In Defense of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

In Defense of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad was not racist and his novel Heart of Darkness is not racist.

The judgment of Joseph Conrad and his novel Heart of Darkness is an unfair and inaccurate declaration manufactured by modern day critics using modern day mores to establish their point. There is no denying that the narrator Conrad uses in his novel and Marlow himself often use profane language to describe the African people.  Such language has to be considered offensive but also common for the era from which this novel comes from.

An analysis of the criticisms which have demeaned Conrad as a racist and declared Heart of Darkness a novel not worthy its place in the literary cannon will reveal the myopic nature of their arguments. Also, an exploration of several arguments will help refute these critics. A study on the encyclopedic information associated with the Congo will show just how far Conrad was ahead of his time in calling attention to the gross injustices being committed in this region. An overview of the character’s in the novel and how they are used by Conrad will give us added insight into the author’s mind.  Finally, a study of the author’s own experiences in the Congo will give some insight into the author’s state of mind which resulted in the first major literary statement against colonialism in history.
A fundamental question must be asked about Conrad and his novel. Would such a novel have been written if the author was a racist?  Whether this question is being answered or asked, it is important to remember that the world has changed an immeasurable amount since Heart of Darkness was first published in 1899.  In G.W.F. Hegel’s ‘The African Character”, an essay about race written at the end of the 19th century, the author states that “In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence-as for example God, or Law” (Pg.208). Such an assumption by a western scholar was common at this point in human history and the reason for this is the scholars inability to acknowledge his own ignorance of foreign cultures.  Conrad’s novel does show an inability to relate to the African people and their culture.  Conrad uses Marlow to show sympathy and his own ignorance toward the African culture as a whole. What was it that Conrad was seeing during his time in the Congo? Was he witnessing horrific injustices being done against an unknown culture because of ignorance and felt sympathy enough to question the actions of the “civilized” society?  Hegel’s piece continues with the assumptions that led to the barbaric actions of the colonizing actions “The Negroes indulge, therefore that perfect contempt for humanity, which in its bearing on Justice and Morality is the fundamental characteristic of the race.”(Pg. 209)  Hegel’s thought processes reveal a contempt toward the culture which is foreign to his understanding and this type of contempt is highlighted by Conrad in his novel.

Further evidence of the west’s reluctance to learn about the history of the Congo and Africa as a whole can be found in the then current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica dated 1902. In this edition of the encyclopedia, the Congo is said to be discovered by the Belgian King Leopold II in 1885.  The encyclopedia explains nothing about the native peoples in the region, nothing about their culture, tribal customs, and belief systems.  The encyclopedia does explain the committee’s formed to help justify an European presence in the Congo, indeed the Leopold II is credited as the founder of the Congo Free State (Pg. 99).

While essays exist that refuted the arrogance displayed by Hegel, it is safe to say that these essays reflected Conrad’s views and not the view of the occupying aggressor.  One such essay written specifically about the varying races and the role of empires comes from Benjamin Kidd. Kidd refers to instances in history where nations invade a foreign land to obtain the wealth from these communities to better their own country. After referencing this, Kidd writes “The same history is repeating itself in South Africa.“ (Pg.231) Kidd is devoting his entire study to the injustices perpetrated by empirical nations. Conrad’s novel is not as direct with its condemnations of colonialism but this is because Conrad has taken it upon himself to comment on the nature of man and the evil’s that come from individuals and nations of them who wish to play a Godlike role of dominance of people they deem as savage.

It is important to understand something about the Joseph Conrad and even more so considering the direction criticism has taken against the author himself.

Conrad has stated that it was always his desire to explore parts of the world still unknown to the west. “It was 1868, when nine years old…while looking at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on the blank space representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to myself…’When I grow up I shall go there.’” (Conrad Pg 242). Conrad is recalling his long felt desire to be an explorer of parts of the world still unknown to the western hemisphere. With this mentality, Conrad reveals an eagerness for knowledge which is also shown in Heart of Darkness. The statement Conrad makes about how he felt at the age of nine is shared by Marlow in the novel. In the novel Marlow states “Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps….At the time there were many blank spaces on the earth and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on  a map I would put my finger on it and say: When I grow up I will go there” (Conrad Pg.8). Conrad giving Marlow this line from his own diaries and writings could equate Conrad to Marlow in a broader more psychological sense. Marlow is the one character in the novel who is taking the west to task for the injustices in the Congo.

Conrad also uses Marlow to show how he himself is trapped within a western way of thinking toward foreign cultures. Throughout the book Marlow freely uses words that are offensive.  While the language which must be considered common among the colonizers (or as Marlow refers to them ironically as ‘pilgrims’) is offensive, the thrust of the book successfully portrays the African people as the victims of western imperialism.

