The Racism Issues and the Author’s Negative Attitude Toward It

January 12, 2021 by Essay Writer

From a modern context, Conrad’s representation of Africans in Heart of Darkness are often read as racist. This essay is an assessment of such representations in Heart of Darkness.

Joseph Conrad’s frame narrative about Charles Marlow’s journey down the Congo River in Central Africa has been labelled by literary scholars as one of most seminal short stories of all time – indeed, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness as one of the hundred greatest novels of the twentieth century . Despite this immense literary standing, Conrad’s novella has been subject to intense debate – of particular controversy were the allegations made by post-colonial scholars of racism within Heart of Darkness. Chief among these allegations were those made by respected African literary scholar Chinua Achebe in a lecture he gave in 1975 (subsequently published as ‘An Image of Africa’) in which he delivered a scathing report on the book – referring at one point to Conrad’s novella as ‘an offensive and totally deplorable book that dehumanised Africans.’

For the purposes of this essay, I shall focus primarily upon the allegations of racism that Achebe made in 1975 – and how Achebe misread Heart of Darkness and misrepresented Conrad’s views of indigenous Africans. Although Achebe was the most famous alleger of racism within Heart of Darkness, in this essay I will also address more contemporary debate regarding Conrad’s alleged racism and his depiction of Africans in his famous novella. Finally, here I will define racism so as to enable one to evaluate the claims made by critics of Conrad more precisely; Oxford defines racism as ‘the belief or practice that discriminates against someone of a different race based upon the belief that one’s own race is superior.’

Upon first impression, it must be acknowledged that Conrad does portray the African natives in Heart of Darkness as very different from the educated Europeans that Charles Marlow – the protagonist of Heart of Darkness – travels with. Conrad frequently describes them based solely upon their appearances – describing them as “howling, leaping, and spinning, making horrid faces,” and because of these descriptions the Africans certainly do appear as an alien group – something Achebe is quick to point out. However, the fundamental mistake Achebe makes is that he gives no consideration of Conrad’s context as a man of the 19th/20th century.

This context is crucial in understanding Conrad’s depiction of the native Africans in his novella; by modern day standards of political correctness, perhaps Conrad might be labelled as a racist. However, Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness during one of the most politically and socially racist eras of all time – the late 19th century gave rise to political and social movements such as ‘ethnic’ nationalism, ‘pan-germanism,’ ‘pan-zionism’ and other racially motivated discourses.

Given this background, Conrad’s depiction of Africans must be viewed in a substantially different light; when Conrad’s writes phrases such as ‘but what thrilled you was the thought of their humanity – like yours, ugly,’ Conrad displays sentiments in complete opposition to popular societal views – the mere acknowledgement of their similar ‘humanity’ displays a recognition not commonly seen in Conrad’s time period. Interestingly, Chinua Achebe considers this line of Conrad’s to be one of the most racist throughout the book, referring to this line as ‘the meaning’ of Heart of Darkness. Somewhat ironically, here Achebe is completely correct – although his explanation of this meaning is open to interpretation.

Achebe draws attention to the use of the word ‘ugly,’ and attributes this to a depiction of the entire of Africa as ugly, and holding ‘fascination’ of the ‘western mind.’ However, Conrad’s use of the word ugly is, in my opinion, linked to his previous words – explicitly referring to the western civilisation when he writes ‘like yours.’ The inclusion of ‘like yours’ is crucial as it demonstrates Conrad’s comparison of the African civilisation to western civilisation – yes, Conrad may consider them ugly, but crucially, he considers them both ugly; Conrad is drawing similarities between the two humanities instead of alienating the African one. A few pages later, Conrad offers a description of the African boiler crew member who works upon the steamboat Marlow steers down the Congo. Conrad here writes that ‘he ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improved knowledge.’

