Racism In The Heart Of Darkness By Joseph Conrad

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Racism has always been a polarizing subject in the academic world. That polarization becomes even worse when we deal with extreme acts of racism from the past. A simple accusation of whether a text or opinion is racist can cause scholars who are emotionally affected by the literature to avoid the text as a whole ignoring its potential essence. The Heart of Darkness is a novella written by Joseph Conrad on the European colonization of the Congo. The Heart of Darkness is written by Conrad who witnessed firsthand, the European conquest of the Congos. The European colonization of the Congo was racist itself were Whites in the novel like Kurtz believed that they appeared as “supernatural beings” to the “savage” natives. This has caused a number of contemporary critics condemning Heart of Darkness as racist. Conrad’s novella presents evidence that supports that the novella is racist though Marlow’s subhuman description and portrayal of Congo natives throughout the book. The novella also provides evidence that supports that the novella is not inherently racist through Marlow’s recognition of the racially motivated unjust treatment of the Congo natives, however mere criticism of the European colonization of the Congo without any significant action to help the natives suffering as a result of this colonization makes the Heart of Darkness racist.

Evidence that the Heart of Darkness seen as racist is rooted in the dehumanizing descriptions of the Congo Natives throughout the novel. Racist is defined as “showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another” (Google Dictionary). Dehumanization of a race group because by highlighting their resemblance to animals is a common way to make the race of the people look inferior. One of the methods shown in the novella to present the Congo natives as subhuman is when they are compared to animals. “He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs”. Despite humans possessing four limbs, one never feels the need to refer to human’s legs as “hind-legs” because it is accepted that humans have two legs and the remaining limbs are considered arms. Humans are considered dominant over animals, therefore Marlow’s use of the language to point out that the native man is a “dog” walking on “hind-legs” is to further bring to light the dominance that Europeans possess over the animal-like natives.

Marlow continues his dehumanization of the African natives through his comment, “They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity like yours the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough”. Marlow’s description of the Native Africans clearly does not resemble descriptions of a human. The portrayal of the Africans as leaping, spinning while making horrid faces are not common human behavioral patterns and more closely resembles the behavior of animals. Marlow even goes onto to state that he is “thrilled” by the thought that these animal-like creatures are actually categorized as humans just like himself. He finds this kinship shared with these animal-like creatures who are supposedly human as something that is “ugly”. This further emphasizes the racist intolerance that Marlow possesses when dealing with the Congo natives. However racist the dehumanizing descriptions of the Africans are throughout the book, the novella attempts to condemn the racist and unjust colonization of the Congo.

Evidence that the novella is not inherently racist is rooted in Marlow’s recognition of the racially motivated unjust treatment of the Congo natives. Marlow’s criticism of the European’s racist treatment of the Congo begins with his commentary of colonization itself. “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. Here Marlow is indirectly referencing the European conquest of African people and their land who are known for possessing “flatter noses” and darker skin than Europeans. He acknowledges the brutal European conquest of African land as something that is ugly and not pleasant when examined. Marlow’s criticism of the European’s racist treatment of the Congo continues when he witnesses a French ship shooting at a camp of natives on the coast for no apparent reason. Marlow mentions that “There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives — he called them enemies!”. Marlow even goes as far to refer to the scene as a lugubrious drollery, which is dark comical art. Marlow is disgusted with the fact that the shooting didn’t “dissipate” when the French ship was notified that they were shooting into an innocent camp of natives. The usage of the exclamation point for “he called them enemies” further emphasizes the insanity of French ship to shoot at the innocent natives as if they were enemies at war.

Despite Marlow’s words providing slight evidence of condemning the racist acts committed by Europeans in the Congo, his words alone do not free the novella from being considered racist. Despite Marlow acknowledging the unjust treatment of the Congo natives, his lack of significant help for the Africans he sees suffering solidifies the novella racist. On page 17 in the novella, Marlow witnesses a group of sick and starving natives and decides to “offer the native one of his good Swede’s ship’s biscuits he had in his pocket.” This act can be viewed as an act of kindness and kinship that goes against European racist colonization of the Congo where the natives are viewed as inferior. However, Marlow didn’t value the native’s life as he fed him a mere biscuit which is not going to help the man’s chance of survival. If Marlow cared about the survival of the starving man, he would’ve taken more serious actions to save the man’s life. Instead, Marlow fed him a biscuit which doubles as a snack for dogs. This same inability to help the suffering natives he has encountered is witnessed when he doesn’t do anything help with the starving cannibals. He and his ship crew’s intolerance of the native’s diet was too grave to let them eat their hippo meat, implying that the comfort of the Europeans on board is more important than the natives’ necessity to consume food. On Page 67 Marlow blows the whistle to let the natives run away from the pilgrims on his ship attempting to shoot them. This can be seen as another act of help towards the Congo natives, however, the whistle alone wasn’t enough to stop the pilgrims from shooting. After the whistle was blown the pilgrims carried on with their “fun” and shot at the natives on the shore.

As we examined both sides of the argument on whether or not the Heart of Darkness is inherently racist we start to see that many of the arguments that could free the novella from racist charges get refuted. Marlow’s few attempts to save the suffering natives through the gift of a biscuit and a whistle alarm for the natives to escape the barbaric pilgrims were a glimpse of hope in a novella filled racist descriptions of Africans. However when the context of those situations are examined, one realizes that Marlow did not take enough action to correct the unjust and racist colonization of the Congo to make up for his consistent racist commentary about the Congo natives. Despite being a racist novella, one cannot look past the importance of this novel today. The Heart of Darkness was written in a time period where white supremacy and racism towards Africans were commonly accepted ideologies. To bash the novella for its racism would be to bash a zookeeper for smelling like animals. They are both products of their environment, therefore, Joseph Conrad shouldn’t take the blame for his novella. Instead, one should see past the racist biases in his book and appreciate the book for what it does best. It accurately portrays the horrors of the European racist colonization of the Congo through the eyes of the colonizer.

Works Cited

  1. Conrad, Joseph, and Paul B. Armstrong. ​Heart of Darkness: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism​. W. W. Norton Et Company, 2017.
  2. “Drollery.” ​Merriam-Webster​, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/drollery​.
  3. “Lugubrious.” ​Merriam-Webster​, Merriam-Webster www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lugubrious​.
  4. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/drollery
  5. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lugubrious


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