An Informal Paper on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is one of the most widely taught works of literature. Its teaching, however, is one that often offers readings that reinforce negative African stereotypes by making it into a cautionary tale where one must be careful least they “go native” as Kutz does in the novel. There are, however, other (better) approaches to the novel, the two most prominent being an advocaty for a post-colonial state where negroes are not treated as slaves under the guise of colonialism, the second one being Achebe’s reading of it being a text that negatively affects notions of race and race relations by stereotyping africans as nothing more than savage shadows. This is a very informal essay outlining the anti-colonial arguments in the novel and suggesting that what Conrad is attempting to do with Heart of Darkness is “shatter the glass world of Europeans (a parallel to the women in the novel) by making them acquaintances to the simple truths that explorers (real men in the novel) have been acustomed to all their lives – that colonialism and conquer are the same thing, both cruel, both uncalled for.” These are the notes I used in a talk offered at the University of Puerto Rico today, March 10, 2010, in a doctoral course.

A Look at Conrad’s Portrayal of Colonial Powers

When looking at Conrad’s Heart of Darkness one must take into account not only the life of the author, but also the social considerations into which Conrad was born. Anyone interested in a full biography of Joseph Conrad need not delve further than a Google  search to find reliable information available from institutions of higher learning with an excellent reputation. For this reason this short essay will not contain a full biography of Conrad. It will, however, include two tidbits of information indispensable to any critic or student of Conrad’s literature:

1)      Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) was a Polish-born British novelist (or Polish novelist who chose English as his literary language), who became a British subject in 1886. He is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in English, although he did not speak the language fluently until he was in his twenties. This fact alone gives testament to the nature of the colonialism which is so brilliantly described in Conrad’s masterpiece; the type of colonialism that subdues, dominates, and enslaves for profit. Just as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness “The Company” travels into Africa and exploits the natives in the hunt for Ivory, so does England exploits Conrad’s love, or need, for the English language and culture, colonize him, and claim his literary masterpieces as their own. And so, by the faculty of language, a Polish author writing Polish perspectives on an event concerning Europe is claimed as an English writer.

2)      Conrad drew upon his experiences in the French and British Merchant Navy to create short stories and novels. The journey upriver described in Heart of Darkness closely follows Conrad’s own adventures. Eight and a half years before writing the book, Conrad had gone to serve as the captain of a Congo steamer after the ship’s former captain died. On arriving in the Congo, he found his steamer damaged and under repair. Conrad was exposed to the brutality of European attitudes in the Congo. He became ill and returned to Europe. How Conrad’s experiences paralel those depicted in Heart of Darkness certainly serve as evidence that the text is, to some extent, autobiographical. This does not mean, however, that the text is an entirely accurate depiction of what Conrad saw during his travels. One should remember that Heart of Darkness is written as an embedded narrative (or framed narrative, depending on the critic) with the intention of being a novel, not a historically accurate document.

Before continuing with the text itself it should be noteworthy to explain what embedded narrative is and mention some examples. Traditionally, narratives are carried out in the first person narrative voice (autobiographical) where the speaker is telling the reader a story from his point of vies or the third person narrative voice (story) where the narrative voice is telling someone else’s story. Less used but also known is the second person narrative voice (epistolary style) where there is no narrative voice and the story is told through “letters”. The embedded narrative is a “story within a story”, a story where the speaker is framing a third person as a story teller and the speaker is remembering how somebody else told the story. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the storyteller is speaking to the reader of how a sailor by the name of Charles Marlow told a story about his travels to Africa. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner follows this same structure.

Colonial Powers in the Heart of Darkness


Despite the many approaches available to students of Conrad’s work, there are certain topics that are recurrent throughout the story that must not be ignored. Whether Conrad focused on these topics to portray a savage and deformed Africa, as Achebe argues, to make the English aware of the cruelties of colonialism, to record his travels, or to make a political statement, none can disagree that, whatever might perceive them to be, Heart of Darkness makes strong statements on the practice of colonialism, darkness imagery, isolation, and wilderness imagery, the latter two weaving topics like the influence of wilderness and darkness in dreams and mental illnesses. This short essay will focus on the portrayal of the capitalist system under the guise of the noble colonization agenda.

