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Traditionally, writings that have contributed significantly to the development of European culture and thought are considered the Western literary canon. Post-colonial literature created by writers of the former colonial countries or thematically focused on post-colonial societies enriches this canon with a new vision. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness focuses on the relationship between local colonial people and the British Empire and reveals the unpleasant side of colonialism. According to Simmons (2020), the writer’s life experience and perspicacity allowed him to reflect on the colonial situation at that time deeply, and his “fictions look beyond their moment to anticipate post-colonial revisionism” (p. 2). This paper criticizes Heart of Darkness as the western canon from a post-colonial point of view and analyzes Conrad’s ambivalent attitude toward British colonialism.
Colonialism and Exploitation
Many Victorian British writers had patriotic feelings about the Empire and supported its colonial expansion. Conrad, despite his Polish origins, was also a citizen and patriot of Great Britain. This fact has primarily determined his complex and contradictory attitude to England’s colonial policy, including in the African continent, where the writer himself traveled (Simmons, 2020). In the novel, the author describes the brutal and inhumane treatment of African natives by ivory traffickers. Conrad describes the behavior of white exploiters as “greedy without audacity and cruel without courage” (Conrad, 2009, p. 31). The protagonist of the novel, captain Marlow, observes that the suffering of the native people under the yoke of bureaucratic officials is extremely tough (Conrad, 2009). He tries to convince himself that he is different from the exploiters. In this way, Conrad transmits the complicated feelings that arose during his trip to Central Africa. The author demonstrates how the representative of the aggressor country tries to deal with the guilt.
At the same time, the cruelty and injustice of white exploiters remain undeniable for Conrad. The writer is not trying to put the situation in a more pleasant light. During the narration, Marlow describes in detail the black people dying from exhaustion, who were neither enemies nor criminals, and who were exposed to “pain, abandonment and despair” (Conrad, 2009, p. 15). Thus, the author clearly expresses the adverse consequences of the British colonization policy.
Conrad anticipated post-colonial criticism not only in describing the suffering of the natives but also in revealing the vested motives that guided the colonizers. Central Africa, including Congo, was rich in ivory, which was of great value in the West, and large areas of equatorial forests, which were essential as a resource for developing industrial Europe (Simmons, 2020). Many natives were subjected to harsh exploitation precisely to obtain these resources. According to Simmons (2020), “untold Congolese lives were sacrificed for this commodity in what historical documents portray as an orgy of brutality and exploitation” (p. 7). Thus, Conrad had forewarned many of the issues that post-colonial writers had subsequently addressed. The writer analyzed the existing relationships between the Empire and colonizers on the one hand and the colonies and natives on the other. Moreover, he described the controversial and ambivalent experiences of a European civilization representative who empathized with the black population.
It should be emphasized that despite his sympathy for the suffering natives and his sense of injustice in this regard, Conrad remains faithful to Western cultural principles. Despite the violence of white exploiters, in the author’s opinion, they are still more civilized. Conrad describes Africa as another world, much more savage and unpleasant than Europe. Besides, a relatively large part of the narrative is devoted to describing the natives and their customs as wild and strange to Marlow, who is the author’s prototype. Heart of Darkness provides a depiction of how another European, Kurtz, achieved power over the natives through barbaric rituals that included planting “heads on the stakes” (Conrad, 2009, p. 62). Marlow even considers the behavior of Africans somewhat inhuman and indicates the strangeness of the thought of his “remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar” (Conrad, 2009, p. 37). An episode of Kurtz’s report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs demonstrates that the writer does find the native culture wild.
Some authors even believe that such a narrative and description witness Conrad’s racism. Azam (2019) cites criticism of the writer, which states that he considers the inhabitants of the African continent to be uncivilized and primitive. It should be noted that in other literature on the problems of black people, they are depicted differently. For instance, in Sula, the main heroine, a young black woman, was an initiative person who opposed her community’s conventional life standards and chose her path (Morrison, 2004). In Maps, Farah (2012) narrates an orphaned Askar who becomes an intellectual and reflective young man who becomes concerned with his origins and identity over time. Thus, these authors depict black characters as more humane and similar to an ordinary person in the representation of the European, as opposed to the wild image of the natives in the Heart of Darkness. According to Azam (2019), racism was “considered to be just one common part of the Victorian mindset” (p. 120). However, Conrad empathized with the exploited Africans and thus recognized their human nature, although their cultural customs and attitudes were wild to him.
Linguistic and Narrative Techniques
Conrad’s cultural commitment demonstrates that he belongs to the Western canon, while the subjects and issues of his writings represent a post-colonial paradigm. At the same time, this evaluation is also based on the mastery and proficient use of English by the writer. According to Williams (2019), “Heart of Darkness is insular, psychological and reflective” (p. 38). Conrad uses first-person narration, allowing the reader to live out both thoughts and experiences of Marlow. The individual voice is the special approach of the writer, who constructs the “narrative role” that reacts and interprets “outside influences” (Williams, 2019, p. 39). The reader remains fully focused on the chain of reasoning and feelings of the narrating character. Meanwhile, Marlow uses complex linguistic constructions, which allows him to perform better in the role of a narrator and the role of the character.
It should also be noted that the individual voice allows Conrad to demonstrate the ambiguity of the attitude to what is happening – the cruelty of exploiters and the wildness of the natives. According to Williams (2019), “Heart of Darkness is distinctly ill-disposed towards permitting any voice to speak which detracts from the master narrative” (p. 48). Thus, external factors intervene only when necessary to emphasize the narrator’s ideas or experiences. The masterful use of this perspective and techniques has given the novel and its author such fame.
Heart of Darkness should be considered a Western canon, as it is an example of the masterful use of English in storytelling and is embedded in the European cultural tradition. The novel can undoubtedly be classified as post-colonial literature since the issues it raises reflect Conrad’s criticism of colonial exploitation. The author, on the one hand, condemns the abuse of Africans and, on the other hand, is unable to accept their wild customs, and that constitutes the ambiguity of his attitude.
- Azam, N. (2019). Prejudice in Joseph Conrad’s post-colonial novel Heart of Darkness. International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature, 8(5), 116-121.
- Conrad, J. (2009). Heart of darkness. Auckland, New Zealand: The Floating Press.
- Farah, N. (2012). Maps. New York, NY: Arcade Publishing.
- Morrison, T. (2004). Sula. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
- Simmons, A. H. (2020). A persisting unease: Joseph Conrad’s (Post)Colonial fictions. In K. Seigneurie (Ed.), A companion to world literature (pp. 1-12). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Williams, J. R. (2019). Post/Colonial linguistics: Language effects and Empire in Heart of Darkness and Nostromo. In Multilingualism and the twentieth-century novel (pp. 33-72). London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.