Heart of Darkness century has passed since the publication of Heart of Darkness and the verdict still remains out on Joseph Conrad's overall thoughts on imperialism and its associated problem of racism. Many critics believe that Conrad wrote his book to adamantly rally against expansionism and the evils it brought. Other literary professionals question the vagueness and inconsistencies within the book and wonder about the strength of Conrad's beliefs or even if he was as imperialistic and racist as his fellowmen. Was he supporter of colonialism and a racist as some critiques report? Perhaps, he was he actually trying to criticize colonialism, but did not come across strong enough because he was a product of his times or was playing to a certain audience?
In 1899, when Heart of Darkness was first published, both Europe and America were well on their way to building empires in other parts of the world. Several European states had already experienced unprecedented expansion worldwide during the last third of the nineteenth century due to increased industrialization, adventurism, and paternalism. Latin America, Asia and Africa were targeted to control seaports and trade. England, the leading European colonial power, had already established much of its overseas empire, followed by France with territories in Southeast Asia and North Africa, and Portugal, Spain and Holland, who still retained some of their earlier holdings. Germany and Italy were quite new to the game. Africa always appeared to be the most impacted by such expansionism. England, France, Germany and Italy all saw the continent as fair game. The Belgian king Leopold also became significantly involved. Ethiopia and Liberia were the only areas not colonized by the beginning of the 20th century.
The United States was keeping up with their European cousins. After moving across North America, they won the Spanish-American War and established colonies in the Caribbean and Philippines and took over the Hawaiian Islands.
This imperialism went hand-in-hand with beliefs of supremacy or racist views. The whites felt that they were superior to people of color, which gave them the right to bring their civilized world into what was considered backward and savage countries. The colonial activities of the governments and private enterprises reflected the views of the mother country. A large number of Europeans and Americans thought it was both correct and necessary to pursue such foreign policy. Many believed that not acting would inevitably lead to economic stagnation and second-class international status. Others felt that their countries were obliged to help backward and struggling people move into the newly industrialized world. These imperialistic individuals heatedly debated with others who either did not want to repeat the wrongs of slavery and were seeking a more democratic government or were afraid that colonialism may lead to inter-racial relationships that could eventually water down the Anglo-Saxon population.
Heart of Darkness is based on Conrad's firsthand experience of the Congo region of West Africa. Conrad was actually sent up the Congo River to an inner station to rescue a company agent, who died a few days later aboard ship. Heart of Darkness is told in the words of Charlie Marlow, a seaman, and filtered through the thoughts of an unidentified listening narrator.
Those who commend Conrad for his strong condemnation of colonialism say the book clearly shows the reality of European imperialism in Africa as total greed and evil. Even from the beginning of the book, they note, he opposes the other men by describing Britain not as a civilized nation, but the savage "end of the world." When Marlow arrives in Africa, he finds only senseless destruction and waste, one person's inhumanity to another, and the undeniable avaricious materialism of European imperialism. Heart of Darkness contrasts the appearance of African "savagery" with European "civility" to demonstrate the inhumanity of the Europeans, rather than that of the Africans.
The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much; (20).
Marlow cuts himself from the Europeans he meets in Africa and scorns their brutality. He mentions that in a world dominated by a struggle among the races, the strongest race would win, regardless of ideals.
A the Romans] were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force -- nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others (ibid).
The symbol of darkness and shadow throughout the book could easily stand for the blackness of greed and avarice and social corruption. The Europeans complain about the African "savages," but is that what they themselves have become? The supposed purpose of the Europeans traveling into Africa was to civilize the natives. Instead they colonized on the native's land and corrupted the natives.
I've seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men -- men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther. For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning. Finally I descended the hill, obliquely, towards the trees I had seen. (34)
On the other hand, Marlow romanticizes Kurtz before he meets him at the end of the novel as the positive side of imperialism and the hope for the future of humanity. Because Marlow is so hopeful that Kurtz will resolve so many issues, he is devastated to discover that even this man has debased himself. Similar to the other Europeans, Kurtz has succumbed to the trappings of colonialism. However, Marlow continues to revere the man despite his failings.
Marlow tells his story in a sardonic manner, making one feel that the others are wrong in their beliefs, yet not offering an answer as to what should be done. In addition, Marlow's confusion about Kurtz adds credence to his less-than-solid views. Such wavering concerns some readers, who believe that Conrad should have made Marlow's comments and actions stronger, especially if he was that much against imperialism. The controversial nature of Conrad's true beliefs arise because Marlow's comments ride a fine line in the gray tones between being adamantly for or against colonialism.
Yet, there are places in the book where Marlow's comments do come out strong and clear. This is especially true in the often-quoted section concerning Kurtz' death and final words, "the horror, the horror." Leavis (176) explains that in Marlow's record, Conrad clearly depicts the overwhelming sinister atmosphere:
Ordinary greed, stupidity and moral squalor are made to look like behavior in a lunatic asylum against the vast and oppressive mystery of the surroundings, rendered potently in terms of sensation.
Not everyone agrees that Conrad is completely or even partly anti-imperial. Some dissenters believe that Heart of Darkness is a work that portrays Africans in stereotypes and demeaning terms. In 1988, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe attacked the book as extremely bigoted. Another group of critics argued that Conrad, or at least Marlow, deplored only Belgian imperialism, not colonialism generally.
Achebe, in his essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," states, 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." He notes that readers are told that "Going up that river (Congo) was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world." The Thames, too, "has been one of the dark places of the earth." However, it conquered its darkness, and now is in daylight and at peace. "But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings."
This critic adds that Conrad was allowed to make such racist comments, because he was a spokesperson for other Westerners:
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."
It comes as no surprise that Conrad's comments would today be considered racist. The common values and beliefs at that period were very different from those today. One article about this book concludes Conrad undoubtedly believed that Africans were inferior to white Europeans (Gale, 2003). Racism was almost unquestioned in Europe at the turn of…