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There are many literary texts that explore controversial political, social, and economic issues. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written at the end of the 19th century, is a novel that provides a valuable insight into the realities of colonial Africa. Disguising the work as an autobiographical traveler’s story, the author chooses to focus on the issues of race, colonialism, and the indigenous, which become central to the author’s exploration and the story in general. This paper aims to explore these concepts as they are represented in Conrad’s work and to provide some explanation for the reasons and consequences of such representation in the contemporary circumstances.
Due to the novel’s setting in the European colonial era, colonialism is, indeed, at the very center of the work. The protagonist, Marlow, is an autobiographical figure through which the author portrays his experience in Africa under the colonial rule (Clendinnen 5). Despite the common preconceptions of the Europeans of the time, the author seems critical of the colonialists: Lawtoo argues that Heart of Darkness is a “narrative struggle with colonial praxis and ideology” (46). At first glance, it seems that Conrad portrays Europeans in a favorable way, as fellow travelers on a wild coast; however, as the story progresses, the author starts to reveal the tragedy brought by the colonial rule. In particular, he describes the effect that the colonialism had on Congo and its population: “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” (Conrad 25). Not only the people are affected by Europeans, but also the land and nature: in other areas acquired by the colonialists, the land became a “shackled form of a conquered monster” (Conrad 58). Conrad portrays Europeans as invaders and conquerors of the previously untouched areas: “Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders” (21). In Heart of Darkness, therefore, colonialism becomes the act of war with nature and the African population. Conrad criticizes the views of his contemporaries and attempts to shed some light on the inhumane actions of the colonialists by portraying the struggles forced upon the population of Congo.
For the most part, the evidence of the author’s negative attitude towards colonialism does not extend beyond the depiction of its effects. For instance, Conrad makes no attempt to make the indigenous people and the nature of Congo seem less wild and monstrous in the eyes of the readers, which is why an African writer Chinua Achebe criticizes his work (Clendinnen 2). Conrad’s description of the land and its people is far from sympathetic; they are seen as aliens, as indigenous other, with which the narrator fails to empathize: “The glimpse of the steamboat had for some reason filled those savages with unrestrained grief” (Conrad 70). Where Europeans are seen as the conquerors of land, the indigenous people are tied to nature and are viewed as part of it, like animals: “streams of human beings—of naked human beings— […] were poured into the clearing by the dark-faced and pensive forest” (Conrad 99).
It is their unbreakable bond with nature that is hugely responsible for the mistreatment of the native population: to Conrad, as to most Europeans, their brutality and wilderness comes from nature, as it is “the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness” (Conrad 110) that was responsible for “the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, […] of gratified and monstrous passions” (Conrad 110). Overall, such an unsympathetic portrayal of the natives supports the views of most Conrad’s contemporaries, who saw the native African population as the mysterious other. Conrad, too, describes the foreigners as brutal, wild, and uncultured; the author does not discuss any individual traits or qualities that would distinguish the people from one another, portraying them as a coherent alien mass instead. The author makes no attempt to defy the preconceptions of the time in aid of supporting his case against the colonialism; however, he tries to find some reasons for the major differences between the invaders and the indigenous population, justifying their wilderness by nature or, as the next section will show, their skin color.
The race is also a major concept explored in the novel. According to Conrad, race is the fundamental difference between the Europeans and the Africans. One of the interpretations of “darkness”, as used in the novel, is physical darkness, i.e. a dark skin tone, a feature of the indigenous that preoccupies their descriptions for the most part of the story: “A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms” (Conrad 109). Any differences between the colonialists and the natives are seen in the light of their skin color: “It was very curious to see the contrast of expressions of the white men and of the black fellows of our crew, who were as much strangers to that part of the river as we” (Conrad 65).
Conrad puts race at the very center of the relationship between the two groups of people, linking blackness of the indigenous people to their brutality and wilderness throughout the work. White men, on the other hand, are seen as the exact opposite: “a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision” (Conrad 26). However, Conrad does not make the ultimate differences between the two races appear in a negative way; despite not being able to empathize with the natives, the author still argues that they are not worse than white men, thus once again questioning the basic principles of colonialism: “Conrad persistently questions […] the notion that the races are arranged hierarchically, with the white race, or perhaps the Anglo-Saxon race, at the top” (McClure 152).
Although the issues described by Conrad are not as prevalent in our time, the text offers a valuable exploration of the historical views on race and the colonial rule. The author explains his negative attitude towards the principles of colonialism through the description of its destructive effects; at the same time, he denies the perceived superiority of the white race and advocates for an exploration of the indigenous people, nature, and customs instead of their destruction, which was one of the main impacts of the European colonial rule. Overall, Heart of Darkness provides an unusually critical insight into the 19th-century representations of colonialism, race, and the indigenous. The author approaches these notions from a rather modern angle, attempting to defy the colonial preconceptions in some way or to at least provide some sort of justification for them.
Clendinnen, Inga. “Preempting Postcolonial Critique: Europeans in the Heart of Darkness.” Common Knowledge, vol. 13, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1-17, Web.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Planet Ebooks, 2013, Web.
Lawtoo, Nidesh. “The Horror of Mimesis: ‘Enthusiastic Outbreak[s]’ in Heart of Darkness.” Conradiana, vol. 42, no. 1–2, 2010, pp. 45-74, Web.
McClure, John. “Problematic Presence: The Colonial Other in Kipling and Conrad.” Edwardian and Georgian Fiction, edited by Harold Bloom, Infobase Publishing, 2009, pp. 151-164.