Conrad's Heart of Darkness is both a dramatic tale of an arduous trek into the Belgian Congo (the heart of darkest Africa) at the turn of the twentieth century and a symbolic journey into the deepest recesses of human nature. On a literal level, through Marlow's narration, Conrad provides a searing indictment of European colonial exploitation inflicted upon African natives. Before he turns to an account of his experience in Africa, Marlow provides his companions aboard the Nellie a brief history lesson about the ancient Roman invasion and occupation of Britain. He claims that the Romans were ‘‘no colonists’’ for ‘‘they grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was for robbery and violence, aggravated murder on a great scale.’’ The reader is initially encouraged to consider that enlightened European colonists of Marlow's day were motivated by objectives far loftier than those of the Romans. Thus, Marlow's aunt who arranged his commission with the Company proclaims that the white man's purpose in Africa is to wean the continent's ignorant savages from their ‘‘horrid ways.’’ Marlow himself says that modern efficiency and the ‘‘unselfish idea’’ of conquering the earth, rather than some ‘‘sentimental pretense,’’ is what "redeems’’ the colonial enterprise in which he has been enlisted.
But when Marlow arrives at the mouth of the Congo River, it becomes immediately apparent that uplifting the natives from their savagery is not the driving force behind the European mission. At the Company's Outer Station, Marlow sees six black men yoked together and realizes that these pathetic figures ‘‘could not be called enemies, nor were they criminals.’’ They are, in fact, brutalized victims ‘‘brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient and were them allowed to crawl away and rest.’’ In its actual practice, the controlling value of efficient colonial administration consists primarily of working the natives until they die and then replacing them with still more victims. The European pilgrims that Marlow encounters are equipped with modern weaponry for the ostensible purpose of defending themselves against feral savages. In fact, the natives pose very little threat to the white conquerors. As Marlow's craft steams up the Congo River toward the Inner Station, they are attacked from the shore by a group of natives who shoot arrows and hurl spears at the craft. Yet as the narrator recalls this assault, ‘‘the action was far from being aggressive—it was not even defensive, in the usual sense: it was undertaken under the stress of desperation, and in its essence was purely protective.’’ We later learn that the purpose of this attack was merely to prevent the party aboard from taking the tribe's ‘‘god,’’ Mr. Kurtz, away from them. With the exception of a few ‘‘improved specimens’’ who are transformed into cogs in the machinery of exploitation, the European colonists are engaged in their own form of ‘‘murder on a great scale,’’ showing no interest at all in bettering the lot of the Congo's inhabitants.
Hypocrisy is a salient theme in Heart of Darkness . Marlow's account repeatedly highlights the utter lack of congruence between the Company's rhetoric about ‘‘enlightening’’ the natives with its actual aims of extracting ivory, minerals and other valued commodities. As one of the fevered pilgrims whom he meets on his overland trek tells Marlow, it is not a virtuous idea or even efficiency per se that moves the colonists to treat the natives as members of an inferior species: it is, instead ‘‘‘to make money, of...
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The colonial enterprise extends beyond the Company to an International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Marlow is told that this organization entrusted Kurtz to prepare a report for its future guidance. In it, Kurtz's dutifully acknowledges the importance of attaining maximum efficiency in the prosecution of the ivory trade, and he advocates creating the illusion that whites are supernatural beings in the minds of the child-like natives. As Marlow tells his listeners, while reading through Kurtz's proposal he found ‘‘at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, life a flash of light in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’’’ From Kurtz's perspective, the most efficient way of suppressing savage customs among the natives is to simply annihilate them. Upon his return to Europe, Marlow presents the deceased Kurtz's report to the Company's manager. The latter seems to be disturbed by the sheer brutality of its conclusion, saying that ‘‘‘this is not what we had a right to expect.’’’ It is not, however, that the Company manager takes issue with Kurtz's opinion that the natives are entirely expendable; it is that he disagrees with and is offended by the candid expression of this view. The time is not yet ripe for the Company to disclose its true colors, and the Company objections to Kurtz's barbarous methods are based on the damage that they might inflict upon its carefully crafted propaganda campaign about bringing Christian civilization to people who live in darkness. The Company and, indeed, all Europe is engaged in a fundamentally hypocritical endeavor, rationalizing their savagery on the pretext of alleviating the natives of their amoral primitivism.