One of Conrad’s earliest commentaries in the novel on the flaws of the capitalist system that drives English colonization is found early in the novel when Conrad writes that the river Thames “had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea” (4). In the eyes of the colonizing powers that governed over England a prominent naval officer who mapped much of the North American coast and was considered during the Victorian period as a hero has as much worth as a pirate. Although small, the mention of these two gentlemen, both knight-errant of the sea, in the same sentence seems to speaks against colonial powers, specially when taken into context with the rest of the novel. In the same page Conrad speaks of Africa, the “unknown earth”, as “the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires (4). Conrad’s questioning against the atrocities committed against the Africans continues when, through Marlow, he comments that “this [England] also has been one of the dark places of the earth” (5). Following this statement Marlow speaks of Rome in the ancient times, “just yesterday”, and how proud Roman generals of the Mediterranean must have felt when they traveled to the end of the world to find “sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages,—precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink” (5) and how “the fascination of the abomination—you know Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, [and] the hate” take over them. This exact description is later reflected in the novel when Kutz travels to the Heart of Darkness and is overcome by hatred and lust. Continuing his comparison between the English and the Romans Conrad remarks that “they [the Romans] were no colonists; they were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others” (6). In trying to differentiate between conquering and colonizing, however, Conrad is making the reader aware of the painful truth that they are, in fact, the same, as both conquerors and colonialists “grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got” and engaged in “robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness” (6). In pointing out these similarities between the barbarism of conquerors and the barbarism of colonialists, Conrad is making the reader aware that both systems are, in fact, one and the same with subtle differences, these being that in colonialism one must have “a n idea at the back of it; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .” (6).

Further criticism of the capitalist system that drives the engine of colonization can be found in Conrad’s remarks about the Company office and in his conversations with his aunt. Marlow states that “in the Company’s office and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade” (7), and despite his opening remarks on colonization by England saying that in a map on the table “t here was a vast amount of red—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there”, a notion which Marlow later regrets thinking and defies, he still points out that “the Company was run for profit” (9) and that their true purpose is not that of “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways”, but to make money. Furthermore, when confronted with the notion that “the laborer is worthy of his hire” he remarks that “it’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over” (9). Certainly, despite Marlow’s belief that he was “something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle” (9), he still knew that the true reason to go into this darkness is ivory. By offering this explanation of The Company, which is a symbol for is a symbol for the Anglo-Belgian India-Rubber Company formed by King Leopold II of Belgium, Conrad is letting the reader know that whatever might happen in the Heart of Darkness will happen not because of religious intent, but for money. It will not be a mission of colonization, it will be a conquering invasion.

This invasion, however, turns out not to be as fruitful as expected. Forshadowing the failure of Marlow’s excursion, when arriving to the African coastline he sees a french manowar ceaselessly firing at the darkness of the jungle (10). This has often been read as a message to Europe that the heart of Darkness cannot be conquered. What might be more interesting that the actual attack, however, is how Marlow describes the scene as “a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of  ugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives— he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere” (10). Special emphasis should be given to the sarcastic use of emphasis in “he called them enemies!” with which Conrad argues that “they” are not the real enemies and, perhaps, hinting that “we” are. After all, further into the narrative Conrad writes that “these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies” (11). This invasion Conrad calls a “merry dance of death and trade” in which “Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders” and “writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair” (10). The Darkness cannot be conquered.

There is a darkness, however, that can be conquered. While the jungles of Africa seem dark and impenetrable, its people are not. Marlow’s first encounter with colonial abuse is with men whom “were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea”. He saw these men when he noticed “six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking” (11). This description denotes the abuse of colonial power that is treating Africans as slaves despite the abolition of slavery. In depicting this image Conrad is breaking the innocent world of the reader by showing them the true side of an idealized colonial mission. As Marlow did with his aunt, Conrad is suggesting that there is no enlightened ideal behind the conquer of Africa, it’s simply economic.

