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Blackandwhite photograph of a river running through a jungle

The Trouble with “Heart of Darkness”

critics comments on heart of darkness

By David Denby

“Who here comes from a savage race?” Professor James Shapiro shouted at his students.

“We all come from Africa,” said the one African-American in the class, whom I’ll call Henry, calmly referring to the supposition among most anthropologists that human life originated in sub-Saharan Africa. What Henry was saying was that there are no racial hierarchies among peoples—that we’re all “savages.”

Shapiro smiled. It was not, I thought, exactly the answer he had been looking for, but it was a good answer. Then he was off again. “Are you natural?” he roared at a girl sitting near his end of the seminar table. “What are the constraints for you? What are the rivets? Why are you here getting civilized, reading Lit Hum?”

It was the end of the academic year, and the mood had grown agitated, burdened, portentous. In short, we were reading Joseph Conrad, the final author in Columbia’s Literature Humanities (or Lit Hum) course, one of the two famous “great books” courses that have long been required of all Columbia College undergraduates. Both Lit Hum and the other course, Contemporary Civilization, are devoted to the much ridiculed “narrative” of Western culture, the list of classics, which, in the case of Lit Hum, begins with Homer and ends, chronologically speaking, with Virginia Woolf. I was spending the year reading the same books and sitting in on the Lit Hum classes, which were taught entirely in sections; there were no lectures. At the end of the year, the individual instructors were allotted a week for a free choice. Some teachers chose works by Dostoyevski or Mann or Gide or Borges. Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar from the Department of English and Comparative Literature (his book “Shakespeare and the Jews” will be published by Columbia University Press in January), chose Conrad.

The terms of Shapiro’s rhetorical questions—savagery, civilization, constraints, rivets—were drawn from Conrad’s great novella of colonial depredation, “Heart of Darkness,” and the students, almost all of them freshmen, were electrified. Almost a hundred years old, and familiar to generations of readers, Conrad’s little book has lost none of its power to amaze and appall: it remains, in many places, an essential starting point for discussions of modernism, imperialism, the hypocrisies and glories of the West, and the ambiguities of “civilization.” Critics by the dozen have subjected it to symbolic, mythological, and psychoanalytic interpretation; T. S. Eliot used a line from it as an epigraph for “The Hollow Men,” and Hemingway and Faulkner were much impressed by it, as were Orson Welles and Francis Ford Coppola, who employed it as the ground plan for his despairing epic of Americans in Vietnam, “Apocalypse Now.”

In recent years, however, Conrad—and particularly “Heart of Darkness”—has fallen under a cloud of suspicion in the academy. In the curious language of the tribe, the book has become “a site of contestation.” After all, Conrad offered a nineteenth-century European’s view of Africans as primitive. He attacked Belgian imperialism and in the same breath seemed to praise the British variety. In 1975, the distinguished Nigerian novelist and essayist Chinua Achebe assailed “Heart of Darkness” as racist and called for its elimination from the canon of Western classics. And recently Edward W. Said, one of the most famous critics and scholars at Columbia today, has been raising hostile and undermining questions about it. Certainly Said is no breaker of canons. But if Conrad were somehow discredited, one could hardly imagine a more successful challenge to what the academic left has repeatedly deplored as the “hegemonic discourse” of the classic Western texts. There is also the inescapable question of justice to Conrad himself.

Written in a little more than two months, the last of 1898 and the first of 1899, “Heart of Darkness” is both the story of a journey and a kind of morbid fairy tale. Marlow, Conrad’s narrator and familiar alter ego, a British merchant seaman of the eighteen-nineties, travels up the Congo in the service of a rapacious Belgian trading company, hoping to retrieve the company’s brilliant representative and ivory trader, Mr. Kurtz, who has mysteriously grown silent. The great Mr. Kurtz! In Africa, everyone gossips about him, envies him, and, with rare exception, loathes him. The flower of European civilization (“all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”), exemplar of light and compassion, journalist, artist, humanist, Kurtz has gone way upriver and at times well into the jungle, abandoning himself to certain . . . practices. Rifle in hand, he has set himself up as god or devil in ascendancy over the Africans. Conrad is notoriously vague about what Kurtz actually does, but if you said “kills some people, has sex with others, steals all the ivory,” you would not, I believe, be far wrong. In Kurtz, the alleged benevolence of colonialism has flowered into criminality. Marlow’s voyage from Europe to Africa and then upriver to Kurtz’s Inner Station is a revelation of the squalors and disasters of the colonial “mission”; it is also, in Marlow’s mind, a journey back to the beginning of creation, when nature reigned exuberant and unrestrained, and a trip figuratively down as well, through the levels of the self to repressed and unlawful desires. At death’s door, Marlow and Kurtz find each other.

Rereading a work of literature is often a shock, an encounter with an earlier self that has been revised, and I found that I was initially discomforted, as I had not been in the past, by the famous manner—the magnificent, alarmed, and (there is no other word) throbbing excitement of Conrad’s laboriously mastered English. Conrad was born in czarist-occupied Poland; though he heard English spoken as a boy (and his father translated Shakespeare), it was his third language, and his prose, now and then, betrays the propensity for high intellectual melodrama and rhymed abstraction (“the fascination of the abomination”) characteristic of his second language, French. Oh, inexorable, unutterable, unspeakable! The great British critic F. R. Leavis, who loved Conrad, ridiculed such sentences as “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” The sound, Leavis thought, was an overwrought, thrilled embrace of strangeness. (In Max Beerbohm’s parody: “Silence, the silence murmurous and unquiet of a tropical night, brooded over the hut that, baked through by the sun, sweated a vapour beneath the cynical light of the stars. . . . Within the hut the form of the white man, corpulent and pale, was covered with a mosquito-net that was itself illusory like everything else, only more so.”)

Read in isolation, some of Conrad’s sentences are certainly a howl, but one reads them in isolation only in criticism like Leavis’s or Achebe’s. Reading the tale straight through, I lost my discomfort after twenty pages or so and fell hopelessly under Conrad’s spell; thereafter, even his most heavily freighted constructions dropped into place, summing up the many specific matters that had come before. Marlow speaks:

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands. You lost your way on that river as you would in a desert and butted all day long against shoals trying to find the challenge till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants and water and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”

In one sense, the writing now seemed close to the movies: it revelled in sensation and atmosphere, in extreme acts and grotesque violence (however indirectly presented), in shivering enigmas and richly phrased premonitions and frights. In other ways, though, “Heart of Darkness” was modernism at its most intellectually bracing, with tonalities, entirely contemporary and distanced, that I had failed to notice when I was younger—immense pride and immense contempt; a mood of barely contained revolt; and sardonic humor that verged on malevolence:

“I don’t pretend to say that steamboat floated all the time. More than once she had to wade for a bit, with twenty cannibals splashing around and pushing. We had enlisted some of these crew. Fine fellows—cannibals—in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face: they had brought along a provision of chaps on the way for a hippo-meat which went rotten and made the mystery of the wilderness stink in my nostrils. Phoo! I can sniff it now. I had the Manager on board and three or four pilgrims [white traders] with their staves—all complete. Sometimes we came upon a station close by the bank clinging to the skirts of the unknown, and the white men rushing out of a tumble-down hovel with great gestures of joy and surprise and welcome seemed very strange, had the appearance of being held there captive by a spell. The word ‘ivory’ would ring in the air for a while—and on we went again into the silence, along empty reaches, round the still bends, between the high walls of our winding way, reverberating in hollow claps the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel.”

Out of sight of their countrymen back home, who continue to cloak the colonial mission in the language of Christian charity and improvement, the “pilgrims” have become rapacious and cruel. The cannibals eating hippo meat practice restraint; the Europeans do not. That was the point of Shapiro’s taunting initial sally: “savagery” is inherent in all of us, including the most “civilized,” for we live, according to Conrad, in a brief interlude between innumerable centuries of darkness and the darkness yet to come. Only the rivets, desperately needed to repair Marlow’s pathetic steamboat, offer stability—the rivets and the ship itself and the codes of seamanship and duty are all that hold life together in a time of moral anarchy. Marlow, meeting Kurtz at last, despises him for letting go—and at the same time, with breathtaking ambivalence, admires him for going all the way to the bottom of his soul and discovering there, at the point of death, a judgment of his own life. It is perhaps the most famous death scene written since Shakespeare:

“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
“ ‘The horror! The horror!’ ”

Much dispute and occasional merriment have long attended the question of what, exactly, Kurtz means by the melodramatic exclamation “The horror!” But surely one of the things he means is his long revelling in “abominations”—is own internal collapse. Shapiro’s opening questions set up a reading of the novella that interrogated the Western civilization of which Kurtz is the supreme representative and of which the students, in their youthful way, were representatives as well.

When Shapiro asked the class why they thought he had chosen “Heart of Darkness,” hands were going up before he had finished his question.

“You chose it because the whole core curriculum is embodied in Kurtz,” said Henry, who had answered Shapiro’s earlier question. “We embody this knowledge, and the book asks, Do we fall into the void—do we drown or come out with a stronger sense of self?”

Henry had turned the book into a test of the course and of himself. Conrad had great personal significance for him, which didn’t surprise me. An African-American from Baltimore, Henry, in his sophomore year at Columbia, had evolved into a fervent Nietzschean, and, though Conrad claimed to dislike Nietzsche, this was a Nietzschean text. The meaning of Henry’s life—his personal myth—required (he had said it in class many times) challenge, struggle, and self-transcendence. He was tall and strong, with a flattop “wedge” haircut and a loud, excited voice. Some months after this class, he got himself not tattooed but branded with the insignia of his black Columbia fraternity—an act of excruciating irony unavailable to members of the master race. Kurtz, however horrifying, was an exemplar for him as for Conrad’s hero, Marlow.

A freshman of Chinese descent from Singapore, who was largely reared on British and Continental literature, also saw the book as a test for Western civilization. But, unlike Henry, she hated the abyss. Kurtz was a seduced man, a portent of disintegration. “Can we deal with the knowledge we are seeking?” she asked. “Or will we say, with Kurtz, ‘The horror’?” For her, Kurtz’s outburst was an admission of the failure of knowledge.

And many others made similar remarks, All of a sudden, at the end of the course, the students were quite willing to see their year of education in Western classics as problematic. Their reading of “the great books” could be affirmed only if it was simultaneously questioned. No doubt Shapiro’s rhetorical questions had shaped their responses, but still their intensity surprised me.

“The book is a kind of test,” said a student from the Washington, D.C., area, who was normally a polite, bland schoolboy type. “Does its existence redeem the male hegemonic line of culture? Does it redeem education in this tradition?” By which I believe that he also meant to ask, “Could the existence of such a book redeem the crimes of imperialism?” That, at any rate, was my question.

The students were in good form, bold and free, and as the class went on they expounded certain points in the text, some of them holding the little paperback in their hands like preachers before the faithful. All year long, Shapiro had struggled to get them to read aloud, and with some emotional commitment to the words. And all too often they had droned, as if they were reading from a computer manual. But now they read aloud spontaneously, and their voices were alive, even ringing.

“For this course, it’s a kind of summing up, isn’t it?” Shapiro said. “We began with the journey to Troy.”

