© 2021 by M. Keith Booker

For such a short text, Heart of Darkness addresses a surprising number of important issues of its day, many of which have remained relevant into our own time. The novella has also shown an ability to support an unusually broad range of critical approaches. For example, psychoanalytic critics have sometimes been fascinated by the way in which Marlow’s journey up the Congo River in Heart of Darkness can be seen as a sort of trip into the Freudian unconscious mind.[1] Feminist critics, meanwhile, have been seriously disturbed by Marlow’s imperious attitude toward women in the book, wondering how this attitude might reflect Conrad’s own, not to mention that of late-Victorian society as a whole.[2] However, in recent decades, the most extensive critical attention to Heart of Darkness has focused on what is, in fact, the central topic of the text itself: colonialism (and associated topics, such as racism). Indeed, charges that this important canonical text might be thoroughly racist has spurred ongoing debates, not only about Heart of Darkness, but about canonical literature as a whole.

Heart of Darkness, it should be pointed out, never mentions Belgium or the Congo by name. In context, however, it is clear that Marlow’s destination in Africa is the Belgian Congo, which Conrad himself had visited in 1890. No reader in 1899 would have been likely to see Marlow’s trip in any other way. Indeed, Heart of Darkness was, at the time of its initial publication part of an extensive public discussion about the Belgian Congo in the British media. As noted above, Britain had its share of troubles (and committed its share of atrocities) in the colonization of its part of Africa. One strategy used by the British to quell growing unrest at home over their colonial misadventures in Africa was to divert attention from those misadventures by making a cause célèbre of the gruesome atrocities being committed in the Congo by forces under the control of Leopold II. In an attempt to extract the maximum profits from resources such as Congolese rubber plantations, Leopold’s forces employed what amounted to slave labor, treating their Congolese workers with the utmost cruelty, routinely meting out horrific punishments such as the hacking off of limbs for workers whose efforts were deemed unacceptable in one way or another. The British press gave extensive coverage to the atrocities being committed in the Congo; among those commenting on the situation in letters to the editor was an aspiring novelist by the name of Joseph Conrad, who also responded to the situation in the Congo in Heart of Darkness.

British concerns over the brutalization was such that in 1903 the British government had instructed Roger Casement, its consul in the French-ruled part of the Congo, to investigate the situation in the Belgian Congo and to report back to Parliament. When Casement returned, he brought such stories of horror that it caused a public outcry, and Casement himself headed a campaign to demand an amelioration of current European practices in the Congo.[3] One of the British citizens who supported (though somewhat half-heartedly) Casement’s efforts was Joseph Conrad, who contributed a letter for publication in which he decried the situation in the Congo. In the letter, Conrad points out that

“in 1903, seventy five years or so after the abolition of the slave trade (because it was cruel) there exists in Africa a Congo State, created by the act of European powers where ruthless, systematic cruelty towards the blacks is the basis of administration, and bad faith towards all the other states the basis of commercial policy” (qtd. in Hawkins, “Joseph Conrad” 70).

Conrad had, in fact, maintained an interest in the Congo since his own trip there in 1890. In 1901, for example, he had published (along with Ford Madox Ford) a novel entitled The Inheritors that was largely a satire of Leopold’s rule in the Congo. But Conrad’s most famous and enduring comment on the Belgian Congo appears in Heart of Darkness, in which Charlie Marlow is openly critical of much of the European activity that he observes in Africa, and especially of the brutal treatment of many of the Africans by their European masters. Moreover, many of Marlow’s comments seem openly critical of the imperial project as a whole, as when he argues that the “conquest of the earth,” which consists mostly of “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” (7). Indeed, he describes this conquest as little more than “robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale” (7).

On the other hand, Marlow’s attitude is not quite so anti-colonial as it might first appear. For one thing, his characterization of imperialism as robbery and murder strictly applies only to the Roman imperial conquest of England two thousand years earlier. In fact, he specifically contrasts Roman imperialism with its later British variety, arguing that the efficiency of British colonial administration, informed as it is by a central “idea” of bringing enlightenment to the “dark places” of the earth might actually bring benefits to colonized peoples. Meanwhile, Marlow’s criticism of contemporary practices in the Congo applies to Belgian colonialism, not British, and even then his criticism pertains to specific abuses and not to the basic fact of European rule in the Congo. Marlow’s attitude, in short, leaves a great deal of room for interpretation, especially as we know from other sources that Marlow’s complex attitude toward imperialism and colonialism seems to mirror Conrad’s own ambivalence.