Bearing in mind the limitations of western and European centric thinking, Joseph Conrad successfully breached these constraints to express his disgust with the governmental policies to “civilize” cultures they are incapable of understanding. Regardless of the value of  Heart of Darkness has had in ending much of the injustices done by King Leopold II government and the others, modern criticism centers around the role Joseph Conrad plays in our modern society. It would seem that history has become irrelevant and learning about how horrific the world was and how far we as a global community have come is not necessary.

With some factual analysis to work with, it would be constructive to review some of the most outspoken critics of the novel and the author Joseph Conrad.

Joseph Conrad has been criticized as being racist based on his literary output at the start of the 20th century.  Much of the action in his novel Heart of Darkness, takes place in Africa and subsequently, the subject matter revolves around the native culture and the effects colonialism has had on the region.  Many critics of Conrad novel have scrutinized his treatment of the African natives through the eyes of his literary narrator Marlow as being racially insensitive.  Some have sought to explain where the criticisms of Conrad and the blanket assumption of his racial prejudices as being inaccurate and unfair to the author.

Chinua Achebe, a native of the region described by Conrad in Heart of Darkness, flatly declares the author as a racist. In Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Achebe analyzes specific passages in the novel’s text which he says clearly indicates the underlined racism found in Conrad’s work and as a result, he concludes Conrad is a racist. (Achebe, Pgs336-349). Achebe directly attacks a passage in the novel which skeptics toward his argument would cite as being a clear indication of kinship between Britain and Africa.  Marlow begins his story about Africa while he sees the sunset and the Thames River. Marlow notes how his home country was once occupied and misunderstood by the Romans the same way the Congo is occupied by the British Empire. (Conrad. Pgs 4-6). Achebe argues that Heart of Darkness’ focus on the other

world and its perceived lack of civilization in comparison to Europe, is introduced in this opening passage in the novel.  Achebe notes the way Conrad describes the Thames is directly opposite to The River Congo which is where the majority of the action takes place in the novel. The idealized description of The Thames, Achebe says is meant to contrast the British society to the African culture and that this contrast is deliberate and racist. (Achebe Pgs.337-338).

Paul B. Armstrong agrees with some of Achebe’s assessments in his essay “Reading, Race, and Representing Others”. Armstrong, like Achebe notes how Conrad uses Marlow to describe Africa as though it were prehistoric and backward in terms of its culture and its societal views.(Achebe Pg.339, Armstrong Pg.434).  Armstrong notes how viewing the foreign culture or The Other when compared to Europe allows one to experience a new self awareness toward one self, this concept is abandoned by Marlow who devalues the foreign culture as being backward and beneath the European culture. According to Armstrong, the devaluing of the Congo shows how Marlow has rejected any attempt to acquire anything of value from the foreign culture. The term The Other indicates a divide which cannot be broached. (Armstrong Pg.434.)

While both essays find agreement in terms of the racist elements found in Heart of Darkness, the pieces take different paths to draw the same conclusion.  Achebe, uses his knowledge of England to show the flaws of the British society as a whole and how Conrad, being a product of his time and society is racist. Indeed, Achebe notes how the British view of the people of Africa and India as being uneducated enough to understand

proper English were given dialects, reflects the true goal of his  piece, to show the flaw of the fundamental flaw in the British way of thinking. (Achebe Pg.349).

Getting back to Achebe’s criticism of Conrad, Achebe pontificated as to the reasons why Joseph Conrad used the framed narrative in his writing the novel.  Achebe dismisses Conrad’s use of the framed narrative as being a tool meant to distance the author from the content of his novel. (Pg.345) The problem with Achebe’s argument here is that Conrad uses his unknown narrator to explain the differences between Marlow and to the rest of the sailors on the Nellie.  Marlow is described by the anonymous listener as being “The only one of us who still ‘followed the sea.’ The worst that can be said of him was that he did not represent his class.(Conrad Pg.5). It is clear that Achebe misses the point of Conrad’s use of the framed narrative. Conrad is showing how Marlow is capable of noticing all that he had in the Congo. While Marlow is a westerner, he does not entirely share the westerner’s mentality.

Armstrong takes a closer reading of the text by analyzing the use and context of the character Marlow.  Armstrong’s entire piece focuses on the language Marlow uses to describe what he saw and experienced to his fellow seamen on the ship. Marlow as a tool for Conrad to explain the story in a framed narrative is viewed as being incapable of understanding the differences between his culture and that which belongs to the African people because he is civilized and they, in his eyes, are not. (Armstrong Pgs.429-444)

Each essay analyzes the potential of racial intent found in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. While Achebe uses his knowledge of the British Empire as a whole to denounce the actions of the empire, he also views Conrad’s work as being unworthy of its status in the literary cannon. Armstrong took a closer look into the structure of the novel and the character of Marlow to draw the same conclusion as Achebe. Joseph Conrad was racist.

