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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Symbols, Associations and Chinua Achebe’s famous critique: Part One

conrad cover I have been wrestling with this piece for a couple of weeks now – and my deadline was today. As it approaches three in the afternoon, my post has grown to 5,000 words and counting – testament to the endless fascination of this famous novella but not very blog-friendly where we try to keep articles to 2,500 words at most! So, I’ve split my post into two parts, to be joined back together at a later date. As my whole examination bends in on itself and the argument refers across both articles, both Parts should be read for the full argument- so I do hope you will join me for Part Two.  But, for the moment, here is Part 1.

Heart of Darkness – a student discovery

I first read Heart of Darkness at University – possibly like many people do.

I liked it for many reasons – some more literary: the intensity, power and ambiguity of this strange tale. Some, less so – I particularly liked short books in those days, particularly after losing hours of unrecoverable life to the execrable “Clarissa”.

Nowadays, many will be familiar with Heart of Darkness  as the inspiration behind Francis Ford Coppola’s famous Vietnam War film, Apocalyse Now, where Marlon Brando plays Kurtz to Martin Sheen’s mentally traumatised  Willard. For those unfamiliar with the famous text, Heart of Darkness is about a journey of a man called Marlow up the “coiled snake” of the Congo river into Belgium-controlled Congo. He encounters many cruelties and inhumanities on his journey and hears about a famous maverick, Kurtz, who seems to have been sent in by those above. This man – famed for his apparent high-minded notions – has turned his back on the other stations, is steeped in mysteriousness, yet produces more ivory than any other. Marlow becomes curious and is determined to meet this man, but when he finally does he discovers a ruthless and sick individual who has set himself up as a kind of deity, scaring the local tribes-people with his thunder and lightning (guns) and enacting terrible acts upon any “rebels”, whose shriveled heads are displayed on spikes around his remote outpost station. In the famous denouement, Kurtz, very ill, seems to have a moment of vivid realisation and whispers “The horror! The horror!” before dying. This simple yet much-analysed phrase has resonated down to us over the century that followed – appearing to prefigure all the subsequent horrors of the twentieth century.

Belgium Congo

Heart of Darkness is generally considered to be about Belgium Congo, where Conrad himself captained a steamboat in similar style to Marlow for a Belgium company about a decade before it was written.

Desperate to have a colony like other European powers, King Leopold II of Belgium made a deal with the famous explorer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley (coiner of that famous phrase “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”) to help him take over the Congo. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, King Leopold II of Belgium laid claim to the “Congo Free State” and was endorsed by the other colonial nations.

What is particularly disgusting about King Leopold’s methods is that he set up a private company – under the guise of being an anti-slavery operation. In this fashion, he used the pretext of saving Africa from slavery to turn the whole of the Congo Free State into his own personal fiefdom. The resulting slaughter and cruelty shocked even those who were advocates of colonialism at the time. Estimates put the death-toll of Africans at the hands of this regime at 10 million. When researching this article I came across many distressing photographs on the net – 19th Century photographs osteamboat congof Africans, young and old including many children, who had their hands or limbs hacked off by King Leopold’s ruthless regime.

His exploitation of the Congo made Leopold incredibly rich due to the invention of the tyre driving a sudden boom in the demand for rubber which was harvested from the trees in the jungle.

Conrad was an experienced seaman and had been on many expeditions before he wrote Heart of Darkness in 1899, but the Congo expedition seems to have changed him utterly and the physical and mental effects scarred him for the remainder of his life. In Our Time devoted a whole episode to this short novella – which I recommend for further information on the subject – along with this fascinating programme about the Berlin Conference. In the former, Conrad is quoted as saying that he went to Congo a brute, but returned a changed man. This seems to me to be key in looking at the structure of the text.

Heart of Darkness is the story of that journey and that change.

Chinua Achebe’s critique

Heart of Darkness has long been accepted as one of the greatest of literary achievements so it was something of a shock when celebrated writer and academic Chinua Achebe’s blistering attack on Conrad in the mid 70s demanded to know how such “an offensive and deplorable book” should be so highly deemed and accused Conrad of being a “thorough-going racist”.

Achebe’s critique is famous in its own right – giving rise to numerous replies and counter-critiques – so much so that Achebe’s accusations became a standard interpretation to be studied alongside Conrad’s text in many American universities.

I was curious about how a text that was often pointed to by those who were trying to end Leopold’s regime in the Congo can be accused of being “racist”, so when I knew I was to write about Heart of Darkness for VL, I decided to revisit Achebe’s critique.

Achebe’s arguments seem to fall into a number of categories. First, he talks of Conrad’s use of Africans and Africa itself as symbols – merely a backdrop to consider Europeans. Secondly, he sees Conrad as displaying a distaste for black skin and showing an adulation of white-skinned bodies. Thirdly he talks about Conrad’s denial of voice for African people, denying them language and words…

The usual rejoinder against these criticisms is that Conrad was a man of his time, that what we might see as racist terminology or language today was commonplace when he lived and that you have to look at the writer and the work in the context of when it was written.

