Joseph Conrad’s Novel “Heart of Darkness” Report
An indictment of imperialism
The novel, Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, a novel written in the late 20th century is a classic novel that addresses the issue of colonialism in Africa during this century1. For most of the 20th century, the book has been considered not only as a literary classic, but also as a powerful indictment of the vices of colonization. The novel has been widely read all over the world and in the recent past, it has been declared racist and imperialist mostly by African critics.
Conrad, according to them clearly brings out the theme of colonialism in the novel. In the Congo, he is clearly not in favor of the Africans but as a portrayal of how Africans needed the whites to salvage them from the darkness they were living in. The Belgians, from the novel, have taken over Congo, and the native inhabitants are overworked in companies owned by the whites where they are overworked and brutalized. When describing the natives, Conrad presents them like they were trespassing in their land.
They are not supposed to walk freely in their land, and all their good land has been taken and taken over by the whites who have built magnificent bungalows. Africans are represented as ignorance as seen when the natives surrounded Marlow’s ship and started firing it with arrows he threatened them by a steamship whistle and they all run away foolishly. Conrad clearly contrasts white supremacy with the uncivilized way of life of the Africans, by describing Africans with negative adjectives.
European motivations and activities in Africa
The novel narrates a long and tiring journey that the protagonist who is European goes through as he finds his way to the African Congo to find Kurtz, another character in the novel. To some extent, the novel explains the white’s invasion in Africa as being well intended and bringing African to light for they had been living in the dark all through. When the whites went to Africa, they had the notion the Africans were backward people who were in dire need of civilization that entailed speaking of foreign language, wearing western clothes and conversion to Christianity2.
This was not the major issue with the Africans. The main problem is that when the whites arrived in Africa their mission changed somehow and instead of ‘civilizing’ Africa, they started oppressing them by taking their land and forcing them to abandon their culture. Conrad tries to bring out this belief in the novel using the character of Marlow. Marlow represents the common European man with weird beliefs about Africans and colonialism as a whole. The story explores the historical period of colonialism in Africa to represent Marlow’s struggles. At the end of the novel Marlow seems to have changed his perspective about colonialism as he observes Kurtz dying agonizing on the things he had done in Africa.
The changing of Marlow’s perspective at the end of the novel makes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to be viewed as an attack upon colonization. This idea however does not auger well with some African critics like Chinua Achebe, who strongly believe that the novel is an imperialistic book in which Africans are represented as stupid and uncivilized. Africa itself is a place feared by the Europeans, ‘the dark heart’ and it is referred in the novel as the other world.
The title, according to these African critics, is a metaphor of Africa as a continent where whites who visit are risking their lives. Conrad’s supporters, on the other hand, defend him by putting out very strong argument. They argue that the main character in the beginning of novels talks about the Romans conquest over Britain and he compares this to what the whites were doing in Africa, robbery with violence3. The statement, of course, does not support the act of colonialism. Given the fact that the novel is not written from a first person perspective, it does not present the voice of the author according to these critics.
The protagonist of the novel changes his mind drastically after seeing his friend suffer terribly due to the act of colonialism. According to these critics in favor of Conrad, it is clear that Conrad in the novel tried to bring out the hypocrisy of the white ‘civilizing” mission in Africa. The Europeans see the Africans as invaders in their land and are not ashamed to say so. From this discussion then it is not clear whether the novel is a colonial or a non-colonial text. The fact that the book is non-colonial however does not mean it is free of racism and colonialism. As a scholar one would ask himself several questions on this book but the line between the two sides discussed above is not clear cut.
There is yet another critic to Conrad’s writing by the name Peter Firchow. He counters the claim that the book is racist and imperialistic. He argues by saying that critics should consider the time the novel was written and this will make their criticism more objective. He starts his criticism by contrasting the definitions of racism and imperialism from Conrad’s time to today’s time.
It is quite clear that some of the vocabulary used by Conrad were common at that time therefore considered normal. The use of the word the word ‘nigger’ to refer to the Africans has a different connotation today from what it stood for about a hundred year ago. Firchow believes that what Conrad saw personally in Africa should not be confused with the Africa he describes in the novel4.
