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"Heart of Darkness" a Racist Novella

Updated on June 10, 2020


“Heart of Darkness” is a novella by Joseph Conrad, which tours imperialism and racism. It is a controversial novel since the critics stay divided on whether the novella is a critique of colonialism or presents the perspective of the colonizers. Apparently “Heart of Darkness” seems to criticize the colonizers and their greed but upon deep reflection, the tinge of colonialist thinking can be unraveled. While describing the injustices meted out to the natives of Africa by the colonizers, the writer portrays the natives as untamed and uncivilized whereas the colonizers as prudent and civilized. According to Lois Tyson “colonialist ideology rests on the assumed superiority of colonizers over the indigenous people.” Colonizers believe that their culture is superior and highly developed as compared to the people they colonize, therefore they divide the entire human race into two sections “us” (civilized) and ‘them’ (savages). They deem that since they belong to a civilized nation so they have the duty to rectify every other nation that does not conform to their version of being civilized. This opposition and division are mirrored throughout the novella “Heart of Darkness”.


Civilized White People and Black Savages

In the novel, Conrad portrays the image of Africa as the antithesis of Europe therefore civilization and Africans as uncivilized brutes who need to be taught propriety. The novel accentuates the cruelty of the Colonists but also seems to justify it by portraying Africa as a dangerous and uncultured country. In the novel when Marlowe journeys towards the inner station, he claims “going up the river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world”. This sentence reveals the colonialist mindset of the British who believed that Africa is underdeveloped and unkempt therefore Britain is on a mission to civilize the natives and develop the country. Conrad has tried to paint Africa as a country where people cannot stay on the right path because the darkness and the wilderness of the place take hold of the otherwise civilized Europeans. Kurtz has been painted as a greedy and cruel colonizer but the blame of him being bad is given to the place and not the person himself, according to the novel it was due to Congo’s inherent darkness that otherwise good fellows go rogue once they step in Africa, “how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own”, in these lines author is conveying that darkness overpower Kurtz and he forgoes of his civility. Marlow can be seen struggling with the outer darkness trying to get hold of him, he keeps telling himself “try to be civil Marlowe”. Africa has been sketched as a bewitching place which makes one forget his morals “you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had once known”. The doctor whom Marlow meets before venturing on his journey to the Congo River was the first to warn him that the land changes people “changes take place inside, you know”, this hints at the evilness of the place which changes people for the worst. Throughout the novel the narrator has called Africa “the darkness” and the inner station as “the heart of darkness”, “the brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness”, using the metaphor “darkness” for Africa, establishes Africa as an evil place which needs to be developed in order to make it suitable to sustain life. This presumed darkness of Africa seems to be in stark contrast with the word “light” used for colonization.

The horror! The horror!

— Joseph Conrad

The parallelism Between River Thames and River Congo

The description of the two rivers in the novel “River Thames” and “River Congo”, highlights that England is a civilized and developed country whereas in comparison Africa is death and darkness. River Thames is situated in London, the author describes it as “the water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light, the very mist on Essex marsh was radiant”, this description with words like “light”, “radiant” and “benign”, paints a picture that England is a place where humans and humanity thrives, and the people of England are superior to others because they are knowledgeable and sophisticated. The author describes Congo River as dark and gloomy, “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled”, through the comparison between the river and the snake, the author conveys that Congo River is deceptive and dangerous, for Marlow Thames is the epitome of “light” whereas Congo is the epitome of darkness. In the novel when Marlow describes England he uses words that have a positive connotation, for instance, he says “it was the furthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me- and into my thoughts”, this quote describes Marlow’s thoughts when he was in England, and Marlow describes Congo in negative words for instance “that was only a savage sight, I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless of subtle horrors”, these two quotes create a contrast between Europe and Africa, former has been portrayed as the land of civilization and light whereas the latter has been portrayed as a place with no culture and civilization. Through these contrasting images, the writer is sparking up a good image of Europe and a bad image of Africa in the minds of the readers.


Many Images described in the novel paint the natives as senseless and uncivilized people, when the narrator Marlow encounters some black slaves, he describes them like one would describe an animal “ one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went on all fours towards the river to drink water”, these lines portray the natives of Africa as not humans but animals since they are depicted as ignorant of even how humans walk, the use of word ‘creature’ for the natives also reflects that natives were not normal humans so they should not be treated like normal people. Another instance in the novel that mirrors colonialist or British supremacy over the natives is when Marlow during his journey encounters cannibals, the natives are deliberately portrayed as man-eaters to cast doubt upon their humanness, “Catch him”, he snapped with bloodshot eyes, “give him to us”, I asked “what would you do with them?”, “eat them”, these lies further the colonialist perspective and widens the assumed differences between colonizers and the colonized. The author creates animal imagery when he describes the people of Africa for example when Marlow narrates his encounter with the black workers he says “many people, mostly black and naked, moved like ants”, the nakedness builds a narrative that Africans are not humans, they have nothing in common with humans so everything that the colonizers did to them is justified. The image of the accountant furnishes a stark contrast to the images of the naked, animal-like natives, Marlow describes the attire of the accountant as “highly starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, a clear necktie, and varnished boots”, this attire seems to belong to a respectable and civilized human, who knows how to cover himself, whereas the natives roam around naked like animals so they must be treated like animals. Conrad has depicted the Africans with all the negative words to dehumanize them to establish British supremacy over the natives. Analysis of vocabulary plays a major role in unveiling the author’s ulterior motives. The use of unsavory words like “savages”, “cannibals”, “creatures” and “phantoms” to describe the natives of Africa whereas using the words “civilized’, “captain” and “manager” for the colonizers, convey an ideology that the natives are like animals, they have no link with humanity whereas the colonizers are presented as professionals and civilized humans. The author points out that the people of Africa lack their own history and culture “they belonged to the beginning of time and had not inherited experience to teach them”, through these lines the author is again depicting the people of Africa as being primitive and illiterate, and since they have no culture of their own, they are unable to teach themselves so this heavenly duty was taken up by the British, “I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you”.


It can be concluded that the author has depicted, Africa as a land of darkness that has the power to destroy and corrupt humans and Africans as people who have no culture and education, they are wild like nature and animals. This image of Africa and Africans is in stark contrast or opposition with the portrayal of Europeans as a civilized and enlightened community. The images produced in this novel seem to justify colonization and perpetuate racism. The novella "Heart of Darkness" has been read as a critique of colonialism by masses for decades but through critical reading, the truth that the novel is instead a racist novella that projects Africans as savages and Africa as an uncultured place, comes to light.


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