Joseph Conrad develops themes of personal power, individual responsibility, and social justice in his book Heart of Darkness. His book has all the trappings of the conventional adventure tale – mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, unexpected attack. Chinua Achebe concluded, “Conrad, on the other hand, is undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good story-teller into the bargain” (Achebe 252). Yet, despite Conrad’s great story telling, he has also been viewed as a racist by some of his critics. Achebe, Singh, and Sarvan, although their criticisim differ, are a few to name.
Normal readers usually are good at detecting racism in a book. Achebe acknowledges Conrad camouflaged racism remarks, saying, “But Conrad chose his subject well – one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with psychological pre-disposition…” (Achebe, 253). Having gone back and rereading Heart of Darkness, but this time reading between the lines, I have discovered some racism Conrad felt toward the natives that I had not discovered the first time I read the book. Racism is portrayed in Conrad’s book, but one must acknowledge that back in the eighteen hundreds society conformed to it. Conrad probably would have been criticized as being soft hearted rather than a racist back in his time.
Conrad constantly referred to the natives, in his book, as black savages, niggers, brutes, and “them”, displaying ignorance toward the African history and racism towards the African people. Conrad wrote, “Black figures strolled out listlessly… the beaten nigger groaned somewhere” (Conrad 28). “They passed me with six inches, without a glance, with the complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages” (Conrad 19). Achebe, also, detected Conrad’s frequent use of unorthodox name calling, “Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His in ordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts” (Achebe 258).
Conrad uses Marlow, the main character in the book, as a narrator so he himself can enter the story and tell it through his own philosophical mind. Conrad used “double speak” throughout his book. Upon arriving at the first station, Marlow commented what he observed. “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 20). Marlow felt pity toward the natives, yet when he met the station’s book keeper he changed his views of the natives. “Moreover I respected the fellow. Yes. I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair.
His appearance was certainly great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance” (Conrad 21). Marlow praised the book keeper as if he felt it’s the natives’ fault for living in such waste. the bureaucracy only cared about how he looked and felt. The bookeeper did not care for the natives who were suffering less than fifty feet from him. He stated the natives weren’t criminals but were being treated as if they were, but at the same time he respected the book keeper on his looks instead of despising him for his indifference. Conrad considered the Africans inferior and doomed people.
Frances B. Singh, author of The Colonialistic Bias of Heart of Darkness said “The African natives, victims of Belgian exploitation, are described as ‘shapes,’ ‘shadows,’ and ‘bundles of acute angles,’ so as to show the dehumanizing effect of colonialist rule on the ruled” (269-270). Another similar incident of “double speak” appeared on the death of Marlow’s helmsman. Marlow respected the helmsman, yet when the native’s blood poured into Marlow’s shoes, “To tell you the truth, I was morbidity anxious to change my shoes and socks” (Conrad 47). How can someone respect yet feel disgusted towards someone? Singh looks into this question by stating, “The reason of course, is because he (Marlow) never completely grants them (natives) human status: at the best they are a species of superior hyena” (Singh 273).
As I have mentioned before, Conrad was not only racist but also ignorant. He would often mix ignorance with racism when he described the natives. “They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly” (Conrad 35). “The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell?” (Conrad 37). The end result of Conrad’s ignorance of not knowing the behavior of African people concluded his division of the social world into two separate categories: “us,” the Europeans, and “them,” the Africans. Achebe concludes Conrad’s ignorance towards the natives by stating, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’… a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and ferment are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality” (252).
“Heart of Darkness was written, consciously or unconsciously, from a colonialistic point of view” (Singh 278). Conrad didn’t write his book to the extreme of racism. Overall, the natives appeared better humans than the Europeans in Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s ignorance led to his conformity to racism. His ignorance of not completely “granting the natives human status” leads him to social categorization. C. P. Sarvan wrote in his criticism, quoting Achebe, “Racism and the Heart of Darkness,” “Conrad sets up Africa ‘as a foil to Europe, a place of negations… in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.’ Africa is ‘the other world,’…” (281).