The Central Station manager says to Marlow, ‘‘you are of the new gang—the gang of virtue.’’ By doing so, he directly implicates Conrad's narrator into the broader hypocrisies of European colonialism. Although it is through his private account aboard the Nellie that the abominations being perpetrated against the Africans are detailed, Marlow is by no means virtuous in the active sense of that term. He is, at bottom, a paid employee of the Company. While he attempts to distance himself from the other pilgrims invading Africa through a muted, retrospective indignation, at no point in his story does Marlow make any effort to intervene in the crimes that he witnesses. Even upon his return to Europe, he consciously refrains publicizing what is actually occurring in Colonial Africa. He even goes so far as to safeguard Mr. Kurtz's reputation. Thus, Marlow lies to Kurtz's fiancée, reporting that Kurtz's ‘‘‘end … was in every way worthy of his life,’’’ and then adding that Kurtz's final words were her name.
Kurtz's dying words were, of course, ‘‘The horror! The horror!’’; and Heart of Darkness is centrally preoccupied with the problem of horror, of unmitigated evil. Marked by successive stages from the outer to the central to the inner stations, Marlow's journey closely resembles the descent into hell that Dante undertook in his epic poem the Inferno, finding the beast Satan at the center of Hell. The manager of the Central Station apprises Marlow that Mr. Kurtz is ‘‘is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and the devil knows what else.’’ It is this last association that has some truth to it. Kurtz is a diabolical figure, a surrogate of the devil himself. When Marlow finally reaches the Inner Station where Kurtz presides, he finds that the ‘‘various rumors’’ of Kurtz's evil reign are, if anything, understatements. He sees a row of severed heads impaled on sticks and learns that they were taken from natives who rebelled against Kurtz's absolute dominion. Not only does Kurtz brook no dissent to his reign, the natives that have gathered around him worship Kurtz as if he were a god. Kurtz does not limit the scope of his monstrous actions to the natives. The misplaced Russian who has attached himself to Kurtz recounts that after Kurtz stole his ivory, his idol then declared that he would shoot him ‘‘because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased.’’ Kurtz is a megalomaniac; he exerts life-and-death power for its own sake, he engages in evil simply because it is possible for him to do so. Marlow concludes that Kurtz is insane, but Kurtz himself insists on two separate occasions that he is perfectly conscience of his actions.
Whether Kurtz can be equated with Satan is, however, another matter altogether. He is both fiendish and childish, and as Marlow comes to suspect, he may be ‘‘hollow at the core.’’ In the words of the Company's chief accountant, Mr. Kurtz is ‘‘a very remarkable person,’’ yet, even before he meets Kurtz, Marlow observes that ‘‘I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him.’’ When he finally comes face to face with Kurtz, Marlow finds an unnaturally elongated sickly figure stretched as ‘‘an image of death carved out of old ivory.’’ Not only is Kurtz a physically unimpressive being, he is not a genius nor was he ever an especially noble individual even when he had all of his mental faculties. Kurtz is both grand and pathetic.
The disparity between the epic scale of Kurtz's evil and his seeming hollowness is but one example of the discordant notes that arise throughout Marlow's story. Ambiguity and contradiction abound in the Heart of Darkness. There are numerous instances in which seemingly inexplicable events occur. Before departing for Africa, Marlow undergoes a physical examination that has no real purpose. He then witnesses a European warship firing its guns into the bush along the African coast for no apparent reason, and the pilgrims who accompany him on the overland segment of his journey routinely discharge their rifles along the way without aiming. The colonists are engaged in massive projects that alter the natural landscape for no rhyme or reason, digging a huge pit that seems to have no purpose. There is absolutely no explanation for the admiration that the Russian sailor extends towards Kurtz. The figure of the native woman (or queen) who appears along the riverbank as Kurtz is taken from his people is a complete enigma. Conrad's story is filled with unexplained details, and the reader gains the suspicion that they may be meaningless and that this journey into the Heart of Darkness is, in fact, devoid of any lessons.
Reinforcing this motif of ambiguity, doubt, and the meaningless, Conrad's text appears to challenge the very premise that human experience can be related in words. In a sense, Heart of Darkness is about the act of story-telling itself. The framing of the tale, with an external narrator describing Marlow sitting aboard the Nellie, highlights the status of his story as an act of narration. Although Marlow as narrator is competent to perform the task at hand, holding his audience in rapture, at several points in his story, he falters and appears to be at a loss for words, telling his listeners, for example, that it is ‘‘impossible’’ to convey the feelings that he experienced. Marlow says that Kurtz presided over ‘‘unspeakable rituals’’ (that he does not describe) and that in the Congo the ‘‘earth seems unearthly.’’ At each of these junctures, Conrad suggests that words are inadequate, that normal communication is somehow futile, and that, at bottom, human experience itself is without meaning and, like Kurtz, hollow at its core. Like Marlow's listeners, at the conclusion of his story, the reader is apt to sit in silence, pondering what, if anything, has been revealed.
