Born in the Ukraine in 1857 as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to a Polish family, and son of a writer of patriotic tragedies, Joseph Conrad immigrated to Great Brittan at the age of 21 while pursuing a career as a merchant marine. After becoming a British subject, he officially changed his name. Conrad lived an adventurous life, having become involved in gunrunning, political conspiracy, and appeared to have had disastrous love affair. As a merchant marine, Conrad traveled to the Far East, central Africa, and other distant lands, where he had experiences that created the back drop for various novels including the novella Heart of Darkness. A childhood ambition of Conrad’s to visit central Africa was realized in 1889, when he became a captain of a Congo steamboat, and the atrocities he witnessed and his experiences gave creation to Heart of Darkness and became the defining point in his life in his formation of his understanding of human nature. It is this philosophy or judgment of the nature of man as it existed in the world of his day that have lead many critics to accuse Joseph Conrad of writing a racist novella when he wrote Heart of Darkness in 1899. (Wikipedia, Joseph Conrad) While these critics are correct, they do not realize that they are correct for the wrong reason.
One of the most famous criticisms of Heart of Darkness was given by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe at the second Chancellor’s Lecture at the University of Massachusetts in 1975. In Achebe’s essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he attacks Heart of Darkness as a racist novella accusing Conrad of failing to show Africans with human expression and depriving them of language. Achebe advanced his argument by quoting passages from Conrad’s personal writings, recalling the first encounter the Heart of Darknessauthor had with an African in his own life:”A certain enormo us buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterward.”Achebe concluded that “…Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting….” (Achebe, 6) What Achebe either fails to understand or has chosen to ignore in his attack upon Conrad are several common mistakes made by modern man reading the works of another time. “
“Within Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness the representation of indigenous Africans their society and culture can be construed as deplorably racist, yet it can be also be seen as a portrayal of European values of the era and an attack on colonization . . .” (Brett, 1) Just as Achebe is a product of the 1970’s, when racism and racial views grew to the forefront of the global human concise, so too was Conrad a product of his era of a British Imperial Empire for which it was said the “sun never set upon.” The English language, unlike its “dead” ancestor of Latin, is a living, breathing, and evolving language where the definition and connotation of words change over time. It was quite common for the authors of the time period in which Conrad wrote to use words such as nigger to define people of African descent, just as it was common to find the reference to Japo for Japanese, Injun for Native American, Chinaman for Chinese and so forth. The use of the word “nigger” to define the people of African descent can be seen in works of Charles W. Chestnut, an African American author of the Harlem Renaissance. Would Achebe accuse Chestnut of the same racism? Word’s connotation change over time due to their usage. The word “gay”, while used only a few decades ago to indicate the emotional state of happiness of a person, in the world of 2007 it references a sexual orientation or to degrade a position, action, or thought. With this in mind, a review of Conrad’s statements in his personal writing as well as his works of fiction can take on a different view. If the reader were to accept for a moment that that the use of the word “nigger” was a description of a man of color commonly used in Conrad’s era and not the racially charged word that it has evolved into, it is possible to change the quote Achebe used previously to read: “A certain enormous black man encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the black man I used to dream for years afterwards.”
This new reading of this quote transfers the racial view that Achebe proposed, which was Conrad believed that black men were a “blind, furious, unreasoning human animals” unto the human race instead.