Interpreting many aspects of Heart of Darkness (as with much of Conrad’s writing) is complicated by this ambivalence and by his use of literary techniques that tend to make final and definitive interpretations impossible, leaving in place an interpretive uncertainty that would come to be a hallmark of modernist literary texts. In the case of Heart of Darkness, the most important source of this uncertainty is the rhetorical structure of the book. A quick read through the book might lead one to think that the story we are reading is being narrated to use by Marlow. However, a closer look at the text makes us realize that Marlow tells his story not directly to us but to a group of listeners aboard a “cruising yawl” (a two-masted sailing craft), the “Nellie,” which is moored in the Thames, the ultimately hub of Britain’s maritime trading empire. The listeners on the Nellie are identified not by name, but by occupation, including individuals designated as “The Director of Companies,” “The Lawyer,” “The Accountant,” and a fourth listener, who is entirely unidentified. The identified listeners thus occupy important positions within the capitalist structure of contemporary Britain and function as essentially allegorical representations of the capitalist enterprise. Meanwhile, the unidentified listener is actually the frame narrator who relates Marlow’s tale to us indirectly.

In short, the character about whom we know the least is the one on whom we are totally reliant for all information received in the story. We can perhaps assume that the narrator fits in with the other listeners (who seem to be his friends), which means that he would occupy a higher class position than does the rather working class Marlow. In fact, these differences might account for the several instances we see of tensions between Marlow and his listeners, as when the narrator subtly undermines Marlow’s authority with a variety of slyly subversive comments. For example, as Marlow begins his tale, the narrator bids us farewell with an ironic aside, noting that he and his comrades “knew we were fated . . . to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences” (7). Meanwhile, Marlow himself shows a certain animosity toward his audience when he notes (or, at least, the narrator tells us that he notes) that they, with their comfortable bourgeois lives, could not possibly understand what he experienced in Africa. Thus, when a member of his audience sighs, indicating skepticism toward Marlow’s story, Marlow responds angrily: “Absurd! . . . Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal—you hear—normal from year’s end to year’s end” (54).

He then goes on to argue that his audience cannot possibly understand Kurtz:

“How could you—with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you on or fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman” (55–56).

Thus, the story that we actually hear is being related to us indirectly by someone who, according to Marlow, can’t possibly understand it, making it difficult to know how much the information we get from the narrator is to be trusted. Of course, it is the narrator himself who relays this information to us, and we cannot be sure how much possible hostilities between Marlow and the narrator might affect the accuracy of the narrator’s account of what Marlow said.

To complicate matters even further, Marlow also calls into question his own effectiveness as a narrator by expressing his frustration at his inability to explain clearly what happened to him in Africa. For example, he notes the difficulty of finding the “inner truth” when one has to attend to so many surface details, at the same time taking another slap at his listeners, causing one of them to snap back at him:

“But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for—what is it? half-a-crown a tumble—”

                        “Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice. (38–39)

Marlow himself suggests that even he might not truly understand what happened in Africa, because the truth of that experience lies far beneath what can be observed on the surface. “The essentials of this affair,” he suggests, “lay deep under the surface, beyond my reach and beyond my powers of meddling” (44). In this since, he displays an awareness of the kind of “depth epistemology” that often drives much modernist art—a belief that the truth lies beneath the surface and can be revealed only by determined and patient excavation—as in Freudian psychoanalysis, based on the notion that the true reasons behind neuroses generally lie hidden within the unconscious mind.

Marlow also shows a typically modernist concern when he suggests that language itself might be inadequate to convey what he has felt and seen in Africa. Indeed, one of the main reasons why modernist writers felt that they needed to explore new modes of expression was because of the perceived inability of conventional denotative language adequately to convey the truth of human experience, especially in a modern world in which alienation is a common experience, with individuals feeling isolated from one another and from the world around them. At one point, while trying to describe Kurtz to his listeners on the Nellie, Marlow asks,

“Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation. … No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning, its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone” (30).

