Heart of Darkness- Conrad an unintentional racist
“The Heart of Darkness” by Conrad exposes the greed, malice and selfishness of the European men. They exploit the wealth of Africa in the name of civilizing the natives. They take away their ivory and in return gave them hunger, destitution, poverty, degradation and death. The English men of this novel lack morals and conscience. Conrad observed the hypocrisy of his country men and exposed it in a marvelous way in this short piece of art.
Beside this utter pessimistic depiction of European colonialism, Conrad is charged with intentional racism against Africans. A group of critics claims that he uses expressions that are a manifestation of his racial bias. Other critics respond to this charge by saying that the racist remarks used in this novel are completely unintentional and the basic aim of Conrad was to expose ironically, with complete fidelity and without any bias, the evil effects of colonialism in Africa. Let’s explore and analyze both view points and check the soundness of these claims.
Certain critics are of the view that Conrad is racist in his treatment of African in Heart of Darkness. The foremost of these critics are Achebe and Bratlinger. Bratlinger sums up the racism of Conrad in this way;
“Conrad’s stress on cannibalism, his identification of African customs with violence, lust, and madness, his metaphors of bestiality death, and darkness, his suggestion that travelling in Africa is like travelling backward in time to primeval, infantile but also hellish stages of existence – these features of the story are drawn from the repertoire of Victorian imperialism and racism that painted an entire continent dark.” (285)
This viewpoint is supported and augmented by Ed Amatoritsero who says;
“The African characters are present as a kind of absence. They do not think, speak, do not behave like normal human beings but nevertheless have the physical features of the species – and that is “the fascination it (Heart of Darkness) holds over the European mind” (4) that is what troubles Conrad according to Achebe, that is the thrill – this ‘ugly’ kinship to the human being (there are also passages where Conrad compares them to apes – a popular past-time of imperial Victorian Europe), which is the “horror, the horror” for his early European readers, for whom he confirmed and consolidated the wildest fantasies and myths about Africans. He could be certain of non-contradiction therefore from those readers.” (Ede, 2001)
To understand Conrad aesthetically, it is well to remember that he came of a family of Polish patriots and exiles of the land-owning class, that he was a British merchant sailor, retiring with a master’s ticket, and being, a Pole, that he was an idolater of England; we are not dragging personalities into literary criticism. We have, then, the main facts conditioning Conrad’s attitude towards life in so far as environment and heredity can illuminate the attitude manifest in his books. The general impression gained from the books is of a man ironic in some subtle manner, fatalistic and melancholy but honest to the core. He is someone who is pessimist because of his looking straight into the eyes of reality without being influenced by any bias including that of racism. He was a man of subtle intellect dominated by the heart. He loves to speak the truth. “Heart of Darkness” is a glorious example of his realist attitude towards life and his preference for depicting the things as he sees them.
Yes, his attitude is ironic and pessimistic, but his behavior honorable and idealistic. Behavior means the behavior of the characters of his creation: their virtues, notably honor, fidelity and practical idealism. Fidelity is the towering human virtue, and from it springs all other virtues. Conrad’s novels have sufficient evidence of this belief and much of Conrad’s writing may be seen, as a fantasia on fidelity. That much, of course, is apparent in his novels. There are men like Captain Mc Whirr who have no qualities in the world other than fidelity and the strength, the courage, to carry a conception into the plane of action. It is the plain statement of what may be called the moral conception of life as opposed to the philosophical; it is optimistic-though from it has sprung much that has given Conrad his reputation of a pessimist. That is what Conrad himself has to say about life, about the temporal world. It is an observation on life viewed as the boat we are all in for better or for worse, and with no reference to the shores from which, or to which, that boat is sailing.
Conrad is honest in his depiction of the evils of the world. He is not racist, never was, even in his life as well as in his novels. Conrad, judging by villains, seems to have been oppressed by a sense of evil, and evil to him meant an irresponsible force, wandering at large in an ordered and respectable society. There is nothing to be done with it at all. It is a perpetual menace, and the only armor against it is a perfect integrity on the part of every member. The motive power behind the majority of affairs rendered by Conrad derives from the opposition of two forces, responsibility and irresponsibility. And the allies of the one are those celebrated human virtues, notably fidelity, which is fountainhead of all human virtues such as courage, endurance, decisiveness, humility, self-sacrifice, and so on. Fidelity in perfect action involves the deployment at one time or another of all these qualities, and the failure of one or other of them means the failure of fidelity.
