The novella Heart of Darkness has, since it's publication in 1899, caused much controversy and invited much criticism. While some have hailed it's author, Joseph Conrad as producing a work ahead of it's time in it's treatment and criticism of colonialist practices in the Congo, others, most notably Chinua Achebe, have criticized it for it's racist and sexist construction of cultural identity. Heart of Darkness can therefore be described as a text of it's time, as the cultural identity of the dominant society, that is, the European male is constructed in opposition to "the other", "the other" in Heart of Darkness being defined as black and/or female. Notions of cultural identity are largely constructed through language and setting and are essential to the reader's understanding of the text.
While many characters are critiqued or criticized by Conrad for their exploitation of Africa and it's inhabitants, they remain the dominant and superior race, both according to Conrad, and his primary narrator Charlie Marlow. The African characters are not only constructed as "other", but also as inferior and to an extent subhuman. This is evident through their lack of language or voice throughout the text. Africans are denied language, and are instead granted "grunting" noises and a "violent babble of mouth sounds" relegating them to an inferior status.
Only on two occasions are the natives given language and expression by the author. Firstly, when cannibalism is seen to overcome them, and one of then when asked what they will do with the body of one of the dead crew, replies "Eat 'im". The second occasion is when the enigmatic figure of Kurtz...
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...constructing women as the "other", not being able to cope with the truth and facts of life, Conrad asserts the superiority and dominance of the white male.
In Heart of Darkness, cultural identity and the dominance of the European, white male is constructed and asserted through the constructions of the "other", that is the African natives and females, largely through language and setting. Thus, while claims of Conrad's forwardness in producing a text that critiques colonialism may be valid, Heart of Darkness is ultimately a product of it's time and therefore confirms the contextual notions of difference.
Conrad, J. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Group. 1995.
Achebe, C. An image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness 1975.
Sarvan, C.F. Racism and Heart of Darkness 1982.
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