To an extent, Marlow’s project here can be taken as expressing some of Conrad’s own sense of the problems he faced as a writer, recalling the often-quoted statement of purpose in the famous preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see” (xlix).[4]

To make matters worse, there are many hints in the text that Marlow cannot always be relied upon to relate his experiences honestly and accurately, even if he could. At one point, Marlow fervently declares his hatred of lying:

“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do” (30)

Yet Marlow then immediately admits that he intentionally misled the agent at the Central Station by letting them think he had powerful connections in the Company: “I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims” (30).[5]

The rhetorical structure of Heart of Darkness thus introduces a radical uncertainty that poses special interpretative dilemmas, but interpretations of Conrad are consistently complicated by such uncertainties—and by his seeming ambivalence and the presence of seemingly contradictory attitudes within his texts. Indeed, perhaps the most frequent critical observation made about the fiction of Conrad in general involves the way his work displays a consistent ambivalence toward almost all of the major issues it addresses. Benita Parry, for example, notes that Conrad’s work both undermines and supports the ideology of imperialism. Fredric Jameson, meanwhile, argues that Conrad’s work includes many of the characteristics of both the sophisticated texts of modernism and the entertainment-oriented texts of popular culture. For Jameson this doubleness has to do with Conrad’s historical location at a crucial point when modern culture itself was splitting into the currents of high culture and popular culture that I mentioned above. For Jameson, then, the notorious doubleness of Conrad’s writing arises from the “coexistence of all these distinct but as yet imperfectly differentiated cultural ‘spaces’” (Political Unconscious 208). Jameson focuses especially on Lord Jim, a novel that consists of two separate parts, the first of which is a modernist meditation (on the part of Marlow) that is dismissive of popular romance narratives, and the second of which is precisely such a narrative. In Heart of Darkness, however, the modes are thoroughly more intermixed, as Conrad strives both to tell a rollicking romance narrative and to present a nuanced literary exploration of the nature of truth and reality both at the same time.

Jameson’s attribution of Conrad’s ambivalence to his historical moment (rather than to his personal psychology, as have some critics) suggests that a close consideration of Conrad’s historical context should be extremely useful to better understand his work. For example, the treatment of Africa in Heart of Darkness is quite typical of European discourses about Africa at the turn of the century. The important late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century black thinker E. W. Blyden (an important influence on later African thinkers like Kwame Nkrumah and Léopold Senghor and one of the forerunners of the Négritude movement in twentieth-century black literature) frequently complained that European scholars commenting on Africa did so from the position of a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between Africa and Europe. In his 1888 book Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race, for example, Blyden pointed out the tendency of Europeans to see Africans as undeveloped, even infantile, versions of themselves:

“The mistake which Europeans often make in considering questions of Negro improvement and the future of Africa, is in supposing that the Negro is the European in embryo—in the undeveloped stage—and that when, by and by, he shall enjoy the advantages of civilization and culture, he will become like the European; in other words, that the Negro is on the same line of progress, in the same groove, with the European, but infinitely in the rear” (276).

Blyden was accurate in his description of European scholarship. For example, in a recent study R. H. Lyons notes the consistency with which nineteenth-century European commentators regarded blacks as inferior to whites, quite often comparing the two along the lines of children versus adults:

“Though they did disagree among themselves about which European ‘races’ were inferior to others, Western racial commentators generally agreed that Blacks were inferior to whites in moral fiber, cultural attainment, and mental ability; the African was, to many eyes, the child in the family of man, modern man in embryo” (86-7).

Indeed, as V. Y. Mudimbe notes, an entire array of nineteenth-century European discourses on Africa (often drawing upon a Hegelian perception of history for support) quite consistently tended to envision Africa as radically separated from Europe in terms of temporal development. European writers in fields like botany, anthropology, and phrenology “attempted to prove that in Africa the physical environment, the flora and fauna, as well as the people, represent relics of a remote age of antiquity” (107). Powerful currents in nineteenth-century European thought, including a fascination with evolution, history, and social progress all tended to envision the course of both nature and society as an ongoing forward movement in time. Moreover, such models tended to be global in scope, treating Africa and Europe as part of the same process, with Europe simply being farther along on the temporal scale. Africa, in fact, came to be treated as the locus of primitivity in virtually all areas, thus serving as a sort of anchor point against which the progressive development of Europe could be measured.

