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Imperialism and Racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 2nd, 2020

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness attracts a particularly harsh brand of criticism for its allegedly racist depictions of African blacks in the Congo at the turn of the 20th century.

Certain critics, including Lennard J. Davis, consider removing the novel from the literary teaching canon, because of the “sadness and weariness” it evokes in students of color, who wonder “why this book [is] assigned so often…when it so clearly depicted Africans as nameless, faceless, miserable people without any individual identities” (Davis B9).

The students of color are of course, quite correct. Heart of Darkness remains a wholly racist account of a wholly racist endeavor – the wholesale pillaging of Africa’s natural resources, under the auspices of civilization.

For the purposes of this paper, the racist nugget at the core of Heart of Darkness will be neither argued nor defended. Instead, let us look at the broader picture to which Heart of Darkness alludes: the reality that racism and imperialism are one in the same. In fact, imperialism cannot succeed without racism.

Racism represents the psychological and emotional state necessary for imperialism, specifically imperialist commerce, to function effectively.

Let us begin with the novel. Conrad’s protagonist Marlow represents the point of view of his time and of his trade. He views most Africans with contempt, as shown here: “An athletic black belonging to some coast tribe…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” (Conrad 59). Marlow’s derisive language, particularly the use of the words “some” and “fool,” successfully denigrates the helmsman to a lower status.

Similarly, Conrad continually dehumanizes the Africans in Heart of Darkness. The novel bursts with numerous descriptions likening Marlow’s crew, and those tribe members he meets along the river, to animals and insects, as evidenced herein:

“That fool helmsman…was lifting his knees high, stamping his feet, champing his mouth, like a reined-in horse” (Conrad 60).

When happening upon a village of Africans on the river, Marlow describes the settlement thus: “A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants” (Conrad 18).

Marlow’s racist attitude also appears in his continued speculation as to who the Africans are, and how their culture evolved, while simultaneously displaying complete dismissiveness and contempt for their culture as a whole.

An example of this occurs when Marlow meets the cannibals, and observes that “I don’t think a single one of them had any clear idea of time, as we at the end of countless ages have. They still belonged to the beginnings of time – had no inherited experience to teach them as it were” (Conrad 54).

Marlow is curious about the Africans; if he were truly indifferent to them, he would not bother to describe them at all. However, he is too afraid to approach them as human beings, so instead he makes unfounded assumptions about their psychology and cultural experience, with the requisite bite of disdain integral to all racist psychology.

Critics appear divided on the subject of racism in Heart of Darkness. The sticking point seems to be the question, is a racist work of art still valuable as art, or does its racism render its artistic value null and void?

Those who argue for the aesthetic import of the novel do so passionately. Firchow believes Heart of Darkness “is a work of art and not a sociological treatise, for it is only in relation to its aesthetic significance that we can establish what its real social and intellectual-historical meaning is…

It is, after all, not primarily because of its concern with racism and imperialism but because of its great aesthetic power that it remains…one of the chief focal points of critical controversy and debate in the fields of literary theory and literary criticism” (Firchow x).

Others, such as Mongia, assert that the racist accusation “reduces the complexity of Conrad’s novel by [a] mean-minded appraisal of its construction of race” (Mongia 155).

Acheraiou reminds us that the character of Marlow is just that: a character; human, fallible, and responsible for his own prejudices.

In Acheraiou’s mind, “the ambiguity mentioned in…Heart of Darkness…does not…encourage or discourage the readers from identifying with the protagonist, but leaves them to their own devices, free to interpret the texts in keeping with their own aesthetic, political, and ideological demands” (Acheraiou 287).

Davis, though sensitive to the pain that Heart of Darkness causes students of color, defends its educational value precisely because of its racist and sexist attitudes.

He lauds “the book’s anti-imperialist theme…a stinging indictment of the callous and genocidal treatment of the Africans, and other nationals, at the hands of the British and the European imperial powers,” and also details the feminist reading pertinent to the novel, wherein “the work turned into an indictment of a male world that kept women in the dark about the nefarious practices performed to “improve” their lives” (Davis B10).