“It has a resemblance to all the journeys through Hell we’ve read,” said a student I will call Alex, a thin, ascetic-looking boy, the son of a professor. He cited the voyages to the underworld in the Odyssey and the Aeneid, and he cited Dante, whom Conrad, in one of his greatest moments, obviously had in mind. Marlow arrives at one of the trading company’s stations, a disastrous ramshackle settlement of wrecked machinery and rusting rails, and there encounters, under the trees, dozens of exhausted African workers who have been left to die. “It seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno,” he says.

“They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air—and nearly as thin. I began to distinguish the gleam of the eyes under the trees. Then glancing down I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs which died out slowly. The man seemed young—almost a boy—but you know with them it’s hard to tell. I found nothing else to do but to offer him one of my good Swede’s ship’s biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers closed slowly on it and held—there was no other movement and no other glance. He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neck—Why? Where did he get it. Was it a badge—an ornament—a charm—a propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it. It looked startling round his black neck this bit of white thread from beyond the seas.
“Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing in an intolerable and appalling manner. His brother phantom rested its forehead as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.”

Despite the last sentence, which links the grove of death to ancient and medieval catastrophes, there is a sense here, as many readers have said, of something unprecedented in horror, something new on earth—what later became known as genocide. It is one of Conrad’s bitter ironies that at least some of the Europeans forcing the Congolese into labor are “liberals” devoted to the “suppression of savage customs.” What they had perpetrated in the Congo was not, perhaps, planned slaughter, but it was a slaughter nonetheless, and some of the students, pointing to the passage, were abashed. Western man had done this. We had created an Inferno on earth. “Heart of Darkness,” written at the end of the nineteenth century, resonates unhappily throughout the twentieth. Marlow’s shock, his amazement before the sheer strangeness of the ravaged human forms, anticipates what the Allied liberators of the concentration camps felt in 1945. The answer to the question “Does the book redeem the West?” was clear enough: No book can provide expiation for any culture. But if some crimes are irredeemable, a frank acknowledgment of the crime might lead to a partial remission of sin. Conrad had written such an acknowledgment.

That was the heart of the liberal reading, and Shapiro’s students rose to it willingly, gravely, ardently—and then, all of a sudden, the class fell into an acrimonious dispute. Alex was not happy with the way Shapiro and the other students were talking about Kurtz and the moral self-judgment of the West. He thought it was glib. He couldn’t see the book in apocalyptic terms. Kurtz was a criminal, an isolated figure. He was not representative of the West or of anything else. “Why is this a critique of the West?” he demanded. “No culture celebrates men like Kurtz. No culture condones what he did.” There was general protest, even a few laughs. “O.K.,” he said, yielding a bit. “It can be read as a critique of the West, but not only of the West.”

From my corner of the room, I took a hard look at him. He was as tight as a drum, dry, a little supercilious. Kurtz had nothing to do with him —that was his unmistakable attitude. He denied the connection that the other students acknowledged. He was cut off in some way, withholding himself. Yet I knew this student. I had seen him only in class, but there was something familiar in him that irked me, though exactly what it was I couldn’t say. Why was he so dense? The other students were not claiming personal responsibility for imperialism or luxuriating in guilt. They were merely admitting participation in an “advanced” civilization that could lose its moral bearings.

Henry, leaning back in his chair—against the wall, behind Alex, who sat at the table—insisted on an existential reading. “Kurtz is an Everyman figure,” he said. “He gets down to the soul, below the layers of parents, religion, society.”

Alex hotly disagreed. They were talking past each other, offering different angles of approach, but there was an edge to their voices which suggested an animus that went beyond mere disagreement. There was an awkward pause, and some of the students stirred uneasily. I had never seen these two quarrel in the past, and what they said presented no grounds for anger, but when each repeated his position, anger filled the room. Shapiro tried to calm things down, and the other students looked at one another in wonder and alarm. The argument between Alex and Henry wasn’t about race, yet race unmistakably hovered over it. In a tangent, Henry brought up the way Conrad, reflecting European assumptions of his time, portrayed the Africans as wild and primitive. He started to make a case similar to Achebe’s (whose hostile essay is included in the current Norton Critical Edition of the text), then stopped in midsentence, abruptly abandoning his position. In our class on “King Lear” and at other times over the past several months, he had argued explicitly as a black man. But at that moment he wasn’t interested. A greater urgency overcame him—not the racial but the existential issue, his own pressing need for identification not just as an African-American but as an embattled man. “Good and evil are conventions,” he said. “They collapse under stress.” And this, he insisted, was true for everyone.

“The book is also about the difference between good and evil,” Alex retorted. “Everyone judges Kurtz.” But this is not correct. Marlow judges Kurtz; Conrad judges Kurtz. But back in Brussels he is mourned as an apostle of enlightenment.

I looked a little closer. Alex was like the fabled “wicked son” in the Passover celebration, the one who says to the others “Why is this important to you ?”—denying a personal connection with an event of mesmerizing significance. I knew him, all right. A pale, narrow face, a bony nose surmounted by glasses, a paucity of flesh, a general air of asexual arrogance. He was very bright and very young. Of all the students in Shapiro’s class, he was—I saw it now—the closest to what I had been at eighteen or nineteen. He was incomparably more self-assured and articulate, but I recognized him all too well. And I was startled. The middle-aged reader, uneasy with earlier versions of himself, little expects his simulacrum to rise up as a walking ghost.

Henry sat sheathed in a green turtleneck sweater, dark glasses, and a baseball cap; I couldn’t see his expression. But Shapiro’s was clear: he was not happy. He had perhaps gone a little too far with his rhetorical questions, striking sparks that threatened to turn into a conflagration, and he quickly moved the conversation in a different direction, getting the students to explicate Conrad’s use of the word “darkness.” Conrad lets us know that even England—where Marlow sits, telling his story—used to be one of the dark places of the earth. For a while, teacher and students explicated the text in a neutral way. All year long, Shapiro had gone back and forth between analyzing the structure and language of the books and attacking the students’ complacencies with rhetorical questions. But sober analysis wasn’t what he wanted, not of this text, and he soon returned to the complicity of the West, and even the Western universities, in a policy that King Leopold II of the Belgians—the man responsible for some of the worst atrocities of colonial Africa—always referred to as noble and self-sacrificing.

“How else would you guys be civilized except for ‘the noble cause’?” Shapiro said. “You guys are all products of the noble cause. Columbia’s motto, translated from the Latin, is ‘In Thy light shall we see light.’ That’s the light that is supposed to penetrate the heart of darkness, isn’t it?”

“But enlightenment comes only by way of darkness,” said Henry, still at it, and Alex demurred angrily again—no darkness for him—and for a terrible moment I thought they were actually going to come to blows. The women in the class, who for the most part had been silent during these exchanges, were appalled and afterward muttered angrily, “It’s a boy thing, macho showing off. ‘Who’s the biggest intellectual?’ ” True, but maybe it was also a race thing. Though Shapiro restored order, something had broken, and the class, which had begun so well, with everyone joining in and expounding, had come unriveted.

Is “Heart of Darkness” a depraved book? The following is one of the passages Chinua Achebe deplores as racist:

“We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly as we struggled round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of and clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories.
“The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly and the men were . . . No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.”

Achebe believes that “Heart of Darkness” is an example of the Western habit of setting up Africa “as a foil to Europe, a place of negations . . . in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.” Conrad, obsessed with the black skin of Africans, had as his real purpose the desire to comfort Europeans in their sense of superiority: “ ‘Heart of Darkness’ projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” Achebe dismisses the grove-of-death passage and others like it as “bleeding-heart sentiments,” mere decoration in a book that “parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today,” and he adds, “I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question.”

Chinua Achebe has written at least one great novel, “Things Fall Apart” (1958), a book I love and from which I have learned a great deal. Yet this article on Conrad (originally a speech delivered at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1975, and revised for the third Norton edition of the novel in 1987 and reprinted as well in Achebe’s 1988 collection of essays, “Hopes and Impediments”) is an act of rhetorical violence, and I recoiled from it. Achebe regards the book not as an expression of its time or as the elaboration of a fictional situation, in which a white man’s fears of the unknown are accurately represented, but as a general slander against Africans, a simple racial attack. As far as Achebe is concerned, Africans have struggled to free themselves from the prison of colonial discourse, and for him reading Conrad meant reëntering the prison: “Heart of Darkness” is a book in which Europeans consistently have the upper hand.

Reading Achebe, I wanted to argue that most of the students in the Lit Hum class—not Europeans but an American élite—had seen “Heart of Darkness” as a representation of the West’s infamy, and hardly as an affirmation of its “spiritual grace.” I wanted to argue as well that everything in “Heart of Darkness”—not just the spectacular frights of the African jungle but everything, including the city of Brussels and Marlow’s perception of every white character—is rendered sardonically and nightmarishly as an experience of estrangement and displacement. Conrad certainly describes the Africans gesticulating on the riverbank as a violently incomprehensible “other.” But consider the fictional situation! Having arrived fresh from Europe, Marlow, surrounded by jungle, commands a small steamer travelling up the big river en route to an unknown destiny—death, perhaps. He is a character in an adventure story, baffled by strangeness. Achebe might well have preferred that Marlow engage the Africans in conversation or, at least, observe them closely and come to the realization that they, too, are a people, that they, too, are souls, have a destiny, spiritual struggles, triumphs and disasters of selfhood. But could African selfhood be described within this brief narrative, with its extraordinary physical and philosophical momentum, and within Conrad’s purpose of exposing the “pitiless folly” of the Europeans? Achebe wants another story, another hero, another consciousness. As it happens, Marlow, regarding the African tribesmen as savage and incomprehensible, nevertheless feels a kinship with them. He recognizes no moral difference between himself and them. It is the Europeans who have been demoralized.

But what’s the use? Though Achebe is a novelist, not a scholar, variants of his critique have appeared in many academic settings and in response to many classic works. Such publications as Lingua Franca are often filled with ads from university presses for books about literature and race, literature and gender, literature and empire. Whatever these scholars are doing in the classroom, they are seeking to make their reputations outside the classroom with politicized views of literature. F. R. Leavis’s criterion of greatness in literature—moral seriousness—has been replaced by the moral aggressiveness of the academic critic in nailing the author to whatever power formation existed around him. “Heart of Darkness” could indeed be read as racist by anyone sufficiently angry to ignore its fictional strategies, its palpable anguish, and the many differences between Conrad’s eighteen nineties consciousness of race and our own. At the same time, parts of the academic left now consider the old way of reading fiction for pleasure, for enchantment—my falling hopelessly under Conrad’s spell—to be naïve, an unconscious submission to political values whose nature is disguised precisely by the pleasures of the narrative. In some quarters, pleasure in reading has itself become a political error, rather like sex in Orwell’s “1984.”

As much as Conrad himself, Edward W. Said is a self-created and ambiguous figure. A Palestinian Christian (from a Protestant family), he was brought up in Jerusalem and Cairo, but has built a formidable career in America, where he has assumed the position of the exiled literary man in extremis—an Arab critic of the West who lives and works in the West, a reader who is at home in Western literature but makes an active case for non-Western literature. Said loathes insularity and parochialism, and has disdained “flat-minded” approaches to reading. Over the years, he has gained many disciples and followers, some of whom he has recently chastised for carrying his moral and political critiques of Western literature to the point of caricature. Said has repeatedly discouraged any attempt to “level” the Western canon.

