Coming up with a new idea on a work of literature that was published over a century ago, that is much read and admired, that serves as an indictment of European imperialism, and that was adapted into a film about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam (Apocalypse Now) is a daunting task. There is no shortage of material available on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so researching the general subject is no problem. Designing a research project and original thesis on it, though, will require some thought. As with any novel on a subject like imperialism, Conrad’s novel reflects the time in which it was written and, as with Rudyard Kipling, the sentiments and observations expressed throughout his work can be interpreted through a racial prism. A British writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Conrad’s is the perspective of an educated, traveled and eminently thoughtful European observer of his country’s policies with respect to what used to be called “the Third World.” One need not agree with Nigerian author Chinua Achebe that Conrad’s novel is inherently racist to agree that the African perspective might differ mightily from even that of Westerners who view Heart of Darkness as critical of Western colonialism. [See on this issue the scholarly article Comparative Racializations: Reading Joseph Conrad Across Africa, Asia and Poland, linked below] This, conceivably, leads us to a potential thesis. Michael Lackey, in his 2005 article The Moral Conditions for Genocide in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, illuminates the contradictions inherent in critical analyses of Conrad’s story [http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-128705117.html]. Whereas as thoughtful and intelligent an individual as Achebe could view Heart of Darkness as intrinsically racist and demeaning towards Africans, such a position is difficult to reconcile with Conrad’s narrators’ descriptions of the indigenous peoples as clearly victimized by their white overseers while emphasizing the lunacy inherent in the Western enterprise that has brought him to Africa. If Conrad’s novel isn’t sympathetic to the African perspective by illuminating the insanity of colonization, it is, at a minimum, highly critical of Western imperialism and its effects on those being subjugated. Early in his journey upriver, Conrad’s narrator observes the sight of a French warship firing uselessly into the jungle:
“Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!— hidden out of sight somewhere.”
Soon after that experience, Marlowe nonchalantly anticipates a smooth voyage in a conversation with the steamer’s captain, a Swede who has seen enough to last a lifetime. Hearing his passenger’s naiveté, the captain informs Marlowe of an earlier such cruise up this river:
‘The other day I took up a man who hanged himself on the road. He was a Swede, too.’ ‘Hanged himself! Why, in God’s name?’ I cried. He kept on looking out watchfully. ‘Who knows? The sun too much for him, or the country perhaps.”
Heart of Darkness is a surrealistic action novel with a serious message. That message is, in part, a warning about the dehumanizing nature of imperialism, both for the victims and for the conquerors. The fateful meeting with Kurtz cannot be viewed as positive from a Western perspective. Preparing a thesis on Conrad’s novel could focus on the psychological toll imperialism took on those sent to implement it. It could focus on the African perspective suggested by Achebe’s comments. Or, it could involve the evolution of Western literary perspectives of colonialism, with Heart of Darkness representing an invaluable transitional narrative, one that could be examined side-by-side with the works of his contemporary, Kipling, whose “savage wars of peace” may or may contrast nicely with Conrad’s critical perspective. Come to think of it, a comparison of those two British literary masterpieces – Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden – just might provide the basis for an interesting thesis. A perusal of the “literary history,” a link to which is provided below, should help conceptualize ideas.