The original publication of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was a three-part serialization in London's Blackwood's Magazine in 1899. It was subsequently published in a collection of three stories by Conrad in 1902. The date of Heart of Darkness should be noted, for it provides a historical context which illuminates the story's relation to both the contemporary turn-of-the-century world to which Conrad responds in the tale, and also the influential role Conrad plays in the subsequent progress of twentieth-century literary history.
Traditionally there have been two main ways of approaching the interpretation of Heart of Darkness. Critics and readers have tended to focus on either the implications of Conrad's intense fascination with European colonialism in Africa and around the world, or they have centered on his exploration of seemingly more abstract philosophical issues regarding, among other things, the human condition, the nature of Good and Evil, and the power of language. The former interpretive choice would concentrate on the ways Conrad presents European colonialism (of which he had much firsthand experience, being a sailor himself), while the latter would primarily investigate Conrad's exposition of philosophical questions. Even a cursory reading of the tale makes it clear that there is ample evidence for both of these interpretive concerns. What is perhaps less obvious, but equally important, is the way the historical reality which Conrad takes as his subject matter and the philosophical meditation to which Kurtz's story gives rise are intrinsically connected to one another.
The turn of the twentieth century was a period of intense colonial activity for most of the countries of Europe. Conrad refers to European colonialism countless times in Heart of Darkness, but perhaps the most vivid instance is when Marlow, while waiting in the office of the Belgian Company, sees ‘‘a large shining map [of colonial Africa], marked with all the colours of the rainbow. There was,’’ he says, ‘‘a vast amount of red—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch…. However, I wasn't going into any of these. I was going into the yellow.’’ These colors, of course, correspond to the territorial claims made on African land by the various nations of Europe: red is British, blue French, green Italian, orange Portuguese, purple German, and yellow Belgian. The map bears noting. On the one hand it establishes the massive geographical scale of Europe's colonial presence in Africa, but it also symbolically sets this presence up in relation to another central thematic concern of the novella: the popular conception of colonialism in Europe.
Conrad links the colored maps to the childlike ignorance and apathy of the European public as to what really goes on in the colonies. Just a few moments before describing the map in the office in Brussels Marlow had recalled his childhood, saying: ‘‘Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’’’ Much of Heart of Darkness is then a grim and detailed exposition of the real ‘‘glories of exploration’’ which Marlow observes firsthand, but in these opening moments before Marlow has left for Africa Conrad has given his assessment of the perspective on the colonies from the point of view of the common European: on public display in the waiting-room of the Company office in Brussels, and in the imagination of the European public, the representation of European activity in Africa is as abstract and pleasant as a multicolored map.
Another example of the distance between the popular conception of the colonies and their reality can be found in the frequent reference made to the purportedly civilizing aspect of colonial conquest. Marlow's aunt speaks of ‘‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’’ and Kurtz's early pamphlet ominously claims that ‘‘by the simple exercise of [the colonists’] will [they] can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’’ Marlow's direct experience of the trading stations in the Congo, and Kurtz's scrawled note ‘‘Exterminate all the brutes’’ at the end of the pamphlet put the lie to these European pretensions to civilizing charity. And to Conrad's British readers of 1900 these revelations may have been shocking. There was, it should be noted, a growing anti-colonial campaign being waged by dissidents throughout Europe at the time, and Conrad's novella can be considered a part of that campaign.
But in addition to the aggressive presentation of the grim conditions which existed in Europe's colonies—which Conrad succeeds in making very vivid—Heart of Darkness also creates a theme from certain philosophical problems which become central to the dawning literary movement called Modernism. Conrad shows the way the European public is profoundly ignorant (perhaps willfully) of what goes on in their colonies, but he also suggests that that very separation reveals a problematic relation between belief and reality, between representation and truth, which can also be investigated as a philosophical question. Keeping in mind the way this problem has been introduced in the novella (i.e. the specific relation between Europe and its colonies), let us briefly sketch out the philosophical and literary attempts to address the problem of representation in Modernism.