His most famous work is the remarkable “Orientalism” (1978), a charged analysis of the Western habit of constructing an “exotic” image of the Muslim East as an aid to controlling it. In 1993, Said published “Culture and Imperialism” as a sequel to that book, and part of his intention is to bring to account the great European nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, examining and judging them as a way of combatting the notion—still alive today, Said says—that Europeans and Americans have the right to govern the inhabitants of the Third World.

Most imaginative writers of the nineteenth century, Said maintains, failed to connect their work, their own spiritual practice, to the squalid operations of colonialism. Such writers as Austen, Carlyle, Thackeray, Dickens, Tennyson, and Flaubert were heroes of culture who either harbored racist views of the subject people then dominated by the English and the French or merely acquiesced in the material advantages of empire. They took empire for granted as a space in which their characters might roam and prosper; they colluded in evil. Here and there, one could see in their work shameless traces of the subordinated world: a sugar plantation in Antigua whose earnings sustain in English luxury a landed family (the Bertrams) in Austen’s “Mansfield Park”; a central character in Dickens’s “Great Expectations” (the convict Magwitch) who enriches himself in the “white colony” of Australia and whose secret bequest turns Pip, the novel’s young hero, into a “London gentleman.” These novels, Said says, could not be fully understood unless their connections to the colonial assumptions and practices in the culture at large were analyzed. But how important, I wonder, is the source of the money to either of these novels? Austen mentions the Antigua plantation only a few times; exactly where the Bertrams’ money came from clearly did not interest her. And if Magwitch had made his pile not in Australia but in, say, Scotland, by illegally cornering the market in barley or mash, how great a difference would it have made to the structural, thematic, and metaphorical substance of “Great Expectations”? Magwitch would still be a disreputable convict whom Pip would have to reject as a scoundrel or accept as his true spiritual father. Were these novels, as literature, seriously affected by the alleged imperial nexus? Or is Said making lawyer like points, not out of necessity but merely because they can be made? Indeed, one begins to suspect that a work like “Mansfield Park” is useful to Said precisely because it’s such an outlandish example. For if Jane Austen is heavily involved in the creation of imperialism, then every music-hall show, tearoom menu, and floral arrangement is also involved. The West’s cultural innocence must be brought to the bar of justice.

In the end, isn’t Said’s thesis a vast tautology, an assumption that imperialism did, indeed, receive the support of a structure that produced . . . imperialism? By Said’s measure, few writers would escape censure. Proust? Indifferent to French exploitation of North African native workers. (And where did the cork that lined the walls of his bedroom come from? Morocco? The very armature of Proust’s aesthetic contemplation partakes of imperial domination.) Henry James? Failed to inquire into the late-nineteenth-century industrial capitalism and overseas expansion that made possible the leisure, the civilized discourse, and the spiritual anguish of so many of his characters. James’s celebrated refinement was as much a product and an expression of American imperialism as Theodore Roosevelt’s pugnacious jingoism. And so on.

When Said arrives at “Heart of Darkness” (a book he loves), he asserts that Conrad, as much as Marlow and Kurtz, was enclosed within the mind-set of imperial domination and therefore could not imagine any possibilities outside it; that is, Conrad could imagine Africans only as ruled by Europeans. It’s perfectly true that “Heart of Darkness” contains a few widely spaced and ambiguous remarks that appear to praise the British variety of overseas domination. But how much do such remarks matter against the overwhelming weight of all the rest—the awful sense of desolation produced by the physical chaos, the death and ravaging cruelty everywhere? What readers remember is the squalor of imperialism, and it’s surely misleading for Said to speak of “Heart of Darkness” as a work that was “an organic part of the ‘scramble for Africa,’ ” a work that has functioned ever since to reassure Westerners that they had the right to rule the Third World. If we are to discuss the question of the book’s historical effect, shouldn’t we ask, on the contrary, whether thousands of European and American readers may not have become nauseated by colonialism after reading “Heart of Darkness”? Said is so eager to find the hidden power in “Heart of Darkness” that he underestimates the power of what’s on the surface. Here is his summing up:

Kurtz and Marlow acknowledge the darkness, the former as he is dying, the latter as he reflects retrospectively on the meaning of Kurtz’s final words. They (and of course Conrad) are ahead of their time in understanding that what they call “the darkness” has an autonomy of its own, and can reinvade and reclaim what imperialism has taken for its own. But Marlow and Kurtz are also creatures of their time and cannot take the next step, which would be to recognize that what they saw, disablingly and disparagingly, as a non-European “darkness” was in fact a non-European world resisting imperialism so as one day to regain sovereignty and independence, and not, as Conrad reductively says, to reestablish the darkness. Conrad’s tragic limitation is that even though he could see clearly that on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that imperialism had to end so that “natives” could lead lives free from European domination. As a creature of his time, Conrad could not grant the natives their freedom, despite his severe critique of the imperialism that enslaved them.

I have read this passage over and over, each time with increasing disbelief. It’s not enough that Conrad captured the soul of imperialism, the genocidal elimination of a people forced into labor: no, his “tragic limitation” was his failure to “grant the natives their freedom.” Perhaps Said means something fragmentary—a tiny gesture, an implication, a few words that would suggest the liberated future. But I still find the idea bizarre as a suggested improvement of “Heart of Darkness,” and my mind is flooded with visions from terrible Hollywood movies. Mist slowly lifts from thick, dark jungle, revealing a rainbow in the distance; Kurtz, wearing an ivory necklace, gestures to the jungle as he speaks to a magnificent-looking African chief. “Someday your people will throw off the colonial oppressor. Someday your people will be free. ”

Dear God, a vision of freedom ? After the grove of death? Wouldn’t such a vision amount to the grossest sentimentality? Instead of doing what Said wants, Conrad says that England, too, has been one of the dark places of the earth. Throughout the book, he insists that the darkness is in all men. Conrad is as stern, unyielding, and pessimistic as Said is right-minded, positive, and banal.

Achebe indulges a similar sentimentality. Conrad, he says, was so obsessed with the savagery of the Africans that he somehow failed to notice that Africans just north of the Congo were creating great works of art—making the masks and other art works that only a few years later would astound such painters as Vlaminck, Derain, Picasso, and Matisse, thereby stimulating a new direction in European art. “The point of all this,” Achebe writes, “is to suggest that Conrad’s picture of the people of the Congo seems grossly inadequate.”

But Conrad certainly did not offer “Heart of Darkness” as “a picture of the peoples of the Congo,” any more than Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” set in a Nigerian village, purports to be a rounded picture of the British overlords. Conrad, as much as his master, Henry James, was devoted to a ruthless notion of form. Short as it is—only about thirty-five thousand words—“Heart of Darkness” is a mordantly ironic tale of rescue enfolding a philosophical meditation on the complicity between “civilization” and savagery. Conrad practices a narrow economy and omits a great deal. Economy is also a remarkable feature of the art of Chinua Achebe; and no more than Conrad should he be required to render a judgment for all time on every aspect of African civilization.

Achebe wants “Heart of Darkness” ejected from the canon. “The question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art,” he writes. “My answer is: No, it cannot.” Said, to be sure, would never suggest dropping Conrad from the reading lists. Still, one has to wonder if blaming writers for what they fail to write about is not an extraordinarily wrongheaded way of reading them. Among the academic left, literature now inspires restless impatience. Literature excludes: it’s about one thing and not another, represents one point of view and not another, “empowers” one class or race but not another. Literature lacks the perfection of justice, in which all voices must be heard, weighed, balanced. European literature, in particular, is guilty of association with the “winners” of history. Jane Austen is culpable because she failed to dramatize the true nature of colonialism; Joseph Conrad is guilty because he did dramatize it. They are guilty by definition and by category.

In the end, Achebe’s and Said’s complaints come down to this: Joseph Conrad lacked the consciousness of race and imperial power which we have today. Poor, stupid Conrad! Trapped in his own time, he could do no more than write his books. A self-approving moral logic has become familiar on the academic left: So-and-so’s view of women, people of color, and the powerless lacks our amplitude, our humanity, our insistence on the inclusion in discourse of all people. One might think that elementary candor would require the academy to render gratitude to the older writers for yielding such easily detected follies.

Why am I so angry? A disagreeable essay or book does not spell the end of Western civilization, and liberal humanists, of all people, should be able—even required—to listen to points of view that are contrary to their own. But what Achebe and Said (and a fair number of other politicized critics) are offering is not simply a different interpretation of this or that work but something close to an attack on the moral legitimacy of literature.

“There is no way for me to understand your pain,” Henry said the next time the class met, speaking to everyone in general but perhaps to Alex in particular. “Nor is there any way for you to understand mine. The only common ground we have is that we can glimpse the horror.”

It was a portentous remark for so young a man, but he backed it up. Launching into a formal presentation of his ideas about “Heart of Darkness,” he rose from his seat behind Alex to speak. At one point, shouting with excitement, he brushed past him—“Watch out, Alex!” he warned—and threw some coins into the air, first catching them and then letting them drop to the table, where they landed with a clatter and rolled this way and that. Everyone jumped. “That’s what the wilderness does,” he said. “It disperses what we try to hold under control. Kurtz went in and saw that chaos.”

Henry had a talent for melodrama. “Chaos” was another Conradian notion, and I shuddered; our first class on Conrad had come close to breaking apart. Today, however, Shapiro had restored civility, beginning the class with a sombre speech. Hunching over the long table, his voice low, he said, “I had to feel a little despair the other day.” He warned the students against shouting past one another. He spoke very slowly of his own ambivalence in teaching a book that challenges the very nature of Western society. “It’s very hard when you teach a course like Lit Hum, which the outside world represents as the normative, or even conservative, view of social values—it’s very hard to find yourself. As you read Conrad, do you say, ‘Am I going to step away from this culture?’ Or do you say, ‘I’m going to interact with it in some way that recognizes the contradictions and lies that culture tells itself’?”

And Shapiro went on, slowly reëstablishing the frame of his class, situating the book in the year’s work and in the work of the élite university that sits on a hill above Harlem.

Looking back on our little Kulturkampf, I realize now that however much I disliked Achebe’s and Said’s approach, they helped me to understand what happened in the classroom. Just as Alex fought so angrily to keep Western civilization untouched by the stain of Kurtz’s crimes, I initially wanted “Heart of Darkness” to remain impervious to political criticism. In truth, I don’t think any political attack can seriously hurt Conrad’s novella. But to maintain that this book is not embedded in the world—to treat it innocently, as earlier critics did, as a garden of symbols, or as a quest for the Grail or the Father, or whatnot—is itself to diminish Conrad’s achievement. And to pretend that literature has no political component whatsoever is an equal folly.

However wrong or extreme in individual cases, the academic left has alerted readers to the possible hidden assumptions in language and point of view. Achebe and Said jarred me into seeing, for instance, that Shapiro’s way with “Heart of Darkness” was also highly political. I will quickly add that the great value of Shapiro’s “liberal” reading is that it did not depend on reductive control of the book’s meanings: when the class, provoked by Shapiro’s questions, broke down, it did not do so along the clichéd lines of whether Conrad was a racist, or an imperialist. On the contrary, an African-American student had read the book seeking not victimization through literature but self-realization through literature, and white and Asian students, with one exception, had tried in their different ways not to accuse the text but to interrogate themselves. Their responses participated in the liberal consensus of a great university, in which the act of self-criticism is one of the highest goals and a fulfillment of Western education itself. A benevolent politics, but politics nonetheless.

