An Exploration of Racism in Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conradr’s Heart of Darkness has been analyzed and critiqued for its misrepresentation of the African race. Some critics have even gone so far as to say that the whole piece itself is racist. While Conrad was not solely responsible for the xenophobic image of Africa, his writing did seem to support the stereotype of the native people.
Nevertheless, Conrad was writing at a time when the historical representation of Africans had always been primarily depicted as racist. It is also safe to assume that Conrad failed to delineate Africans properly because he recognized little of their culture. This could be due to the fact that his time on the Congo was spent mostly with white men. While Conradr’s text can be difficult to comprehend and does have certain racist elements, this does not mean the author was racist and wrote Heart of Darkness with racist intentions; on the contrary, it is presumed that Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness to show the wicked ways of the Europeans, not to scrutinize Africans.
In a literary piece titled An Image of Africa: Racism in Conradr’s ‘Heart of Darkness by Chinua Achebe, Achebe writes about Conradr’s work being opened up on the River Thames, which is calm and tranquil; however, the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames (15). Achebe argues that Conrad is not worried so much about the differences of the two, as he is worried about the kinship between them (15). Before Thames was at the point of peace, it was seen as one of the dark places of the earth (Conrad 75). The thought of the Thames going back into its state of darkness is what Conrad seems to be most concerned for, as he seems to say that darkness never really leaves; Marlow, a character from the book, states, it is like a running blaze in a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! (76). From this, it seems that Marlow is saying that the state they are in right now is the flicker of light in the midst of the darkness. This darkness mainly resides in the wicked hearts of people and, if not taken care of properly, can be released again. Marlow has seen this type of darkness first hand from the Congo and all its atrocities. Obviously it is not that Africa is a place that turns men wicked; however, Africa seems to be a place where wicked men do not curb their corrupt behavior. By seeing this, Marlow has a sense of prejudice due to his ignorance of the matter, and because he has had no other experiences to base them off of, so he hastily makes his own conclusions on others.
A prime example that Conrad uses to display not only Marlowr’s bias, but to express his own empathy for the situation is the fireman. The fireman is an African who has been trained to operate the boatr’s boiler. While watching him, Marlow refers to the fireman as an improved specimen (Conrad 99) and he thinks there’s an evil spirit inside who gets angry if its not given enough water. Marlow also gives a very harsh description of the fireman, referring to him as a dog dressed like a person. Despite this unfavorable description, it seems that Marlow sympathizes with the fireman. Marlow feels that the fireman would be better off with his relatives instead of being seperated from them and forced to work for the Europeans (Conrad 100). This statement from Marlow was most likely sincere, as Achebe states, For Conrad things being in their place is of the utmost importance (18). When things are where they are supposed to be, it helps relieve future conflict that could arise; however, when people, or things, are placed where they do not belong it can cause chaos to erupt.
Had Europeans decided not to colonize Africa, many of the events and tragedies discussed in Heart of Darkness would have been completely avoided. This fact seems to uphold the idea that Conrad felt that Europeans had no right being in Africa; furthermore, in Paranoia and Pain in Joseph Conradr’s Heart of Darkness author Al-Assad Omar quotes, In this short novel, he dramatized his own confiding attitudes toward passion and reason, savagery and civilization (1). Conrad may have felt that Heart of Darkness was the most effective way to express his views on the situation. None of the Europeans depicted in Heart of Darkness seem interested in helping or educating the Africans; instead, most of them ignore the anguish around them and continue to pursue their own personal endeavors. The fact that Conrad decided to portray the Europeans in such a negative light seems to suggest that he disagreed with their being in Africa and hoped to share his feelings on the subject. In an analysis of Joseph Conrad and his works, Aaron Records states the following on Conrad: I surmise that arguments of intention are dangerous and that no one should make them because they are largely insupportable. If anything, an argument of intention has all the qualities of prejudice and once investigated, seems just as absurd as arguments for racism (159). The statement made by Records debunks the claim that Conradr’s writing was intentionally racist. With no evidence to back up the claims, they are not valid. Furthermore, Achebe uses the argument that because Conrad lacks focus on the African characters Heart of Darkness has a racist nature; however, Conrad choosing to show the savagery of the Europeans on the French Ship seems much more appropriate to cover. Marlow describes the scene; In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent (82). The thought of a French warship approaching a small village with spears and arrows seems a tad extreme. This treatment of the natives further shows the crude behavior of the whites. When he first sees the ship, Marlow sees a gang of Africans who look to be severely overworked and malnourished. As the ship passes by, all the Africans seem to be unphased by Marlowr’s presence despite being in close proximity to him. Their lack of regard for Marlow shows their paucity of connection for the moment and just how their treatment on the ship had made them lose all connection with their surroundings.
