Analysis of Racism in ‘heart of Darkness’

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been studied for years, and is considered a stupendous piece of literature, that should continue to be read and analyzed. In Chinua Achebe’s criticism titled, “An Image in Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” he argues Conrad’s novella should no longer be taught because of it’s racist atmosphere, but Conrad’s ambiguous narrative structure and distinctive writing techniques used in Heart of Darkness only acknowledges racial distinctions to expose the ferocity of colonialism that was going on at the time, and should not only be read, but also closely studied, as it brings attention to political concerns that were being ignored by the English citizens and politicians back then. While Achebe, and many others, interpret Conrad’s writing as “racist”, it is rather just an attempt to sympathize with those who were being oppressed by both imperialism and colonialism, just as he had gone through a similar case with his home country, Poland.

In Achebe’s criticism, he misinterprets Conrad’s purpose of the novella, and states that it should not be considered a great work because it is “a novel which celebrates dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race.” But, Achebe fails to differentiate Marlow and Conrad’s views, which results in a misunderstanding of the overall story. Rather than only portraying the African people in a bad light, Conrad puts everyone, no matter their race in a bad connotation. Conrad begins his novella by describing the characters by their jobs, rather than their names to show how the Europeans were so consumed by their work, and thus emphasizes the hollowness of the European civilization. positive view of Africa, comparing Europe to Africa, the place where man originates from. With the late helmsman Marlow almost feels a connection to him, had formed a kind of bond with him, and a connection to Africa. Conrad starts off the novella by explaining Africans in a bad context, but as the novel goes on, he realizes their humanity. The matter is more personal to Achebe, and he hates Conrad, so he blows the racism in Heart of Darkness out of proportion. Achebe sees Africa as the Heart of Darkness, but Europeans greed and how they treat Africans can also be considered a heart of darkness. Europeans seem to be able to go to Africa and do whatever they want without any consequence, so the europeans are representing the darkness, not the Africans.

The popular belief of the time period Heart of Darkness was written in was for Africans to be inferior, that’s what everyone of the time thought. There was no way for Conrad to be able to see into the future, and see how beliefs were going to change over time. Throughout Conrad’s lifetime he had been surrounded by imperialism, and saw no other substitute, so to him that’s how he thought things were always going to be, and didn’t see any need to change. We have to historicize and contextualize past works. You can’t expect someone living during a colonial time to have post-colonial ideas, and write about post-colonial ideas.

Achebe seems to have the idea that “Certainly, Conrad had a problem with niggers……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.” () but you have to keep in mind that he had been born about 50 years after Conrad’s time, and people’s beliefs had pulled a full 180 by then. Achebe doesn’t realize that Conrad is using the racism to further develop the major themes of () in his story. Conrad uses these African characters to set the environment and sets the mood of the story, without these () descriptions, the novella would not have had as much impact in people’s development of ideas over time. Achebe doesn’t account for the fact that that was how Africa was viewed by everyone during that time period. Conrad may be considered a racist now, but in his time, he was probably just as racist as anyone else. Based on past standards he might have only been seen as slightly, if at all, racist by his fellow peers. It’s hard to tell how much Conrad actually overemphasized his ideas because they were so similar to everyone else’s of the time period. The novella serves as an important time-document of what people’s beliefs were at the time. It gives us an idea of what was seen as “normal” at the time. Without this example of people’s past beliefs, we wouldn’t see where we had gone wrong, and the importance of the change that needed to be made. By comparing our new ideas and beliefs now to what they were in the past, we have a better idea of why we had to change. It’s the same idea as you can’t feel happiness if you’ve never felt sadness before. For us to understand that racism was wrong, we have to go through it and implement it, and this piece is a good example of that exact thing.

Even Achebe makes note of Conrad’s remarkable writing techniques when he depicts him as “one of the great stylists of modern fiction.” Conrad’s idiosyncratic writing technique is so one-of-a-kind that it deserves to be included in literature curriculums everywhere. It’s like how we study Shakespeare’s work for it’s distinct structure and format. We continue to study Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because it continues to evolve and grow as time goes on, and shows us how horrible we used to be, and magnifies the extremes of the mistakes we had made in the past.

Conrad uses Marlow’s story to demonstrate the imperialistic ideas Europe was imposing on Africa at the time. There’s no way out of the force of imperialism.

Must not blame the Europeans, but look at the events that took place during the time period and the events of imperialism “as a network of independent histories that would be inaccurate and senseless to repress, useful and interesting to understand.” Realize why it was important in it’s time, learn more about our past ideas and morals.

Throughout his novel, Conrad continuously intends to give some sort of sense of disorientation; when something seems to be so secure, but ends up not being as secure as originally predicted. For example, in the beginning of the novella, Conrad portrays London as a place so secure and developed, (example here). As the story develops, Conrad compares Europe to Africa as he describes the “interminable waterway” that connects Europe to the rest of the world, which suggests that England’s civilization is just a disguise for the “dark heart” that all men alike share, no matter the color of their skin, or where they were born. When Marlow describes Europe as having “been one of the dark places of the earth” () he relates Europe to Africa and mentions how hidden behind their civilization, England still has a “dark” heart that warped the Romans who had gone to conquer it. So in reality, Conrad is suggesting that those who appear more civilized, the Europeans, are no more civilized than anyone else, and in fact may have a “darker” heart based off of their imperialistic ideas, their greed, and how poorly they treat the Africans. “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.” (Conrad 10)

While Conrad includes many racial distinctions in his novella Heart of Darkness, Achebe blows it out of proportion.  

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Analysis of racism in 'heart of darkness'. (2021, Mar 16). Retrieved August 10, 2022 , from

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