Unsurprisingly, Achebe is highly critical of this phrase, declaring Conrad to be ‘a romantic, and, although he might not exactly admire the savages clapping their hands and stomping their feet, (Conrad is satisfied) that they at least have the merit of being in their place, unlike this dog’ (the African boiler crew member.) However, once again Achebe appears to have missed key phrases that Conrad (assumingly) deliberately adds – in this case, ‘a thrall to strange witchcraft.’ Other critics who acknowledge this phrase simply attribute this to Conrad mocking the lack of education that the natives have, however, this also is subject to debate.

Perhaps, instead of simply mocking the natives, Conrad is implying that the African crew member is ‘slave’ to the western way – hence the use of ‘thrall’ – and thereby is criticising the western ‘imperialist’ way – a theme that underlies the entire novella. Once again, this becomes increasingly convincing when one examines Conrad’s context and history – Conrad himself once captained a trade ship (after the captain became sick), and during his time as captain reportedly became disillusioned with western imperialism after witnessing acts of cruelty and – perhaps even more relevant – acts of slavery.

One particular African in Heart of Darkness serves as a powerful insight into Conrad’s overall depiction of Africans – Chinua Achebe devotes entire pages in his An Image of Africa to an analysis of the ‘savage and superb’ African female who emerges as Kurtz’s lover. Conrad’s characterisation of this native is undeniably one approaching awe – Conrad talks of her being ‘wild and magnificent,’ and ‘standing, looking over us without a stir, like the wilderness itself.’ Despite this, Achebe suggests that the role of this woman is to ‘fulfil a structural requirement; a savage counterpart to the refined, European woman who will step forth at the end of the story.’ The intended comparison between these two characters is undeniable; the ‘intended’ bride and the African mistress are, excluding a brief mention of ‘the Aunt’ in the exposition of the novella, the only two female characters discussed by Conrad.

However, what a reader should make of this comparison between the two is contentious – according to Achebe, the natives role is, as mentioned, to contrast with the educated, ‘refined’ woman that emerges at the conclusion of the novella. However, this view seems hard to defend – indeed, when one examines the two female characters closely it appears that if anything, Conrad presents a more positive view of the African, not the European. To consider this notion, it is worth comparing Conrad’s descriptions of these women in particular scenes. Of the African, Conrad writes ‘she was savage and superb…with an air of inscrutable purpose.’ This description contrasts starkly with Conrad’s description of the Intended in the final scene of the novella; ‘She put out her arms as if after a retreating figure, stretching them black and with clasped pale hands across the fading and narrow sheen of the window.’ Conrad’s depiction of the Intended here is not a particularly negative one; however, it must be noticed that when compared with the African, the Intended appears weaker and considerably unstable – it is well noted amongst literary critics of Conrad that his portrayal of the African mistress is one of strength and elegance.

Conrad compares the defined and ‘magnificent’ character with one at pains to control her grief more than a year since her partner’s death. Conrad’s emphasis upon these characters is perhaps over-analysed, however it is clear that if Conrad did intend for the African mistress’s characterisation to reflect racist thoughts on his behalf, then he was ineffective in doing so (of course, I would argue this was never his intention.) The comparison the reader draws between the two females is inextricably linked with Conrad’s choice of the bestowal of human expression within the novella – Achebe correctly highlights the fact that, unlike the Intended, the African mistress is incapable of communicating with the crew members.

Achebe declares this characterisation to be immensely racist – according to Achebe, it is ‘clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language upon the “rudimentary” souls of Africa.’ However, from my understanding of the plot of Heart of Darkness, it seems only expected that the African mistress (and, as Achebe duly notes, the entire native population) would lack the ability to communicate with the crew; after all, the Company crew are the ones who have entered the natives’ homes and lands. If anything, one would expect the crew to have attempted to learn to communicate with the natives – again, it seems conceivable that here Conrad is once again highlighting the arrogance of the imperialist way.