Achebe argues that a great writer should be able to rise above their time and that Conrad has failed to do this, and that a work based on such assumptions has nothing to say to us.

The trouble with both these viewpoints is they are rather polarising and limited. Whilst I think it is illuminating – and interesting – to view Conrad in context and it is important to do in some respects  – I do agree with Achebe that a great work should also speak to us now.

I believe Heart of Darkness is both a product of its time but also has things to say to us now as well. Which is why – in my view – it is still a great work.

Symbols and Cyphers

One of the difficulties reading Heart of Darkness lies in the descriptions of the “natives”. One description early in the novella talks of people rowing a boat – their faces “grotesque masks”. Another rather shocking description of Marlow’s black helmsman describes him in dismissive terms as though he is simply a bit of machinery. The (who we assume to be) African mistress of Kurtz can easily seen as a description of the “exotic”. There is lots of talk of the African people in the novella in terms of the animalistic and primitive. As Achebe notes, there is a passing mention at one point of “rudimentary souls”.

This certainly makes for uncomfortable reading now. Yes, we can view all this as part and parcel of the time it was written but is that enough? Heart of Darkness was published in three parts in a magazine at a time where the European readership glutted on stories of explorers and savages, witch doctors, voo-doo and derring do. Even so, there are those who were able to supersede the time and prejudices of when they lived. Marlow certainly seems to think in an assuming and racist way for much of the book.  But is Marlow Conrad? Achebe argues yes. I say no. At least, not the same Conrad that writes the book.

A good example would be the mining station. In a very disturbing sequence Marlow describes black African men with heavy metal collars attached together with chains. (Remember – Leopold’s company was supposed to be freeing the land from slavery). And then – in  shocking description – we are told about the grove of death where the “workers” who were used up and ground into the ground are allowed to crawl off and die.

“When near the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of getup that in the first moment i took him for a sort of vision.  I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clear necktie , and varnished boots. …hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand.”

Marlow is greatly taken with this “vision”, but the author’s juxtaposition of the Grove of Death with the man’s ridiculous and ostentatious appearance suggests a slightly different attitude. Later, Conrad again juxtaposes a view of the valley of death with this man – the accountant – calmly doing his accounts, keeping everything in order in the face of human misery below.

So where is Conrad at this point? It seems clear to me that Conrad is there in that deliberate juxtaposition – the contrast yet the simultaneous inextricable link between the dying Africans in the grove and the European dressed in his finery holding an account ledger. Is Conrad making a point? To me, it is obvious that he is. But to the colonial readers of his time, and to Achebe in the 70s, that point sadly seems to have been lost – or not seen. But we’ll return to this later.

The system of symbols that Conrad sets up subtly shift and change as we journey through the novella.  And Marlow’s attitudes and undeniably racist language – typical of a seaman of that time who was seeking his fortune and adventure in such a way – does seem to shift slightly. African tribespeople are very much described in terms of otherness or thee primitive  – yet, in places, this starts to be challenged – with the text sometimes undercutting Marlow himself. Marlow describes a group of cannibals who travel with him and who are facing starvation, and is impressed with their restraint – despite his seeing them as having the power and not being constrained by societal taboos to stop them killing Marlow and his crew.  Achebe argues that the cannibals are approved of by Conrad because they are an example of  being in their place. But they are not in their place, they are away from their normal environment, stuck on a boat with no food. But they still exercise that important word Conrad returns to over and over: restraint.  This “restraint” – something Marlow obviously does not expect from people associated in his mind with cannibalism – impresses him greatly and is contrasted tellingly with Kurtz who is repeatedly described in terms of his lack of restraint, for his murderous and cruel excesses and for his boundless greed.

We see a similar shift in the discussion of Marlow’s African helmsman – described initially as little more than a necessary bit of machinery and in  a way that is hard – and yes offensive – to read in this day and age. Later, when the helmsman is killed by the arrows of those onshore, Marlow describes the man’s dying moments with an apparent ruthless off-handedness. Marlow seems to care more about his shoes being ruined by the blood than the death of a man, an actual human being.

Yet, it is not quite as simple, as Conrad doesn’t leave it there. Marlow returns to the incident – obviously disturbed  – and later, shame-faced, admits that he misses this man, in front of his tough sailor audience by saying:

“I missed my late helmsman awfully. I missed him even whilst his body was still lying in the Pilot’s house. Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don’t you see, he had done something”

Marlow doesn’t just miss this man, but admits the loss was greater than the life they were trying to save, that of white European Kurtz.