These kinds of narratives are typical of the remarkable emphasis on the notion of progress that characterized so much European thought in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the late Victorians were ambivalent toward even their most cherished notions. As Ian Watt noted some time ago, Conrad’s work is powerfully informed by a growing skepticism toward the notion of limitless progress. For example, Watt notes that the pessimistic tone of Heart of Darkness

“is largely reflecting the much bleaker and more threatening ideological perspective on human life which followed from new developments in physical science, in evolutionary theory, and in political life, during the last half of the nineteenth century” (Conrad 151).

In particular, the Darwinian vision of progress (with no divine plan to assure its forward movement) also triggered a growing anxiety over the possibility that evolution might somehow reverse itself and begin to proceed backward, with humans then becoming more and more primitive. Thinkers such as Spencer even began to wonder if whole societies could evolve backwards.

Perhaps the central expression of nineteenth-century European anxieties over the possibility of “backward” evolution came in the form of the discourse of degeneration, discussed above in relation to the work of thinkers such as Max Nordau and his mentor, Cesare Lombroso, whose work is quite relevant to Heart of Darkness. For example, while he does not mention him by name, Conrad directly alludes to Lombroso early in the text when he has Marlow encounter a doctor in Brussels who is fascinated by Lombroso’s theories and who asks Marlow if he can measure his skull (12). Moreover, Conrad’s depiction of Kurtz would seem to be a classic example of degeneration. Beginning with a sense of his civilizing mission that corresponds very closely to that espoused by Lord Lugard, Kurtz apparently descends into savagery once the primitive aspects of his nature are reactivated by his contact with the African jungle. Indeed, as Susan Navarette points out, the physical appearance of the huge Kurtz, with his “lofty frontal bone” seems to match Nordau’s description of the degenerate criminal type almost exactly, as do certain elements of Kurtz’s behavior (309 n.21). On the other hand, Conrad (with his typical ambivalence) clearly does not intend Kurtz as a simple demonstration of the theories of Lombroso and Nordau. Marlow seems to present the doctor who wishes to examine him as a rather ridiculous figure. Moreover, Kurtz the “degenerate” is also described as a “universal genius.” He is, as Ian Glenn points out, an intellectual and an artist. The depiction of Kurtz thus challenges the beliefs of Lombroso and Nordau that good and evil characteristics can be simply distinguished by physical measurement. But it is also true that Nordau himself describes the way in which what Lombroso saw as “genius” might actually be evidence of “neurotic degeneration.” In short, Nordau to an extent already undermines the genius-degenerate opposition, thus showing his own form of ambivalence.

Similarly, Brian Shaffer points out that Conrad’s opposition between Europe and Africa in Heart of Darkness clearly echoes Spencer’s contrast between primitive and advanced societies. But, as Shaffer notes, Conrad again complicates this opposition by attributing the book’s greatest savagery to “sophisticated” Europeans. Thus “Conrad’s African fictions inquire into Spencer’s typology of civilization, both incorporating and criticizing it, both absorbing its rubrics and parodying its resolutions” (54). Meanwhile, the dialogues with Lombroso, Nordau, and Spencer in Heart of Darkness form only a small part of the remarkable ability of Conrad’s text to address so many of the central concerns of its day.