The setting that Conrad chooses to construct within his novella is also an element of Conrad’s work that provokes much literary debate. Crucial to this debate is how important the setting within Heart of Darkness actually is – some argue that Conrad chose Africa as the physical setting in an attempt to paint Africa (and, crucially, the native Africans) as a parallel to the ‘darkness within’ that is explored in the story. A critic of Conrad once pointed out that “Africa per se is not the theme of Heart of Darkness, but it is used as a locale symbol for the very core of an ‘accursed inheritance’. Indeed, Chinua Achebe reflects this view, writing that ‘It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, and common ancestry between the two lands… if [the Thames] were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque, suggestive echoes… of death.’ After examining Heart of Darkness, it is difficult to even take Achebe’s views of the setting here seriously – even at the mouth of the Congo, Conrad pointedly highlights that western Imperialism has begun to destroy the land in and around the river Congo.

As Conrad’s character Marlow observes the mouth of the Congo, he comments upon the natives that had been enslaved by trade companies: ‘Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees… they were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, nor were they criminals. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings and company, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient… and were then allowed to crawl away.’ Conrad here creates an almost tragic picture of the effect of western civilisation upon the natives of Africa, talking of how western food and practice had all but wasted the natives lives and brought them to the edge of death. Surely, Conrad here is presenting a scathing view of the practices of imperialist companies, even describing the surroundings as uncongenial to the natives – important given that the actual physical surroundings would have been nothing but usual for the native Africans.

Critics also frequently quote phrases in Heart of Darkness that suggest Conrad thought of the Congo as a place ‘cursed with darkness,’ although little consideration if given to Conrad’s portrayal of London – as being shrouded in a ‘mournful gloom.’ Perhaps Conrad does describe the settings throughout Heart of Darkness with an emphasis upon their ‘darkness,’ however this can be attributed to Conrad’s writing style, not a predisposition of prejudice against the African people and the land they live on. Conrad himself has always been described as an ‘evoker of atmospheres’ and this should be considered when reading this novella; Conrad’s style is to manipulate the surroundings within his writings – it is not to prejudice against one particular surrounding or its inhabitants.

Heart of Darkness is a novella that details a sombre journey that ends with the tragic realisation of the darkness within mankind’s hearts. Along this journey, Joseph Conrad delivers a scathing attack on Colonialism – one will always remember the skulls stuck upon the poles outside Kurtz’s house as the most powerful indictment of such ways. It is true that Conrad writes in a way that suggests an ambivalence towards the plight of individuals, however this element of Conrad’s writing should not be confused with racist intent. One must always remember the time in which Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness – he may not have been completely immune to the beliefs and attitudes of his age, but he certainly was ahead of the majority in his attempt to break free.


Primary Sources

‘Heart of Darkness,’ Joseph Conrad – 1899.

‘An Image of Africa: Racism in ‘Heart of Darkness’ – Chinua Achebe – 1975.

Secondary Sources

‘Conrad the Novelist,’ – Albert J. Guerard. Harvard University Press, October 3, 1958. 315pp.

Modern Library Top 100 Novels – retrieved from Modern Library website in June, 2013.

‘A Bloody Racist: About Achebe’s View of Conrad,’ – Cedric Watts, 1983.

‘Kurtz’s Intended and African Mistress in Heart of Darkness, Dmitri Kaminar, University of London, published online 10/2009.

Found on

Conrad’s Colonialism (The Hague: Mouton, 1969.) Published and written by Robert Lee.

‘The Style of Joseph Conrad’ – Writer Britannica, 2001. Author unknown.

‘Teachers Study Guide to Joseph Conrad & Heart of Darkness’ – Penguin publishing – 2004.

‘Glencoe’s Guide to Heart of Darkness’ – Glencoe Literature – 2001.

‘The Connell Guide to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ – Jolyon Connell – 2012

‘Heart of Darkness – With Study Guide by Tomlinson’ – Croce Publishing Group LLC – 2008

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