The iron heated quickly, and in a series of motions as artful as any he’d performed on the orchestral podium he pulled it from the fire with one hand, squeezed her forearm hard to force her fingers open with the other, and jabbed the glowing red tip of the poker into her exposed palm.
An Exploration of Racism in Heart of Darkness9 min read
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad tells the story (via an unnamed narrator) of sailor Charles Marlow’s time as captain of an ivory-hauling steamboat along the Congo River. The 1899 novel, rooted in Conrad’s own experiences as a merchant sailor on the Congo, vividly portrays the horrors of Belgian colonial rule over and exploitation of Africa. Many aspects of the book are nothing short of brilliant. Consequently, it has been a widely-taught classic that has influenced a host of literary writers and speculative fiction authors such as Michael Bishop, James Blish, Ian MacDonald, and Robert Silverberg, just to name a few.
In 1975, author Chinua Achebe analyzed Conrad’s portrayal of Africans in the book and accused Conrad and his novel of racism:
Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. (Achebe 1785)
The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked. (Achebe 1789)
Many critics reacted strongly to Achebe’s condemnation and rose to Conrad’s defense. Conrad’s supporters (like supporters of H.P. Lovecraft, whose work is more frequently criticized as racist) often assert that he and his book were products of their time and thus shouldn’t be judged in the unforgiving light of modern racial morality.
British and European culture was undoubtedly far more virulently racist than it is today, and to expect a white writer educated in that culture to fail to hold some type of racial bias is no more plausible than to expect a writer living and working next to an oil refinery to not smell a bit like petroleum. It’s difficult to notice an everyday, background evil if everyone presents it as normal. Heart of Darkness is a fictionalized chronicle of what the protagonist (and author) recognized as a horrific time in human history and is a vivid critique of it. However, Conrad’s narrator relates the atrocities committed against the people of Africa without ever fully conveying the ultimate bitter truth of colonialism: that those inhuman horrors were made possible because even people who did not directly profit from Africa’s exploitation (and who otherwise might have protested or worked against it) bought into racist political and nationalist narratives.
Can a book portray racism through the eyes of a racist character without itself being racist? That question concerns me as a writer; I’ve watched enough other white writers attempt to handle race and handle it badly to know that it’s a subject I need to explore and remain mindful of.
So I started reading Heart of Darkness looking for signs that the novel is (or is not) inherently racist. And what I found was a narrative in which practically nobody (African or European) is portrayed in a positive light. Marlow objectifies the few female European characters, and through that objectification, Conrad uses them mostly as symbols instead of portraying them as real people:
She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. (Conrad 74)
It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over. (Conrad 77)
They— the women, I mean— are out of it— should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse. (Conrad 121)
The single female African character is likewise symbolically objectified:
She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul. (Conrad 137)
The passage above seems entirely positive at first glance with descriptors like “magnificent” and “superb”, but it’s objectification nonetheless. And it’s similar to the most positive type of portrayal that the male African characters receive; they’re presented as part of a beautiful, savage landscape that’s being despoiled:
They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks— these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. (Conrad 78)
However, Conrad description of the African men’s “faces like grotesque masks” lumps them in with all the other distasteful, ugly things Marlow sees in the Congo. And that thread of inhuman grotesquery carries through in the other superficially sympathetic portrayals of African men:
Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind wagged to and fro like tails. … They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meager breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. (Conrad 80)
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. … The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly. The man seemed young —almost a boy— but you know with them it’s hard to tell. (Conrad 82)
In the passage above, Conrad describes the “unhappy savages” as one might describe animals, particularly when he describes their rags wagging like tails, as though they were dogs. Nothing in that passage would lead a reader to believe that the Africans Marlow has encountered are essentially human. In the following sentences, Marlow experiences a fit of basic decency and gives the dying young man a biscuit to eat (again, as he might feed a starving dog back on familiar European streets).