Ok, so Marlow’s admission is not exactly the words of a humanitarian liberal and – yes – the casual racist assumptions at the back of these admissions cannot be denied – there being an implicit assumption that the white man (Kurtz) should automatically be worth more than a black man (the helmsman), for example. But, nevertheless, there seems to be a shift in Marlow – the hardened sailor and profiteer making his fortune in the Congo. That what he finds there shakes him to his bones is all the more powerful because he is a hardened sailor with those assumed prejudices. And, of course, we have to remember, Conrad would have been speaking to an audience, most of whom would have shared those prejudices too.

Again the question needs to be asked – is Marlow Conrad? I say not. At least, if he is Conrad, he is the Conrad before he was irrevocably changed by his experience in Congo. And of course – at this point in the novella, Marlow has not experienced all that Conrad has.

Achebe relies a lot on quoting from sources outside of Heart of Darkness to demonstrate that Conrad himself was a racist – particularly when it comes to skin colour and bodies. He talks of Conrad’s hatred of black skin and quotes a glowing description of a white body when Conrad first arrived in England. But we don’t know the context for these outside descriptions, and the latter quote was from when he was just sixteen – long before he went to Congo. This quote does not seem to be reflected in Conrad’s disturbing physical description of Kurtz  – whose whiteness is also used symbolically, and – indeed – negatively.

The white-skinned body of Kurtz is used as a symbol as much as the black characters – his head looks as though made of ivory – a billiard ball (another middle-class status good) made of that commodity for which he has murdered so many people. His obsession with ivory is reflected in his physique and that physique is sick – gaunt, skeletal and approaching death. He may be eloquent, but far from being an exulted white body, he is in physical decay – an image of physical and moral death.

As Conrad very significantly puts it:  “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz “.  He is not just one “petty European mind” as Achebe puts it, but a symbol of a diseased Europe, sick from greed and its own lack of restraint.

But it is not just  the body that we need to look at when it comes to Kurtz – but the voice. And that’s what I’ll be discussing next in Part II

[To be continued…]


To read Part II of this examination click here where I’ll be continuing to examine some of Achebe’s arguments,  looking at voices and voicelessness, associations with darkness in the novella and the layering of images and associations. I hope to demonstrate why Heart of Darkness – whatever its faults, problems and limitations, is still a great work of literature and worth reading today.

6 comments on “Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Symbols, Associations and Chinua Achebe’s famous critique: Part One

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings
    November 15, 2013

    Very thoughtful and thought-provoking first part. It is too easy (and perhaps lazy) to conflate author and narrator of a book and to assume that Marlow is reflecting Conrad’s views. I never read HoD like that and I wasn’t aware of Achebe’s criticism. Marlow’s attitudes and the behaviour of the whites is hideous, that cannot be denied. However, much of the tension between races comes from fear of the other, of something or someone perceived as unlike – and I sense this in some of Marlow’s reactions. Looking forward to reading part 2.

  2. Jackie
    November 15, 2013

    I don’t think I’ve ever read this book and I’m not sure I want to. I have read other Conrad stories and he is preoccupied with the idea of “otherness”. In “The Secret Sharer” that’s one of the spokes of the story & it’s about 2 white men, so that aspect of HoD may not be completely about race.
    It has always seemed an insult to say that an author is always writing about him or her self. As if authors have so little imagination that they can’t think outside of their own feelings and experiences.Annoying.

  3. CFisher
    November 16, 2013

    I’ve come back to Heart of Darkness many times, each time realising how little I understand it. Does Marlow despise people with black skins? I have no idea. Why does he tell his story on a boat in the Thames? Again, I don’t know. But I do feel to see the novel only as a social product rather than an artistic one, is to cut yourself off from so much that it has to offer to us as readers.

  4. Pingback: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Symbols, Associations and Chinua Achebe’s famous critique: Part Two | Vulpes Libris

  5. rosyb
    November 16, 2013

    Thanks for all your comments, everyone. Part 2 is now posted! I know what you mean Cfisher about coming back and back – it contains so much and is endlessly ambiguous. Obviously I have my reading of it – but I suppose all readings are going to be informed from our existing ideas to some extent. Which is another thing that is interesting about the book – the way the criticism has also changed and reflected the society’s ideas over the years. A lot of early critics seemed to manage not to find a critique of their kind of colonialism – for example. Others seemed to see Kurtz’s fiancee as the moral centre and the answer to everything (whereas I can’t help but read her a lot more critically). But then I’m a woman – and i suppose I can’t buy into that sort of romanticising. A work of art also lives beyond its author/creator. We can’t always know what the intentions or values of the author might be. Whilst I don’t go along with those that think the creator or writer or artist and what they are trying to do is irrelevant (I don’t think it is and i think context can be hugely interesting as well as illuminating) – I do think there is a balance to be struck between what we try to work out in terms of artistic intent – and what the work says. After all, a work can also – presumably – say things at an unconscious level where the artist cannot even know what is being accessed.

  6. Pingback: Belgian museum faces up to its brutal colonial legacy |

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This entry was posted on November 15, 2013 by in Entries by Rosy, Fiction: 19th century, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , , , .



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