Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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An essay on the "Othering" of Africa with reference
to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness .

Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in 1902, in a period of dominant racist discourses. To avoid offending readers, any critique of colonialism had to be subtle. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness reproduces dominant turn-of-the-twentieth-century values, discourses and prejudices, in order to expose and tackle colonialist motives and justifications.

Suppressed animal instincts

The fear of suppressed animal instincts is a prominent theme in Heart of Darkness . For the character of Marlow, it is a primitive closeness to the animal kingdom that separates the “civilized” men from the “savages.” This is characterized by “a lack of restraint [ . . . ] that is, pejoratively – the mark of a savage” (Daleski 59). He expresses this idea early in the novella:
[He could] feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him, - all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. (Conrad 19-20)
Here Conrad uses abstract language, which takes the reader “away from the ‘story’ and forces us to consider rather large scale social reflections on life” (Johnson 146). Given the eventual fate of the character of Kurtz, who falls victim to this “savagery”; and the “fascination of the abomination” (Conrad 20); Heart of Darkness represents this darker side of human nature as lurking also in “civilized” men, and their inability to confront it honestly. This technique highlights the colonial “psychology of blaming the victim through which Europeans projected many of their own darkest impulses onto Africans” (Brantlinger 198).

The Romans

Early in Heart of Darkness, Marlow talks about the Romans invading Britain, portraying the Romans as civilizers and bringers of light, to the dark continent of Britain. This is not unusual, as Micheal Grant asks: “was it too much to expect that the classically trained British would not equate Salamis and Plataea with Trafalgar and Waterloo, and the Pax Romana with their own nineteenth-century empire?” (Grant 17). Though Marlow takes it further, suggesting that
They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising form the weakness of others. (Conrad 20)
This implies that the Romans were working from the principle of the “survival of the fittest,” and “law of the jungle.” Conrad uses Socratic irony to exaggerate and exploit the English habit of comparing their empire to the Romans’ empire, in order to criticize the colonial practices of Britain. The weakness of Marlow’s viewpoint relates back to Marlow’s equivalency of animal instincts to savagery. The frame-narrator describes Marlow as “a Buddha preaching in European clothes” (Conrad 20), which may remind the reader of the phrase, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The wolf image has been inextricably linked with Rome since the birth of the traditional myth that “Rome was founded in 754 BC by twin boys, Romulus and Remus, who were abandoned by their parents but suckled by a she-wolf” (Scarre 12). This animal is a totemic ancestress of Roman matrilineal descent (Goldman 166), and hence a symbol of the darkness/animal instincts which the Romans brought with them to Britain. This subversive element underscores the “greatness” of the two empires by implying that neither the Roman empire-building nor the European colonization in Africa brought any kind of light to the more “primitive” people.

Those who sought to bring light

The portrayal of the colonizers in Heart of Darkness is of people who create darkness where they sought to bring light. The very title Heart of Darkness could be seen as satirizing missionary accounts of travels that were published in the same period with titles such as Daybreak in the Dark Continent and Dawn in the Dark Continent (Crang 71). Mike Crang asserts that “it is the accounts of the West bringing light, civilizing Africa, the accounts of missionaries flooding the continent with the light of reason and Christianity that paint Africa so dark” (Crang 71). This seems to be similar to what Conrad is implying about the colonial ideology and metaphor. Marlow’s Roman conquerors who were “going at it blind” (Conrad 20), brought with them their own darkness (Daleski 60). The sketch Kurtz painted of the blindfolded Astraea moving into the darkness with a torch which does not spread light, but illuminates her own blindness and hence darkness (Conrad 46-47) implies that the Europeans project their own darkness onto the Africans in the process of “othering” the continent and its people. This is clearer when Marlow is talking about the maps of his childhood.
True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. [ . . . ] It had become a place of darkness. (Conrad 22)
Conrad attacks the dominant attitude of the time that Africa was a place of darkness in itself, and suggests that the darkness had more to do with the white colonizers, and their conduct in Africa.

The Underlying Motives

Conrad uses the interaction between Marlow and the frame-narrator to expose and question the underlying motives behind the colonialist ideologies. The frame-narrator represents the dominant attitude of the time, that “colonizers are civilizers, the bearers of a light that is kindled by ‘a spark from the sacred fire’” (Dalenski 59). Marlow does not attack the view outright, instead suggesting that the Romans “grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got” (Conrad 20). Through this, he suggests that greed is the over-arching motivator for the colonists in Africa, as greed for ivory is the motivation for Kurtz. The cancelled passage that continued “but at any rate they had no pretty fictions about it” (Introduction Heart of Darkness ) could be seen as a direct attack on the dishonest, cover-narratives about civilizing and bringing light to Africa when material gain is the real motive.

Although the critique of colonial motives and justifications makes Heart of Darkness a progressive text for its time, the themes of racial superiority can be difficult for a contemporary reader to look beyond. This, added to the subtle irony and methods of critique, allows room for diverse alternative readings of the novella.

Works Consulted:

Blond, Anthony. A Scandalous History of the Roman Emperors. 2000 edition. London: Robinson, 1994.

Brantlinger, P. “Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent”. Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 166-203.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

Crang, Mike. Cultural Geography. London: Routledge, 1998.

Daleski, H. M. Joseph Conrad: The Way of Dispossession. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1976.

Goldman, Jane. The X-Files™ Book of the Unexplained. Based on the series created by Chris Carter. London: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Grant, Michael ed. Greece and Rome: The Birth of Western Civilization. 1986 edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 1964.

Johnson, Roy. Studying Fiction: A Guide and Study Programme. Manchester: Manchester U P, 1992.

Russell, W. M. S., and Claire Russell. “The Social Biology of Totenism.” Biology and Human Affairs 41 (1976).

Scarre, Chris. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. London: Penguin, 1995.

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