Landing : Athabascau University

Conrad and the Critics: Responses to Heart of Darkness

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By Lisa Goddard July 17, 2012 - 4:41pm

Albert Guerard (Language, Psychoanalysis) asserts that Heart of Darkness isn’t really about Africa, it’s a metaphor for a psychological exploration to the heart of human nature and the animal selves that lurk beneath our civilized veneers. The true darkness is the beast within, and the ease with which we may backslide when external constrictions are removed. He demonstrates how Conrad lulls us into his “great dark mediation” with the rhythm of his prose, the sense of advancing and receding. We are offered vague images of great swaths of time that periodically focus in on sharply rendered scenes.

His attention to the way in which Conrad’s language generates a particular experience for the reader reminds me a little of reader-response criticism, but Guerard attributes that response entirely to Conrad’s intentional use of literary device, and so reads more like a formalist. This interpretation is strengthened by the critic’s reluctance to give much credit to the setting or historical circumstance of the novel, suggesting that Heart of Darkness is about Marlow’s journey within, and that Africa is almost incidental to this exploration.

The modern reader would probably argue that although this may not be a novel about Africa, the setting is no accident. Conrad deliberately chooses a region and cultural context that would resonate with the European audience as savage and uncivilized. We are not intended to believe that Kurtz would have experienced the same descent into madness were he in his familiar setting with the policeman on the corner. It is the wild nature of Africa and her peoples that incites the European to a “howl and a dance” (36).

Chinua Achebe (Racism) – Probably the most famous response to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness characterizes him as a “thoroughgoing racist”. Achebe is almost certainly right on this point. It would be curious indeed if Conrad had been a late 19th Century European who was not racist. Racism was so much a part of the culture that no word existed to describe it when Conrad was writing this novel. ‘Racialism’ is a term that was first used in 1907, and ‘racism’ was not named as such until the 1930s. Although some critics might argue that Conrad simply intends to depict Africans as Other, there is no question that he chooses descriptors that also render them lesser. Why, for example, does he frequently refer to the “rolling eyes” of the natives? Why should their eyes be constantly rolling around in their heads? This description is almost certainly inaccurate, and connotes insanity or at least a total lack of restraint. I also take great exception to the myth that Africans would welcome the white man in as a god. It seems much more likely that he’d be considered a demon, particularly as Europeans atrocities escalated during the scramble for Africa. We know that Africans resisted colonization, and surely they did not worship the violent and oppressive white man. None of these essays really deal with this question of Kurtz as God. Where does this pervasive myth come from (that white men will be seen as gods everywhere they go)? Are there any real life examples of native deification of white people that lasted more than about a day after first contact?

Achebe’s essay is exceptional because it points to an obvious truth that had not been previously explored (or even noticed, it seems) by any other critic. His contemporaries considered this piece shocking and controversial. Many of the other critical pieces are at least in part responding to his charges of racism. 

Ian Watt (Language) explores the formal elements of Heart of Darkness combine to create a literary impressionism. Conrad’s misty symbolism is the literary equivalent of Monet’s blurry images. Both are perfectly intentional and leave the audience with an impression of a scene, rather than a fully rendered picture. Both ask the audience to work a little bit in order to fill in the blanks. Conrad’s style reflects his intention, which is to embody uncertainty and doubt – that which we cannot know. Watt also coins the term “delayed decoding” to describe the strange non-linear order in which Marlow sometimes provides us with information. This technique tries to approximate the way in which we make sense of real life. Sensation intrudes to pull our attention away from some task with which we are engaged, we divine the source of the sensation, then we begin the cognitive work of sense-making. While Impressionism moves from sensation to thought to idea, Symbolism proceeds from the other direction, taking an abstraction and trying to “to clothe the idea in a perceptible form” (358).  In HoD “the darkness” is the most important symbol, and it can stand for a multiplicity of ideas about human nature. The darkness itself is symbolized by the wilderness, by Africa, by Africans, but by the end it has crept into Europe, carried inside Marlow, and it pollutes his experiences there, including his final meeting with The Intended.

Hunt Hawkins (Racism) Hawkins attempts to answer Achebe’s claims, and while he does not deny some Conrad’s racist characterization of the natives, he contends that the author is more overtly critical of Europeans than he is of Africans. Hawkins argues that Heart of Darkness represents an attack on imperialism. White men’s hearts are not turned black by Africans, they already carry the corruption of Europe within them. When we examine the way in which Europeans are portrayed in the novel they can hardly be seen as sympathetic. Most of the white men are greedy, violent, and barely competent. Marlow himself dreads the idea that he might be lumped in with the other “unwholesome” pilgrims. Hawkins takes pains to draw out examples where Conrad recognizes the humanity and the terrible plight of the Africans. He makes a strong argument that Conrad may be seen as racist in a modern context, but that during his time Conrad may have been a progressive thinker who criticized colonialism, and deplored the capitalist conquest that clothed dumb violence and unmitigated greed in high ideals. Hawkins brings a fair amount of historical context and biographical content to his analysis, so seems to have been influenced by the New Historicist school of thought.

