The Heart Of Darkness By Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a multi-layered postcolonial parable; it is full of irony and deception.

Heart of Darkness is also a multi-layered postcolonial parable. And it is also a story in which racism presents itself so blatantly that, for many, the dilemma of race must be tackled before anything else in the book may be dealt with. Conrad's liberal use of derogatory, outdated and offensive terminology, and the flagrant devaluation of people of color as savages, niggers and cannibals -- this use of language by Conrad darkens and disturbs many a contemporary mind.

Heart of Darkness is full of irony and deception.

The Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe views Conrad as a racist:

Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychonalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting, as when he gives us this brief description: "A black arms"""as though we might expect a black figure striding along on black legs to wave white arms! But so relenting is Conrad's obsession. (Achebe, P. 13)

However Conrad, uses light to indicate deceit in Heart of Darkness. For example, when something glitters, it does not glitter because it is beautiful or good, but because there is something hidden under the surface, and sometimes something dangerous. The river glitters, eyes glitter. The haze is translucent, still, eerie, as though the sky was covered with white gauze. It is as though the light does not illuminate the darkness, but rather that, in a sense, the light is the darkness. If the light is the darkness, then perhaps Achebe is wrong. Conrad maybe using the words nigger and the use of darkness and light to contradict the Africans with the Europeans. It would then be the light Europeans who represent darkness, evil.

Heart of Darkness is a scathing criticism of colonialism at a time when there were mere hints that colonialism was not working as it should. It was a time that appeared on the surface perhaps to be the height of Empire, a time to be bullish about colonialism in Africa. Imperialism is a central, underlying theme in this book, although it is not only about imperialism.

Heart of Darkness is set in the Congo. It is a story that we infer takes place in the Congo, narrated by Marlow from a barge on the Thames. The reality of Heart of Darkness is that the entire time, we never leave the Thames. During the time when Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness , and even before that, during the imaginary time when Marlow went to the Congo, the British colonial empire was at its height. Britain was the preeminent world power during the second half of the nineteenth century. She had colonies around the world, including India, Malaya, Hong Kong, and much of Africa. Britain controlled the Suez Canal, the East Coast of Africa, and the route to the source of the Nile.

The images from the Thames in Heart of Darkness lend support to the argument that this is, at a basic level, a novel about imperialism. At the beginning of the novel, Conrad connects the Thames to the Congo. The Thames is "a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth." It is connected to the Congo like "an interminable waterway." It is connected both symbolically and actually. It is connected physically as all rivers are connected to each other. It is also connected by shared humanity, and it is connected economically. One piece of the economic connection is the ivory coming out of the Congo, on its way to Europe. This economic connection is alluded to by the presence of London in the distance -- the "monstrous town" -- and by the gloom we now see as we sit on the Thames with Marlow -- a lightness growing gradually darker, a sense of foreboding that intensifies. However, Achebe views the contrast of the Thames and the Congo as more of Conrad's blatant racism: Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as "the other world," the anitthesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. The book opens on the Thames, tranquil, resting peacefully "at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks." But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that "going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world." (Acgebe, P. 4)



The fact that the imagery is borrowed from Africa that bothers Achebe. He argues that Heart of Darkness treats Africa: "as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind" (Achebe, P. 12)?

Achebe is saying that he is offended by the use of images of Africa in the novel. However, Conrad seems to be attempting to ridicule his own society, not mock African society. Achebe is reading too much into the novella. He is forgetting it was written at a time when the word nigger was commonly used, an not considered racist. Achebe is reading Conrad from a modern point-of-view. We must view literature within the context of the time it was written. Conrad was opposed to colonialism, Achebe himself notes of Conrad: It might be contended, of course, that the attitude to the African in Heart of Darkness is not Conrad's but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism. Certainly, Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his story. He has, for example, a narrator behind a narrator. (p. 10)

Achebe, however, continues to judge Marlow by modern standards. He acknowledges that both Marlow and Conrad are liberals of the "English liberal tradition which required all Englishmen of decency to be deeply shocked by atrocities in Bulgaria or the Congo of King Leopold of the Belgians or whatever" (P. 10). Achebe acknowledges that students of Heart of Darkness note Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one Europens mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe's civilizing mission in Africa. (Achebe, P. 12)

However, Achebe, still judges Conrad from a modern point-of-view and deems him a racist. This is akin to calling Mark Twain a racist. While, by our current standards, Conrad is a racist, by the standards of the 1890's he was no such thing. Compared to the view of many other people, Conrad was an extreme liberal who did his best to shed light on the plight of the African people. Achebe disagrees:

The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. (p. 12)

My answer is: Yes, it can. Conrad dehumanizes all the characters in the novel. However, by dehumanizing the Africans and Africa he points out the hypocrisy of European attitudes towards Africa. The novel, hence, does not celebrate the dehumanizing of a portion of the human race, but mocks the dehumanization as evil.

© High Speed Ventures 2011