Roughly speaking Modernism had its peak in the years between World War I and World War II. The great canonical Modernists include such writers as James Joyce Ezra Pound Gertrude Stein Virginia Woolf William Faulkner and others. In most accounts of the period what links the Modernist writers loosely together is their intensive formal experimentation with literary and linguistic techniques; that is to say, their experimentation with the actual modes of literary representation. Stein's experiments with syntax, Joyce's melding of languages and myths, Faulkner's endless sentences, can all be seen as various ways of working through difficult questions raised about the very nature of language and how it works. Language in Modernist literature is no longer seen as a stable vehicle for the communication of meaning, but rather it is put up for radical questioning in itself. Modernist experimentation, one might say, arises out of the doubt that language (at least language as it has been used in the past) is able to communicate or sufficient to represent meaning or truth. And the seeds of this very doubt, to bring us back to Conrad, can be seen in Heart of Darkness. Some of the most illustrative examples of how Conrad introduces these Modernistic concerns can be seen at the points of Marlow's narration where the actual question of meaning explicitly arises.
Clearly Marlow has no trouble narrating events; he is indeed quite a storyteller. Yet, at various times in the narration the flow of his speech is interrupted and he seems at a loss for words. If we pick one of these moments we can see the way Conrad is creating a theme from the very instability and inadequacy of language itself (‘‘words,’’ ‘‘names,’’ the ‘‘story’’) to contain and convey what one might call ‘‘truth,’’ ‘‘meaning,’’ or ‘‘essence’’ (Marlow calls it all three). At a point well into his tale Marlow says:
‘‘At the time I did not see [Kurtz]—you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams.…’’
He sat silent for a while.
‘‘ … No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone.…’’
Conrad has set up a clear opposition in Marlow's speech here: the opposition is between language on the one hand and truth or meaning on the other. In the quoted passage Marlow is exasperated because when faced with the task of communicating something deeper than just the narrative of events he is at a loss for words—or more precisely, the words themselves fail him. His pronouncement that it is ‘‘impossible’’ for language to do certain things—for language to hold the essence of things as they exist—foreshadows the dilemma at the center of Modernist and indeed much of twentieth-century philosophical thought. But what he is trying to tell is not just ‘‘the Truth’’ in the abstract, but rather the truth about Kurtz, the truth of his experience of the European colonies. This suggests the way that the philosophical themes of the tale are intertwined with if not identical to the colonial themes. Conrad has the two coexisting in such close proximity that they in fact appear to be two sides of the same coin.
The debate, then, over whether Heart of Darkness should be interpreted in terms of either colonial and historical or philosophical questions misses Conrad's insight that the two are in fact inseparable. As the complex textual fusion of the two in Heart of Darkness implies, the seemingly abstract philosophical problems concerning language and truth arise only out of concrete problems (such as colonialism) which exist in the social world, while at the same time the concrete problems of colonial domination at the turn of the twentieth century have extensive philosophical implications.
Source: Kevin Attell, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Attell is a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley.
Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘‘the other world,’’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where a man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting peacefully ‘‘at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.’’ But the actual story takes place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that ‘‘going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world.’’
Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. What actually worries Conrad is the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames, too, ‘‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.’’ It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque, suggestive echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and of falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings.
I am not going to waste your time with examples of Conrad's famed evocation of the African atmosphere. In the final consideration it amounts to no more than a steady, ponderous, fake-ritualistic repetition of two sentences, one about silence and the other about frenzy. An example of the former is, ‘‘It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention,’’ and of the latter, ‘‘The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.’’ Of course, there is a judicious change of adjective from time to time so that instead of ‘‘inscrutable,’’ for example, you might have ‘‘unspeakable,’’ etc., etc.
The eagle-eyed English critic, F. R. Leavis, drew attention nearly thirty years ago to Conrad's ‘‘adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.’’ That insistence must not be dismissed lightly, as many Conrad critics have tended to do, as a mere stylistic flaw. For it raises serious questions of artistic good faith. When a writer, while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact, is in reality engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery, much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity. Generally, normal readers are well armed to detect and resist such underhand activity. But Conrad chose his subject well—one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with the psychological predisposition of his readers or raise the need for him to contend with their resistance. He chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths.
The most interesting and revealing passages in Heart of Darkness are, however, about people. I must quote a long passage from the middle of the story in which representatives of Europe in a steamer going down the Congo encounter the denizens of Africa:
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 straggled 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 hands 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 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 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.
Herein lies the meaning of Heart of Darkness and the fascination it holds over the Western mind: ‘‘What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours…. Ugly.’’
Having shown us Africa in the mass, Conrad then zeros in on a specific example, giving us one of his rare descriptions of an African who is not just limbs or rolling eyes:
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. He squinted at the steam gauge and at the water gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity—and he had filed his teeth, too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge.