Marlow, for example, consistently characterizes Africa as primitive, much in the mode that Blyden and Mudimbe have seen as typical of European discourses about Africa. The African jungle is the “primeval forest” (29); traveling up the Congo is like going “back to the earliest beginnings of the world” (38); and the “cannibals” in Marlow’s crew “still belonged to the beginnings of time” (46). And Kurtz’s atrocities are clearly attributed to his return to primeval ways, to “the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts” (76). Moreover, in light of the descriptions by Blyden and Lyons of the way Europeans of the time tended to see Africans as primitive and undeveloped versions of themselves, it is perhaps not surprising that Marlow sees Africans in much the same way. The comments of Blyden and Lyons also shed new light on Marlow’s acknowledgment of a “remote kinship” with black Africans and a “suspicion of their not being inhuman” (40). After all, to Marlow the remoteness of this kinship resides precisely in the fact that the Africans are remote from the Europeans in time and development. Marlow sees the black Africans as embodying a primeval truth of the human condition, a truth “stripped of the cloak of time” that still lies at the heart of the existence of the contemporary white European, but that is now buried beneath the many layers of civilization that Europe has accumulated over those two thousand years (41). But Marlow’s point is not that the Africans are equally capable of developing an advanced civilization. Rather, he shows a typical turn-of-the-century European anxiety over the possibility of degeneration and suggests that European civilization is all that prevents Europeans from reverting to the condition of savages. His depiction of Africans as primitive versions of Europeans reveals an ideological bias in which the European perspective is always maintained as primary. Africans are not granted a genuine Otherness, an independent existence. Rather, they are merely primitive versions of Europeans. Marlow asks his listeners to understand not the Africans, but themselves, and his reminder of the fundamental similarities between the Europeans and the Africans is not a call for tolerance or better understanding. It is in fact a call for distance, a suggestion that those layers of civilization be maintained at all costs in order to ward off the threat of a descent into savagery which hovers over us all and to which Kurtz succumbed.

Marlow, then, would seem to accept the Hegelian notion of history as progress, with Europeans accompanying a position of superior development relative to Africans. On the other hand, Heart of Darkness dramatically demonstrates the racist and imperialist ideology that lies at the heart of Hegelian history—and of progressive historicism in general. In particular, Heart of Darkness undermines such teleological notions of history by its suggestion that the culmination of European history is not divine order, but the diabolical Kurtz. As Marlow puts it, “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (56). And Marlow’s own “inconclusive” narrative would seem radically to undermine the kinds of plot structures to which teleological history naturally leads. Indeed, while the quest structure of Conrad’s basic plot seems highly teleological, the ultimate failure of Marlow’s quest for truth conflicts with the notion of history as smooth progression toward a predefined goal. Meanwhile, Conrad’s modernist technique, with its interruptions, its hesitancies, and its unresolvable ambiguities, assures that his text can never reach a stable conclusion of the kind implied by Hegelian history and typically enacted in nineteenth-century realist narratives.

Conrad criticism was, in fact, long dominated by discussions of his modernist literary strategies. More recent discussions, however, have focused more on his engagement with contemporary issues, especially racism and colonialism. This change in direction is very much in tune with the turn toward more socially- and politically-based approaches in literary criticism as a whole. However, Heart of Darkness is a special case in that the dominant wave of critical concern over the text since the 1970s was triggered by one specific lecture on the novella by the distinguished African novelist Chinua Achebe, the author of Things Fall Apart (1958, a novel that will be discussed as an exemplary text in Chapter 5. In this lecture, delivered in 1975 and published in 1977 as “An Image of Africa,”[6] Achebe pulls no punches that Heart of Darkness is centrally informed by a conventional European desire to “set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (251–2). Achebe goes on to declare Heart of Darkness to be an overtly racist text and to support his argument with specific examples in which Africans are depicted in terms of conventional racist stereotypes. For example, despite Marlow’s occasional expressions of sentimental sympathy with the Africans he sees being beaten and starved by their European masters, the fact remains that this sympathy is extremely condescending and that the Africans themselves are consistently described as “cannibals,” “niggers,” and “savages,” who are little more than animals. Marlow’s description of the fireman on his steamer (the one African with whom he seems to have the most “sympathy”) is telling:

And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was my fireman. 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 breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs. A few months training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity—and he had filed is teeth, too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. 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 improving knowledge. (41)

Achebe concludes from such passages that “Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist” (257) and that Heart of Darkness is an “offensive and deplorable book”: “I am talking about a book which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today” (259).

Achebe is particularly concerned about what he sees as the racism of Heart of Darkness because of canonical status of Conrad’s book, which is one of the most frequently taught texts in English courses in universities all over America. Especially in the mid-1970s, Heart of Darkness was typically taught as a great work of literature, with little interrogation of its potentially problematic depiction of Africa and Africans. Achebe felt that academia was essentially endorsing the book without paying attention to what the book actually said.

