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Race and Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1708 words Published: 10th Aug 2021

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One of the central issues that arise from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is the colonialist bias used to misrepresent the African race. Whilst Conrad was not himself accountable for the xenophobic westernised image of Africa, his story maintains the damaging stereotyping of native people. By painting them as bestialised, barbaric, primitive and uncivilised, he explores the black race through the lens of a hegemonic European representation; Conrad’s uses of myth and metaphor supported the colonial conquest of African people on the coloniser’s assumption that these people were racially inferior. Nevertheless, Conrad was writing at a time when the historical representation of Africans had always been a discourse of racism. Also, perhaps Conrad failed to appropriately depict Africans because he recognized little of their culture, having primarily spent time with white men during his 6 months at the African Congo. Moreover, by undermining imperial superiority and giving satanic references to the colonisers, one may contend he is similarly insulting towards the Europeans, and that his exaggerated racism seeks to ridicule “Europe’s civilising mission,” and expose the ingrained racist ideals of Victorian imperialists.

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Marlow, the central protagonist and narrator of Heart of Darkness, expresses old racist prejudices against the Africans: “They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you was the thought of their humanity – like yours…Ugly.” Not only does he deny the Africans a distinction of a name, he also rids them of normal human behaviour. Marlow belittles them with derogatory language, stressing that they mimic animalistic behaviour and have no methods of speech outside of “violent babble” and crude grunts. According to Chinua Achebe, these representations call the “very humanity of black people into question.” On the matter of communication, it is noteworthy that a small amount of English syllables are placed into the mouths of one or two Congolese Africans. It is in submitting to the hegemonic language of the coloniser that Conrad replaces native culture with his own, which he considers superior. It is this supposition of an advanced humanity which leads Achebe to brand Conrad a “through-going racist.”

Nonetheless, it can be argued that Marlow is a product of a fairly racist era in history; a period in which racist discourses remained structured by Empire to legitimize its political ideology of suppression over the Africans. Like his contemporaries, Conrad is writing at a time where it was acceptable to view Africans as the other, and by overusing the words “savage” and “nigger,” he conforms to the racist sentiments of the day. Consequently, his story which was published in the Blackwood magazine, targets the conservative politics of the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, Conrad mentions in his author’s note that his over exaggeration of the savage image had the “purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the reader.” This admittance of a distorted characteristic account of the natives may explain his savage depiction of them. He also uses these images to make the setting realistic, accentuating the novel’s grave themes of darkness, and fear of the unknown.

Being a victim of his time, Conrad’s portrayals of the African race also conform to the evolutionary trope of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. By painting Africans as the “prehistoric man,” and portraying Marlow’s voyage upriver as “travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world,” Conrad integrates the temporal evolutionary trope in Heart of Darkness; he suggests that Europeans are at a more superior position, since the Africans have not yet emerged from prehistory. His repeated animalistic images of the natives place Africans at the low end of the scale: “one of the creatures rose to his hands and knees and went off on all fours towards the river to drink.” Linking in with Darwinism science, Conrad reduces the Africans into a “subspecies between apes and Caucasians.” The African here is represented as a modern ancestor, an animal, a barely human body without intelligence. Consequently, he views the Africans as prehistoric evils in desperate need of European influence and evolution; an outlook which reaffirms him as the personification of colonialism. Darwin’s views which had become entrenched in society are used here by Marlow to provide the principal ideological support for imperialism.

Suggests that Europeans are at a more superior position, as opposed to the Africans since the latter has not yet emerged from prehistory

Though truthful, Marlow is a prejudiced man; he is the personification of colonialism.  Going into the Congo, Marlow views the natives as prehistoric evils in desperate need of white influence and civilization. Throughout the physical journey, Marlow is confronted with the natives time and time again, seeing them chained as slaves, living in a village and attacking his own steam boat. Marlow holds fast his prejudiced view of the natives, referring to them as savages or calling them by more derogatory terms such as “niggers.’