As everybody knows, Conrad is a romantic on the side. He might not exactly admire savages clapping their hands and stamping their feet but they have at least the merit of being in their place, unlike this dog in a parody of breeches. For Conrad, things (and persons) being in their place is of the utmost importance.
Towards the end of the story, Conrad lavishes great attention quite unexpectedly on an African woman who has obviously been some kind of mistress to Mr. Kurtz and now presides (if I may be permitted a little imitation of Conrad) like a formidable mystery over the inexorable imminence of his departure:
She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent.… She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.
This Amazon is drawn in considerable detail, albeit of a predictable nature, for two reasons. First, she is in her place and so can win Conrad's special brand of approval; and second, she fulfills a structural requirement of the story; she is a savage counterpart to the refined, European woman with whom the story will end:
She came forward, all in black with a pale head, floating towards me in the dusk. She was in mourning.… She took both my hands in hers and murmured, ‘‘I had heard you were coming.’’… She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.
The difference in the attitude of the novelist to these two women is conveyed in too many direct and subtle ways to need elaboration. But perhaps the most significant difference is the one implied in the author's bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other. It is clearly not part of Conrad's purpose to confer language on the ‘‘rudimentary souls’’ of Africa. They only ‘‘exchanged short grunting phrases’’ even among themselves but mostly they were too busy with their frenzy. There are two occasions in the book, however, when Conrad departs somewhat from his practice and confers speech, even English speech, on the savages. The first occurs when cannibalism gets the better of them:
‘‘Catch ’im,’’ he snapped, with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp white teeth—‘‘catch ’im. Give ’im to us.’’ ‘‘To you, eh?’’ I asked; ‘‘what would you do with them?’’ "Eat ’im’!’ he said curtly….
The other occasion is the famous announcement.
Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
At first sight, these instances might be mistaken for unexpected acts of generosity from Conrad. In reality, they constitute some of his best assaults. In the case of the cannibals, the incomprehensible grunts that had thus far served them for speech suddenly proved inadequate for Conrad's purpose of letting the European glimpse the unspeakable craving in their hearts. Weighing the necessity for consistency in the portrayal of the dumb brutes against the sensational advantages of securing their conviction by clear, unambiguous evidence issuing out of their own mouth, Conrad chose the latter. As for the announcement of Mr. Kurtz's death by the ‘‘insolent black head of the doorway,’’ what better or more appropriate finis could be written to the horror story of that wayward child of civilization who willfully had given his soul to the powers of darkness and ‘‘taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land’’ than the proclamation of his physical death by the forces he had joined?
It might be contended, of course, that the attitude to the African in Heart of Darkness is not Conrad's but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism. Certainly, Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his story. He has, for example, a narrator behind a narrator. The primary narrator is Marlow but his account is given to us through the filter of a second, shadowy person. But if Conrad's intention is to draw a cordon sanitaire between himself and the moral and psychological malaise of his narrator, his care seems to me totally wasted because he neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters. It would not have been beyond Conrad's power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary. Marlow seems to me to enjoy Conrad's complete confidence—a feeling reinforced by the close similarities between their careers.
Marlow comes through to us not only as a witness of truth, but one holding those advanced and humane views appropriate to the English liberal tradition which required all Englishmen of decency to be deeply shocked by atrocities in Bulgaria or the Congo of King Leopold of the Belgians or wherever. Thus Marlow is able to toss out such bleeding-heart sentiments as these:
They were all 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 all 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.
The kind of liberalism espoused here by Marlow/Conrad touched all the best minds of the age in England, Europe, and America. It took different forms in the minds of different people but almost always managed to sidestep the ultimate question of equality between white people and black people. That extraordinary missionary, Albert Schweitzer, who sacrificed brilliant careers in music and theology in Europe for a life of service to Africans in much the same area as Conrad writes about, epitomizes the ambivalence. In a comment which I have often quoted but must quote one last time Schweitzer says: ‘‘The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother.’’ And so he proceeded to build a hospital appropriate to the needs of junior brothers with standards of hygiene reminiscent of medical practice in the days before the germ theory of disease came into being. Naturally, he became a sensation in Europe and America. Pilgrims flocked, and I believe still flock even after he has passed on, to witness the prodigious miracle in Lamberene, on the edge of the primeval forest.
Conrad's liberalism would not take him quite as far as Schweitzer's, though. He would not use the word ‘‘brother’’ however qualified; the farthest he would go was ‘‘kinship.’’ When Marlow's African helmsman falls down with a spear in his heart he gives his white master one final disquieting look.