Let the reader of Heart of Darkness step back from the modern world in which he lives and settle back into the late 19th century modernistic style of writing. Conrad’s main character Marlow, one of the European characters who have actual names, introduces Heart of Darkness as the character tries vainly to hold onto his European guaranteed identity as he parallel’s the heart of London, which was once the “Dark Frontier” of the Roman Empire with Africa as the “Dark Frontier” of the British Empire. Conrad’s character Marlow continues this description of Ancient Caledonia, or England as it is known in the modern day, foreshadowing the reader for what to expect when the story moves into the heart of the dark frontier of the British Empire. He further uses passages like the one above to paint the modern British Empire in the same strokes as the ancient Roman Empire. (Davies, 2)
However, unlike the Ancient Romans, Conrad only gives a few European’s names in this novella, which in itself is a symbolism of the true racist stance that the author is taking. With the exception of these characters, all of the European characters are given the titles of their careers as their given names, thus defining their whole existence, personality and self-being as the career that the character has chosen in life. This is a reflection upon the European cultural “sense” self-actualization by defining oneself by what a person does and not by whom they are. The first, as previously introduced is the main character Marlow. Marlow, while a British Merchant Marine, would more view himself as a citizen the world. He has broken out of the European paradox and created or is creating his own definition of self. He sees and treats the outside world differently from his European brethren. This difference in attitude can be seen in Marlow’s more disdained view of prisoner’s who are used to build the sewage system of the British Colony in the Congo, his warning caution for the indigenous population who are about to be run down by his steamboat and his observation the attitudes of the European settlers in the Congo going from “civilized” to “barbaric.” One such example is the description Marlow used: “The heavy pole had skinned his poor nose. He was anxious for me to kill somebody, but there wasn’t the shadow of a carrier near. I remembered the old doctor-‘it would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot.’ I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.” (Davies, 2)
The characters whom have been granted names that are outside of the their career defining roles have undergone a psychological journey of some nature in which they have been able to transcend the European paradox. The reader partakes in the physical and psychological journey of Marlow, as the charm of a snake and “in a similar way to the biblical ‘snake’ that offers knowledge.” (Davies, 2) We see through Marlow his growing disgust of the European civilization and while he makes his physical journey into the “heart of darkness” of the physical British Empire, he is truly making a psychological journey into the “heart of darkness” of his own conceived and accepted self being.
Social circumstances, the conditions the individual becomes attached to, are equally important as psychological factors in identity formation, creating a psychosocial hybrid nature. This has importance in Heart of Darkness through Conrad’s contrast of civilized and barbarian social models, and the effect one has upon the other. In a primitive identity society man lived in a society . . . in which his human needs and human gratification-his identity-were his major concern. While . . . in civilized survival societies most people most people have no identity and live in constant frustration because their need for involvement is not fulfilled.
It is this contrast of civilization with the primitive which Conrad uses as his backdrop for exploring the human self. The light of reason against the darkness of the primal good versus evil, through evil is bound up with truth and thus, we can assume, that the light is a lie. (Davies , 2)
Marlow is warned of the dangers he will face in his journey through the Congo. He greatest warning is the one given that states “The changes take place inside, you know.” (Davies, 3) But, it is this transformation that Conrad proposes as the undercurrent of his novella that proposes that it is the European who is stuck in his cultural paradox, whom does not make the inward journey into their own “heart of darkness” that are true barbarians in the humanistic sense of the word and are incapable of adapting to conditions outside of their ingrained European condition. Davies continues to describe this condition in his essay as he describes one of the few other characters who have been given a name: Certainly, the most involved case study for identity shift is Kurtz . . . In the condition of civilization we are led to believe that he had every opportunity available to him. . . . but the new conditions changed him. He found within himself a new identity that he did not allow to be restrained. (Davies, 3)
In the end, as in the end of Heart of Darkness it is the human search for the self-identity, the peering into and study of what Robert Lewis Stevenson once called our polar twins that determines whom we are. Racism in Heart of Darkness is engrained into the story, but unlike Chinua Achebe’s assertions that it is a racism against the African man, it is a racism against the accepted culture of the European (and thus western) man of the late 19th century, who is uneducated in their own self-discovery and accepting of the identity given to them by their culture. It is this paradox that continues into the early 21st century of western culture that Joseph Conrad warns against and considers in his writing to be the conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal.
Thank you for reading and please visit www.davidalanlucas.com for articles, blogs, poetry, and stories I write.
Achebe, Chinua, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness“, Massachusetts Review 18 (1977)
Brett, Ainsley, “Racism Within Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness‘: Examines Allegations of Racisim Towards Native Africans in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, http://www.literatureclassics.com/essays/1101/
Davies, Jeremy, “A Choice of Nightmares: The Nature of Identity in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’“, http://www.literatureclassics.com/essays/873/
Wikipedia, “Joseph Conrad”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Conrad