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Joseph Conrad develops themes of personal power, individual responsibility, and social justice in his book Heart of Darkness. His book contains all the trappings of the conventional adventure tale: mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, and unexpected attack. Chinua Achebe concluded, "Conrad, on the other hand, is undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good story-teller into the bargain" (Achebe 252). Yet, despite Conrad's great story telling, he has also been viewed as a racist by some of his critics. Achebe, Singh, and Sarvan, although their criticisms differ, are a few to name.
Normally, readers are good at detecting racism in a book. Achebe acknowledges Conrad camouflaged racism remarks, saying, "… Conrad chose his subject well - one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with psychological pre-disposition..." (Achebe, 253). ***CAN YOU TELL US SPECIFICALLY WHAT THIS MEANS? THE READER DOES NOT KNOW WHAT PSYCHOLOGICAL PRE-DISPOSITION IS***
Having gone back and rereading Heart of Darkness, this time reading between the lines, I discovered some racism Conrad felt toward the natives that I had not discovered the first time I read the book. Racism is portrayed in Conrad's book, but one must acknowledge that in the eighteen hundreds society conformed to it. Conrad probably would have been criticized as being soft hearted rather than a racist in his time. Conrad constantly referred to the natives, in his book, as black savages, niggers, brutes, and "them", displaying ignorance toward the African history and racism towards 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 unorthodox name calling, "Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate 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 he himself can enter the story and tell it through his own philosophical mind. Conrad used "double speak" throughout his book. Upon arriving at the first station, Marlow commented 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).
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Conrad considered the Africans an 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 helmsman. Marlow respected the helmsman, yet when the native's blood poured into Marlow's shoes, he remarked: "To tell you the truth, I was morbidly anxious to change my shoes and socks" (Conrad 47). How can someone respect yet feel disgusted towards someone? 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).
As I have mentioned before, Conrad was not only racist but also ignorant. He would often mix ignorance with racism when he described the natives. "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). The end result of Conrad's ignorance of not knowing the behavior of African people concluded his division of the social world into two separate categories: "us," the Europeans, and "them," the Africans. Achebe concludes Conrad's ignorance towards the natives by stating, "Heart of Darkness projects 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 did not write his book to the extreme of racism. Overall, the natives appeared to be better humans than the Europeans in Heart of Darkness. Conrad's ignorance led to his conformity to racism. His ignorance of not completely "granting the natives human status" leads him to social categorization. C. P. Sarvan wrote in his criticism, quoting Achebe, "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).
Achebe, Chinua [An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.]
Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton Critical 1988.
Conrad, Joseph Heart of Darkness 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton Critical, 1988.
Sarvan, C. P. [Racism and the Heart of Darkness.] Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton Critical 1988.
Singh, Frances B. [The Colonialistic Bias of Heart of Darkness.]
Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton Critical 1988.