It might be noted that, in his initial lecture Achebe called for the removal of Heart of Darkness from college syllabi. This call, however, had more to do with the non-critical way in which the book was being taught than with the potential value of the book as a teaching tool that might illuminate the racist ideas that lay behind colonialism as a whole. In later years, Achebe himself frequently taught Heart of Darkness in his courses at Bard College, often as an introductory text in courses on African literature, using it as an example of the racist and colonialist legacies to which African literature was responding. Many instructors, in fact, now teach Heart of Darkness in conjunction with Achebe’s criticism of it, and sometimes even alongside Achebe’s own novels, a practice which has been described and recommended, for example, by Gerald Graff (25-33).

In any case, many critics followed Achebe’s initial lead, have explored the potential racist and colonialist biases of Heart of Darkness. The Indian critic Frances Singh supports Achebe by arguing that, despite the seeming critique of colonialism embedded in much of Marlow’s narration, the most fundamental metaphor of the text, the “heart of darkness” of the title, suggests intonations of evil and savagery that the text associates not with the atrocities committed by Europeans against Africans, but with the Africans themselves. For Singh, Marlow’s anti-colonialist rhetoric is seriously undermined by his seeming inability to regard Africans as fully human: “He may sympathize with the plight of blacks, he may be disgusted by the effects of economic colonialism, but because he has no desire to understand or appreciate people of any culture other than his own, he is not emancipated from the mentality of a colonizer” (272).

However, other critics have come to the defense of Conrad and his text. For one thing, they point out that no text can be understood apart from its historical context and that Conrad’s attitude toward African blacks, while probably racist by the standards of the twenty-first century, was if anything unusually sympathetic by the standards of the time in which it was written. Even Singh grants that the limitations of Conrad’s vision were not especially reactionary or racist in the context of turn-of-the century England (280). But Singh argues that we must nevertheless face the fact that his text is nevertheless racially and culturally biased. It is especially crucial to recognize such biases in a text like Heart of Darkness that is well established in the Western literary canon, a canon that supposedly contains the greatest expressions of the greatest thoughts of our cultural heritage. In this sense, that Heart of Darkness is not unusually racist for its time only serves to call attention to the element of racism that is central to the Western cultural tradition, though the racism of Heart of Darkness also calls into question the notion that works of great literature transcend their time and express timeless truths.

It should be noted, though, that other critics have examined Heart of Darkness and concluded that, on balance, Conrad’s attitude is actually antiracist and anticolonialist. In his essay “The Issue of Racism in Heart of Darkness” Hunt Hawkins reviews the numerous attempts that have been made to defend Conrad against charges of racism. He admits that Conrad’s depiction of Africans does not show a very subtle or profound understanding of them. Indeed, Conrad’s descriptions of Africans read almost like a catalog of superficial stereotypes. But, Hawkins argues that Heart of Darkness can potentially be defended on this score because it is not really about Africans in the first place. It is about Europeans, who simply happen to be in Africa. Hawkins, however, grants that this European focus does not in itself excuse Conrad’s dehumanizing descriptions of Africans. Indeed, Achebe regards Conrad’s use of Africa as a stage setting for European adventure and his reduction of Africa “to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind” as particularly offensive elements of the text (257).

Hawkins then goes on to produce a problematic argument that Conrad’s attitude is partially defensible on the basis of the fact that European atrocities in the Congo were no worse than the atrocities that were already being committed there among the Africans themselves. According to Hawkins, while the European colonial intrusions into Africa no doubt shattered the existing African tribal society, the fact is that this life was hardly ideal in the first place. Hawkins then cites contemporary European sources to the effect that “cannibalism and human sacrifice were rife” in the Congo region during the time Conrad was there, and that Conrad may have been influenced by this situation during his own trip to Africa, though Hawkins grants that there is no actual evidence that Conrad observed any incidences of either cannibalism or human sacrifice (“Issue” 164-6).

