In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, give the approximate words of two occasions when a black native actually talks English and Marlowe quotes him.

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Towards the end of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the mysterious character of Kurtz has just died.  The death of this seminal figure in both English-language literature and in its representation of the misery and devastation inflicted upon Africa and its inhabitants by Western colonial powers has marked the end of Marlow’s journey into “the heart of darkness.”  As Kurtz lies dead in the boat’s cabin, one of the black shipmates suddenly emerges to convey the news.  As described by Conrad’s narrator,

“Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt:

‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead.’”

This brief announcement in broken English – the language of the colonizers – represents a very rare instance in Conrad’s story of a black or native African actually audibly communicating a thought. Throughout the breadth of the novel, native Africans are routinely referred to as “savages,” “cannibals,” and, occasionally, as “niggers.”  (“Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed”; “A nigger was being beaten near by”).  They are completely dehumanized, even when described in relatively sympathetic terms. Never, however, do the indigenous populations of Sub-Saharan Africa speak.  They grunt, yell, make strange but loud noises, but never speak an any kind of coherent language, as noted in the following description of a brutalized native:

“Black figures strolled about listlessly, pouring water on the glow, whence proceeded a sound of hissing; steam ascended in the moonlight, the beaten nigger groaned somewhere. ‘What a row the brute makes!’ said the indefatigable man with the moustaches, appearing near us. ‘Serve him right. Transgression—punishment—bang! Pitiless, pitiless. That’s the only way. This will prevent all conflagrations for the future.”

Those Africans who have been usurped by the whites and trained to serve their new masters are alleged to possess the means to communicate orally in the language of those masters, as when, early in the story, the narrator describes the manager’s temperament and methods, including the allowances given his young, black assistant:

“He allowed his ‘boy’—an overfed young negro from the coast—to treat the white men, under his very eyes, with provoking insolence.”

The one socially-redeemable native African in Heart of Darkness is Marlow’s fireman, a native who contributes to the boat’s safe operation.  As described by the narrator,

“And between 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. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap.”

Even when complementary regarding a native African, the narration in Conrad’s story describes the population in dehumanizing terms.  In the following passage, which occurs midway through Heart of Darkness, Marlow again provides his impressions of the indigenous population and its primitive, savage, almost-human characteristics

“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 . . .”

The sense of racial superiority that contributed to the notion of imperialism was grounded in such perceptions. The notion that less-technologically-sophisticated cultures were somehow racially inferior and ripe for exploitation was commonplace among British colonizers. In Heart of Darkness, the local people are either solemnly lead into slavery or prison, or lurk dangerously in the darkness of the jungle, their means of communication limited to savage screams and the beating of drums.  Nowhere is there any acknowledgement of the accomplishments of these cultures and of their innate humanness.  The one dark-skinned native who communicates in English a caricature of the negro character from a bygone era.

Read the study guide:
Heart of Darkness

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question