Conrad is not behaving like a racist in “Heart of Darkness”. His relation to fidelity in his works is an expression of faith. To some, to the simple-minded, this kind of faith may come without doubt, embarrassment, or question but to a man of nervous apprehension and supple intellect, such a faith is not won in a night, or, if it is inborn, is not to be held without effort. For a man of Conrad’s mental caliber and breeding that faith, in maturity and fidelity to one’s conscience, convictions and believes, can be neither more nor less than a last barricade thrown up against disillusionment and chaos. In attributing it to Conrad one is not at all differentiating him from any other man of acute aristocratic intelligence and deep human feelings unsupported by religious dogma. Coupled with Conrad’s astonishing intensity of vision it explains that nervous, sardonic tone, which is discernible about the middle of his career. It also explains how this man who writes in such uncompromising terms about various specified virtues will depict a faithful man, a Mr. Marlowe, for instance, with a note of smothered impatience.
Chinua Achebe in his essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” says that “…Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation ” (785). This is not a valid argument as Achebe himself says that Conrad seems to establish “layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his history.” He does not manifest himself directly as there is “a narrator behind a narrator” but he consider Marlowe as the main and principal mouthpiece of Conrad. If this the case, we see throughout the novel that Marlow emphasizes the point that the Negroes of Africa are human beings like the Whiteman of Europe, and that they have the right to be treated as human beings by their white fellow-beings. Conrad can be freed from the charge of a racist by Marlow’s expression that show a subdued desire that all the white men, instead of looting and exploiting the natives, should be compassionate and sympathetic towards them.
“The Heart of Darkness” is basically an expose of imperialism like Conrad’s another novel “An Outpost of Progress”. Yes, it appears that in “Heart of Darkness” Conrad vehemently denunciated imperialism and racialism without damning all men who through the accident of their birth in England were committed to these public policies. According to Eloise Knapp Hay, “…like Virgil and Dante, Conrad lived in a historical moment …everything that was good in England had been thrown, along with the bad, into the “competition in the acquisition of territory and the struggle for influence and control”. It seemed that when Conrad actually began the writing of “Heart of darkness”, he was deeply absorbed in two questions: his loyalty, both as man and as writer, to England, and his acute mistrust of the way the “civilizing work” was being accomplished by the European powers in South-East Asia and in Africa. But in the end he remains truthful to his conscience and depicted what he deems right without any malice.
In this novel he brings before us the nature of “western superiority” in primitive lands. Reading this story repeatedly, we know that the dark English coast before him recalls for Marlow the darkness of modern Africa, which is the natural darkness of the jungle but more than that the darkness of moral vacancy, leading to the atrocities he has beheld in Africa. This moral darkness of Africa, we learn later, is not the darkness of the ignorance of the natives, but of the Whiteman who blinded themselves and corrupted the natives by their claim to be light-bearers.
Talking of the roman conquest of England, Conrad says, it was “just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and men going at it blind-as is very proper for those who tackle darkness”. Conrad proved that what Romans had done in England, the English did in South Africa. Marlow admits that English conquests, like all others, “means the taking away it from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves,” though Kurtz went to the African jungle with an idea to civilize the natives; he saw his mission in Africa as that of torch bearer for white civilization. But very soon he starts extracting from the natives human sacrifices to himself as god. Finally, his hatred for the natives plunged to the depth out of which came his prescription of the only method for dealing with primitive people: “Exterminate the brutes!.” Conrad in not an intentional racist. He lays bare reality before the readers in this peace of art.
Marlow will establish in his more lucid moments that what is black in Africa is what has a right to be there. If whiteness finally emerges as moral vacuity, blackness finally appears as reality, humanity and truth. The matter is more complex still, for along with the physical blackness of men and the metaphoric blackness of unchartered regions of the earth; the darkness Conrad has been suggesting all along is the forced expulsion of whatever is displaced by “light,” whatever is displaced by civilization-the expulsion of Africa’s native virtues by Europe’s self-righteousness. Conrad has made us see that the European Whiteman in Africa is parasites; they are hollow; they have no personal moral vision of their inhumanity and folly. They are also collapsible, because their society’s institutions are incapable to hold them up. Ivory has become the idol of the foolish run of European pilgrims; and Kurtz is no exception. It is apparent that wherever Conrad uses racist remarks it is simply to tell the truth ironically to his readers.
