Heart of Darkness: A Racist Text?

Seminar Paper 2003 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



0. Introduction

I. Africa as the “Antithesis of Europe”
I.1 Conrad’s Personal View Reflected in His Narration
I.2 The Black’s Role in the Novel as a Further Proof for Conrad’s Racism
I.3 Becoming Insane = Going Native

II. Profound Proofs of Conrad’s Innocence
II.1 Critique of Imperialism: A Subversion of the Dichotomies
II.2 Marlow is not Conrad
II.3 The Content of the Novel: A Journey Through the Congo
II.4 A Victorian Novel Vs. A Modern “Reverse Missionary” Novel

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

0 Introduction

The following essay will deal with the question whether or not Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a racist text. This question comes up because this novel was written during the age of Victoria, a time of imperialism and colonialism where the term “race” changed its meaning and became a monolithic factor.

The term ‘race’ was first used in English literature as denoting a class of people, even a family. In eighteen-century usage it was possible to speak of a race of animals or birds. By the nineteenth century this imprecision was fully recognized, and it was suggested that the term was purely subjective, and illuminated the ‘opinion of the investigator rather than … the object of investigation.’ ([1] Bolt: 1971, ix).

So from then on, racism, which can be defined as “ the belief that races have distinctive cul- tural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others” ([2] Wehmeier:2000,1042) was often included or propaga-ted in literary works. As Conrad was a member of the Victorian society it is interesting for today’s readers to examine if he also shared this belief. Furthermore, it has recently (i.e. within the last twenty-five years) been a frequently-discussed topic, because Chinua Achebe, the famous Nigerian author, arose this question. So, first of all, his accusations will be looked at more clearly, in the following, it is to be regarded if these are actually true, and finally, one will see, if a final estimation is possible.

I Africa as the “Antithesis of Europe”

In the opinion of the Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton,

‘ignorance, not knowledge, sentimentality not sense, sway the public mind’ on racial questions. But the testimony of the ignorant may be the most typical, may tell us a great deal about Victorian, if not primitive, society. British attitudes and responses to colonial [and American] developments, in fact, have a logic of their own, and, how-ever inaccurate and biased it may have been public opinion frequently public policy or resulted in some sort of practical activity in the area concerned. ([3] Bolt: 1971,xi)

According to some people, among them the famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, these attitudes containing “a logic of their own” - often referred to as binary thinking - are also found in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; i.e. they claim that Conrad creates a picture of Africa as the “antithesis of Europe” ([4] Achebe: 1988, 252) . Consequently, the dichotomy in the area of ethics – good and bad, of aesthetics – beautiful and ugly, of logic – right and wrong, and of culture – civilized and uncivilized is said to be well elaborated: Heart of Darkness as a novel about a Western “civilisation mission” in the “dark” jungle of Africa where all those prejudices are confirmed; therefore he is accused of racism.

I.1 Conrad’s Personal View Reflected in His Narration

Conrad’s personal background and his experiences with colonialism are said to be reflected in all of his works, consequently also in Heart of Darkness. As someone who was so keen on becoming a real member of the British community, it would not be surprising if he had also adopted their imperialistic values and attitudes. ([5] comp. Knapp Hay: 1963, 111-121). Achebe points out that it was not Conrad who invented the image of Africa which the reader is con- fronted with in the novel. It was rather the Western dominant image of Africa. In fact, Conrad lived in a time when other people were not considered equal, when the West was convinced of its superiority with regard to the rest of the “uncivilized” world. Thus, the descriptions of the Africans are often condescending like in the following example :

‘The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly…. ([6] Conrad: 1994, 51).

Probably, this way of describing blacks might originate also from Conrad’s first, rather “traumatic” encounter with a black man which made him dream of for years afterwards.


[1] Christine Bolt, Victorian Attitudes to Race (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971) ix.

[2] Sally Wehmeier (ed.) Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English,6th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 1042.

[3] Christine Bolt, Victorian Attitudes to Race (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971) xi.

[4] Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Robert Kimbrough, ed. in Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism (New York: Norton, 1988) 252.

[5] Eloise Knapp Hay, The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1963) comp. 111-121.

[6] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994) 51. (all further quotes without mentioning the source will also be taken from this book)


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University of Tubingen – English Philology
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Heart Darkness Racist Text Proseminar Literatur Transformations




Title: Heart of Darkness: A Racist Text?