By far the most vehement and now infamous critical denunciation of Heart of Darkness transpired in 1977. Nigerian critic Chinua Achebe articulated that Joseph Conrad was “a thoroughgoing racist,” and roundly accused the critical community at the time of harboring racist attitudes also.

“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 5).

Conrad’s imperialist critique neither impressed nor convinced Achebe. In his mind, “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 beastiality” (Achebe 2).

To the critics who maintain that Conrad’s character Marlow is a construction, and not an extension of the author, Achebe offers a concise and wry rebuttal. “Certainly Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his history. He has, for example, a narrator behind a narrator.

The primary narrator is Marlow but his account is given to us through the filter of a second, shadowy person. But if Conrad’s intention is to draw a cordon sanitaire between himself and the moral and psychological malaise of his narrator…he neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters.

It would not have been beyond Conrad’s power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary. Marlow seems to me to enjoy Conrad’s complete confidence” (Achebe 4).

Achebe’s polemic understands Heart of Darkness as proof of the fear inherent to all Europeans – the shared genetic human history between themselves and Africans. “Conrad, careful as ever with his words, is concerned not so much about distant kinship as about someone laying a claim on it.

The black man lays a claim on the white man which is well-nigh intolerable. It is the laying of this claim which frightens and at the same time fascinates Conrad, “… the thought of their humanity — like yours…. Ugly.” (Achebe 5).

Achebe’s essay has built a solid critical foundation over the years, and now stands as the most firm and unassailable dismissal of Heart of Darkness as an unsalvageable document of unmitigated racism.

Conrad’s intention with Heart of Darkness, according to Raskin, was “a criticism of colonialists in Africa” (Raskin 113). Conrad wrote the novel to indict the imperialist practices he witnessed in his own time. “Conrad’s own conception of his tale should not be overlooked. The idea of the novella, he told his publisher in 1899, was the ‘criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing work in Africa’” (Raskin 113).

Certainly, passages in the novel support Raskin’s assertion. Marlow, although dismissive of the Africans, is equally dismissive of their colonizers: “as long as there was a piece of paper written over in accordance with some farcical law or other made down the river, it didn’t enter anybody’s head to trouble how they would live” (Conrad 54).

Hawkins further delineates the stance taken by Conrad as being somewhat impenetrable to modern audiences because the meaning of the word imperialism has changed since Conrad’s time.

“Because we use the single word “imperial-ism,” we tend to think that the phenomenon was essentially the same in all areas, varying only according to such subjective factors as the culture and the benevolence of the mother country…

Important discriminations should be made in terms of imperial aims, systems of administration, degrees of exploitation, and even types of exploitation…influenced by particular material circumstances in both the colonies and the mother countries” (Hawkins 288).

Conrad’s criticism, which he leveled at the British government at the time, via the novel, contained “two explicit criteria” according to Hawkins, “efficiency and the “idea”…to judge imperialism” (Hawkins 288). Conrad chose these criteria “because they were widely held in England at the time and were well suited to condemning the type of imperialism practiced in the Congo.

Conrad was not necessarily trying to ingratiate himself with the British…Rather, in the political aspect of the story, he was making an appeal to the values of his audience so that they might censure the atrocities in the Congo” (Hawkins 288).

At this point in the essay, let us consider again, the bigger picture. Critical response to Heart of Darkness misses one crucial point: racism and imperialism are actually two sides of the same coin.

Imperialism cannot work without racism. Why is this? Racism represents the psychological and emotional state that allows imperialism, specifically imperialist commerce, to function effectively.

Consider the core activity of an imperialist culture: thievery. The Belgians of Conrad’s time were products of a long history of larceny, originating with the colonizing of the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese governments in the 15th century.

The theory behind colonization, namely, expansion of territory, acquisition of wealth, and the procurement of natural resources often scarce or prohibitively expensive in the mother land, enters a very dark manifestation when put into practice.

