No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerety. He struggled with himself too. I saw it – I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.
The Wikipedia page for The Heart of Darkness notes that the novella was criticized for being racist. Having read the book, I cannot say for sure why this should be so. This is made difficult because HoD is a story-within-a-story. Thus, when African natives laboring in the ivory trade are referred to by the derogatory term “niggers”, it is a term used not directly by Conrad but by Marlow, the narrator of the story. On most ocassions, Marlow’s reaction to the suffering of the natives is one of mild irritation and disdain. From this, one could make the case that Marlow was racist. This is still difficult to accept. It is much easier to accept that Marlow – and all the characters in the book – belong to the colonial period, which, apart from the trade-related expansions, was characterized by the white colonizer’s superiority over his coloured subjects. Thus Marlow is about as guilty as the rest of the colonizers.
To say that Conrad is a “bloody racist” would need much stronger justification and I would like to read further about why Chinua Achebe made just such a claim. I could guess at the reasons though, based on my reading. Marlow explains at one point in the book that the white officers sent to manage the stations of the ivory trade usually did not hold up very well. In the story, one realizes that, even with steamers to navigate the upper reaches of the river, even with all the innovations that the colonizers can muster, they have no answer to the pervasive darkness of the African continent. Whether Conrad meant the darkness to signify the unknown, or to suggest that the continent was – by nature – impervious to civilisation, is unclear. The latter suggestion, if Conrad indeed meant it that way, can be used, to legitimately fire the “racist” accusation at him. But Achebe, according to the Wikipedia note, seems to have objected to the dehumanization of the African people in the book. This, I think, is not reason enough to label the book as racist, considering that the atrocities and the subhuman treatment of natives really happened.
The unremitting gloom of HoD derives from Conrad’s own experiences in the Belgian Congo, from which he returned in 1894, phycially and mentally ill. But it is not a book about racism, or colonialism, these being characteristics of the period in which Marlow’s story is based. It is, essentially, a book about greed and corruption of the individual. The passionate Mr. Kurtz has become famous throughout the trading company for his growing power among the ivory traders. His greed and his power have grown in concert till he commands a small fiefdom in the wild. Kurtz is portrayed as a brilliant man who comes face to face with his potential for cruelty – and yields to it, becoming uncivilized and wild in his passion for power, mirroring the untamed forest that he lords over. The book is an indictment against the lack of restraint, as evidenced by the human heads that stand on the fence posts outside Kurtz’s station. What I liked about it is that, in spite of the grim tone, it reminds the reader repeatedly that Kurtz was a “remarkable” specimen. Conrad warns that people who are talented and passionate – remarkable in some way – ought to guard against the excesses of their imagination. This message, conveyed stridently through Marlow’s exasperated admiration for Kurtz, is probably the only thing with some clarity in the otherwise murky gloom that is the Heart of Darkness.
I cannot claim to have liked the book, though it never became less than interesting – its nebulous prose does not induce any kind of reading urgency; its characters are not lovable, and the narrator seems at once eager to describe the situations and reluctant to explain them. Judging by the astonishing clarity of some few sentences though, one is tempted to think that Conrad wrote intentionally in this vague way – perhaps to connect it with the unknown gloom of the forest and the dark misguided passions of Mr. Kurtz.
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