And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory—like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.
It is important to note that Conrad, careful as ever with his words, is not talking so much about distant kinship as about someone laying a claim on it. The black man lays a claim on the white man which is well-nigh intolerable. It is the laying of this claim which frightens and at the same time fascinates Conrad, ‘‘ … the thought of their humanity—like yours…. Ugly.’’
The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely, that Conrad was a bloody racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticism of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely undetected. Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives. A Conrad student told me in Scotland last year that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz.
Which is partly the point: Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Of course, there is a preposterous and perverse kind of arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind. But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And 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. My answer is: No, it cannot. I would not call that man an artist, for example, who composes an eloquent instigation to one people to fall upon another and destroy them. No matter how striking his imagery or how beautiful his cadences fall, such a man is no more a great artist than another may be called a priest who reads the mass backwards or a physician who poisons his patients. All those men in Nazi Germany who lent their talent to the service of virulent racism whether in science, philosophy or the arts have generally and rightly been condemned for their perversions. The time is long overdue for taking a hard look at the work of creative artists who apply their talents, alas often considerable as in the case of Conrad, to set people against people. This, I take it, is what Yevtushenko is after when he tells us that a poet cannot be a slave trader at the same time, and gives the striking example of Arthur Rimbaud who was fortunately honest enough to give up any pretenses to poetry when he opted for slave trading. For poetry surely can only be on the side of man's deliverance and not his enslavement; for the brotherhood and unity of all mankind and against the doctrines of Hitler's master races or Conrad's ‘‘rudimentary souls.’’ …
[Conrad] was born in 1857, the very year in which the first Anglican missionaries were arriving among my own people in Nigeria. It was certainly not his fault that he lived his life at a time when the reputation of the black man was at a particularly low level. But even after due allowances have been made for all the influences of contemporary prejudice on his sensibility, there remains still in Conrad's attitude a residue of antipathy to black people which his peculiar psychology alone can explain. His own account of his first encounter with a black man is very revealing:
A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards.
Certainly, Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting as when he gives us this brief description:
A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms.
As though we might expect a black figure striding along on black legs to have white arms! But so unrelenting is Conrad's obsession.
As a matter of interest Conrad gives us in A Personal Record what amounts to a companion piece to the buck nigger of Haiti. At the age of sixteen Conrad encountered his first Englishman in Europe. He calls him ‘‘my unforgettable Englishman.’’ and describes him in the following manner:
[his] calves exposed to the public gaze … dazzled the beholder by the splendor of their marble-like condition and their rich tone of young ivory…. The light of a headlong, exalted satisfaction with the world of men illumined his face…and triumphant eyes. In passing he cast a glance of kindly curiosity and a friendly gleam of big, sound, shiny teeth … his white calves twinkled sturdily.
Irrational love and irrational hate jostling together in the heart of that tormented man. But whereas irrational love may at worst engender foolish acts of indiscretion, irrational hate can endanger the life of the community….
Whatever Conrad's problems were, you might say he is now safely dead. Quite true. Unfortunately, his heart of darkness plagues us still. Which is why an offensive and totally deplorable book can be described by a serious scholar as ‘‘among the half dozen greatest short novels in the English language,’’ and why it is today perhaps the most commonly prescribed novel in the twentieth-century literature courses in our own English Department here. Indeed the time is long overdue for a hard look at things.
There are two probable grounds on which what I have said so far may be contested. The first is that it is no concern of fiction to please people about whom it is written. I will go along with that. But I am not talking about pleasing people. I am talking about a book which 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. I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question. It seems to me totally inconceivable that great art or even good art could possibly reside in such unwholesome surroundings.
Secondly, I may be challenged on the grounds of actuality. Conrad, after all, sailed down the Congo in 1890 when my own father was still a babe in arms, and recorded what he saw. How could I stand up in 1975, fifty years after his death and purport to contradict him? My answer is that as a sensible man I will not accept just any traveller's tales solely on the grounds that I have not made the journey myself. I will not trust the evidence even of a man's very eyes when I suspect them to be as jaundiced as Conrad's….