Reading Conrad again, one is struck by his extraordinary unease—and by what he made of it. In the end, his precarious situation both inside and outside imperialism should be seen not as a weakness but as a strength. Yes, Conrad the master seaman had done his time as a colonial employee, working for a Belgian company in 1890, making his own trip up the Congo. He had lived within the consciousness of colonial expansion. But if he had not, could he have written a book like “Heart of Darkness”? Could he have captured with such devastating force the peculiar, hollow triviality of the colonists’ ambitions, the self-seeking, the greed, the pettiness, the lies and evasions? Here was the last great Victorian, insisting on responsibility and order, and fighting, at the same time, an exhausting and often excruciating struggle against uncertainty and doubt of every kind, such that he cast every truth in his fictions as a mocking illusion and turned his morally didactic tale into an endlessly provocative and dismaying battle between stoical assumption of duty and perverse complicity in evil. Conrad’s sea-captain hero Marlow loathes the monstrous Kurtz, yet feels, after Kurtz’s death, an overpowering loyalty to the integrity of what Kurtz discovered in his furious descent into crime.

“The horror” was Conrad’s burden as man and artist—the violent contraries that possessed him. But what a yield in art! Certainly T. S. Eliot and others understood “Heart of Darkness” to be one of the essential works of modernism, a new kind of art in which the radically disjunctive experiences of the age would find expression in ever more complex aesthetic forms. Seen in that light, the spectacular intricacy of Conrad’s work is unimaginable without his participation in the destructive energies of imperialism. It’s possible that Achebe and Said understand this better than any Western reader ever could. But great work galls us, drives us into folly; the fervor of our response to it is a form of tribute. Despite his “errors,” Conrad will never be dropped from the reading lists. Achebe’s and Said’s anguish only confirms his centrality to the modern age.

At the end of the second class, Henry spoke at length of Kurtz’s progression toward death and Marlow’s “privilege of watching this self encounter itself,” and Alex was silent, perhaps humbled. My antagonism toward him eased. I had not much liked myself as a young man, I remembered. Alex had resisted the class consensus, which took some courage, or stubbornness, and if he thought he was absolved of “darkness” he had plenty of time to discover otherwise. In Shapiro’s class, liberal humanism had resisted and survived, though the experience had left us all a little shaken. It was hard these days, as Shapiro noted, to find yourself.

“I don’t want to say that this is a work that teaches desperation, or that evil is something we can’t deal with,” Shapiro said. “In some ways, the world we live in is not as dark as Conrad’s; in some ways, it is darker. This is not a one-way slide to the apocalypse that we are witnessing. We ourselves have the ability now to recognize, and even to fix and change our society, just as literature reflects, embodies, and serves as an agent of change.”

The students were relieved. They wanted reconciliation and peace. And one of them, it seems, had, like Marlow, discovered what he was looking for. He had “found” himself. “We scream at the wilderness, and the wilderness screams back,” Henry said, concluding his presentation with a flourish. “There’s a tension, and at that point of tension we resolve our nature.” ♦

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Landing : Athabascau University

Lisa Goddard

Conrad and the critics: responses to heart of darkness.

Albert Guerard (Language, Psychoanalysis) asserts that Heart of Darkness isn’t really about Africa, it’s a metaphor for a psychological exploration to the heart of human nature and the animal selves that lurk beneath our civilized veneers. The true darkness is the beast within, and the ease with which we may backslide when external constrictions are removed. He demonstrates how Conrad lulls us into his “great dark mediation” with the rhythm of his prose, the sense of advancing and receding. We are offered vague images of great swaths of time that periodically focus in on sharply rendered scenes.

His attention to the way in which Conrad’s language generates a particular experience for the reader reminds me a little of reader-response criticism, but Guerard attributes that response entirely to Conrad’s intentional use of literary device, and so reads more like a formalist. This interpretation is strengthened by the critic’s reluctance to give much credit to the setting or historical circumstance of the novel, suggesting that Heart of Darkness is about Marlow’s journey within, and that Africa is almost incidental to this exploration.

The modern reader would probably argue that although this may not be a novel about Africa, the setting is no accident. Conrad deliberately chooses a region and cultural context that would resonate with the European audience as savage and uncivilized. We are not intended to believe that Kurtz would have experienced the same descent into madness were he in his familiar setting with the policeman on the corner. It is the wild nature of Africa and her peoples that incites the European to a “howl and a dance” (36).

Chinua Achebe (Racism) – Probably the most famous response to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness characterizes him as a “thoroughgoing racist”. Achebe is almost certainly right on this point. It would be curious indeed if Conrad had been a late 19 th Century European who was not racist. Racism was so much a part of the culture that no word existed to describe it when Conrad was writing this novel. ‘Racialism’ is a term that was first used in 1907, and ‘racism’ was not named as such until the 1930s. Although some critics might argue that Conrad simply intends to depict Africans as Other, there is no question that he chooses descriptors that also render them lesser. Why, for example, does he frequently refer to the “rolling eyes” of the natives? Why should their eyes be constantly rolling around in their heads? This description is almost certainly inaccurate, and connotes insanity or at least a total lack of restraint. I also take great exception to the myth that Africans would welcome the white man in as a god. It seems much more likely that he’d be considered a demon, particularly as Europeans atrocities escalated during the scramble for Africa. We know that Africans resisted colonization, and surely they did not worship the violent and oppressive white man. None of these essays really deal with this question of Kurtz as God. Where does this pervasive myth come from (that white men will be seen as gods everywhere they go)? Are there any real life examples of native deification of white people that lasted more than about a day after first contact?

Achebe’s essay is exceptional because it points to an obvious truth that had not been previously explored (or even noticed, it seems) by any other critic. His contemporaries considered this piece shocking and controversial. Many of the other critical pieces are at least in part responding to his charges of racism. 

Ian Watt (Language) explores the formal elements of Heart of Darkness combine to create a literary impressionism. Conrad’s misty symbolism is the literary equivalent of Monet’s blurry images. Both are perfectly intentional and leave the audience with an impression of a scene, rather than a fully rendered picture. Both ask the audience to work a little bit in order to fill in the blanks. Conrad’s style reflects his intention, which is to embody uncertainty and doubt – that which we cannot know. Watt also coins the term “delayed decoding” to describe the strange non-linear order in which Marlow sometimes provides us with information. This technique tries to approximate the way in which we make sense of real life. Sensation intrudes to pull our attention away from some task with which we are engaged, we divine the source of the sensation, then we begin the cognitive work of sense-making. While Impressionism moves from sensation to thought to idea, Symbolism proceeds from the other direction, taking an abstraction and trying to “to clothe the idea in a perceptible form” (358).  In HoD “the darkness” is the most important symbol, and it can stand for a multiplicity of ideas about human nature. The darkness itself is symbolized by the wilderness, by Africa, by Africans, but by the end it has crept into Europe, carried inside Marlow, and it pollutes his experiences there, including his final meeting with The Intended.

Hunt Hawkins (Racism) Hawkins attempts to answer Achebe’s claims, and while he does not deny some Conrad’s racist characterization of the natives, he contends that the author is more overtly critical of Europeans than he is of Africans. Hawkins argues that Heart of Darkness represents an attack on imperialism. White men’s hearts are not turned black by Africans, they already carry the corruption of Europe within them. When we examine the way in which Europeans are portrayed in the novel they can hardly be seen as sympathetic. Most of the white men are greedy, violent, and barely competent. Marlow himself dreads the idea that he might be lumped in with the other “unwholesome” pilgrims. Hawkins takes pains to draw out examples where Conrad recognizes the humanity and the terrible plight of the Africans. He makes a strong argument that Conrad may be seen as racist in a modern context, but that during his time Conrad may have been a progressive thinker who criticized colonialism, and deplored the capitalist conquest that clothed dumb violence and unmitigated greed in high ideals. Hawkins brings a fair amount of historical context and biographical content to his analysis, so seems to have been influenced by the New Historicist school of thought.

Peter Brooks (Language, Poststructuralism) – Brooks pays particular attention to narrative structure in Heart of Darkness. He shows that the narrative is not a linear unraveling in which we incrementally gain understanding, but is rather a “representation of an effort to reach endings that would retrospectively illuminate beginnings and middles” (376). The object that is sought throughout is a voice that can bring sense to the chaos. The text contains a variety of attempts to order the story, which Brooks suggests may actually be a way of emphasizing the underlying lack of order. Conrad portrays the Europeans as very concerned with order on the surface, yet bumbling, hysterical, and deceitful in their actions. Language is presented as a “system of police” form which Marlow is unable to break free. He is disappointed in his effort to find a voice, to find language, as is suggested by his unwillingness to articulate the “unspeakable”, and his inability to utter the truth to The Intended. Brooks suggests that we can only find meaning at the end, but what lies at the end is extra-linguistic, so Marlow can only be satisfied by passing on the story, by using his constrained language to transmit the story, and the process of constant transmission means that it will never end. This analysis reminds me of Patricia Yeager’s deconstructionist reading of The Awakening , which also concerned the search for a voice, for a language that is capable of true expression.

Patrick Brantlinger (Racism) – Brantlinger deconstructs the idea that Heart of Darkness must be read as either racist (and therefore imperialist) or anti-imperialist (and therefore antiracist). The fact that he starts by stating a binary that he goes on to disprove indicates that he is likely a deconstructionist. Brantlinger maintains that Conrad’s impressionist style helps to mask the contradictions within his book. The text critiques imperialism and racism in ways that can only be seen as imperialist and racist. Conrad’s politics seem to be progressive, but he is unable to completely rise above his own time and place. The framing narrator warns us that it will not be easy to locate the significance of the story when he notes that Marlow’s meaning was “not inside like a kernel, but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (5). I agree with Brantlinger’s observation that this is a novel of contradictions, and that Conrad’s style circles around meaning, allowing for a number of different interpretations or readings, all of which may be accurate, but which can’t be labeled so with any certainly.

I feel that Brantlinger sets up a false dichotomy when he conflates imperialism with racism. An imperialist may always be racist, but a racist is not always an imperialist. This is not one dichotomoy, but two: racist v. antiracist, and imperialist v. anti-imperialist. I would argue that Conrad was an anti-imperialist who also subscribed to offensive racial stereotypes common within late 19C European culture.

Marianna Torgovnick (Gender Studies, Racism) - Torgonovick suggests that existing critiques of imperialism in Heart of Darkness fall prey to the same circumscribed views of gender and notions of the political to which Conrad himself subscribed. She argues that the “celebrated vagueness of Marlow’s style” veils Conrad’s thoughts on his own controversial subject matter. Torgovnick is particularly interested in Conrad’s portrayal of Kurtz’s mistress and they way in which Conrad constructs masculinity and power in the novel. The black woman stands in for the primitive, as the white woman stands in for civilization. The mistress represents the taboo of miscegenation, yet another line that Kurtz has crossed.  Torgonovick equates this with other “fantasy sites” (402) of the primitive like ritual slaughter and head-hunting. Torgonovick tells us that “Africa and the Africans became Kurtz’s grand fantasy-theatre for playing out his culture’s notions of masculinity and power”. This reading is the only one to imply that the African woman is shot to death on the bank subsequent to her introduction. Conrad says however that she disappears back into the bush, and the Russian expresses his relief when he says “I really think I would have tried to shoot her” (61). Seems to me that Conrad thus reassures the reader that she departed safely. This essay is concerned mostly with the construction of power and masculinity, so aligns more closely with Gender Studies than it does with Feminist theory.