Despite Marlow believing that he “was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings”, Conrad knows this is not so, and acknowledges that these black men “passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages” and that in their faces he could see “the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men—men, I tell you” (11). The statement that the are men is disproving the previous notions that they were sub-human and, thus, arguing for the possibility of equality. Marlow remarks of how his “purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into a gloomy circle of some Inferno” (12). In this circle Marlow saw once again how Africans were mistreated. He describes how “black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die” (12). By including death in this section of the narrative Conrad is appealing to the emotions of the reader. By stating that “they were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals”, Conrad is telling the reader that your brethren are dying unjustly.

Colonial abuse and death is further exemplified throughout the text. While traveling the impenetrable darkness, Marlow sees a young boy whose “eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly” and a man “with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence” (12). In the midst of all this suffering there was a “white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision.” Marlow speaks of how he “respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair” and how “his appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser’s dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance.” On the other hand, there were “strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass-wire set into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory”.
Another parallel in the conquest versus colonization comparison can be seen in the brutality where “a white man in an unbuttoned uniform, camping on the path with an armed escort” declared that he was “looking after the upkeep of the road”, and Marlow later comments that “unless the body of a middle-aged negro, with a bullet-hole in the forehead, upon which I absolutely stumbled three miles farther on, may be considered as a permanent improvement”, he did not see anything. Later on Marlow sees “a nigger being beaten near by” because the white men thought he had started a fire.

Still, the greatest criticism on European colonialism can be seen in the figure of Kurtz, a ‘universal genius,’ who is introduced throughout the narrative as a nearly god-like figure. When talking about Kutz, two members of the company remark that “nobody here, you understand, here, can endanger your position. And why? You stand the climate—you outlast them all” (21).Kutz reinforces this idea that the colonials really conquer when he says “‘My ivory.’ Oh, yes, I heard him. My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—’ everything belonged to him” (31). The example of how greed corrupted a moral Kurtz is seen when Marlow speaks that “he original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and—as he was good enough to say himself—his sympathies were in the right place”. In a report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, which represents the Belgium Conference, “he began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might as of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’”, but “and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’”. This display of how the idealistic colonizer is in reality the brutal conqueror is applied through Kutz to all of Europe, as “his mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”, whose “appetite for more ivory had got the better of the—what shall I say?—less material aspirations”.  Kutz’ greed for ivory became so great that in page 39 he values ivory over a human life when Marlow speaks that “at this moment I heard Kurtz’s deep voice behind the curtain. ‘Save me!—save the ivory, you mean. Don’t tell me. Save me! Why, I’ve had to save you. You are interrupting my plans now. Sick! Sick! Not so sick as you would like to believe. Never mind. I’ll carry my ideas out yet—I will return. I’ll show you what can be done.”

All this begs the question, despite all the imagery of torture and “the horror! The horror!”, is Conrad really making an argument against colonialism? Looking at the novel and at the times that Conrad lived in it would be hard to disagree. One must always remember that Conrad lived in a time where Europeans still thought of Africans as sub-humans, a time just barely out of slavery. In depicting the cruel imagery to people who are “clearly human” but without making grandiose political statements about the equality of “the nigger” and the white man Conrad is working in the consciousness of the common English, destroying the beautiful and innocent world of the women who are the British Englishmen by showing them a glimpse at the reality that men, English explorers and conqueror/colonizers, have been living contently with all their lives: colonization is raping Africa, Colonization is not driven by the need to convert the negro, but to profit; after all, ‘you show them you have in you something that is really profitable, and then there will be no limits to the recognition of your ability, (42)

This does not mean that the story is entirely a mind-expanding experience, as it certainly stereotypes negroes, sometime in a negative manner. Negative negro stereotypes seem to flood the entire narrative. From them being shadows and figureless savages who “jibbed, ran away, sneaked off with their loads in the night” to people who “wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence.” (15) This negative stereotype is further reinforced whenever Marlow says something about “the cannibals” who traveled with him and how they wanted to eat each other, but this is a different topic altogether.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on March 11, 2010, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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