Peter Brooks (Language, Poststructuralism)Brooks pays particular attention to narrative structure in Heart of Darkness. He shows that the narrative is not a linear unraveling in which we incrementally gain understanding, but is rather a “representation of an effort to reach endings that would retrospectively illuminate beginnings and middles” (376). The object that is sought throughout is a voice that can bring sense to the chaos. The text contains a variety of attempts to order the story, which Brooks suggests may actually be a way of emphasizing the underlying lack of order. Conrad portrays the Europeans as very concerned with order on the surface, yet bumbling, hysterical, and deceitful in their actions. Language is presented as a “system of police” form which Marlow is unable to break free. He is disappointed in his effort to find a voice, to find language, as is suggested by his unwillingness to articulate the “unspeakable”, and his inability to utter the truth to The Intended. Brooks suggests that we can only find meaning at the end, but what lies at the end is extra-linguistic, so Marlow can only be satisfied by passing on the story, by using his constrained language to transmit the story, and the process of constant transmission means that it will never end. This analysis reminds me of Patricia Yeager’s deconstructionist reading of The Awakening, which also concerned the search for a voice, for a language that is capable of true expression.

Patrick Brantlinger (Racism) – Brantlinger deconstructs the idea that Heart of Darkness must be read as either racist (and therefore imperialist) or anti-imperialist (and therefore antiracist). The fact that he starts by stating a binary that he goes on to disprove indicates that he is likely a deconstructionist. Brantlinger maintains that Conrad’s impressionist style helps to mask the contradictions within his book. The text critiques imperialism and racism in ways that can only be seen as imperialist and racist. Conrad’s politics seem to be progressive, but he is unable to completely rise above his own time and place. The framing narrator warns us that it will not be easy to locate the significance of the story when he notes that Marlow’s meaning was “not inside like a kernel, but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (5). I agree with Brantlinger’s observation that this is a novel of contradictions, and that Conrad’s style circles around meaning, allowing for a number of different interpretations or readings, all of which may be accurate, but which can’t be labeled so with any certainly.

I feel that Brantlinger sets up a false dichotomy when he conflates imperialism with racism. An imperialist may always be racist, but a racist is not always an imperialist. This is not one dichotomoy, but two: racist v. antiracist, and imperialist v. anti-imperialist. I would argue that Conrad was an anti-imperialist who also subscribed to offensive racial stereotypes common within late 19C European culture.

Marianna Torgovnick (Gender Studies, Racism) - Torgonovick suggests that existing critiques of imperialism in Heart of Darkness fall prey to the same circumscribed views of gender and notions of the political to which Conrad himself subscribed. She argues that the “celebrated vagueness of Marlow’s style” veils Conrad’s thoughts on his own controversial subject matter. Torgovnick is particularly interested in Conrad’s portrayal of Kurtz’s mistress and they way in which Conrad constructs masculinity and power in the novel. The black woman stands in for the primitive, as the white woman stands in for civilization. The mistress represents the taboo of miscegenation, yet another line that Kurtz has crossed.  Torgonovick equates this with other “fantasy sites” (402) of the primitive like ritual slaughter and head-hunting. Torgonovick tells us that “Africa and the Africans became Kurtz’s grand fantasy-theatre for playing out his culture’s notions of masculinity and power”. This reading is the only one to imply that the African woman is shot to death on the bank subsequent to her introduction. Conrad says however that she disappears back into the bush, and the Russian expresses his relief when he says “I really think I would have tried to shoot her” (61). Seems to me that Conrad thus reassures the reader that she departed safely. This essay is concerned mostly with the construction of power and masculinity, so aligns more closely with Gender Studies than it does with Feminist theory.

Jeremy Hawthorn (Feminism) – Hawthorn asserts that Conrad deliberately crafts the female characters in Heart of Darkness to offer “artistic insight into the way in which gender divisions enter into the duplicities of Colonialism” (414). This construct is becoming familiar, as it seems to occupy many of the critics. Does Conrad represent women in sexist ways because he is sexist, or in order to call out sexism? Does he use racist language because he is a racist, or in order to make a point about European prejudice? Does he choose Africa as his setting because he believes in imperial notions about primitivism, or is he making a political statement against European domination of other cultures?

The two main female characters, The Intended and the mistress, seem to offer a clear Madonna/whore binary. One is all “fecund” (60) body, the other is barely visible, hidden in shadows. The naïve innocence of the European woman, contrasts with the inscrutable purpose of the African woman, but both are essentially projections of male fantasy. The African woman stands in for Africa. Kurtz’s conquest of both can be achieved only by slipping into savagery, by disappointing his European betrothed, and by rejecting all that is civilized. European women, by contrast, are there to believe and repeat the lies of imperialism. They bolster the men with reassurances that their imperialist work is noble and to the greater good. In both cases women are symbols rather than people – they are lifted on pedestals above the fray in order to serve the needs of the male psyche. Conrad depicts the African woman as proud and magnificent, where the European woman is weak, unhealthy, and deceived. We can certainly read this as indicative of Conrad’s anti-imperialist sympathies, but he also denies the African woman a voice, and describes her as “savage” and “mysterious”. His whole description smacks potently of the “noble savage” trope, so although he may be using his female characters to indict imperialism, he manages to be both sexist and racist in doing so.


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