Jeremy Hawthorn (Feminism) – Hawthorn asserts that Conrad deliberately crafts the female characters in Heart of Darkness to offer “artistic insight into the way in which gender divisions enter into the duplicities of Colonialism” (414). This construct is becoming familiar, as it seems to occupy many of the critics. Does Conrad represent women in sexist ways because he is sexist, or in order to call out sexism? Does he use racist language because he is a racist, or in order to make a point about European prejudice? Does he choose Africa as his setting because he believes in imperial notions about primitivism, or is he making a political statement against European domination of other cultures?

The two main female characters, The Intended and the mistress, seem to offer a clear Madonna/whore binary. One is all “fecund” (60) body, the other is barely visible, hidden in shadows. The naïve innocence of the European woman, contrasts with the inscrutable purpose of the African woman, but both are essentially projections of male fantasy. The African woman stands in for Africa. Kurtz’s conquest of both can be achieved only by slipping into savagery, by disappointing his European betrothed, and by rejecting all that is civilized. European women, by contrast, are there to believe and repeat the lies of imperialism. They bolster the men with reassurances that their imperialist work is noble and to the greater good. In both cases women are symbols rather than people – they are lifted on pedestals above the fray in order to serve the needs of the male psyche. Conrad depicts the African woman as proud and magnificent, where the European woman is weak, unhealthy, and deceived. We can certainly read this as indicative of Conrad’s anti-imperialist sympathies, but he also denies the African woman a voice, and describes her as “savage” and “mysterious”. His whole description smacks potently of the “noble savage” trope, so although he may be using his female characters to indict imperialism, he manages to be both sexist and racist in doing so.

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critics comments on heart of darkness

critics comments on heart of darkness

The Abiding Relevance of ‘Heart of Darkness’ for Those Who Wage War

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Joseph Conrad had a long career as a merchant mariner before he ever ventured to write fiction. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 to Polish parents in Ukraine, his journeys to the far corners of the earth gave him a firsthand view of late 19th-century European interaction with many foreign cultures in the colonized world. His treatment of this relationship in his fiction is keenly incisive, yet contains flawed and insensitive portrayals of indigenous peoples. Indeed, perhaps his most well-known and widely read work, the classic novella Heart of Darkness , is problematic, to say the least, because of how he depicts the Africans in the story.

Against this backdrop, and during a time of renewed focus on social and racial justice in America, Heart of Darkness could be rejected as not worth reading or as unhelpful to military leaders today. It should not be. The novella is relevant to those who lead or may lead military operations overseas and to those senior policymakers who send them there. In the story, Conrad wrestles with the moral and ethical implications of Western involvement in foreign lands — a subject with which many U.S. military leaders will come face-to-face in the course of their careers. Heart of Darkness also bears directly on the challenge U.S. military leaders confront in ensuring the lawful, ethical, and moral conduct of war. Just as with the story’s mysterious ivory trader, Mr. Kurtz, military personnel have breaking points. Are they at times placed for too long in environments where it is unreasonable to assume none of them will reach theirs? And of these breakdowns, is the environment itself the primary cause or are we indulging a naïve understanding of human nature?

Heart of Darkness is told in retrospect from the cruising yawl Nellie anchored on the Thames. The narrator is Conrad’s alter ego, the merchant seaman Charles Marlow, first introduced four years earlier in Conrad’s story Youth . Marlow recalls to shipmates what he experienced in the Belgian Congo, where, at the behest of a Belgian trading company, he was sent to replace a river steamer captain, a Dane called Fresleven, who was killed by a local chief over “a misunderstanding about some hens.” As Marlow travels up the Congo River, he learns of Kurtz, with whom the company had lost contact and whom the company suspected had gone far into the jungle and found trouble. In my memory of reading the novella in high school in the early 1980s, it was taught as a story about the corrupting influence of the entire European colonial project. No mention was made of the controversy surrounding Conrad’s depiction of the Africans in the story.

Yet, it was just a few years prior that the award-winning Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe ignited this very controversy in leveling a scathing attack on Heart of Darkness , to the point that he labeled Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist” and refused to count it as a great work of literature. For Achebe, only clever, postcolonial literary criticism can look past this serious flaw while claiming the book contains universal lessons — a sort of literary rearguard action meant to protect Conrad’s reputation as a great writer. Conrad may have achieved an artistic, clear-eyed skepticism of man’s true nature, but in Achebe’s telling, that does not absolve him for the offense of perpetuating a racist image of Africa.

Achebe was not the first prominent scholar or person of letters to criticize Conrad’s “colonial” writings. The debate on whether Conrad supported or opposed colonialism had been raging for some time. For example, as Hunt Hawkins noted in his 1979 PMLA article “Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness ,” Robert F. Lee, in his 1969 book Conrad’s Colonialism , wrote that “one of the major directions of Conrad’s colonial fiction is a recognition of and accord with the conception of Anglo-Saxon superiority.” Other Conrad scholars, such as Eloise Knapp Hay ( The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad , 1963) and Wilfred Stone, believed Conrad was adamantly opposed to the European imperial project and attempts to prove otherwise were, in Stone’s words, “ a misreading of Conrad so gross as to be, at times, simply ludicrous .”

As a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, in February 1975 Achebe delivered the lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ” (the lecture was later updated and published in The Massachusetts Review in 1977 ). While the novella may portray Africans sympathetically as people suffering from colonial cruelty and deserving compassion, they were still “savages” from a dark and inhospitable place, and their plight paled in importance to the real problem — the diseased state of the European mind. Marlow recalls the journey on a French steamer to the mouth of the Congo River as traveling “all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders. … It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares.” Africa is a nightmarish place a European enters at his own risk. When Marlow switches to a smaller steamer to take him the first 30 miles upriver, the Swedish captain hints of trouble for those who venture too far into the jungle and wonders why they do it “for a few francs a month. I wonder what becomes of that kind when it goes up country?” When Marlow says he aims to find out, the captain replies that the last man he took up the river wound up hanging himself.

When Marlow arrives at his company’s first station where a railway is being built, he describes a “scene of inhabited devastation. A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants.” As he wanders through the camp, he sees at almost every turn evidence of the sheer brutality with which the natives are treated in the service of the trading company’s commercial bottom line:

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. … They were dying slowly — it was very clear. They were … nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.

Conrad reinforced a stereotype of a primitive people devoid of their own rich traditions of language, art, and culture. They and the continent of Africa are background props in the story. The black characters barely utter more than a word or two in the whole text. They are nothing but “black shapes” and “black shadows.” They are from the “earliest beginnings of the world,” which for Conrad was not some blissful Garden of Eden where innocence had yet to be corrupted, as Rousseau imagines in Emile , but a time of darkness where man’s base instincts ruled. Achebe writes, “ Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality .”

Achebe credits Conrad for trying to work out, through Kurtz’s mysterious mental breakdown, what colonization was doing to the European mind and soul, but he rejects the dehumanization of an entire portion of the human race to do it. This powerful rebuke hit like a thunderbolt, sending Conrad admirers and scholars into a defensive crouch. Achebe’s essay, not to mention his debut 1958 novel Things Fall Apart about a fictional southeastern Nigerian tribe that can be read as a response to a European impression of Africa still prevalent in the mid-20th century, makes reading Heart of Darkness today quite uncomfortable, particularly in light of the recent racial justice protests. One cannot ignore some of Conrad’s grimace-inducing descriptions of the African characters and thus could be forgiven for not finishing the novella.

Twenty years after Achebe’s lecture, film and literary critic David Denby revisited the controversy with the essay “ The Trouble with ‘Heart of Darkness .’” Denby had just retaken Columbia University’s core literature humanities course (some three decades after he took it as an undergraduate) and later published a book about the experience. In addition to providing an update on the aforementioned controversy, including noting that the Columbia scholar Edward W. Said had joined the roster of critics questioning Heart of Darkness ’s place in the canon, Denby pivots to discussing the abiding allure of the classic. He recounts the joy and exhilaration of rereading a text that “has lost none of its power to amaze and appall: it remains, in many places, an essential starting point for discussions of modernism, imperialism, the hypocrisies and glories of the West, and the ambiguities of ‘civilization.’” Denby makes a strong case for rereading Heart of Darkness later in life, perhaps closer to impending experiences for which this particular work may have more direct relevance.

Yet, despite this ongoing literary storm, Conrad’s reputation as an important and unique voice in 20th-century literature seems no worse for the wear. I count myself among those able to reconcile Achebe’s criticism with Conrad’s reputation as a great writer and Heart of Darkness as great literature. Conrad was not Rudyard Kipling, who was perhaps European colonialism’s most eloquent champion, but he still was a product of his day. His blind spots must be weighed in the context of his times, as with any artist. In her widely acclaimed 2017 book The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World , Harvard history professor Maya Jasanoff goes even further, recalling,

When I read [ Heart of Darkness ] and Achebe’s essay with my own students at Harvard, I came to value Conrad’s perspective … not just despite its blind spots but because of them. Conrad captured something about the way power operated across continents and races, something that seems as important to engage with today as it had when he started to write.

In 2003, the British writer Caryl Phillips , who is black and originally from St. Kitts, ventured to Achebe’s home in upstate New York (by then Achebe was teaching at Bard College) to interview him on his long-standing opposition to Conrad as a great artist. Phillips, a self-described admirer of both Conrad and Achebe, found Achebe thoughtful but unyielding on the subject. In an essay in The Guardian recounting this experience , Phillips writes,

The problem is I disagree with Achebe’s response to the novel, and have never viewed Conrad — as Achebe states in his lecture — as simply ‘a thoroughgoing racist.’ Yet, at the same time, I hold Achebe in the highest possible esteem. … Conrad’s brutal depiction of African humanity, so that he might provide a ‘savage’ mirror into which the European might gaze and measure his own tenuous grip on civilization, is now regarded by some, including Achebe, as deeply problematic. But is it not ridiculous to demand of Conrad that he imagine an African humanity that is totally out of line with both the times in which he was living and the larger purpose of his novel?

Given the ongoing struggles over race in America, including inside the military itself, reading Achebe’s essay carefully and then reading or rereading Heart of Darkness confers a special benefit to military leaders beyond the reasons for which it is usually taught. Achebe’s critique is a perception of the book that I was never taught in school and that I did not appreciate.

That does not diminish the value to military leaders and civilian national security professionals of reading Heart of Darkness in search of Conrad’s larger purpose. But what exactly is it? Military leaders will find Heart of Darkness a helpful and enjoyable aid in navigating the complex ethical and moral terrain of warfare in two important ways.

