Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness offers a complex look at the effects of colonialism and imperialism in the nineteenth century, such that different scholars have alternately interpreted its message to be one of either pro- or anti- colonialism and imperialism, with either side of the debate finding ample evidence within the text to supports its conclusions. However, by examining critical work surrounding the text, as well as the novella itself, it will become clear that Conrad's novella make a complex, but ultimately discoverable, argument against colonialism and imperialism through Marlow's experiences in the Congo, even if those experiences are mediated through the language and belief systems underlying nineteenth century imperialism and colonialism.
Before exploring the text of Heart of Darkness in greater detail, it will be useful to examine both critical texts surrounding race and imperialism at the time of the novella's writing as well as more recent critical receptions of the work. Perhaps the most useful place to begin is Benjamin Kidd's essay "Social Progress and the Rivalry of Races," because it offers the reader a means of understanding some of the dominant racial ideologies of the time of the novella's writing, which are in turn represented within the novella itself. Kidd was a Social Darwinist, who were theorists that attempted to apply Darwin's theories of natural selection and evolution to the development of human society but only ended up misapplying his scientific notions for racist ends, proposing that the dominance of white Anglo-Saxons was the result of inherent genetic or racial traits (two immensely different things, the distinction of which Social Darwinists failed to understand) and not more well-developed methods of violence and conquest.
Kidd states as much when he claims that "the Anglo-Saxon has exterminated the less developed peoples with which he has come into competition even more effectively than other races have done in like case; not necessarily indeed by fierce and cruel wars of extermination, but through the operation of laws not less deadly and even more certain in their result," because according to Kidd's ludicrous reasoning, "the weaker races disappear before the stronger through the effects of mere contact" (Kidd 231). Of course, Kidd's notions should be offensive to any reasonable person, both because of their blatantly racist intonations and because his understanding of natural selection and the interaction between white colonizers and native peoples is so wildly ignorant that it mocks the objectivity towards which science strives. However, Kidd's beliefs are important to note because they reflect a dominant strain of thought at the time of Heart of Darkness' writing, and leads to the conditions described by Edmund D. Morel in his essay "Property and Trade vs. Forced Production."
Where Kidd's essay offers some insight into the racial ideologies of the nineteenth century, Morel's work provides a look at the devastating effects of these ideologies. Morel discusses the systematic destruction of trade in the Congo, which began with a relatively equitable relationship between the native residents and the newly arrived white traders and explorers but which devolved, through the use of force and theft, into what Morel terms "the New African Slave Trade" (Morel 170). This new slave trade and the attendant horrors it brought to the Congo are the context of Heart of Darkness, and bearing this in mind will allow one to better understand the intended message of the novella, because as William Atkinson notes in his essay "Bound in Blackwood's: The Imperialism of "The Heart of Darkness" in Its Immediate Context," "Conrad remarked in a letter to William Blackwood [the original publisher of Heart of Darkness] that he thought the subject of his African story very much 'of our time,'" meaning that the novel "dealt with imperialism, specifically with King Leopold's colonial project in central Africa" (Atkinson 368). This is important to note because the colonial project being conducted in the Congo is not merely the setting of the novel, but the focus, because everything about the story, including the language itself, is bound up in the massive imperial undertaking of the nineteenth century (a fact which has likely contributed to the difficulty in understanding the novella's position on imperialism and colonialism; because Conrad necessarily engages in the language of colonialism, readers may interpret this to be implicit support for that colonialism).
Having discussed the immediate context of the novella, both in terms of the racial ideologies at work at the time of its publication as well as the realities of the region in which it is set, one may now examine critical receptions of the story as a means of orienting this essay's central claim; that is, that Heart of Darkness actually uses the language and concepts of imperialism and colonialism to argue against the horrors inflicted by these ideological forces. To begin with, it will be useful to acknowledge the complexity of Conrad's argument, noted when the narrator remarks that to Marlow, "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel, but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of these misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine" (Conrad 5). The narrator contrasts Marlow with the tales told by the rest of the seamen, and this contrast is interpreted by Patrick Bratlinger in his essay "Imperialism, Impressionism, and the Politics of Style," to mean that "locating the 'meaning' of the story will not be easy," or even "may in fact be impossible" (Bratlinger 387). Although this essay necessarily disagrees with the latter possibility, Bratlinger's statement is important to note because it hints at the linguistic difficulty of opposing imperialism when the only language available is that of the imperialist.
This difficulty (or impossibility) is regarded in greater detail by Edward Said in his essay "Two Visions of Heart of Darkness," when he notes that "Conrad could probably never have used Marlow to present anything other than an imperialist world-view, given what was available for either Conrad or Marlow to see of the non-European at the time," with the result that "if we must therefore depend upon the assertive authority of the sort of power that Kurtz wields as a white man in the jungle or that Marlow, another white man, wields as narrator, there is no use looking for other, non-imperialist alternatives; the system has simply eliminated them and made them unthinkable" (Said 423). Said is not suggesting that one must read Heart of Darkness as a strictly imperialist text, but rather is noting that the linguistic (and therefore ideological) limitations of the narrator require one to look beyond the ostensible meaning of Marlow's recollections to the meaning produced by the novella as a whole. In short, one must separate the language and statements of the characters within the story from the statement made by the story.
Finally, before addressing the text itself, it will be useful to examine one further critical reception of Heart of Darkness, in this case one which offers a means of understanding Heart of Darkness as an anticolonialist and anti-imperialist text. In their essay "Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Postcolonial Study," Noorbakhsh Hooti and Masoud Ahmadi Mousaabad analyze a number of different responses to the novella (including the aforementioned Said essay) in order to uncover how the novella can "provide a docking point for such a vast range of personalities, attitudes and ideologies," ultimately revealing that in spite of what Chinua Achebe calls Conrad's "racist discourse and narratives," Heart of Darkness ultimately serves to point out the atrocities of imperialism and colonialism, even it must do so via the "discourse and narratives" of those ideologies (Hooti & Mousaabad 64, 66). While Hooti and Mousaabad are more concerned with a survey of responses to Heart of Darkness than arguing in favor of any particular one, they do reveal a crucial detail needed to understand the novella as an anti-imperialist and anticolonialist text; namely, that Conrad's "racist" descriptions in the novella are not meant to be taken as objective reality, but rather as the subjective "reality" experienced by the colonial intruder upon coming face-to-face with the victims of that colonization, and influenced by that intruder's fear and ignorance. Thus, Marlow's characterization of the native Africans may be read as ironically revealing his own mental and social limitations, almost as a precursor to contemporary comedies which include a character unaware that their outdated concepts of race or gender has made them the butt of a joke (although admittedly, it would take some work to draw a direct line between Marlow and, for example, Michael Scott from the television show The Office).
It is beyond the scope of this essay to note every instance of Marlow's use of racist or otherwise ignorance-demonstrating language; as Edward Said noted in his essay, the entirety of the novella is couched in the language of the imperialist. Instead, it will suffice to address the portion of the text at the very beginning which suggests…