Through his exploration, he questions the humanity of Africans.

According to him this deliberate stylistic obfuscation merely aided to satisfy the racial sentiments of the day, and Conrad was only acting as the “purveyor of comforting myths” Counter argue – that he was a polish writer who had to show his mettle with the English language

However, in his authors note he writes how over exaggeration is used. Sombre theme given sinister resonance – perhaps explains the extreme savage image. It can also be said

Much of his animalistic language of the black race conforms to the evolutionary trope of Charles Darwin whose views became entrenched in society. African on all fours – like ants.

So for someone, who had little contact, he makes use of these derogatory stereotypes, and it can be said that he relies on these preconceived ideas and western baggage since they dominate his descriptions. Maintains, and justifies imperialism, and although he witnesses the horror of colonialism and suppression of the Africans, it is interesting to note his approval of efficient imperialist activity. However, his constant questioning of imperialist values, and the sham of it all, reveal his anti essentialist views. “slightly flatter noses.” This acknowledges that the black race is more or less equal to whites, barring a few inconsequential physical attributes.

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Kurtz on the other hand shows no remorse whatsoever. He holds the absolute essential view to exterminate all the blacks. He holds the ideology of making the black race extinct. He’s a ruthless ivory trader, and arranges for the dead heads to displayed on poles. The white race use crude violence, and brute force. Very occasionally the natives show resistance, but their left largely helpless against the overpowering military control of the Europeans. They have no authority or voice. The colonist’s have become corrupted. They are blinded by the notion that this is their sacred duty to uphold the superiority of the colonial empire and white heritage.

Through Marlow disapproval, he shows and exposes the Europeans, is equally deameaning, offensive, and undermines their superiority. “flabby white devils”.. Critiques immoral European behaviour. Transcends such prejudice, shows him to rise above racism. Ridicules benevolent project of civilisation. Uses an ambivalent tone to show the violent colonial enterprise. Kurtz the ultimate satanic, racist. Has the heart of darkness.

However if he is showing Africa to be the reason for the deterioration of the European man’s morale, it merely becomes a backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. They have become marginalised. This marginalisation shows further through Kurtz mistress. He is racist towards her, but not so to his white woman.

But it’s interesting, that Marlow does approve of efficient colonialism. Puts in a section of Brtish colonialism. It is almost with this preconceived mindset that Marlow almost succumbs to this same worst impulsive violent mindset (look at thinking lit answer – bold). Going further into self discovery and realises his own heart of darkness. Paints Africa as the heart of darkness, suggesting that its wilderness and wild inhabitants drive the Europeans to insanity and violence. Takes this stance to almost show how the Dark Continent is responsible for his behaviour, thus showing it to be the cause of Kurtz’s insanity. Almost blaming Africans that they hold out temptations. His racist sentiments continue throughout.

However, unlike the other colonists, Marlow does show some sympathy and admiration towards the natives; a viewpoint, emphasising his forward thinking mindset. Upon his very first encounter, he praises there vitality, muscles and seems entirely at peace with them. Gives the dying man a biscuit, and becomes friends with helman. Has a remote kinship with them as opposed to nothing with Europeans. Therefore it can be evaluated that he is just brainwashed by the politics of the time, but his contemplative nature, allows him to see through the cracks, and appreciate the African race. Later descriptions thus allow for readers to see the absurdity of racism. (Cedric Watts)


Although Marlow shows himself to be concerned with the heart of humankind, and the souls of individuals, the text emerged out of the very centre of racism and imperialism, therefore Marlow can be seen as merely replicating the colonial discourses available to him. Although he criticises the extreme brutal ness of Imperialism, he discourse is grounded in political, economic interest. He simply looks at Africa through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications. It can be said that Conrad just uses Marlow to confirm and consolidate the wildest fantasies of the African savages to his European readers. However in my opinion his racist exaggeration and imperialist critique, are used to show how absurd racism was.


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