First, there is the question of America’s role in the world and how that underpins the ostensible reasons for overseas military operations, both in peace and war. Conrad was a severe critic of European colonialism at a time when very few of his contemporaries seemed bothered by it at all. Heart of Darkness was first serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, the same year Kipling published the poem The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands , a draft of which Kipling shared with his friend Theodore Roosevelt, who would, just two years later, become the 26th president of the United States. The poem is Kipling’s call to America to do her duty in civilizing the uncivilized world, which included the Philippine Islands just “liberated” from Spain in the Spanish-American War. For Kipling, colonialism had a noble, even biblical, purpose.

The poem is offensive today, but the belief that the United States has a moral obligation to vanquish tyranny and advance democracy abroad is hardly a thing of the past. Both successful foreign ventures and tragic misadventures have sprung from this well of idealism. The democracy promotion agenda has been derided by many on the left as neocolonialism and on the right as naïve adventurism — different in nature from the rapacious European 19th-century version but still either fundamentally corrupt or just plain stupid and wasteful.

I find both positions extreme and simplistic. Nevertheless, neither should be thoughtlessly rejected any more than one should uncritically hold faith in American exceptionalism. The success of military operations abroad, especially those that last for years, rests in no small way on troop morale , and troop morale rests in no small way on belief in the purpose of the mission . When the troop members stop believing in it, they stop trusting the leaders that sent them into harm’s way, and — as happened in Vietnam — the mission suffers, and there are long-lasting political and societal consequences. Heart of Darkness speaks directly to how misplaced or disingenuous foreign adventurism entrains these consequences. In the case of colonialism in Africa, European populations were fed and largely believed a story about the need to Christianize and civilize native peoples, when the primary objective was exploiting the vast natural resources.

Second, the story bears directly on the challenge of ensuring U.S. military operations are conducted as lawfully and ethically as possible. Perhaps the most enduring puzzle of Heart of Darkness is whether the writer viewed the colonial experience as a causal factor in European man’s corruption and almost inconceivable capacity for brutality or as a consequence of a corrupt and dark nature that simply manifests most vividly in the colonial environment. When U.S. military personnel in war zones lose their way, as happened at My Lai, Haditha , Abu Ghraib , and Bagram , for example, military leaders search for answers, wondering who could be capable of such atrocities and why the system failed to identify them sooner.

But perhaps the better question is, who is not capable of committing a war crime under any conceivable context? Are these instances really the result of “a few bad apples?” The less one believes so, the greater the burden on senior leaders to avoid putting military personnel in morally treacherous environments. What if we are all really savages at heart and the refinements of civilization are tenuous at best at containing the savagery? What if the journey to becoming Mr. Kurtz is far shorter than we care to believe? As Denby notes, his Columbia professor strongly suggested such an interpretation: “‘Savagery’ is inherent in all of us, including the most ‘civilized,’ for we live, according to Conrad, in a brief interlude between innumerable centuries of darkness and darkness yet to come .” Hunt Hawkins too favors this interpretation : “We might suppose that Conrad approved the civilizing mission and objected only when it was subverted by material lust. Conrad makes clear, however, that Kurtz’s immorality is not a contradiction of his morality but an extension of it.”

Conrad’s own experience on the Congo River in 1890 lasted less than six months. He had signed on with a Brussels-based company for three years as a steamboat captain but quit after one round trip between Kinshasa and Kisangani, so traumatizing was the experience.

In his 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost , Adam Hochschild vividly chronicles the merciless brutality with which the Belgians were administering the Congo Free State by the time of Conrad’s employment there. The Belgian Congo was neither free nor a state, but a vast region for exploitation and murder on a scale shocking even for European imperialism apologists. Leopold’s government largely ran the Congo with criminals and degenerates who enjoyed employing without fear of sanction the most sadistic methods to ensure they met their rubber, copal, and ivory quotas. That Conrad was shocked by this is not in doubt. Heart of Darkness can be read on one level as “one of the most scathing indictments of imperialism in all literature.”

However, Conrad’s critique of colonialism does not adequately explain such an enigmatic text. Conrad, by 1890, had for many years seen “the dirty work of Empire at close quarters,” to quote George Orwell from his 1936 essay on British imperialism, Shooting an Elephant . Yet Conrad did not seem too troubled by British imperialism, as, for example, Hawkins shows by analyzing Conrad’s somewhat conflicted letters on the Boer War in South Africa. He held financial interests in its vast enterprise (by the late 1890s he held an investment stake in a gold mine in South Africa) and was an enthusiastic apostle for his adopted land, an anglophile who believed that “ liberty … can only be found under the English flag all over the world .”

Kurtz was not a criminal or a degenerate when he arrived in the Congo. He was an idealist who believed European civilization was a force for good in the world. He studied the native people and wrote a 17-page report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Kurtz was raised in high society and went to the best schools. It was not until he was long in the jungle and an unwitting tool of a most unholy engine of avarice that his “savagery” gained the upper hand. What happened to Kurtz? Marlow comes to learn that Kurtz had, at some point, scribbled “exterminate all the brutes!” at the end of his report to the Society. As the story unfolds, Marlow and the reader (us) become fellow travelers, increasingly bewildered over the nature/nurture question. We hope that when Kurtz is finally found, he will shed some clarity on this puzzle.

Alas, he does not. Was it just a case of a man cracking under the pressure of living in an inhospitable environment and going insane? Indeed, in describing his 1979 film adaption of the novella on the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola explained that the United States went into Vietnam and went insane (ironically, by many accounts Coppola and some of the cast practically went insane making the film). The implication was clear: Do not go into the jungle. Better to just stay away.

Or was Kurtz complicit in his own descent? Did he yield to a temptation to go where most civilized Europeans dare not go — face-to-face with their own natural amoral savagery, a place where one can make oneself into a god to others and indulge in any desire? Going there and realizing one’s true nature is the ultimate horror — hence Kurtz’s final words, “the horror, the horror,” before dying in the hold of Marlow’s steamer. In Ken Burns’ 2017 documentary on the Vietnam War, novelist and war veteran Karl Marlantes ( Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War ) seemed to hold this view of human nature : “People talk a lot about how well the military turns kids into killing machines, and I’ll always argue that it’s just finishing school. What we do with civilization is that we learn to inhibit and rope in these aggressive tendencies, and we have to recognize them.” Conrad’s story is a journey into the savage wilderness of our own nature, where Marlow, while searching for Kurtz, discovers the lie “civilized” man indulges to justify the entire colonial project — a lie Mark Twain described as “ the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages .”

There’s a case to be made that the U.S. military in recent decades has by many estimates prosecuted war ( jus in bello ) more justly than at any time in history. Smart weapons may minimize collateral damage, and military personnel observe fairly restrictive rules of engagement. Young military professionals today should not despair but be confident that — if put to the test in the most demanding combat environments — they will serve with dignity, honor, and moral courage. But neither should they nor the leaders that will send them to war take that prospect entirely for granted. When I served in East Africa in 2006, we had to initiate a command investigation of a servicemember in charge of a remote camp accused of selling medical supplies to villagers on the local black market and of illegally hunting rare, protected game. He abused the power he had been given to exploit the local population. While he wasn’t cutting off heads, left alone and relatively unsupervised for months, did he yield in a lesser way to a temptation to make himself into a god like Kurtz had? I think so.

Marlow’s journey up the Congo and Kurtz’s journey into madness retain a metaphorical reach into modern warfare. In reading Heart of Darkness , military and national security professionals should always be mindful that Kurtz is not just a fictional character — he is a warning sign.

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Chinua achebe: 'heart of darkness' is inappropriate.

critics comments on heart of darkness

Chinua Achebe's new collection of essays is The Education of a British Protected Child. AFP hide caption

Chinua Achebe's new collection of essays is The Education of a British Protected Child.

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe redefined the way readers understood Africa in his first novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, that book told the story of the English coming to Africa — from the perspective of Africans. It stands in stark contrast to Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, which follows an Englishman named Marlow who embarks on a journey up the Congo.

Though Achebe was attracted to Conrad's book as a child, he excoriated it in the 1970s, and he continues to dismiss it today.

"Conrad was a seductive writer. He could pull his reader into the fray. And if it were not for what he said about me and my people, I would probably be thinking only of that seduction," Achebe tells Robert Siegel.

Achebe says that once he reached a certain age, he realized that he was "not on Marlow's ship" but was, instead, one of the unattractive beings Marlow encounters in passing. At one point, Conrad describes an African working on the ship as a "dog wearing trousers."

"The language of description of the people in Heart of Darkness is inappropriate," says Achebe. "I realized how terribly terribly wrong it was to portray my people — any people — from that attitude."

Though Achebe dislikes Conrad's description of Africans, he does not feel that Heart of Darkness should be banned: "Those who want to go on enjoying the presentation of some people in this way — they are welcome to go ahead. The book is there. ... I simply said, 'Read it this way,' and that's all I have done."

The Education of a British-Protected Child

The Education of a British-Protected Child

by Chinua Achebe

Hardcover, 172 pages |

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critics comments on heart of darkness

Heart of Darkness: Critical Responses

In 1890, Joseph Conrad received employment in the Congo working as the captain of a steamboat. After six months, he returned because of illness. Recording his experience in the Congo, Conrad wrote his highly famous novella, Heart of Darkness. Since its publication in 1899, Heart of Darkness has attracted many literary critics. Although many critics have supported the publication of Heart of Darkness , other critics, such as Chinua Achebe , have scrutinized the novella on the grounds of racism. Research does not lead to a conclusive decision on racism in the novella, as there is evidence to support themes of both racism and anti-imperialism. As previously mentioned, Chinua Achebe is the best known literary critic of Heart of Darkness. In his essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Achebe clearly presents that he is disgusted with Heart of Darkness and believes “ Joseph Conrad [is] a thoroughgoing racist” (1977, pg. 5). Achebe calls attention to many examples where Conrad subjected Africa and its people to racist illustrations and descriptions. One instance of imagery that has stuck with many critics of Heart of Darkness describes the suffering of the Africans. “Near the same tree, two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up” (Conrad, 1900, pg. 21). Many have pointed out that this caricature and pose of the African native infantilizes him and takes away his humanity. Both Achebe and another critic, Memory Chirere, a writer for The Herald, find many faults with Conrad’s stylistic imagery. While Achebe believes that Conrad’s style “[Induces] hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery,” Chirere calls attention to a different impact cause... ... middle of paper ... ...ors: An Extravagant Story. London, United Kingdom: William Heinemann. Davis, Lennard J. (2006). The Value of Teaching From a Racist Classic. The Chronicle Review Phillips, C. (2007). Was Joseph Conrad Really a Racist. Philosophia Africana,10(1), 59-66. Raja, M. A. (2007). Joseph Conrad: The Question of Racism and Representation of Muslims in his Malayan Works. Postcolonial Text, 3(4), 1-12. Said, E. (1993). Two Visions in Heart of Darkness. Culture and Imperialism, 22-31. Sarvan, C.P.. (1980) Racism and the Heart of Darkness. The International Fiction Review, 7(1), 6-10. Svensson, Morgan. (2010). Critical Responses to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Flemingsburg, Sweeden: Södertörn University College. Tindall, William Y. (1966). Apology for Marlow. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Critics (pp. 123-34). By Bruce Harkness. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publications.

