Heart of Darkness
The novella by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, deals with many issues. Many critics like to point out that the theme of the story is about light versus dark. Some like to say that this story is more about racism while others insist that it is indeed about imperialism and the author’s view (as manifested though the persona of Marlow) concerning this issue. As such, the main focus on this issue will be on the relevance of racial issues within the story, how this affects the views of the main character, Marlow, and how this mirrors the teachings of Charles Darwin and his theories on Social Darwinism.
To arrive at a better understanding of this point, it is important to first provide a brief insight into the situation the world, Africa, and Joseph Conrad was in during the time that he wrote this novella for it will provide the reader with an insight concerning the influences and societal ways of thinking in that given era.
Joseph Conrad was briefly assigned in the Belgian Congo in 1890. It was during this stretch in his life that he became influenced to do most of his writings including this novella, Heart of Darkness. This story shows the shock, physically and psychologically, that Conrad experienced in his life during his assignment in Africa.
In the early passages of the story Heart of Darkness, Conrad already begins to show his shock at the situation during that time. When Marlow narrates his view of the six Africans walking in single file each with a single iron collar around his neck, we begin to see the inhuman treatment of natives by the colonizers. In this passage (page 81 signet classic), the subjugation of the natives is clearly viewed in the painting of the images used by Conrad showing us an image of several slaves walking with iron collars around their necks and so malnourished that their ribs are sticking out, walking in what Conrad described as a “deathlike indifference of unhappy savages”, while a single white man with a rifle held them all in row. Marlow then begins to say how he could not call these men enemies by any stretch of the imagination. Through this single passage, Conrad through Marlow, is able to convey to the reader his initial shock and dismay at the situation of the colonies in Africa and how the white man came to conquer and not to civilize for the actions of the colonizers were in themselves more barbaric than the ways of the natives.
As we progress through the story we begin to encounter more and more of the dark images that Marlow narrates to us.
“Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.”
This passage, as told by Marlow, again reveals the shock of Conrad at the inhumanity of the treatment by the colonizers of the natives. The natives were treated like mere work animals. The colonizers had somehow lost track of their mission to civilize instead it became that they came to conquer, to rape the land, to remove whatever humanity the people had left in them. This passage is told by Marlow in certain darkness with only certain glimpses of light which create the atmosphere in which he reveals his disbelief at the reality of the situation of the colonizers in the African continent. As Marlow proceeds to describe what he sees in all its bold horror, we also see his compassion towards the African natives. He once again refuses to refer to them as neither criminals nor enemies. The dehumanization is what appalls Marlow. He begins to describe these people as only bearing semblance to some form of humanity, not in physical shape for what was left of them barely had semblance of human form, but instead the flicker of life left in them.
Towards the end of this passage, Marlow once again creates a sort of puzzling symbolism when he narrates and begins to describe his vision of a young man he offers biscuits to. He tells the reader of this white worsted tied around the neck of this young man. White choking black, “startling” as Marlow describes it. “round his black neck, this bit of white thread from beyond the seas.” A clear interpretation of this passage reveals once again his indifference towards colonialism. The white thread choking the African resembling the way the colonialists have treated the natives, white against black.
This compassion of Marlow for the natives raises a few questions however. Why did Marlow feel compassion when his fellows did not? Why did he not succumb to the human condition of greed as the others on that continent did?
Professor Lionel Trilling notes this and tries to explain it. He begins to answer these questions by placing an emphasis on the appeal of a so called uncivilized life to the over civilized modern man. Professor Trilling also exerts that the beauty of the primitive life is because it is just so ugly. The landscapes described in Heart of Darkness are awesomely grotesque but somehow draw the reader into it as light is drawn in the darkness of a black hole. Marlow is then drawn into this darkness of Africa thrilled and amazed by it and develops a certain compassion for the land and its natural inhabitants.
In comparison to the theories of Darwin, “”The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable- namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man. For, firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.” It is clear from this passage that Darwin clearly shares a common thought with Joseph Conrad, both of them agreeing that there was no need for man to subjugate each other. Darwin did not share the racism common at that time. He was strongly against slavery, against “ranking the so-called races of man as distinct species”, and against ill-treatment of native people (Wilkins 2008, pp. 408–413).
Upon his journey to the station of Mr. Kurtz, Marlow and his crew are attacked by natives. In this part of the story we can also see the indifference of Marlow towards the situation. As he hears the voices covered by the fog, he states that he hears no aggression, instead what he hears is the voice of people trying to protect themselves before he cut of by the sound of the pilgrims firing their Winchesters into the fog. Once again, Marlow reveals his indifference (which leans a bit towards compassion) for the natives. He does not see the natives as much as a threat as his other companions do, though some state that this was caused by his anticipation and dismay at being able to meet the famous Mr. Kurtz and at the realization that Mr. Kurtz might be dead. Nevertheless, Marlow is not as agitated by the attack of the natives as compared to his companions were by it.
As we encounter more passages, we see Marlow’s reaction towards Africa and the situation there and also his growing amazement at the heart of darkness there. This is only one side of it however, because as I mentioned earlier Marlow did not only not condone imperialism and its effects on humanity but he, to a certain extent, also licensed it.
In the part wherein Marlow begins to speak of the report made by Mr. Kurtz, Marlow shows his admiration for the writing and the content of the report made by Mr. Kurtz. Marlow described the report as eloquent and simply a beautiful piece of writing. Marlow was totally swayed by the words or Kurtz when Kurtz began saying that the natives must be approached as deities approach their followers. The western civilization must descend upon theses savages as supernatural beings. Through this we can also interpret that Conrad really viewed the white race as superior and did not totally condemn its acts of imperialism disguised by an act of trying to civilize the uncivilized. As Marlow continues with his praise of Mr. Kurtz’s work, he is once again drawn into the text and appealed to the end, “Exterminate all the brutes!”. Here once again is the indifference towards Imperialism showing no condemning but also no promotion of the act.
The character of Mr. Kurtz is a clear symbol of the message that Conrad wants to say. Mr. Kurtz is clearly an allegory of some sort, symbolizing the western man who has come to Africa to colonize and is transformed by the heart of darkness into the same. Similar to the teachings of Darwin on Social Change, we can see through the conversations between the different characters the brilliance of the character of Mr. Kurtz, and alas, also the madness that consumed him in the end, the horror of it all. Mr. Kurtz in his brilliance manifested all the light and superiority that western civilization embodied. He was its efficiency, its progress yet at the same time in the character of Mr. Kurtz we see the darkness of the west. Driven to madness in the Heart of Africa, Mr. Kurtz was the west gone mad and run amok in the wilderness.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” In Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Background and Sources, Criticism, 3rd ed. Edited by Robert Kimbrough. NY: W.W. Norton, 1988, 251-262.
Batchelor, John. The Life Of Joseph Conrad; A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994
Flieshman, Avrom. Conrad’s Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fiction of Jospeh Conrad. The John’s Hopkins Press, Baltimore Maryland, 1967
Karl, Frederick. A reader’s Guide to Joseph Conrad. The Noonday Press. New York. 1960
 Descent of Man, chapter 4 ISBN 1-57392-176-9