange when he 'received his hurt' as 'intimate'. He calls the helmsman a 'Poor fool!' for not leaving the shutter alone, surely such emotions convey a sense of grief with the passing of a man whom it appears Marlow had grown fond of. 'Marlow considers him a friend and partner', (Novelguide, 2002). These warm feelings cannot be associated with any of the whites he comes across on the journey, including Kurtz.

To describe Heart of Darkness, as racist on grounds that it doesn't portray a realistic interpretation of African people and is written purely as a psychological tale is missing several key points. The story is not written on a single level and deals with imperialism as well as psychology, the constant references to light and darkness are references to colonialism and cannot be ignored when reading the novel. The story may not convey a realistic image of Africa but it does convey what it is meant to, a story told by a storyteller and this is a journey as seen through Marlow's eyes. His attitude might seem racist and that is because he is a character representing an era particularly racist when judged against modern values. 'At the time Heart of Darkness was written, the British Empire was at its peak', (Sparknotes, 2002). Marlow is a creation (and to a greater extent the pilgrims) of existing norms and values present for young colonial men in turn of the century Africa.

The use of satanic images used in the story to represent tribesmen, may be little more than Conrad using this to express the feeling of fear the group of men would feel when surrounded by a hostile and unfamiliar situation. Although this is in my opinion the strongest indication of racism I have found in the book, I do not think that it can be judged racist on this alone.

To conclude, I feel that Conrad wrote a novel he intended to be studied. The strategic creation of a multi-layered narrative indicates that Conrad was trying to distance himself from something in the work. What this is will most probably never be known but he could just as easily be trying to disassociate himself from contemporary attitudes - that he has portrayed reasonably - than anything else. Conrad was 'Unique in his experience, his vision, his blend of racial characteristics and natural gifts', (Warner, p32). I personally do not think Conrad or the book were racist, rather it is a realistic account as seen through the eyes of a realistic character. The book undoubtedly has issues, but I believe these lie more with colonialism and its psychological effects than with anything else.

Word count: 1,275


- Joseph Conrad. (2000). Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Classics.

- Marketgems. Heart of Darkness. [Online]. (URL: Acessed 19th January 2002.
- Novelguide. Novel analysis: Heart of Darkness. [Online]. (URL: Acessed 19th January 2002.
- Sparknotes. Heart of Darkness. [Online]. (URL: Acessed 19th January 2002.
- University of Texas. (6th December 1995). Heart of Darkness. [Online]. (URL: Acessed 19th January 2002.
- Oliver Warner. (1960). Writers and their work. London: Unwin.