Heart of Darkness: Ignorance and Racism

Heart of Darkness: Ignorance and


Joseph Conrad develops themes of personal
power, individual responsibility, and social justice in his book Heart
of Darkness. His book has all the trappings of the conventional adventure
tale - mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, unexpected attack. Chinua

Achebe concluded, "Conrad, on the other hand, is undoubtedly one of the
great stylists of modern fiction and a good story-teller into the bargain"
(Achebe 252). Yet, despite Conrad\'s great story telling, he has also been
viewed as a racist by some of his critics. Achebe, Singh, and Sarvan, although
their criticisim differ, are a few to name.

Normal readers usually are good at detecting
racism in a book. Achebe acknowledges Conrad camouflaged racism remarks,
saying, "But Conrad chose his subject well - one which was guaranteed not
to put him in conflict with psychological pre-disposition..." (Achebe,

253). Having gone back and rereading Heart of Darkness, but this time reading
between the lines, I have discovered some racism Conrad felt toward the
natives that I had not discovered the first time I read the book. Racism
is portrayed in Conrad\'s book, but one must acknowledge that back in the
eighteen hundreds society conformed to it. Conrad probably would have been
criticized as being soft hearted rather than a racist back in his time.

Conrad constantly referred to the natives,
in his book, as black savages, niggers, brutes, and "them", displaying
ignorance toward the African history and racism towards the African people.

Conrad wrote, "Black figures strolled out listlessly... the beaten nigger
groaned somewhere" (Conrad 28). "They passed me with six inches, without
a glance, with the complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages"
(Conrad 19). Achebe, also, detected Conrad\'s frequent use of unorthodox
name calling, "Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His in ordinate
love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts" (Achebe


Conrad uses Marlow, the main character
in the book, as a narrator so he himself can enter the story and tell it
through his own philosophical mind. Conrad used "double speak" throughout
his book. Upon arriving at the first station, Marlow commented what he
observed. "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"
(Conrad 20). Marlow felt pity toward the natives, yet when he met the station\'s
book keeper he changed his views of the natives. "Moreover I respected
the fellow. Yes. I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair.

His appearance was certainly great demoralization of the land he kept up
his appearance" (Conrad 21). Marlow praised the book keeper as if he felt
it\'s the natives\' fault for living in such waste. the bureaucracy only
cared about how he looked and felt. The bookeeper did not care for the
natives who were suffering less than fifty feet from him. He stated the
natives weren\'t criminals but were being treated as if they were, but at
the same time he respected the book keeper on his looks instead of despising
him for his indifference. Conrad considered the Africans inferior and doomed

Frances B. Singh, author of The Colonialistic

Bias of Heart of Darkness said "The African natives, victims of Belgian
exploitation, are described as \'shapes,\' \'shadows,\' and \'bundles of acute
angles,\' so as to show the dehumanizing effect of colonialist rule on the
ruled" (269-270). Another similar incident of "double speak" appeared on
the death of Marlow\'s helmsman. Marlow respected the helmsman, yet when
the native\'s blood poured into Marlow\'s shoes, "To tell you the truth,

I was morbidity anxious to change my shoes and socks" (Conrad 47). How
can someone respect yet feel disgusted towards someone? Singh looks into
this question by stating, "The reason of course, is because he (Marlow)
never completely grants them (natives) human status: at the best they are
a species of superior hyena" (Singh 273).

As I have mentioned before, Conrad was
not only racist but also ignorant. He would often mix ignorance with racism
when he described the natives. "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" (Conrad 35). "The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying
to us, welcoming us - who could tell?" (Conrad 37). The end result of Conrad\'s
ignorance of not knowing the behavior of African people concluded his division
of the social world into two separate categories: "us," the Europeans,
and "them," the Africans. Achebe