Views of Racism in Heart of Darkness

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What is the meaning of racism? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, it means hatred or intolerance of another race or other races. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is a treasure for criticism on the authors stand on racism. Many believed him to be a racist writer, and many others believed that the novel only implicated the beliefs of his time. He was not only believed to be a racist but also ignorant. All the critics accusing him for being racist and others defending him present very strong arguments, but in the end, it is always up to the reader to decide from which point of view he/she wants to interpret the novella. If the novella is, infact, viewed under the lens of todays beliefs, it appears to be a very racist work. The language of the story would strongly represent the racist views of the writer in todays times.

Joseph Conrad develops themes of personal power, individual responsibility, and social justice in his book Heart of Darkness. His book has all the trappings of the conventional adventure tale – mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, unexpected attack. Chinua Achebe concluded, “Conrad, on the other hand, is undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good story-teller into the bargain”. Yet, despite Conrad’s great story telling, he has also been viewed as a racist by some of his critics. Achebe, Singh, and Sarvan, although their criticisms differ, are a few to name.

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Chinua Achebe, a well-known writer, once gave a lecture at the University of Massachusetts about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Throughout his essay, Achebe notes how Conrad used Africa as a background only, and how he “set Africa up as a foil to Europe,” while he also “projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization.” By his own interpretations of the text, Achebe shows that Conrad eliminates “the African as a human factor,” thereby “reducing Africa to the role of props.”Normal readers usually are good at detecting racism in a book. Achebe acknowledges Conrad camouflaged racism remarks, saying, “But Conrad chose his subject well – one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with psychological pre-disposition…”. Having gone back and rereading Heart of Darkness, but this time reading between the lines, there are many elements in the book that seem racist that didnt seem before. Racism is portrayed in Conrad’s book, but one must acknowledge that back in the eighteen hundreds society conformed to it. Conrad probably would have been criticized as being soft hearted rather than a racist back in his time.

In supporting these accusations against Conrad, Achebe cites specific examples from the text, while also, pointing out that there is a lack of certain characteristics among the characters. Achebe then compares the descriptions of the Intended and the native woman. Explaining that the savage “fulfills a structural requirement of the story: a savage counterpart to the refined European woman,” and also that the biggest “difference is the one implied in the author’s bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other.” This lack of human expression and human characteristics is what Achebe says contributes to the overflowing amount of racism within Conrad’s novella. Human expression is one of few things that make us different from animals, along with such things as communication and reason. This of course, being that without human expression, the native woman is considered more of a “savage…wild-eyed and magnificent,” possibly even “bestial.”

Conrad constantly referred to the natives, in his book, as black savages, niggers, brutes, and “them”, displaying ignorance toward the African history and racism towards the African people. Conrad wrote, “Black figures strolled out listlessly… the beaten nigger groaned somewhere” . “They passed me with six inches, without a glance, with the complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages” . Achebe, also, detected Conrad’s frequent use of unorthodox name calling, “Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His in ordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts” . Conrad uses Marlow, the main character in the book, as a narrator so he himself can enter the story and tell it through his own philosophical mind. Conrad used “double speak” throughout his book. 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”. Marlow praised the book keeper as if he felt it’s the natives’ fault for living in such waste. The bureaucracy only cared about how he looked and felt. The bookkeeper did not care for the natives who were suffering less than fifty feet from him. He stated the natives weren’t criminals but were being treated as if they were, but at the same time he respected the book keeper on his looks instead of despising him for his indifference. Conrad considered the Africans inferior and doomed people. Frances B. Singh, author of The Colonialistic Bias of Heart of Darkness”, said “The African natives, victims of Belgian exploitation, are described as ‘shapes,’ ‘shadows,’ and ‘bundles of acute angles,’ so as to show the dehumanizing effect of colonialist rule on the ruled” . Another similar incident of “double speak” appeared on the death of Marlow’s helmsman. Marlow respected the helmsman, yet when the native’s blood poured into Marlow’s shoes, “To tell you the truth, I was morbidity anxious to change my shoes and socks” .

How can someone respect yet feel disgusted towards someone? Singh looks into this question by stating, “The reason of course, is because he (Marlow) never completely grants them (natives) human status: at the best they are a species of superior hyena”. As I have mentioned before, Conrad was not only believed to be 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 prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell?”. The end result of Conrad’s ignorance of not knowing the behavior of African people concluded his division of the social world into two separate categories: “us,” the Europeans, and “them,” the Africans. Achebe concludes Conrad’s ignorance towards the natives by stating, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’… a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and ferment are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality”.