The problem with this defense, of course, is that it requires one to accept precisely the characterization of Africans as savage that Achebe and others have found so offensive in Conrad’s work. In point of fact, European accounts of the savagery and cannibalism of Africans in the late nineteenth century appear to have been greatly exaggerated, if not fabricated outright. Patrick Parrinder thus notes that there is no evidence to support Conrad’s description of Africans at several points in Heart of Darkness as devil worshippers, even if that characterization was typical of Europeans fantasies about Africans at the time. Indeed, Parrinder suggests that African religions of the time, viewed objectively, were no more savage or fetishistic than Christianity itself (98-9). Meanwhile, Parrinder grants that Conrad’s emphasis on cannibalism in Heart of Darkness was typical of European discourse about Africa at the time. But Parrinder also points out that European reports of African cannibalism were highly unreliable and seldom (if ever) based on confirmed evidence. Indeed, he notes that there were very few reports of cannibalism in central Africa during the four centuries of European contact with the region prior to the late nineteenth century, when a belief in the cannibalistic tendencies of Africans suddenly became extremely convenient as European missionaries fanned out across the continent in search of converts and European powers scrambled to gain control of their share of what only then came to be known as the “dark” continent. The characterization of Africans as cannibals (and thus as primitives in need of salvation) during this period helped to make the European loss of life in “civilizing” the continent seem worthwhile, while at the same time justifying European rule of Africa by demonstrating the superiority of Europeans to their primitive African counterparts. Finally, Parrinder notes that there were instances in which human flesh was used as a source of food in the Congo in the late nineteenth century—but only because the Belgians and competing Arab conquerors were engaged in an all-out war for control of the region, a war the devastating effects of which led to widespread starvation and to desperate acts of cannibalism on both sides (91-2). Indeed, it is interesting that Conrad suppresses from his narrative any mention of the hostilities between the Belgians and the Arabs. In fact, Conrad does not mention the presence of Arabs at all, an omission made more curious by Conrad’s focus on Arabs in novels like Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. The effacement of Arabs from Heart of Darkness, according to Patrick Brantlinger, “has the effect of sharpening the light-and-dark dichotomies, the staple of racism; … Furthermore, because of the omission of the Arabs Conrad treats cannibalism not as a result of war but as an everyday custom of the Congolese” (263).

Hawkins also defends Heart of Darkness on the basis of his reading of the text as a “powerful indictment of imperialism” (“Issue” 166). Here Hawkins focuses on the depiction of Kurtz in the text, arguing that the brutalities committed by Kurtz are not in fact attributed in the text to his having been corrupted by his contact with the “evil practices of the Africans.” Instead, for Hawkins, Kurtz represents the corruption brought to Africa from Europe. Hawkins then claims that Marlow’s harshest descriptions of Africans have to do not with their own indigenous practices, but with their cooperation with Kurtz and his specifically European form of evil. Hawkins then cites (and endorses) the suggestion by the Guyanese postcolonial novelist Wilson Harris (in direct response to Achebe) that Heart of Darkness is first and foremost an indictment of European liberalism itself. He regards the book as a “frontier novel” that points the way to more positive and productive literary representations of the Third World, even though Conrad himself does not cross this frontier and achieve these representations (263). And this defense of Conrad is potentially a good one, though it should also be pointed out that most readers have found Marlow’s attribution of Kurtz’s savagery to his having “gone native” quite clear. He describes Kurtz, for example, as having “taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land” (55).

Hawkins also suggests that Conrad can be defended on the simple basis that his representations of Africans are often quite positive, though the only examples Hawkins can produce are Marlow’s description of “Kurtz’s mistress” as “superb . . . magnificent . . . stately” (70); his characterization of a group of blacks paddling a boat off the shore of Africa as working with “vitality” and “energy” (15); and his description of the “cannibals” in his crew as “fine fellows . . . men one could work with” (39). Hawkins further argues that Marlow, in the course of his journey, overcomes some of his initial prejudices against Africans and in fact performs acts of kindness to them such as offering a biscuit to the dying man in the “grove of death” (21). Unfortunately, these examples are rather weak. Marlow’s description of the “superb” African woman includes “savage” and “ominous” in addition to the adjectives cited by Hawkins, and it is clear that she serves in the text as an image of animal-like feminine sexual energy—and threat. Meanwhile, Marlow also describes the “dignified” boat-rowers as having “faces like grotesque masks” and as being visible from a distance because of the glistening whites of their eyeballs—in short, in the stock terms of the racist tradition. Meanwhile, Marlow’s description of his “cannibals” as “fine fellows” is clearly ironic, and the very fact that Conrad calls attention to their cannibalism is another example of his own acceptance of European racist stereotypes about Africa. Finally, Marlow’s “charity” to the dying man in the grove of death is precisely the sort of kindness he might have bestowed upon a dying dog. In this very passage, in fact, he describes Africans in specifically dehumanizing ways: they are “black shadows,” “moribund shapes,” and “bundles of acute angles.” And the man to whom he gives his biscuit is described in stereotypically racist terms as being of uncertain age (“with them it’s hard to tell”) and as wearing a pathetic string around his neck which Marlow interprets as some sort of magical charm (18–19).

