Joseph Conrad develops themes of personal power, individual responsibility, and social justice in his book Heart of Darkness. His book has all the themes that make the book an adventure story- mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, an unexpected attack. Chinua Achebe concluded, “Conrad, on the other hand, is undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good storyteller into the bargain” (Achebe 252). Yet, despite Conrad’s great story telling ability, he has also been viewed as an ignorant racist by some of his critics.
Achebe, Singh, and Sarvan, are three of his critics who have different opinions about Conrad being a racist. Readers usually are good at detecting racism in a book or story. Achebe tells us about Conrad’s ability to hide racist remarks, “But Conrad chose his subject well – one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with psychological predisposition… ” (Achebe, 253). By reading Heart of Darkness for the second time I started to understand the hidden racism in the book. I also discovered the racist remarks towards the natives.
Racism is portrayed in Conrad’s book, but a reader must know that back in the eighteen hundreds society didn’t understand racism towards “Blacks”. Conrad’s critics would have never called Conrad a racist, during his time, but rather a great story teller who is kind hearted to “Blacks”. Conrad constantly referred to the natives, in his book, as black savages, niggers, brutes, and “them”, displaying what we see as racism toward 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 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 Conrad himself can tell the story without saying it himself. Conrad used “double speak” throughout his book, so he himself will not be the racist but Marlow his main character is.
When they arrived at the first station, Marlow told us 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, but when he talked to the station’s book keeper he changed his feelings towards 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). The bookkeeper did not care for the natives around him. Marlow glorified the book keeper’s ability to be so clean in such a disgusting place. Marlow made the reader believe that it was the natives fault for living in such horrible conditions. 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 feelings and treatment towards the natives.
Through Marlow, Conrad told us how he felt about the natives, 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 sailors, a native.
Marlow respected the sailor, 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 someone yet feel disgusted towards him when a little blood stains him? 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). Conrad was not only racist but also ignorant.
He would often describe the natives traditions with ignorant and racist comments. “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). Conrad’s ignorance of the behavior of African people creates a division in the society in which he lives in: “us,” the Europeans, and “them,” the Africans.
Achebe states Conrad’s ignorance towards the natives by stating, “Heart of Darkness project 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 show how racist he was but how racist the people were around him subconsciously. As you read the story you get the feeling that the natives appeared better human beings than the Europeans in Heart of Darkness.
Conrad’s ignorance led to his racist comments towards the natives. His ignorance of a society that he doesn’t relate to his own forced him to separate the two worlds. C. P. Sarvan wrote in his criticism “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). Conrad’s was not a racist but rather an ignorant who did what society expected him to do; separate the good (Europeans) and the bad (Africans).