But more important by far is the abundant testimony about Conrad's savages which we could gather if we were so inclined from other sources and which might lead us to think that these people must have had other occupations besides merging into the evil forest or materializing out of it simply to plague Marlow and his dispirited band. For as it happened, soon after Conrad had written his book an event of far greater consequence was taking place in the art world of Europe. This is how Frank Willett, a British art historian, describes it [in African Art, 1971]:
Gaugin had gone to Tahiti, the most extravagant individual act of turning to a non-European culture in the decades immediately before and after 1900, when European artists were avid for new artistic experiences, but it was only about 1904-5 that African art began to make its distinctive impact. One piece is still identifiable, it is a mask that had been given to Maurice Vlaminck in 1905. He records that Derain was ‘‘speechless’’ and ‘‘stunned’’ when he saw it, bought it from Vlaminck and in turn showed it to Picasso and Matisse, who were also greatly affected by it. Ambroise Vollard then borrowed it and had it cast in bronze…. The revolution of twentieth century art was under way!
The mask in question was made by other savages living just north of Conrad's River Congo. They have a name, the Fang people, and are without a doubt among the world's greatest masters of the sculptured form. As you might have guessed, the event to which Frank Willett refers marked the beginning of cubism and the infusion of new life into European art that had run completely out of strength.
The point of all this is to suggest that Conrad's picture of the people of the Congo seems grossly inadequate even at the height of their subjection to the ravages of King Leopold's International Association for the Civilization of Central Africa. Travellers with closed minds can tell us little except about themselves. But even those not blinkered, like Conrad, with xenophobia, can be astonishingly blind….
As I said earlier, Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book. It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it. For reasons which can certainly use close psychological inquiry, the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparing it with Africa. If Europe, advancing in civilization, could cast a backward glance periodically at Africa trapped in primordial barbarity, it could say with faith and feeling: There go I but for the grace of God. Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray—a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate. Consequently, Africa is something to be avoided just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man's jeopardous integrity. Keep away from Africa, or else! Mr. Kurtz of Heart of Darkness should have heeded that warning and the prowling horror in his heart would have kept its place, chained to its lair. But he foolishly exposed himself to the wild irresistible allure of the jungle and lo! the darkness found him out.
In my original conception of this talk I had thought to conclude it nicely on an appropriately positive note in which I would suggest from my privileged position in African and Western culture some advantages the West might derive from Africa once it rid its mind of old prejudices and began to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystification but quite simply as a continent of people—not angels, but not rudimentary souls either—just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society. But as I thought more about the stereotype image, about its grip and pervasiveness, about the willful tenacity with which the West holds it to its heart; when I thought of your television and the cinema and newspapers, about books read in schools and out of school, of churches preaching to empty pews about the need to send help to the heathen in Africa, I realized that no easy optimism was possible. And there is something totally wrong in offering bribes to the West in return for its good opinion of Africa. Ultimately, the abandonment of unwholesome thoughts must be its own and only reward. Although I have used the word willful a few times in this talk to characterize the West's view of Africa it may well be that what is happening at this stage is more akin to reflex action than calculated malice. Which does not make the situation more, but less, hopeful.
Source: Chinua Achebe ‘‘An Image of Africa,’’ in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1977, pp. 782-94. Achebe is a noted Nigerian novelist whose works include Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah; he has frequently lectured in the United States and served as a professor at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst in 1987-88.
The tragedy of Kurtz and the education of Marlow fuse into one story, since for Marlow that tragedy represents his furthest penetration into the heart of darkness. As Marlow enters the forest to intercept Kurtz on the way toward the ceremonial blaze he senses the fascination which the savage ritual possesses. In the light of Conrad's other tales we know that it is because he is guided by well-established habits that he is able to complete his mission and carry Kurtz back to his cot, though not before he himself has apprehended the lure of the primitive. He has duplicated in his own experience enough of Kurtz's sensations to have good reason to wonder what is real and what is a false trick of the imagination. It was this fascination and bewilderment that Conrad aimed to suggest, and the presenting of Kurtz at the most intense moment of his yielding to it was to transcend time and bring a unity of impression.