Again seeing the harsh realities of the situation, Marlow sees the impact Europe had on the natives. He states, They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation (84). Marlow implies in this passage that the natives were mistreated, used relentlessly for labor until they were spent, at which point they were “allowed” by the civilized whites to crawl into the grove of death to die. At this point, Marlow seems to have a revelation. He sees these Africans in a new light than before, and acknowledges their pain. Not only does Marlow make note of the Africans on the ship, he also observes cannibals that he seems to have high regards for.
Marlow begins to give insights into some of the Africans that crew his ship. He states of the cannibals, fine fellows cannibals – in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them (98). The fact that Marlow places such an importance on the value of work, and that he describes the Africans as men one could work with seems to show the level of respect he has for them. To flip the situation around, there is never an instance where Marlow describes any of the Europeans as people he could see himself working with. In fact, there is another altercation in the novella where the Europeans take food from a group of cannibals and throw it overboard. When this happens, Marlow wonders why the cannibals have such restraint over themselves and states, It takes man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly (103).
The restraint demonstrated by the cannibals has a huge contrast to the pilgrims and Marlow even comments on how unwholesome the pilgrims looked (103). The fact that Marlow viewed the cannibals with such high esteem and the Europeans with such low disregard furthermore highlights the feelings Conrad had toward the Europeans.
For this particular situation, Marlow wants to highlight the overwhelming dissimilarities between the Africans and the Europeans. The Africans show striking uprightness in not eating the Europeans; especially because they had them outnumbered thirty to five (103). Perceived to be vicious, one would not think that cannibals can have integrity; however, Conrad shows that they can. As time goes on, Marlow starts to see the Africans for who they truly are and understand that they are not the ones who are always in the wrong. In a text written about Heart of Darkness, author Glen Retief states the following, First, Heart of Darkness, is in many ways, the quintessential narrative of Africa written by an outsider: both Conrad and Marlow know nothing of the Congo beyond what they have read in newspapers and books (225). Many time, when someone does not have enough knowledge on a particular situation, they can tend to make their own assumptions; while this is not right, it does not necessarily make that person a vicious person, it just makes them ignorant to the subject and shows they need to be informed about it. In a novel about racism titled The Bluest Eyes, author Toni Morrison states, Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses and hang on, or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment (17). This quote can be used to describe the African situation for how they were perceived. They were not of a high-class and were often looked down upon, and because of this, they were always easy targets for others to make their presumptions and cast judgment.
To say that Heart of Darkness is an intentionally racist text would be a far cry from what many see as Joseph Conradr’s true intentions for the novel. While it does have a tendency to focus on, and give insights, into European characters while demeaning Africans, this is not due to racism, but a calculated attempt to illustrate the cruel behavior of the European characters. Conrad shows the hard truth of how many Europeans act when they are freed from the restraints of society and in this process, he also shows that the ones being portrayed as savages are the ones who are not the troublemakers. Many revert back to animalistic behaviors and doing things spitefully, while the savage African cannibals show restraint even when they are provoked by the Europeans. Joseph Conrad was trying to show the reality of European imperialism, that for the most part, would have gotten overlooked and ignored by society. His stance for the topic shows that he was not scared to write about the truth, whether it was good or bad. The true message behind Heart of Darkness is not racism, but that power corrupts even what the world sees as the best of people and nations. There is always two sides to every story, and sometimes the good that we see, is underlined with miles of evil that is just waiting to be opened up. There is darkness inside every individual. Whether or not a person frees their darkness is an eternal decision they must make.
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