The main character, Marlow, in Joseph Conrad’s 1910 novel The Heart of Darkness begins his journey into Africa skeptical of what might occur, but naive to the true horrors that were in stake for the young man. Marlow’s detailed descriptions of the sights and torturous actions towards the natives he witnesses along his journey lead to many literary critics to deem Conrad a racist. One author notorious for calling Joseph Conrad out on his racist remarks is Chinua Achebe who gained fame from his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”. Achebe’s article professes that almost everything within Conrad’s novel is an act of pure racism. This, however, is not the case, as Conrad was just telling the truth of what occurred within Africa during the time of European colonization.
Often in literature, the physical journey the main character takes represents their psychological growth. In Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Marlow’s journey into the heart of the Congo represents his progression into the darkest parts of his mind. As he travels deeper into the foreign terrain, he begins to question the world around him and himself. As Marlow begins his journey into the heart of Africa, he holds onto his idealistic belief in imperialism. He believes that although imperialism “is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much... it is [redeemed by] the idea only,” showing that he thinks imperialism is rational if the belief in helping the ‘native’ people is sincere and unselfish (Conrad 7).
Achebe’s first issue with Heart of Darkness is the oversimplification and the barbaric delineation of Africa and the native people. He claims that it is the desire “in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will manifest (Achebe 1784).” Instead of viewing Africa as land with an equal value as Europe, many Western scholars including Conrad, especially in Heart of Darkness, either consciously or subconsciously project Africa to be some “other world” governed not by law and civilization but by barbarism, a world that needs guidance from the intelligent and refined Europeans. Conrad wrote, “going up that [Congo] river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world,”
However, it seems that Kurtz abuses his power and becomes like a tyrant which eventually leads to him not having any power at all. Another use of power is how the Europeans view the native Africans, they think it’s fine, that it’s normal to have them in their control just like the nature of Africa. They see the native Africans just like their nature, something to be in control of. This may stem from their different skin types and the fact that this novel takes place in the late 1800s. That is another theme that is shown in this novel,
What is particularly interesting is that Conrad transformed a personal experience into a fiction of general historical and cultural significance. With little sense of strain, he moved from self to society; it was one of his eccentricities to mythologize an historical self, to place his own life at the heart of historical conflicts. (Ross) The ‘Heart of Darkness’ is representative of the African continent which is perceived to be at the centre of the Earth and that which was believed to be lagging in terms of progression and development. But by the end of the novella, readers question this notion: is it really Africa that is hidden away in darkness or the hearts of the brutal colonizers under whom the natives have suffered in their own land? The plot of the novella revolves around Charles Marlow the protagonist, who is along with his fellow sailors aboard his ship Nellie anchored in the river Thames, narrating the story of his journey into the African continent, or as the Whites would put it “the heart of darkness.” This was the place that kept him wondering from childhood as depicted in
As Marlow read this book, he began to forget about the chaotic world around him, and it made him feel something normal from civilization. Conrad is using this plot event and the setting of the cottage to show the difference in the Europeans principles of order and chaos, as well as show how some of them use this order to shield themselves from the chaos. Conrad also uses many examples of how the sham of civilization hides the truth of our human nature. Conrad compares the Native Africans to the raw
Kurtz is choreographed by Conrad to be under the thrall of “The Company” which speaks through his deformed and lifeless body like a puppeteer. Perhaps simulated by the black strings woven by the women that Conrad intends to represent two out of three mythological ‘Fates’, immortally existing to guard the door of the underworld and orchestrate the entire operation of bringing light into the dark continent of Africa. The novel displays multi-dimensional and Caravaggio-esque dramatisim, an epistemological dependency on the experience of light as Marlow progresses towards the “heart of an impenetrable darkness”, which is in fact the backdrop behind the entire story that contrasts against the pale skin of the colonists which is modelled by the natural light of the barbaric African Helios, as evident in the authors intention. Unlike his depiction in the film version, Kurtz is outlined in a certain nature, contrastingly God-like and powerful yet increasingly weak. Conrad indicates through the description provided by Marlow as “short” and with “unsettling mannerisms”.
Conrad’s novella is from a white man’s point of view who travels to the Congo. On the other hand, Achebe’s story is based on an African’s point of view which he intentionally wrote to combat this negative image of Africans. While Achebe’s character’s can speak for its culture, lifestyle and traditions, Conrad’s character can only speak about what he sees and they stereotypical portrayal of Africans. According to Hunt Hawkins, “Achebe observes that Africans are barely present in Heart Of Darkness… It might be said that Conrad failed to portray Africans because he knew little of their culture, having spent less than six months in the Congo, mostly in the company of white men, and without knowledge of any African language.” Since this story is told by Marlow in the Congo, it focuses on a foreigner’s portrayal of Africans during the nineteenth century. Imagine going to a foreign place and being completely lost towards its culture and people.
As Marlow begins his journey to meet up Kurtz he encounters a series of cruelty and darkness in the heart of Africa. In the novel Heart of Darkness, darkness can be described as the horrors of greed. Darkness can be symbolized as multiple ideas such as an absence of morals, greed and the psychological treatment. The book is filled with darkness from the start. Europe and Africa are depicted as a place of darkness and gloominess.
However, he cannot really be considered the authentic bearer or healer of culture that he initially appears to be. He lives through the script of traditional patriarchal masculinity. He is violent, even though his acts of violence in the novel are often trivialized or justified. A very common interpretation of the title of the novel, through the frame of the folk tale of the ‘Tar Baby and the Briar Rabbit’ is to see Jadine as the tar baby, whose temptation the briar rabbit Son cannot shake off even at the end when he is still looking for her. But this seems to be a fallacious interpretation.