Analysis Of Joseph Conrad’s Novel Heart Of Darkness

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has invoked discussion, discourse and diverse interpretation as to its nature, purpose and intention. This is largely due to its ambiguity and equivocation. Two eminent scholars, namely Florian Krobb and Patrick Brantlinger have tried to deconstruct the ambiguity which cloaks this novel. This article aims to further their pursuit of analysing the novella, keeping in mind the arguments put forth by them. Florian Krobb, in his article “Imaginary Conquest and Epistemology in Nineteenth-Century Adventure Literature” (2016) talks about some of Conrad’s contemporaries-Verne, May and Twain among others, authors well-versed in the genre of adventure fiction. Krobb asserts that devices used by the authors such as science fiction are mere props to lure young readers of those times to peruse these novels.

Moreover, the characters are imbibed with attributes such as “bravery, endurance, resourcefulness, patriotism…” so that the readers can identify with these ‘role models’. However, these end up serving an entirely different purpose altogether. In the case of Verne’s Cinq semains en ballon, Krobb points out how Verne highlights the past exploits of predecessors, i.e., the European explorers who have traversed these paths before, instead of focusing on the main topic under consideration: Africa’s natural environment and economic value. When it comes to writing about Africa and its inhabitants, Verne resorts to age-old stereotypes about the continent, clichéd stories prevalent in Europe at that time. Verne is concerned with dispensing geographical and cartographical knowledge about Africa to his European young readers. He mainly writes about the exploration of Africa by the Europeans and his main motive is to enlighten Europe’s young readers about the exploits of Barth, Denton, et al., explorers who have visited Africa in the past.

Throughout this novel, Africa is seen from a European point of view, rather than as an independent entity, as if its existence is solely to satiate European mentalities. The emphasis is on “civilising” Africa, a statement of European superiority. Similar evidence of this is present in Heart of Darkness when Marlow makes an observation, “…they shouted periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language; and the deep murmurs of the crowd, interrupted suddenly, were like the responses of some satanic litany”. This is a classic example of Africa being seen from a European racist point of view. German novels belonging to this period of conquest of Africa are along similar lines. Two reputed German authors, Karl Burmann and Karl May’s novels regarding exploration in Africa are fraught with political overtones. Like Verne, their chief ulterior motive is to educate the German youth about the prospects of colonial expansion in Africa, by fabricating imaginary conquests in Africa. Their novels are replete with instances of the ‘backwardness’ of the indigenous peoples of Africa, and these novels seem to suggest ways to eradicate this primitiveness, reiterating their claim of European (here, specifically German) supremacy.

Rather chauvinistic, isn’t it? Now, Conrad in Heart of Darkness adopts a softer tone when it comes to emphasising the ‘backwardness’ of the Africans. Conrad, at times, sympathises with the predicament of the natives and even admires them. For example, Marlow observes,“…but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement…” when he sees a group of natives rowing a boat. This is different from the German novels, in which the ‘backwardness’ of the primitives was a given, a certitude unable to be refuted. Krobb cites an incident in Burmann’s book, Im Herzen von Afrika, to corroborate his claim; a native boy is taken under the apprenticeship of the German protagonists. In these highly bigoted and prejudiced novels, the German characters are to decide which natives will be their enemies and which ones their allies. May’s Sklavenkarawane goes a step further-it creates the perfect heroes, heroes skilled in various fields, superhumans even.

The German ‘superhumans’, so to speak, throw their weight around, policing the primitives, and in general, exercising their will. One can draw parallels here with a certain Mr. Kurtz, the antagonist in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Marlow’s fascination with him notwithstanding)-a megalomaniac, who coerces the natives to revere him as a god. Mr. Kurtz exercises undue influence over everything that happens at the Inner Station-he decides who lives and who dies. It has been argued that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is not based solely on his experiences in the Congo (an account of which is present in the Congo Diary) but draws heavily from press material and various other sources of those times.

The British press at that point of time had started divulging the atrocities carried out in King Leopold II’s territory of the Congo. The war between Leopold’s forces and the Arab slave-traders deserves a special mention here. Reports of cannibalism by officers, the press, etc. during that gory, unholy battle urged Conrad to include it as an integral part of his book. Brantlinger speculates that it may have been possible that multiple officers from this battle served as inspiration for the diabolical Kurtz. He gives examples of Arthur Hodister, Hinde and Captain Rom on whom Kurtz might have been modelled. Hinde wrote a particularly grotesque account on cannibalism during the war and it seems as if he relished every sadistic detail. Captain Rom went a step further and decorated his house with a ring of heads of twenty-one natives. Similar accounts of cannibalism are ubiquitous in Conrad’s book; the incident of the heads stuck on poles comes immediately to mind. He cites Molly Mahood’s The Colonial Encounter, in which she claims that Conrad did not see much of cannibalism in the Congo, despite it being a major part of his novella. Brantlinger makes an astute observation that Conrad includes all these elements of cannibalism but does not take pains to mention the Arab wars. It is likely that Conrad read about these events in the press and they served as possible inspiration for the cannibalistic events of his story.

Brantlinger describes Conrad’s novel as ‘impressionistic’, and with good reason. The novel contradicts itself in various stages. On one hand, Conrad is a detractor of the imperial strategies employed by the Europeans-he calls out on the sham of philanthropy and the desire to “civilise” the Africans which imperialists supposedly aspire to do. This intention of Conrad is made evident in the novella he penned down with Hueffer in The Inheritors. Conrad is more disgusted by the propaganda propagated by the imperialists rather than the violence they leave in their wake. On the other hand, Conrad treats the primitives as ‘inferior beings’, as savages. None of the ‘savages’ are accorded names, or voices. For all we know, Conrad might not think them to be humans at all. This is conspicuous when he says that Kurtz has “gone native”, a sort of slight on part of Conrad; Europeans in Africa become evil of no fault of theirs (Conrad insinuates); Africa, its people and its environment have made them malevolent and depraved. This theme of contradiction pervades the entire novel. It is evident by Marlow’s adulation for Kurtz and at the same time, his loathing of him as well. Marlow says, “His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines”. However, he delivers a contrasting statement later on when he says, “He was a remarkable man…and that is why I remained loyal to Kurtz till the very last”.

This impressionistic view which Conrad adopts is the reason why Heart of Darkness can be viewed as a unique piece at that time – he embraces an anti-imperialist stance yet the book has certain racist elements which cannot be ignored.

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