Hawkins’s final defense of Conrad is that Conrad himself openly and strongly opposed racism. To support this point, however, Hawkins must turn to Conrad’s Malayan novels, where the black-and-white racial dichotomies are less clear than in Africa. In these novels, Hawkins concludes, Conrad shows scorn for Europeans who claim racial superiority over Asians, matching this scorn with a “sympathy and respect for Malayans” (“Issue” 169). However, as Humphries points out, Conrad’s critique of “self-satisfied Western superiority” in these novels is accompanied by a consideration of the European presence in Asia as not merely justified, but entirely natural. In particular, Hawkins lists several portrayals of “admirable” Malayan characters in these novels, including the woman Jewel, the half-white native mistress of the title character of Lord Jim. Yet Jewel functions in that text as little more than a prop for Jim’s romance-like rise to power in distant Patusan. She is, in fact, a typical European fantasy of the obedient and sexually suppliant Oriental woman, perhaps made more acceptable by her admixture of European blood. Jewel is so subservient to Jim that she even begins to resemble him physically:

“She lived so completely in his contemplation that she had acquired something of his outward aspect, something that recalled him in her movements, in the way she stretched her arm, turned her head, directed her glances. Her vigilant affection had an intensity that made it almost perceptible to the senses” (210).

Finally, Humphries notes that Conrad’s positive representations of Malays are largely intended to set them apart from Arabs, who are consistently portrayed as the sinister and conniving villains of the books, using many of the same stereotypes that Edward Said has identified in his book Orientalism (119).

Hawkins ultimately concludes that Conrad may not have

“been able to break entirely free from the racial biases and epithets of his age. But we should recognize his special status as one of the few writers of his period who struggled with the issue of race, and we should appreciate the remarkable fair-mindedness he achieved” (“Issue” 169).

However, it is highly debatable that Conrad’s “fair-mindedness” was really so “remarkable.” Thus, while Conrad’s focus on issues like imperialism and racism makes his book important as a cultural document, it also makes it crucial for us as readers to approach his text with caution and suspicion rather than with the reverence sometimes accorded canonical texts. As Parrinder puts it,

“That it took an “Africanist” narrative, sensationally and unforgettably misrepresenting the history, geography and ethnography of the Congo, to set the scene for his vision of universal horror suggests that we now need to say (though we can only say it with Conradian irony) that Heart of Darkness is no idol of ours” (99).


[1] See, for example, the discussion of Heart of Darkness in Guerard for such a reading.

[2] See Johanna Smith for an excellent investigation of Marlow’s attitudes toward women. But see Sedlack for an argument that Heart of Darkness itself thoroughly undermines Marlow’s views in this regard.

[3] Ironically, Casement would be executed by the British government in 1916 for his participation in the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland. See Chapter 3.

[4] It is because of this emphasis on conveying sense impressions (and on doing so via technique that go beyond simple direct description) that Conrad has often been described as an “impressionist” writer—after impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, who attempted to renew perception by painting objects and scenes from unusual angles and with unusual lighting, while trying to convey a sense of movement in a still painting. On Conrad as an impressionist, especially in Heart of Darkness, see Byrne.

[5] In addition, much feminist criticism of Heart of Darkness has focused on Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz’s “Intended,” in which he extensively misleads the woman by allowing her to gather false impressions of his relationship with an opinion of her former fiancé. See Johanna Smith.

[6] The full text of this lecture can currently be found on-line at