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Oct 30, 2020

Critical Approach Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness”

J oseph Conrad (1857–1924) is a Polish writer, regarded as one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language. Conrad is originally Polish, but later he migrates to England and become a citizen of a powerful British Empire.[1] At those times England regarded as the empire in which “the sun is never setting down.” This article aims to analyze “ The Heart of Darkness ” and why Conrad is criticized in such a different spectrum.

Joseph Conrad ’s works have many different themes related to imperialism. The relationship between the black man and the white man is one of the most important topics that Conrad deals with. The years when the novel is published are the golden years of colonialism in Britain and Europe, and the claims that the white man brings civilization to the black continent Africa are on the rise. Conrad sees that this is a big lie during his time in Congo and that the poor natives are exploited badly, and Africa’s natural sources are brutally and inefficiently looted. In his book Heart of Darkness , Conrad describes imperialism through the eyes of the imperialist. Actually, many racist definitions in the book reveal the perspective of imperialists towards blacks. While he mentions the niggers of Congolese, he gives them animalistic features. He describes them not with their humanistic features, but with adjectives like creature and the beast. It is not known whether these definitions are Conrad ’s own opinion, but when the work is analyzed from a critical point of view, the tyranny of whites over blacks is revealed. Conrad emphasizes what actually happens in these lands, which are occupied under the goal of civilizing. Conrad exposes the brutal effects of the great empires’ exploitation policies, who searched for raw materials due to industrialization in the newly discovered pristine lands under the mask of civilization. At the same time, he explains how the dark and good sides inside of the people could change side under the circumstances, and how a person who is acting with ​​goodness at first could turn into a beast with greed.[2]

In his novella, Conrad shows the conflicts that are because of imperialism, and the main character’s internal conflicts. The main character, Marlow, starts to work as a ship captain at a big European company interested in ivory resources in Congo. Marlow’s duty is to find the man named Kurtz and bring him back to England. But Kurtz does not want to leave and orders an attack on their boat. Kurtz is worshipped by the Africans and he exploits this situation. During his time spent in Africa, Kurtz becomes corrupt. The only thing that Kurtz is interested in is collecting more ivory. To achieve this, he divinizes himself among the natives. However, he loses his spirituality over time. Living with native people for a long time is driven him away from civilization. Conrad thinks that cultures are completely different from each other, and trying to impose your culture on other people to develop them, will not be beneficial for both sides. According to Conrad , the idea of ​​”progress” is a myth misused only by the Europeans, who want to increase their profits and power. Then, Marlow manages to bring Kurtz to the ship. On the way back to England, Kurtz dies, his last words are “ the horror, the horror ” (Conrad 69) and Marlow returns to England without him. [3]

“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “‘The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 69)

This word interprets Kurtz’s own life, experiences, and exploitation of Africa. Both Kurtz and the natives are in “horror”. Kurtz is a “horror” for the natives. These words are just a depiction of European imperialists. On the way to find Kurtz, Marlow listens to many stories about him. These stories about him makes Marlow very curious about Kurtz. Along the way, Marlow witnesses the persecutions and murders of blacks by whites. This causes Marlow’s questioning to imperialism. He questions whether the Europeans really bring civilization to native people. He wants to believe that they aim to bring civilization to Congo but soon realizes that the company’s goal is to collect only more ivory. When the usage area of ​​ivory is researched, it often seems that it is used for making piano keys or as ornaments, this situation shows how Europeans exploit those who are less powerful than themselves. [4]

When all these details are considered, it is possible to see how incisive and implicit criticism Conrad made against imperialism at that time. But this implicit narrative is also open to many different perspectives and criticisms. So, In 1975, Chinua Achebe who is a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic publishes his famous critique “ An Image of Africa ”. In this critique he calls Conrad racist and blames both the author and the novella. Achebe argues that this novella, which is praised by critics, has not a praiseworthy side, and Conrad humiliates the culture and self of African people. He problematizes the way that Conrad portrays Africans.[5]

“Africans are described as savages with wild eyes using an unrefined language consisting of grunts and short phrases sounding like a violent babble. Africa is shown as the other world with bestiality contrasting the intelligence and refinement of Europe. The Africans are sometimes referred to as specimens, Marlow comments on how one African is an improved specimen because he can fire up a vertical boiler (Achebe 172).”

Achebe is also part of the Pan-African movement, which aims to unite native Africans and eliminate colonialism. (Appiah 73) Creating an African identity is significant to Achebe . He thinks that the European perspective is what creates African identity, and therefore he thinks that they must struggle to reshape their identity. This criticism that made 73 years after the published of the Heart of Darkness shows us how different what is said and written in different contexts and conditions could be perceived. In his criticism published in 1993 as a response to the criticism of Achebe , Edward Said concludes that each criticism is greatly influenced by the period that it is written. According to Said , Conrad ’s narrative depends on a certain time and place.[6] Conrad may be considered as racist by today’s standards, but at the time he wrote the novel, he probably is not more racist than anyone else. Conrad and his peers do not observe the novel as racist. While Said tries to empathize more with the period and the author, Achebe makes more harsh comments because of his cultural background. However, it is quite natural that everyone’s perceptions are shaped according to their cultural and historical background.

All these critiques do not give a certain answer to what Conrad thinks when he writes this novella. According to Achebe ’s criticism, a book that contains such racist elements could not be described as a work of art, but what really needs to be discussed is what is the criteria for a work to be considered as a work of art. What is the significance of the ideology of the work to evaluate it as a work of art? Even if The Heart of Darkness is completely racist, it could not be denied that it still could be a work of art. To the critics who praise the writing style of the novel, the beautiful language used in this book is an important reason why the work is considered as a masterpiece today. But, the various approaches to artworks over time, causes the work’s gaining value with different aspects. The Heart of Darkness has very different reviews from very different views throughout history. This shows the readers that evaluating the events with the historical context could offer various perspectives about the work.

Work Cited [1] Najder, Zdzisław. Joseph Conrad: A Life. Camden House, 2007. [2] Yong Jin, Lee. (2019). Edward Said’s comment on Heart of Darkness. 10.13140/RG.2.2.11845.19683 [3] Mirabella, Bella, ed. Ornamentalism: the art of Renaissance accessories. University of Michigan Press, 2011. [4] Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition. 4th ed. Editor Armstong. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Print. [5] Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251–261 [6] Critical responses to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Av: Morgan Svensson Handledare: Erik Falk

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Heart of darkness by joseph conrad [a review].

critics comments on heart of darkness

Four men aboard a yacht on the eastern Thames anchor for the night. The men are pensive, contemplative, in no mood for talk or games. But, somewhat expectedly, one of the men – Marlow – has a tale he wants to share.

Marlow tells them how, as a young man, he had a strong desire for adventure, for seeking out the edges of the known world, and had always felt certain perilous temptation when looking upon the serpentine shape of the Congo as it looks on a map.

Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.

Marlow manages to get a job as a steamboat captain, replacing a man who was killed in an argument with natives. Arriving on the African coast, meeting with the company accountant, Marlow first hears of Kurtz; a name that will obsess him during his short time in Africa. Kurtz is a notorious agent for the company. He sends downriver as much ivory as all the other agents combined and an aura of mystery and expectation surrounds him. His success has won him great admiration and jealous enemies.

The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

But Marlow has plenty to deal with of his own. First there is a 200-mile trek inland to reach the central station. Arriving, he finds that the ship he is meant to captain has sunk and it may take months to fish it out and repair it. They need to work fast; the stations upriver and deeper inland rely heavily on regular supplies from the central station. And Kurtz is said to be ill, his station in jeopardy.

Marlow finds himself rapidly becoming obsessed with this enigmatic figure. He desperately hopes to find Kurtz alive and to listen to what he has to say.

Heart of Darkness has a great opening. The writing is very pretty and the story is immediately evocative and transporting. You instantly feel as if you are one of those aboard the yacht, listening to the old seaman telling his tale.

One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.

Once Conrad has put you at ease in this relaxed setting he lets Marlow’s story unsettle you with its sense of danger, mystery and ultimately, horror.

Racism, colonialism and imperialism appear to be key themes of the novel. Owen Knowles, who contributed the introduction to this Penguin Classics edition seems to agree. At the time of writing, in the late nineteenth century, European powers were in a scramble to systematically annex and exploit Africa, just as there had been earlier scrambles for the Americas, India and China. As in the previous cases, the argument that the European has a moral duty to ‘civilise’ the non-European served to both disguise and justify the exploitation. Stories about the crimes of exploitation were just beginning to filter through to the public. One interpretation of the novel is that Conrad, via Marlow, is speaking out. Within a few years of the publication of Heart of Darkness (1899) came the Boer War and the Atrocities in the Congo Free State and a noticeable shift in European attitudes.

They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. 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 from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get and for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, it is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

That being said, Marlow is not immune to the prejudices that were pervasive to his culture and time.

And between the whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.

In addition, not everyone is as generous in bestowing credit to Conrad for raising consciousness on these issues. Notably, Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart , wrote an angry and controversial essay criticising Heart of Darkness , chiefly for its assumption of ‘civilisation’, as defined by the West with Africa and Africans outside of it, and the omission of any African voice speaking to the issues raised in the novel.

While I won’t be defending Conrad on these charges, I do want to say a couple of things that add to the complexity of how to read and interpret Heart of Darkness . The first is that Heart of Darkness is based heavily on Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo. Like Marlow, Conrad was also hired to captain a steamboat whose previous captain had been killed by natives. This edition of Heart of Darkness includes excerpts from Conrad’s Congo Diary . It shows that in Heart of Darkness the line between fact and fiction, between reportage and storytelling is blurred. While we consider the issue of how much the novel speaks out against racism and exploitation and whether it is able to completely escape racism itself, we should also ask to what extent it provides an accurate window into a time, a place and a people and to both the racism and abhorrence of it in that context.

Which leads to the second thing I wanted to say. Fiction has the power to transport the reader and allow them to vicariously experience and empathise with the lives of others. When fiction was written or set in the past it allows the reader to time-travel as well. It is not the characters and the author who travel to our time for us to judge them by our standards, as satisfying as some might find that. Rather it is the reader who is transported to their time to glimpse what that life was like. Understandably, some might not find it a pleasant experience in some cases. Some might also object to any suggestion that we should feel grateful for how far things have come, given how much is left to do and the fate of those born to soon, which is fine. But there is still much to learn from the past. At least, if we don’t wish to feel grateful, we should also avoid its mirror; complacency.

Heart of Darkness is often cited as an early example of the modernist style that would become prevalent in the coming decades. That is clear to see in parts two and three of the novella. While the novel had a beautiful beginning and an engrossing hook of mystery it soon becomes difficult. As Marlow edges closer to the edges of the map, his storytelling begins slipping into stream-of-consciousness, becomes disjointed, unstructured, dreamlike. I admittedly had difficulty following what was really going on and how to interpret it.

In the end, I can’t say I greatly enjoyed Heart of Darkness , but maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I was expected Apocalypse Now in book form! It is interesting how this novella, largely ignored when it was first published, and even its author considered it to be a minor work, came to be seen as highly influential and a standard text for high-school and university students. Perhaps its effort to speak to racism and colonial exploitation made it more relevant as time went on, both for what it achieved in that regard and for where it failed. Perhaps its modernist technique lends it enough ambiguity to make interpretation futile and subjective, vulnerable to endless analysis and reinterpretation, leaving the reader to see what they expect to see in it. Or perhaps that same technique makes it an important study as an antecedent for those who came in its wake – James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner among them.

