Heart of Darkness (Ignorance and Racism)


Ignorance and Racism

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