“Heart of Darkness was written, consciously or unconsciously, from a colonialistic point of view” . Conrad didn’t write his book to the extreme of racism. Overall, the natives appeared better humans than the Europeans in Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s ignorance led to his conformity to racism. His ignorance of not completely “granting the natives human status” leads him to social categorization. C. P. Sarvan wrote in his criticism, quoting Achebe, “Racism and the Heart of Darkness,” “Conrad sets up Africa ‘as a foil to Europe, a place of negations… in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.’ Africa is ‘the other world,’…”. In an attempt to refute Achebe’s proposed difference between the two women, C.P. Sarvan said that Conrad perceived the native woman as a “gorgeous, proud, superb, magnificent, terrific, and fierce” person whose “human feelings were not denied.” In comparing the two views, one must step back and consider that both views are only interpretations on what Conrad may have intended. Since no one can ever really know what his actual meanings were for these two women being so similar (in their movements), and yet so different (in their character), only individual explanation can be brought up. This in particular, is what brings me to question both Achebe and Sarvan’s points.

By reorganizing Conrad’s descriptive words, Sarvan was able to propose that Conrad did not intend for the mistress to be perceived as the “savage counterpart.”(Achebe, p. 255) Yet, at the same time, both Sarvan and Achebe each write about what they think to be the right thing. It seems to me that Achebe was looking for racism in this short novel, and that Sarvan was so taken back by Achebe’s accusations, that he himself, went and looked for ways to defend Conrad.

However, this particular shortcoming of the native woman is not the only one that Achebe finds. As stated earlier, communication is very important in our society and to “civilization” (as known by the Europeans of the time). While reading Heart of Darkness, I noticed a significant difference in the levels of communication that were allotted between the Europeans and the Africans. This drastic difference in speech was at the core of Achebe’s argument that Conrad deprived the Africans of human qualities. Achebe pointed out that “in place of speech they made ‘a violent babble of uncouth sounds,'” also saying that “it is clearly not of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the ‘rudimentary souls’ of Africa.”  Here lies the problem that I have with Achebe’s article.

Assuming that the lack of speech (in Conrad’s eyes) is a racist factor–which is a valid assumption–Achebe still did not support his comment that “Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist.”Without outside knowledge (beyond the book), Achebe had no basis to charge Conrad with this rather harsh comment. By completely agreeing with either writer, one would be denying him/herself the right to find their own opinion regarding racism in Heart of Darkness. As it is presented by the critics, the arguments clearly state that racist statements are present in the novella. It is also believed that during the time that this novella was written, Conrad lived in a society where African people were not considered equal, to man, they were even considered sub-human. Not to excuse Conrad, but racism was everywhere and what came from it was people who wrote about it naturally and who did not think of a “politically correct” way to put things.

It is my opinion that Chinua Achebe searched for things that he felt could be considered racist, and when they were found, he’d call the author some harsh names and accuse him of slander. Of course, that is only my opinion, and I point this out, because Achebe did not–he only wrote what he felt. Belief that Conrad was a racist is not hard to come by, especially after reading Achebe’s convincing essay.

However, interpretation is the key word. Many agree that Conrad did have quite a few racist passages in his story, but they also believe that Achebe does not open his mind completely, in his analysis of the work. “Travelers with closed minds can tell us little except about themselves”(Achebe, p. 260) is what Achebe points to in explaining Conrad’s journey and how it turned into the novella. This particular passage can be used to describe Achebe himself. It seems that Achebe was closed-minded in his essay regarding racism. He did not propose any other possibilities regarding the novella, only to say that a conceivable reason for this is that “it is the desire…in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe.” Achebe only set forth his views and did not take into account other interpretations of the same passage, as did Sarvan. Conrad was a master of prose as many critics admitted, even those who proclaimed him a racist. The writing of Heart of Darkness was not only to show the potential of what man could become, but what he already was. Marlow is the everyday man, longing to become something that he cannot even fathom. Kurtz was the ideal man that Marlow, or any man for that matter, longed to become.

Kurtz was tormented in his last days because he saw the evil that was in European trade and imperialism. In this, he finds a reassuring simplicity in the ways of the natives. Conrad conveys this theme to those who search for a quality that resides in all men, rather than seeking the errors of one group or person, which is what Achebe accused Conrad of doing as he portrayed the natives as niggers and common savages. The evils of society set in motion for what Conrad sought to banish from human thought. All men have the capacity to be evil or good, yet the one ideal that determines this state of being is the realization of what good and evil truly are.

If every person accepted what one man said to be the truth, our world would be completely turned upside down. The individual must decide for him/herself. Both Chinua Achebe and C.P. Sarvan did just that. Each read something that he did not like and wrote about what he thought to be true. When Achebe found Conrad to be a racist, he directed his arguments towards proving his point. When Sarvan found Achebe to be misleading, he presented his case. If the novella was written in todays times, it could be considered a very racist piece of work. Readers decide for themselves about whose arguments are more convincing or more appealing to them. Every person is a critic with a different point of view on the issues of this novella.

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Views of Racism in Heart of Darkness. (2019, May 03). Retrieved from

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