Typically, the colonies in question, rich with natural resources such as Africa, already have inhabitants, and said inhabitants often feel no inclination to give up, or even share, their resources. Bloodshed ensues, and the resources are taken by force. However, force costs. It is far more economically sound to convince the inhabitants to part with their resources voluntarily. At this point, racism enters the picture.

Racism represents the optimal psychological space wherein imperialist larceny can grow and thrive unchecked. Why? There are two reasons: first, the racist colonizers, those of Marlow’s ilk, do not regard the objects of their racism as human beings.

Similar to Marlow’s observations in Heart of Darkness, racism creates a distance between the colonizer and the colonized: the colonizer views the colonized as animalistic, savage, sub-human, and backward. This attitude appears many times in Heart of Darkness, for example, here: “glancing down, I saw a face near my hand.

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 21).

Marlow names the “black bones” as a man, or a boy, but maintains the dehumanizing language as he remarks “with them it’s hard to tell” (Conrad 21). The dehumanizing language indicative of racism ensures that all of the emotions that could feasibly interfere with imperialist pursuits, including conscience, empathy, and regret, are rendered inactive, because the colonizer does not ever recognize the colonized as his human brother.

The second reason why racism must be in place in order for imperialism to function is much more subtle, but infinitely powerful. Racism, over the long term, has a psychological effect on the objects of racism. Simply put, the colonized begin to believe the colonizers. The colonized begin to view themselves as somehow less than the colonizers, often for the simple reason that they can’t seem to beat them, or make them go away.

Racism eats away at the self-worth of the colonized peoples, and as often happens with colonized peoples, the core elements of their culture – the rituals, language, and symbols they associate with their self image and self worth – vanish, or become co-opted by the colonizers. The result is a loss of the grounding influences of culture and language, and further vulnerability to the self-esteem eroding judgment of the colonizers.

As we see in Heart of Darkness, racism and imperialism pave the way for each other. Imperialism exists as long as racism continues. Marlow’s racism shows itself as a distance that persists between himself and the Africans, even the Africans he ends up caring about, such as his dead helmsman. Even as he describes his grief, Marlow’s racism limits the full expression of his emotion.

“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.

Well, you don’t see…for months I had him at my back – a help – an instrument…I had to look after him…and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken” (Conrad 68).

Despite the emotion clearly tugging at Marlow in this passage, the dehumanizing impact of racism pulls stronger, and remains in control. Marlow is simply unable to relate to the helmsman as a human man. He must content himself with grieving the loss of his “instrument” (Conrad 68).

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness provides insight into the dark and pervasive legacy of racism and imperialism.

For imperialism to maintain its hold on cultures, peoples, governments, and the economy, racism provides the necessary psychological and emotional condition that perpetuates a disordered view of colonized peoples as evolutionarily subordinate, savage, and sub-human. The dehumanizing effect of racism supports the growth and domination of imperialism.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hopes and Impediments.” In Selected Essays, 1765-1987. Oxford: Heinemann, 1988.1-13.

Acheraiou, Amar. “Nicholas Harrison. Postcolonial Criticism: History, Theory and the Work of Fiction.” Conradiana 38.3 (2006): 283-289. Web.

Conrad, Joseph. The Heart of Darkness. Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 1925. Print.

Davis, Lennard J. “The value of teaching from a racist classic.(Heart of Darkness).” The Chronicle of Higher Education 52.37 (2006): B9-B10. Web.

Firchow, Peter Edgerly. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Lexington: Kentucky UP, 1999. Print.

Hawkins, Hunt. “Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness.” PMLA, 94. 2 (1979): 286-299. Web.

Mongia, Padmini. “The Rescue: Conrad, Achebe, and the Critics.” Conradiana 33.2 (2001): 153-163. Web.

Raskin, Jonah. “Imperialism: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.The Journal of Contemporary History 2.2 (1967): 113-31. Web.

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