And that moment of slight kindness highlights the protagonist’s lazy racism: he documents the blatant injustices that are clear to his privileged European eyes, but he never thinks to try to do anything of substance to help the Africans he sees suffering around him. He never even thinks to make sure that the native crewmembers working in service to his captaincy have anything to eat on their journey down the Congo (Conrad 111). In fact, if the Africans in question are out of sight, and not of personal use to him, they and their fates are pretty much out of mind and of less importance than the loss of pack animals:
In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved. I did not inquire. (Conrad 102)
Marlow thinks of Africans as part of the land, but never as the rightful masters of it. He notices native people when they suffer in large groups; individuals who suffer are largely beneath his notice and beyond his sympathy. He describes a murdered African much as another narrator might describe a road kill opossum:
Was looking after the upkeep of the road, he declared. Can’t say I saw any road or any upkeep, unless the body of a middle-aged negro, with a bullet-hole in the forehead, upon which I absolutely stumbled three miles farther on, may be considered as a permanent improvement. (Conrad 86)
The solitary instance in which Marlow declares the African crew working aboard his steamboat to be humans like himself:
Yes; I looked at them as you would on any human being, with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities, weaknesses, when brought to the test of an inexorable physical necessity. (Conrad 113)
… is almost immediately negated by a back-handed compliment that compares them to ghoulish animals:
It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonor, and the perdition of one’s soul— than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true. And these chaps too had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple. Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield. (Conrad 113)
Marlow first praises the utility of his African crew:
We had enlisted some of these chaps on the way for a crew. Fine fellows— cannibals— in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. (Conrad 104)
But he then spends passages minimizing their abilities in general — “They were big powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh the consequences” (Conrad 112) —and those of his unnamed helmsman in particular:
An athletic black belonging to some coast tribe, and educated by my poor predecessor, was the helmsman. He sported a pair of brass earrings, wore a blue cloth wrapper from the waist to the ankles, and thought all the world of himself. He was the most unstable kind of fool I had ever seen. He steered with no end of a swagger while you were by; but if he lost sight of you, he became instantly the prey of an abject funk, and would let that cripple of a steamboat get the upper hand of him in a minute. (Conrad 116)
Prior to this passage, the reader has been treated to a variety of portrayals of arrogant, entitled, corrupt European men of little skill and even less wisdom. So why is the nameless helmsman presented as the “most unstable kind of fool” in the book? Presumably because he is black.
After the helmsman dies in a skirmish, Marlow claims to mourn him while simultaneously declaring him to be of almost no worth:
I missed my late helmsman awfully,— I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house. Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. (Conrad 124)
And after that, we find out that instead of giving him a proper burial (or even giving him over to the starving “cannibal” crew so they’d finally have something to eat) Marlow simply chucks his body overboard and remarks that he was anxious to take the wheel. (Conrad 125)
Given all of the objectification and minimization in the narrative, it’s pretty clear that Marlow is a passively racist protagonist documenting an aggressively racist world. But does that make the novel itself racist? And should we as readers take Marlow as a reliable narrator in all this?
I believe that Conrad ultimately intended for Marlow to be taken as a reliable narrator. On one hand, Conrad’s framing of the novel via the unnamed narrator — rather than simply telling Marlow’s story directly by using him as a first-person protagonist — does seem imply that Conrad had a certain uneasiness with the material and didn’t want to imply that Marlow was his fictional mouthpiece. But on the other hand, Conrad never took the opportunity to use his unnamed narrator (or any other character) to mitigate his protagonist’s racism. Nobody in the novel questions or challenges Marlow’s fundamental experience. There are no Africans behaving as intelligent, civilized characters despite Marlow’s low opinion of them. We get Marlow’s racist worldview without any cues that we the readers should consider any other view of Africa and its people.
And that lack of mitigation, that lack of alternate viewpoints in the novel, lends weight to Achebe’s accusation. Glossing over the more uncomfortable aspects of this or any other classic novel does it a disservice. The book remains brilliant, and can surely withstand an honest discussion of its flaws.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. New York: New American Library, 1963. Print.
“SFE: The Science Fiction Encyclopedia.” Authors : Conrad, Joseph : SFE : Science Fiction Encyclopedia. Gollancz, n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. https://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/conrad_joseph.
Looking for more?
Caitlín R. Kiernan’s dark fantasy novel The Drowning Girl: A Memoir and Robert W. Chambers’ supernatural story collection The King in Yellow have several themes in common—ancient malign gods, hauntings, and madness-inducing works of art, for instance—but one of the most interesting is how the two authors handle unreliable narrators.