Chinua Achebe is right when he says in his essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” that “Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness.” As according to Conrad himself, the story of “heart of darkness” is about the “criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing working Africa”. In the story Marlow makes much of the inefficiency and selfishness he sees everywhere along his journey in Africa. But it is the criminality of the civilizing work itself that receives the heaviest emphasis in the novel as a whole. J.W. Beach believes that Kurtz is the representative and dramatization of all that Conrad felt and discussed ironically of futility and horror in what the Europeans in the Congo called “progress”, which meant the exploitation of the natives by the white men. Kurtz was an epitome of European cleverness and enterprise. His traits were European but his practices were African. It does symbolize that Conrad implies the superiority of African through this.
On his journey up the Congo, Marlow comes across the forsaken railway truck, looking as dead as the carcass of some animal; the brick maker idling for a year with no bricks and no hope of materials for making them; the “wanton smashup” of drainage pipes abandoned in a ravine ; burst, piled up cases of rivets at the outer station and no way of getting them to the damaged steam boat at the Central Station; the vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope- all these and many more are the examples of the criminality of the inefficiency. This discussion shows that Conrad was not influenced by the racist air blowing in his age in his country. It is also apparent that all his racist remarks are simply an ironic way of depicting the reality. This discussion also proves that the white men over there, in Africa, except the company’s accountant, are inefficient and selfish. They themselves do nothing, whereas on the other hand they exploit the natives to the maximum, they extract the maximum workout of them and pay them three nine –inch long brass-wire pieces a week, which are insufficient to buy them anything. As such most of the natives are starving and dying. This novel is a very faithful accord of the cruelties and atrocities perpetrated on the natives of Africa by their European masters.
Conrad’s racism is based on the wrongly placed and misconceived criticism of Achebe. Although Achebe presents various example from the book but all these examples are quoted out of their context and Achebe relies on extra-textual preposition and interpretation to support his viewpoint. Achebe himself acknowledged his mistake and softened his tone about the allegation in his revised version of the essay published in the Norton Critical Edition of The Heart of Darkness. (Moore, 6) Achebe says; “Conrad saw and condemned the evils of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.” Certain other critics are of the view that Conrad uses disparaging remarks but these remarks were a reflection of the socio-political thought of his contemporary era. (Watts 1979, 159) This view was later supported by Peter Firchow who says that in Conrad’s time race was used in completely context and this context was “wholly replaced by terms like nation and ethnic group, but for Conrad and his contemporaries they constituted the first and foremost accepted meanings of race when referring to another ethnic or national group” (p. 5). Watts further elaborates the intentions of Conrad with special reference to Africans and says it is the chief characteristic of the novel that Conrad sees Africans from an inward and subjective point if view and present then as human beings and not something inferior. (160) His intention is to expose the racism of Whites. He himself does not seem to use these derogatory terms to caricature and mock the Africans. C.P Sarvan has analyzed the preposition of the Achebe in his classical essay “Racism and Heart of Darkness” that Achebe has not taken into account the distancing that Conrad maintains from Marlowe and that signifies his detestation of this racism-ridden character. So above-mentioned arguments and supported evidence clearly manifest that Conrad is not racist in Heart of Darkness and his usage of racist terminology is to expose the cruelties of the Whites and the pathos ad miseries of Africans.
Achebe, Chinua: “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Massachusetts
Review 18. (1978). 784-94.
Achebe, Chinua. An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Norton Critical
Edition: Heart of Darkness (3rd Ed.) . 251-62.
Beach, Joseph Warren. The Twentieth Century Novel; Studies in Technique. New York: Century
Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Cornell
paperbacks. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Penguin Books. 1995
Ede, Amatoritsero. Conrad the Bloody Racist: A cultural criticism of Heart of Darkness.
Nigerians In America. 2001. 4 Aug. 2008.
Firchow, Peter E. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s `Heart of Darkness’.
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 2000.
Hay, Eloise Knapp. The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad, A Critical Study. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Moore, Gene M. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. Casebooks in criticism.
Oxford, [England]: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Sarvan. C.P. “Racism and Hear of Darkness. International Fiction Review. 7 (1980). 6-10.
Watt, Ian P. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
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