When Marlow, soon after, hears the dying pronouncement, ‘‘the horror, the horror!’’ he has more than a mere intellectual awareness of what the words mean; and as we have vicariously shared Marlow's quasi-hysterical emotion on the trip toward the camp fire, we feel likewise the completeness with which Kurtz has savored degradation. He is a universal genius because he has had both the dream of sweetness and sacrifice in a cause shared by others and the disillusionment of being, in the very midst of the savage adoration, irretrievably alone, devoid of all standards, all hopes that can give him a sense of kinship with anything in the universe. Now, as he faces the last darkness of all, he cannot even know that Marlow understands and that he feels no right to condemn.…
Conscious will was, in the novelist's opinion, not merely fallible, but often dangerous. Reliance upon it could lead one completely away from human sentiments. In Heart of Darkness itself Kurtz twice replies to Marlow that he is ‘‘perfectly’’ conscious of what he is doing; his sinister actions are deliberate. This fact does not in the least, however, mean that Conrad wished for a condition devoid of will. He believed that man had the power to pursue the interpretation of experience with deliberate intent and by conscious endeavor to reduce it to proportions. The imagination would bring up the images and incidents, but the reason could help select and arrange them until they became the essence of art. In his trip up the Congo and in his rapid descent Marlow is protected by habits which tend to preserve sanity, but the experience is of the imagination and emotions. Were he to stop short with the mere sensations, he would have no power to distinguish reality from the unreal, to speculate, with touchstones for reference, about life. What we are coming to is the obvious question, If Kurtz's dictum represents the deepest penetration into one aspect of the mind, why did Conrad not stop there; why did he have Marlow tell the girl that Kurtz died pronouncing her name? Is the ending tacked on merely to relieve the horror, or has it a function in the conscious interpretation of life in the proportions of art?…
The fact is that Conrad, fully capable of building to a traditional climax and stopping, wanted to put Kurtz's life in the perspective which it must have for Marlow sub specie aeternitatis. Marlow does not have a final answer to life, but after we have shared with him the steady penetration to the brink of degradation we have almost forgotten what life otherwise is like. It is now that Conrad's method of chronological reversal is invaluable. We are quickly returned to Europe, where the marvel of Kurtz's genius still remains, as if he had left but yesterday.
The scene in which Marlow conceals from the girl the nature of Kurtz's death is really a study of the nature of truth. If he had told the girl the simple facts, he would have acknowledged that the pilgrims in their cynicism had the truth, that goodness and faith were the unrealities. Marlow appreciates this temptation, and we are hardly to suppose that sentimental weakness makes him resist it. He does not preach to us about the wisdom he has achieved, in fact he deprecates it, and now he says merely that to tell her would be ‘‘too dark altogether.’’ He is still perplexed as to the ethics of his deception and wishes that fate had permitted him to remain a simple reporter of incidents instead of making him struggle in the realm of human values. Yet in leaving in juxtaposition the fiancée's ideal, a matter within her own heart, and the fact of Kurtz's death, Marlow succeeds in putting before us in his inconclusive way the two extremes that can exist within the human mind, and we realize that not one, but both of these are reality.
When Marlow ends his monologue, his audience [is] aware that the universe around them, which, when we began the story, seemed an ordinary, familiar thing, with suns rising and setting according to rule and tides flowing and ebbing systematically for man's convenience, is, after all, a thing of mystery. It is a vast darkness in that its heart is inscrutable. What, then, has Marlow gained, since he has ended with this conclusion which we might, a priori, accept as a platitude? He has certainly helped us eliminate the false assumptions by which day to day we act as if the universe were a very simple contrivance, even while, perhaps, we give lip service to the contrary. Moreover, instead of letting one faculty of the mind dominate and deny the pertinence of the others, he has achieved a reconciliation in which physical sensation, imagination, and that conscious logic which selects and arranges have lost their apparent qualities of contradiction. He has achieved an orderly explanation, conscious and methodical, of the strange purlieus of the imagination. Because those recesses harbor shadows, the exploration must not be labeled conclusive; but the greatness of the darkness, instead of leaving a sense of the futility of efforts to dispel it, has drawn the artist to use his utmost conscious skill. Life itself, if we agree with Conrad, may tend to seem to us as meaningless and chaotic as were many of Marlow's sensations at the moment of his undergoing them, and the will may often appear to play no part at all, or a false part, in guiding us. But the genius of art was for Conrad that it accepted the most intense and seemingly reason-defying creations of the imagination and then discovered within them, rather than superimposed upon them, a symmetry coherent and logical.
Through Marlow's orderly narrative, with its perfect identity of fact and symbol, with its transformation of time and space into emotional and imaginative intensity, the shadows have contracted, and we are better able than before to speculate on the presences which seem to inhabit the very heart of darkness. Time is telescoped and we have as if in the same moment the exalted enthusiast and the man who denied all except horror; and we realize that they are and always have been the same man. We perceive that Africa itself, with its forests, its heat, and its mysteries, is only a symbol of the larger darkness, which is in the heart of man.
Source: Walter F. Wright, ‘‘Ingress to the Heart of Darkness,’’ from his Romance and Tragedy in Joseph Conrad, University of Nebraska Press, 1949, reprinted in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the Critics, edited by Bruce Harkness, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1960, pp. 153-55.