Is Heart of Darkness a racist novella Essay Example
In this essay the question of racism in Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness will be discussed. Using this essay I will attempt to prove that it is not a racist novella. Liberal humanists believe that a text can be taken from the social environment of its origins, placed into any other timeframe and essentially any other environment and still be related with by its readers.
Yet apply this theory to Conrad's Heart of Darkness the racial meaning within the text alters. This principal of liberal humanism is essential when considering racism in Heart of Darkness.Due to discrimination laws and human rights, Conrad's use of terms such as "nigger" would be deemed racist and derogatory in today's society, but the society at the time of the texts creation used such terms without any knowledge of the effects the term c...
ould cause and the consequences which could entail. Therefore the term had less power, less meaning and essentially in Conrad's Heart of Darkness less malice. This is important for the reader to note before analysing racism in the text.
A key factor for readers and critics alike to take into consideration efore accusing this text as a racist work is to try and understand the mindset of the author himself. Joseph Conrad was born in Poland, a country which became 'sliced up' by Russia, Prussia and Austria and exploited to the most extreme. The Africa in Heart of Darkness is a projection of Conrad's homeland Poland. It would be incomprehensible for Conrad to exploit Africa and its people maliciously as he too understands the pain of oppression.Ngugi Wa Thiong'o points out that "the African writer and Joseph Conrad
share the same world and that is why Conrad's world is so familiar.
Both have lived in world dominated by capitalism, imperialism, colonialism. "1 When reading any text a useful, if not a necessary device used to get an insight into particular themes and issues within a text is the narrator. Marlow is the prime narrator in the text he is also the least racist towards the African natives compared to his fellow Europeans in the Congo.Throughout the novella Marlow often expresses contempt towards his European steamboat crew.
"And then that imbecile crowd....
started their little fun"2 This shows Marlow to be sympathetic towards the natives. At the first station Marlow sees group of dying natives moaning under a tree, he comments "They were dying slowly- it was clear. They were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the green gloom"3 Marlow feels great sorrow for the natives.When Marlow meets the book keeper he describes him as immaculately clean and elegantly dressed, he is a "hairdresser's dummy". This description forces the reader to evaluate the purpose of the colonisers and discover their indifference towards the natives.
When Marlow's helmsman, a native, is shot by an arrow during an attack and ragically dies Marlow exclaims how "the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory... 4 This powerful scene is brilliantly successful in its attempt to convey how emotionally distraught Marlow is, so distressed and emotionally moved that the image has never left his mind.
Chinua Achebe described Conrad as a "thoroughgoing racist" stating in Heart of Darkness
that "the real question is the dehumanisation of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world"5 but we continually see the atives described as human beings in the text, as Marlow describes "And as by enchantment streams of human beings- of naked human beings... (Conrad 59) and after the attack on the steamboat Marlow says "I was almost certain I could see movements- human forms gliding here and there" (Conrad 52). The reader can see here that Marlow is stressing the natives humanity just as he reminds us here, "It was unearthly and the men were..
.. no they were not inhuman" (Conrad 37). On another occasion we see Marlow blatantly speak against colonisation and in turn racism.The conquest of the earth" says Marlow, "which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much" (Conrad 10) This scene shows Marlow looking deep within his being and showing the reader that he is a genuine person but who at times becomes caught up in social reforming, as many times social problems are so powerful that one individual does not know where to begin in correcting the problem.
Marlow's voice is essential when considering racism in Heart of Darkness.Conrad's Heart of Darkness can be seen as less of a racist text and more a reflection on Western civilization. Leonard Kibera a Kenyan novelist wrote to C. P Saravan on 7 April 1977 explaining, "I study Heart of Darkness as an examination of the west itself and not as
a comment of Africa". 6 Conrad's use of "shadows" throughout the novel are not to dehumanise the African natives but are rather more a symbol of a lingering link between Africa and Western society. Marlow himself notes on the Thames how London was once "one of the dark places on the earth" (Conrad 9).
Marlow is almost infatuated by "their [the natives] humanity like yours....
your remote kinship" (Conrad 38). By the end of the novella the reader is forced to ask themselves, who are the most civilized?. The Europeans intentions to bring order to Africa were quickly abandoned. We see this as the book keeper in the first station is careless and unsympathetic towards the dying natives and again even more grotesquely and frighteningly outside Kurtz's abode described by Marlow as "savage" with the heads of the so called "rebels" placed horrifically on sticks.The colonisers have revealed themselves as useless entities, as "black shadows".
As Kurtz is being removed from his station we are introduced first to a strong and powerful female entity, his African mistress. She is described by Marlow as "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" (Conrad 60). This vision of a woman clearly intimidates Marlow, he is engrossed in her fiery beauty.
He compares her to nature itself which presents an image of strength and vitality.This is the most powerful description of a character in Conrad's text and it has been applied, not to the mystery that is Kurtz but to a female native. This woman's beautiful description cannot
be ignored or undermined. In comparison, Kurtz's Intended is introduced as an unimpressive character, she is a 'floating head'.
C. P Saravan commented brilliantly "....
.. the European woman [Kurtz's Intended] is pale and rather anaemic whilst the former [the African mistress] to use Conrad's words is gorgeous, proud, superb, magnificent, tragic, fierce and filled ith sorrow.She is an impressive figure and importantly, her human feelings are not denied".
7 A text which has been criticised for many years, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a complex and brilliant book which is under no circumstances a maliciously racist text. Achebe noted "Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in this book. It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination...
Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth"8
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