To challenge these criticisms, a reader should use his or her own conclusions to determine if Heart of Darkness is a racist novel. While the reader is making these conclusions they should know and understand the history of the cultures and place the work in its proper context.

In an as close to modern day objective criticism of Conrad and his novel, Hunt Hawkins acknowledges both the language in the novel and the following;

Conrad became a staunch, if complicated, opponent of European

expansion. Heart of Darkness offers a powerful indictment of

imperialism, both explicitly for the case of King Leopold and

implicitly for all other European powers. (Pg.368)

Conrad could not have foreseen the progressive improvements in our global society and it could be argued that novels like Heart of Darkness and the consequential study of such novels as important works of art did start the evolution of worldly tolerance of other cultures.

In the novel itself, Conrad explores the divides between the British occupying forces and the culture they have infiltrated.  Marlow recounts the incidents of cannibalism which is a practice employed by some of the local tribesmen who have been reduced to this act because of their reduced value forced upon them by the British. While Marlow admits his being disturbed, he does reference the slaves starvation and the cause is clear to the reader.

The insanity brought about by the colonizing British is seen in a story told to Marlow about the captain he is replacing in his trip up the Congo River. The story about Fresleven and his beating of an African native over the purchase of two black hens reveals this craziness. Fresleven’s appearance is described as being pale and white as a sheet and while he has this appearance, he is viciously beating an African until a young man or boy came up behind him and stabbed Fresleven between his shoulder blades. The village, panicked of reprisals by the occupying nation fled their homes leaving Fresleven’s corpse behind. (Conrad Pg.9) This disturbing and painstakingly described recollection from Marlow gives the reader a clear feeling of disgust against the foreign occupiers.

Heart of Darkness is a dense novel and because of its depth, the novel has language, incidents, metaphors and other literary devices that could be interpreted by the reader in any way his or her mind wishes to see within it.  Keeping this in mind, an analysis of Conrad’s raconteur Marlow’s feelings can be seen as either racist or something greater.            Throughout the novel, there are images and symbolism inserted which could be considered racist or as a denouncement of the injustices in Africa. One instance is the two elderly women dressed in black who are knitting early in the novel. Marlow recounts his encounter with the elderly woman in this incident as the following.

An eerie feeling came over me.  She seemed uncanny and fateful.

Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door

of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing,

introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the

cherry and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes…Not many of those

she looked at ever saw her again-not half-by a long way. (Conrad Pg.11)

While many myopic modern critics will say that Conrad is equating his trip to Africa and by implications Africans can be seen as a trip to hell and the Africans are demons. A reader can also assume that Conrad is going to hell and the hell he is witnessing is an African nation being destroyed by imperial colonization. The latter argument fits into Conrad’s crusade against the horrors perpetrated on the African communities and the former argument is refuted by Conrad’s (and Marlow’s) desire to travel to this unknown part of the world.

Conrad took the time draw obvious parallels between the Congo and Thames rivers showing how the common inhabitants of both of these regions surround themselves with an atmosphere of darkness. The Nellie sails up the Thames and “The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.” (Conrad Pg 3) This observation is made by seaman on the deck of The Nellie. This seaman is part of Marlow’s audience for his story. Noticing who is responsible for this observation is important because Marlow is the one who is shown to have a moral stance about his experiences up the Congo, not his audience. The unnamed narrator expands on the atmosphere which leads Marlow to the telling of his story. “Only the gloom to the west brooding over the upper reaches became more somber every minute as if angered by the approach of the sun.” (Conrad Pg.4)

Heart of Darkness is a dense novel and because of its depth, the novel has language, incidents, metaphors and other literary devices that could be interpreted by the reader in any way his or her mind wishes to see within it.  Keeping this in mind, an analysis of Conrad’s raconteur Marlow’s feelings can be seen as either racist or something greater.

Shortly after Marlow received his commission in Belgium, he describes his morbid feeling that he is heading to a place he later likens to hell. The two women knitting in the office, who Marlow assumes must have seen hundreds of sailors are privy to some dark knowledge that none of them have about where they are going.  These women are written to sound like they are the gatekeepers to the hell where all of the sailors go and never return. The referring to the Congo as hell could be construed as racist if the western influence was not already at work destroying the culture within the country in the name of civilizing those who live there.  This explanation fits Conrad’s vision and his purpose in writing the novel.