According to this criticism, it is clear that Firchow is in support of Conrad’s novel and he believes that the African critics, such as Achebe, need to be more objective when criticizing a literary work. According to Firchow, it is not fair to judge a book written about a hundred years ago using today’s standards. From his criticism, as scholars then one can conclude that although Conrad’s book may be viewed as an imperialistic and racist book by some critics, they are other perspectives that can be taken whereby the other side may be considered.
Another critic on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is Hunt Hawkins who like Peter Firchow does not agree with most of the critics who criticize Conrad’s book without putting into considerations some important factors like time5. He also criticizes some authors for criticizing the novel from one-sided point. Hawkins does not necessarily stand on either side of the critics, those who support and those who do not support Conrad. He says that some authors assumed the political aspects of the novel and pursued on the other perspective terming the book as non-imperialistic.
It means that if this particular group of people had pursued the book from a social perspective then they would have a different perception of Conrad’s idea. He tries to bring out both the negative and positive side of the book based on racism and he argues them out objectively. On the positive side, he explains his understanding of the change of the main character from the time we meet him at the beginning of the story to the end of the novel.
The character has changed his mind on colonialism and Africa as a whole. The other character Kurtz dies feeling so pained by the atrocities he had committed back in Africa. All these portray a picture that the author was anti-imperialistic. The fact that Marlow, the main characters compares the European power in Africa to that of the ancient Romans in Britain is another supporting factor. He compares Europe with the ancient Roman who robbed with violence6.
Chinua Achebe’s perspective
From Chinua Achebe’s perspective, it is clear that Conrad is a racist and a very bad one for that matter who has no respect for Africans. He has explained his ideas about the novel in his essay An Image of Africa7. This African critic criticizes Conrad as a thoroughgoing racist, and he backs up his opinion using the diction used by Conrad in his novel when referring to the Africans.
According to Achebe, Conrad uses the word black more than one time when referring to Africans, and this does not have a positive connotation. He also uses negative and dehumanizing terms like horrid and brutal when referring to the Africans. Achebe does not leave out the setting of the novel that is in Africa and yet Africans are not considered in the novel as ‘human’ characters.
He continues to argue that Conrad’s experience in the Congo was for a very short time, six months, and he was therefore not qualified to write a book about it. According to Achebe Conrad understood very little about Africans and to write about them was a bias. Achebe digresses from this accusation and says that the fact that Conrad visited the Latin America for a short period and wrote a book about them, which had no issues, mean that he deliberately chose to ignore the African culture.
According to Achebe the two rivers at the beginning of the novel are contrasted having the river Thames as resting peaceful, and the river Congo being rendered of no importance. It is quite clear according to Achebe that according to the writer, the Europeans were more important than the blacks were and, therefore, the Europeans had to come to Africa to give the Africans a sense of importance8.
A racist or not
From the discussion above, one cannot clearly put label Conrad as a racist or not, it depends on the position one is standing for that matter. From the African point of view as represented by Achebe there is no doubt that the book is imperialistic. Conrad was not trying to portray the Africans as being inferior to the Europeans but to some extent, I agree with Achebe despite his weakness in considering the time factor. The reason behind this is despite the fact that it was a long time ago the title, the portrayal of Africa and the Africans is not positive.
Achebe, Chinua. “An image of Africa.” The Massachusetts Review 23, no. 5 (1977): 782-794.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of darkness. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan, 2010.
Hawkins, Hunt. “Conrad’s critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 13, no. 12 (1979): 286-299.
- Joseph Conrad. Heart of darkness. (London: Macmillan, 2010), 14.
- Joseph Conrad. Heart of darkness. (London: Macmillan, 2010), 47.
- Joseph Conrad. Heart of darkness. (London: Macmillan, 2010), 65.
- Joseph Conrad. Heart of darkness. (London: Macmillan, 2010), 98.
- Hunt Hawkins. “Conrad’s critique of Imperialism in heart of Darkness.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 13, no. 12 (1979): 289.
- Hunt Hawkins. “Conrad’s critique of Imperialism in heart of Darkness.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 13, no. 12 (1979): 286.
- Chinua Achebe. “An image of Africa.” The Massachusetts Review 23, no. 5 (1977): 782.
- Chinua Achebe. “An image of Africa.” The Massachusetts Review 23, no. 5 (1977): 783.
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