Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Post by Archer on Fri Jan 14, 2011 2:00 pm

Joseph Conrad develops themes of personal power, individual responsibility, and social justice in his novel Heart of Darkness. This novel has all the trappings of the conventional adventure tale – mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, unexpected attack. Yet, despite Conrad’s great story telling, he has also been viewed as a racist by some of his critics. Achebe, Singh, and Sarwan, although their criticisms differ, are a few to name.

The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has claimed that Heart of Darkness is an “offensive and deplorable book” that “set[s] 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.” Achebe says that Conrad does not provide enough of an outside frame of reference to enable the novel to be read as ironic or critical of imperialism.

Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as "the other world," the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization. The book opens on the River 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 takes place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that "Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world."

Conrad uses Marlow, the main character in the novel, as a narrator so he himself can enter the story and tell it through his own philosophical mind. Conrad used “double speak” throughout this novel. Upon arriving at the first station, Marlow commented what he observed.

“They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.”

Marlow felt pity toward the natives, yet when he met the station’s book keeper he changed his views of the natives.

“Moreover I respected the fellow. Yes. I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance.”

Early in his journey, Marlow sees a group of black men paddling boats. He admires their naturalness, strength, and vitality, and senses that they want nothing from the land but to coexist with it. This notion prompts him to believe that he still belongs to a world of reason. The feeling is short-lived, however, for it is not long before Marlow, too, comes to see the Africans as some subhuman form of life and to use the language of his day in referring to them as "creatures," "niggers," "cannibals," and "savages." He does not protest or try to interfere when he sees six Africans forced to work with chains about their necks. He calls what he sees in their eyes the "deathlike indifference of unhappy savages." Marlow exhibits some humanity in offering a dying young African one of the ship's biscuits, and although he regrets the death of his helmsman, he says he was "a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara." It is not the man he misses so much as his function as steersman. Marlow refers to the "savage who was fireman" as "an improved specimen." He compares him, standing before his vertical boiler, to "a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs."

Conrad was not only racist but also ignorant. He would often mix ignorance with racism when he described the natives.

“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.”

The end result of Conrad’s ignorance of not knowing the behaviour of African people concluded his division of the social world into two separate categories: “us”, the Europeans and, “them”, the Africans. He considered the Africans inferior and doomed people.

To conclude, it may be said that in Heart of Darkness, the narrator is talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called into question. Though he did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book, it was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it. Conrad’s ignorance led to his conformity to racism. His ignorance of not completely “granting the natives human status” leads him to social categorization.
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