Aside from the passages that are misinterpreted, there are clear passages of sympathy and admiration toward the African people in the novel.  In one such passage, Marlow notes that one native crew member aboard his steamboat expresses a desire to eat a man who had died. Marlow admits to being disturbed by hearing this suggestion; however he also acknowledges how much the native crew members must have been starving. Marlow goes on to explain the rotted hippo meat the natives once had was gone and the company employing them paid these people with a piece of copper wire feeling that the natives would use the wire for currency to buy their own provisions. Marlow, wrestling with the question as to why the natives did not attack the fewer white employers on the boat says the following “Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its somber and brooding ferocity? Well I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly.” (Conrad Pg. 42) Marlow admits to knowing the depths of the pains the natives are in with their hunger and he appears in awe of the natives for not turning against the crew members. Marlow acknowledges the brutality of cannibalism but he also notes the superhuman restraint the cannibals had in controlling their starving desperation. These restraints are foreign to the character of Kurtz and the parallels between Kurtz and the western mission to civilize the Congo will be addressed a little later.

Marlow’s steamboat is attacked as it approaches the inner station. The attacker’s fire small sticks at the ship but one spear strikes Marlow’s helmsman. Marlow describes finding a deep kinship with the African native who was trained to steer the steamboat. Marlow describes the relationship he has with his crewmate as “a subtle bond had been created of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. And that intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory. (Conrad Pg.51) This bond could be viewed strictly as a sailor’s kinship which is share between one and another.  Granted, this type of relationship is clear in this case.  The question that must be asked is that would Conrad have Marlow acknowledge this relationship with an African native helmsman if he was a racist? Would Conrad have been something akin to Fresleven who mercilessly beat the native earlier in the novel if he had made a mistake? This question requires more of a historical context much like referencing the audience for this novel at the time and the social mores found in their society.

The key point of this novel is Kurtz and the fact that everyone in the company felt one or all of three emotions. The company idolizes, fears and/or they are jealous of Kurtz’s success at his station.  The reason for Kurtz’s success is mentioned in the first paragraph of his pamphlet. Marlow describes the first paragraph as saying the following “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them (savages) in the nature of supernatural beings- we approach them with the might as of a diety’(Conrad Pg. 50) Kurtz feels that the white man are considered by the natives to be godlike and because of this power, will be able to instruct them.  This mentality was prevalent throughout western society and it is shared throughout the novel.  Marlow’s aunt talks about bringing their civilization to the African people.  The actions done against the African people reflect Kurtz’s mentality which is found in the pamphlet itself. Marlow agrees with Kurtz that the white man does have power in the region but it is because the African people fear the colonizers not because they worship them.

Kurtz himself is described as the most brutal figure in the novel and his pamphlet links his personality to everything being done by the westerners within Africa.

Kurtz is not the heart of darkness and Conrad makes it clear in his novel. The mere fact that the novel opens and closes with the Nellie floating on an ever darkening Thames should make where the true evil in the novel is found. The people responsible for Kurtz being in the Congo are the true dark figures in the novel. No one making such a comment on contemporary acts of racial hate can be considered a genuine racist.


Achebe,Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” Heart of Darkness Norton Critical Edition. Ed, Armstrong, Paul B. W.W. Norton &     Company New York & London. Copyright 2006 (336-349)

Armstrong, Paul B. . “Reading, Race, and Representing OthersHeart of Darkness Norton Critical Edition. Ed, Armstrong, Paul B. W.W. Norton &       Company New            York & London. Copyright 2006 (429-444)

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness” Heart of Darkness Norton Critical Edition. Ed.        Armstrong, Paul B. 4th ed. W.W. Norton & Company New York & London.           Copyright 2006 (3-71)

Encyclopedia Britannica Staff. “Congo Free State” Heart of Darkness Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Armstrong, Paul B. 4th ed. W.W. Norton & Company New York           & London. Copyright 2006 (99-113)

Hawkins, Hunt. “Heart of Darkness and Racism” Heart of Darkness Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Armstrong, Paul B. 4th ed. W.W. Norton & Company New York &       London. Copyright 2006 (365-379)

Hegel. G.W.F. “The African Character” Heart of Darkness Norton Critical Edition. Ed.    Armstrong, Paul B. 4th ed. W.W. Norton & Company New York & London.           Copyright 2006 (208-212)

Kidd, Benjamin. “Social Progress and the Rivalry of the Races” Heart of Darkness Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Armstrong, Paul B. 4th ed. W.W. Norton & Company New      York & London. Copyright 2006 (229-233)


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