Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Racism or Reality?

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 Heart of Darkness was written in 1899 by Joseph Conrad, a Polish-German author. The novel captures a moment in a time of imperialism and colonialism; a time where racism was very prevalent among Europeans. Chinua Achebe deems Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as racist in his essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” While racism is, indeed, entrenched in the novel, Conrad seems to be exploring the limits of humanity and exposing the horrific treatment of the Congolese. During the eighteenth century, imperialism was viewed as a sign of progress. This idea of progress is shown through characters such as Marlow’s aunt, who believes colonialism to be a moral, civilizing mission. Conrad is inviting readers to question how far humanity has progressed if that is how people are treated. According to Matthew C. Connolly in “The Research Society for Victorian Periodicals,” it is “important to situate the extent and restrictions of Heart of Darkness’s anti-imperialist stance within the [Edinburgh] magazine’s broader narrative about empire” because the magazine was known for supporting “aggressive imperial policy” and “justifying war in the name of resource accumulation” (76). The story was first written by Conrad specifically for the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine which had suspicious upper-middle class members, unwilling to accept change (Connolly 76). According to Connolly, Conrad was still establishing his reputation as an author, and saw an opportunity to gain recognition as a serious writer in a popular market while earning a living (77). The magazine’s political values, at the time contradicted Conrad’s personal opinions. Indeed, Achebe raises some excellent points in  “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” however, what Achebe may be failing to recognise, is that Conrad is exposing the effects of imperial progress and critiquing imperialism for being unjustifiably violent, despite the limitations of his time and culture. (307)

 Certainly, Conrad represents Africa as a savage place without language, as Achebe suggests; however, he is exposing the effects of imperial progress. For example, Achebe says “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization” and “we are told that “going up that river was travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world. Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad?” (15). I think what Achebe is missing is that readers are meant to see the parallel between the Congo and England. Furthermore, it was meant to imply that it was England who benefitted materially and economically from its colonial enterprise. So to say that one river is more useful than the other is accurate. England was exploiting the Congo as a place of trade by which the ivory, rubber, and other materials were exported to Europe. Achebe is troubled by Conrad’s representation of Africa as a savage place without language. Achebe’s points are that Africans are not depicted as they actually are; they are presented as passive recipients of colonization, who are incomprehensible, and dehumanized rather than complex human beings. Achebe wants to shine the light on that. For example, whenever the Congolese appear in the novella, they are just clapping hands or stamping feet, depicted as incomprehensible and puppet-like. Everything is always less than. The Africans are also depicted as incapable of communication, or at least the way the West can. When they do speak, it’s grunting or sounds and dialects, not a unique language they all speak. This is all troubling for Achebe. People have many discussions of Conrad and not about that the way he depicts Africans. He raises some excellent points about the concerns with depiction of Africa and the Congolese people. However, readers are meant to see the way Europeans viewed Africans. Indeed, the depiction of Africans in Heart of Darkness is racist, but Conrad intentionally wrote that way to demonstrate the way Africans were viewed by Europeans at that time, ultimately demonstrating the effects of imperial progress (363).

Does the author share the same opinions and experiences as the narrator? No, Conrad is demonstrating the violence and mistreatment of the Congolese, as well as the attitudes of people in the eighteenth century through the narrators. Achebe contends that, “Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his story. He has, for example, a narrator behind a narrator” (19). Conrad had actually been there and done similar things. So in this sense, it could appear he is deflecting his own thoughts. However, his experiences in Africa were really quite different from the narrators. Harry White and Irving L. Finston point out in “The Two River Narratives in Heart of Darkness,” Conrad did not voyage on the same river in Africa that Marlow took (1). In fact, there were many well-established settlements and people along the way up the Roi des Belges on Conrad’s voyage according to Sherry, which indicates “it was nothing like the “mysterious and dangerous journey” Marlow undertakes, since the Congo was not a “deserted stretch of water with an occasional station ‘clinging to the skirts of the unknown’” (qtd. in White and Finston 2). Conrad portrayed a terrible reality of the European exploitation of the Congo. For example, Conrad not only forgoes any impressionistic or vague formulations, but he makes it clear to his readers that he is doing so: “To speak plainly, he [Kurtz] raided the country” There is no fogginess at these points in the narrative” (White and Finston 7). While Conrad may have admired explorers to some extent, “he felt the desire for riches could be redeemed if it resulted in mutually beneficial trade which colonial and imperial powers could establish round the globe if they were prepared to institute and maintain sound and fair commercial policies and administrative methods” (White and Finston 37). What Conrad “utterly abhorred was riches acquired by simply looting people and their land for greed, and using violence which presumed itself to be more civilized than any in human history” (White and Finston 37). According to White and Finston, Conrad claims the “moral atmosphere” of Heart of Darkness is that the novella reveals what happens when there is no “honourable reciprocity of services” and that the “abandonment of those principles lies at the heart of darkness that overtook Africa after the white men conquered it” (38). For example, “the savagery of Africa” is considered to be “largely responsible for getting the better of Kurtz when in fact Conrad showed, in line with his themes regarding trade, conquest, and looting, that the fateful decisions Kurtz makes reflect what the Europeans, and not the natives, were doing in Africa” (White and Finston, 38). Clearly, Conrad is critiquing imperialism for being unjustifiably violent based on the myth that Europeans are superior and, therefore, have the right to show the Congolese the “light,” when really it is about exploitation.

Indeed, Conrad could have just written the facts of his voyage in an autobiography, but he wanted people to know these horrible attitudes the Europeans had toward Aficans. He wants it recorded that the colonizers are blatantly murdering people. But, Conrad also lives in a time that he has to accept colonization. Conrad is a product of his time, that way of speaking about non-Westerners was normal. Conrad was part of the movement that criticized the practices in the Congo. Is Achebe perhaps being too critical of it? If readers simply look at literature as a work of that time, then it is not, but rather a way of understanding progress which should be discussed. How possible was it for Conrad to say imperialism is immoral and be the lone voice in that? It was a dominant idea that colonialism was a good thing. Those racist words were the words people would recognize and understand in that time. Without the descriptors, would the book have had the same effect? Undoubtedly, Achebe made some compelling points in  “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” however, what Achebe may be failing to recognise, is that Conrad is exposing the effects of imperial progress and critiquing imperialism for being unjustifiably violent despite the limitations of his time and culture.

Works Cited

  • Achebe, Chinua. “An image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.The Massachusetts Review 57, no. 1, 2016, pp. 14-27.
  • Connolly, Matthew. “”But the narrative is not gloomy”: Imperialist Narrative, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and the Suitability of Heart of Darkness in 1899.” Victorian Periodicals Review, 49, no. 1, 2016, pp. 76-99.
  • Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness” Heart of Darkness, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 1999.
  • White, Harry and Irving L. Finston. “The Two River Narratives in Heart of Darkness.” Conradiana, 42, no. ½, 2010, pp. 1-43. 

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