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Agree with you about the effectiveness of that opening – it always strikes me that it resembles an impressionist painting of the scene

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critics comments on heart of darkness

How Conrad’s imperial horror story Heart of Darkness resonates with our globalised times

critics comments on heart of darkness

Senior Lecturer in English, UNSW Sydney

Disclosure statement

John Attridge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

UNSW Sydney provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

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In our series, Guide to the classics , experts explain key works of literature.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness - or “The Heart of Darkness”, as it was known to its first readers - was first published as a serial in 1899 , in the popular monthly Blackwood’s Magazine. Few of that magazine’s subscribers could have foreseen the fame that Conrad’s story would eventually garner, or the fierce debates it would later provoke.

Already, in 1922, the American poet T.S. Eliot thought the book was Zeitgeist -y enough to provide the epigraph for his epoch-defining poem, The Waste Land - although another American poet, Ezra Pound, talked him out of using it.

The same thought occurred to Francis Ford Coppola more than 50 years later, when he used Conrad’s story as the framework for his phantasmagoric Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now . Echoes of Heart of Darkness can pop up almost anywhere: the chorus to a Gang of Four song , the title of a Simpsons episode , a scene in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake .

Consider one final Heart of Darkness allusion, from Mohsin Hamid ’s 2017 Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Exit West. In the novel’s opening pages, a man with “dark skin and dark, woolly hair” appears in a Sydney bedroom, transported there by one of the mysterious portals that have appeared around the globe, connecting stable, prosperous countries with places that people need to escape from.

The “door”, as these wormholes are called, is “a rectangle of complete darkness — the heart of darkness”. This is a more complicated kind of Conrad reference. Here, “heart of darkness” is a shorthand for European stereotypes of Africa, which Conrad’s novel did its part to reinforce.

Hamid’s line plays on racist anxieties about immigration: the idea that certain places and peoples are primitive, exotic, dangerous. For contemporary readers and writers, these questions have become an unavoidable part of Conrad’s legacy, too.

Up the river

Heart of Darkness is the story of an English seaman, Charles Marlow, who is hired by a Belgian company to captain a river steamer in the recently established Congo Free State. Almost as soon as he arrives in the Congo, Marlow begins to hear rumours about another company employee, Kurtz, who is stationed deep in the interior of the country, hundreds of miles up the Congo River.

critics comments on heart of darkness

The second half of the novel - or novella , as it’s often labelled - relates Marlow’s journey upriver and his meeting with Kurtz. His health destroyed by years in the jungle, Kurtz dies on the journey back down to the coast, though not before Marlow has had a chance to glimpse “the barren darkness of his heart”. The coda to Marlow’s Congo story takes place in Europe: questioned by Kurtz’s “Intended” about his last moments, Marlow decides to tell a comforting lie, rather than reveal the truth about his descent into madness.

Although Conrad never met anyone quite like Kurtz in the Congo, the structure of Marlow’s story is based closely on his experiences as mate and, temporarily, captain of the Roi des Belges , a Congo river steamer, in 1890. By this time, Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Russian-ruled part of Poland in 1857, had been a seaman for about 15 years, rising to the rank of master in the British merchant service. (The remains of the only sailing ship he ever commanded, the Otago , have ended up in Hobart , a rusted, half-submerged shell on the banks of the Derwent.)

critics comments on heart of darkness

Sick with fever and disenchanted with his colleagues and superiors, he broke his contract after only six months, and returned to London in early 1891. Three years and two ships later, Conrad retired from the sea and embarked on a career as a writer, publishing the novel that he had been working on since before he visited the Congo, Almayer’s Folly, in 1895. A second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, followed, along with several stories. Conrad’s second career was humming along when he finally set about transforming his Congo experience into fiction in 1898.

Darkness at home and abroad

Heart of Darkness opens on a ship, but not one of the commercial vessels that feature in Conrad’s sea stories. Rather, it’s a private yacht, the Nellie , moored at Gravesend, about 20 miles east of the City of London. The five male friends gathered on board were once sailors, but everyone except Marlow has since changed careers, as Conrad himself had done.

Like sail, which was rapidly being displaced by steam-power, Marlow is introduced to us as an anachronism, still devoted to the profession his companions have left behind. When, amidst the gathering “gloom”, he begins to reminisce about his stint as a “fresh-water sailor”, his companions know they are in for one of his “inconclusive experiences”.

Setting the opening of Heart of Darkness on the Thames also allowed Conrad to foreshadow one of the novel’s central conceits: the lack of any absolute, essential difference between so-called civilized societies and so-called primitive ones. “This, too”, Marlow says, “has been one of the dark places of the earth”, imagining the impressions of an ancient Roman soldier, arriving in what was then a remote, desolate corner of the empire.

During the second half of the 19th century, spurious theories of racial superiority were used to legitimate empire-building, justifying European rule over native populations in places where they had no other obvious right to be. Marlow, however, is too cynical to accept this convenient fiction. The “conquest of the earth”, he says, was not the manifest destiny of European peoples; rather, it simply meant “the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.”

critics comments on heart of darkness

The idea that Africans and Europeans have more in common than the latter might care to admit recurs later, when Marlow describes observing tribal ceremonies on the banks of the river. Confronted with local villagers “stamping” and “swaying”, their “eyes rolling”, he is shaken by a feeling of “remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”.

Whereas most contemporary readers will be cheered by Marlow’s scepticism about the project of empire, this image of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants is more problematic. “Going up that river”, Marlow says, “was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world”, and he accordingly sees the dancing figures as remnants of “prehistoric man”.

Heart of Darkness suggests that Europeans are not essentially more highly-evolved or enlightened than the people whose territories they invade. To this extent, it punctures one of the myths of imperialist race theory. But, as the critic Patrick Brantlinger has argued , it also portrays Congolese villagers as primitiveness personified, inhabitants of a land that time forgot.

Kurtz is shown as the ultimate proof of this “kinship” between enlightened Europeans and the “savages” they are supposed to be civilising. Kurtz had once written an idealistic “report” for an organisation called the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. When Marlow finds this manuscript among Kurtz’s papers, however, it bears a hastily-scrawled addendum: “Exterminate all the brutes!” The Kurtz that Marlow finally encounters at the end of the novel has been consumed by the same “forgotten and brutal instincts” he once intended to suppress.

Adventure on acid

The European “gone native” on the fringes of empire was a stock trope, which Conrad himself had already explored elsewhere in his writing, but Heart of Darkness takes this cliché of imperial adventure fiction and sends it on an acid trip. The manic, emaciated Kurtz that Marlow finds at the Inner Station is straight out of the pages of late-Victorian neo-Gothic, more Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu than Henry Rider Haggard . The “wilderness” has possessed Kurtz, “loved him, embraced him, got into his veins” — it is no wonder that Marlow feels “creepy all over” just thinking about it.

critics comments on heart of darkness

Kurtz’s famous last words are “The horror! The horror!” “Horror” is also the feeling that Kurtz and his monstrous jungle compound, with its decorative display of human heads, are supposed to evoke in the reader. Along with its various other generic affiliations — imperial romance, psychological novel, impressionist tour de force — Heart of Darkness is a horror story.

Conrad’s Kurtz also channels turn-of-the-century anxieties about mass media and mass politics. One of Kurtz’s defining qualities in the novel is “eloquence”: Marlow refers to him repeatedly as “A voice!”, and his report on Savage Customs is written in a rhetorical, highfalutin style, short on practical details but long on sonorous abstractions. Marlow never discovers Kurtz’s real “profession”, but he gets the impression that he was somehow connected with the press — either a “journalist who could paint” or a “painter who wrote for the papers”.

This seems to be confirmed when a Belgian journalist turns up in Antwerp after Kurtz’s death, referring to him as his “dear colleague” and sniffing around for anything he can use as copy. Marlow fobs him off with the bombastic report, which the journalist accepts happily enough. For Conrad, implicitly, Kurtz’s mendacious eloquence is just the kind of thing that unscrupulous popular newspapers like to print.

If Kurtz’s “colleague” is to be believed, moreover, his peculiar gifts might also have found an outlet in populist politics: “He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.” Had he returned to Europe, that is, the same faculty that enabled Kurtz to impose his mad will on the tribespeople of the upper Congo might have found a wider audience.

Politically, Conrad tended to be on the right, and this image of Kurtz as an extremist demagogue expresses a habitual pessimism about mass democracy — in 1899, still a relatively recent phenomenon. Nonetheless, in the light of the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Italy, Germany and Russia after 1918, Kurtz’s combination of irresistible charisma with megalomaniacal brutality seems prescient.

These concerns about political populism also resonate with recent democratic processes in the US and the UK, among other places. Only Conrad’s emphasis on “eloquence” now seems quaint: as the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated, an absence of rhetorical flair is no handicap in the arena of contemporary populist debate.

Race and empire

Heart of Darkness contains a bitter critique of imperialism in the Congo, which Conrad condemns as “rapacious and pitiless folly”. The backlash against the systematic abuse and exploitation of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants did not really get underway until the first decade of the 20th century, so that the anti-imperialist theme was ahead of its time, if only by a few years. Nor does Conrad have any patience with complacent European beliefs about racial superiority.

critics comments on heart of darkness

Nonetheless, the novel also contains representations of Africans that would rightly be described as racist if they were written today. In particular, Conrad shows little interest in the experience of Marlow’s “cannibal” shipmates, who come across as exotic caricatures. It is images like these that led the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to denounce Conrad as a “bloody racist”, in an influential 1977 essay .

One response to this criticism is to argue, as Paul B. Armstrong does , that the lack of more rounded Congolese characters is the point. By sticking to Marlow’s limited perspective, Heart of Darkness gives an authentic portrayal of how people see other cultures. But this doesn’t necessarily make the images themselves any less offensive.

If Achebe did not succeed in having Heart of Darkness struck from the canon, he did ensure that academics writing about the novel could no longer ignore the question of race. For Urmila Seshagiri , Heart of Darkness shows that race is not the stable, scientific category that many Victorians thought it was. This kind of argument shifts the debate in a different direction, away from the author’s putative “racism”, and onto the novel’s complex portrayal of race itself.

Perhaps because he was himself an alien in Britain, whose first career had taken him to the farthest corners of the globe, Conrad’s novels and stories often seem more in tune with our globalized world than those of some of his contemporaries. An émigré at 16, Conrad experienced to a high degree the kind of dislocation that has become an increasingly typical modern condition. It is entirely appropriate, in more ways than one, for Hamid to allude to Conrad in a novel about global mobility.

The paradox of Heart of Darkness is that it seems at once so improbable and so necessary. It is impossible not to be astonished, when you think of it, that a Polish ex-sailor, writing in his third language, was ever in a position to author such a story, on such a subject. And yet, in another way, Conrad’s life seems more determined than most, in more direct contact with the great forces of history. It is from this point of view that Heart of Darkness seems necessary, even inevitable, the product of dark historical energies, which continue to shape our contemporary world.

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