Heart of Darkness: Ignorance and Racism

David Yu


Joseph Conrad develops themes of personal power, individual
responsibility, and social justice in his book Heart of Darkness. His book has
all the trappings of the conventional adventure tale - mystery, exotic setting,
escape, suspense, 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 criticisim differ, are a few to name.
Normal readers usually are good at detecting racism in a book. Achebe
acknowledges Conrad camouflaged racism remarks, saying, "But Conrad chose his
subject well - one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with
psychological pre-disposition..." (Achebe, 253). Having gone back and
rereading Heart of Darkness, but this time reading between the lines, I have
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 back in the eighteen hundreds society conformed to it.
Conrad probably would have been criticized as being soft hearted rather than a
racist back 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 in ordinate 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). Marlow felt pity toward the
natives, yet when he met the station\'s book keeper he changed his views of the
natives. "Moreover I respected the fellow. Yes. I respected his collars, his
vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly great
demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance" (Conrad 21). Marlow
praised the book keeper as if he felt it\'s the natives\' fault for living in
such waste. the bureaucracy only cared about how he looked and felt. The
bookeeper did not care for the natives who were suffering less than fifty feet
from him. He stated the natives weren\'t criminals but were being treated as if
they were, but at the same time he respected the book keeper on his looks
instead of despising him for his indifference. Conrad considered the Africans
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, "To tell you the truth, I was morbidity 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