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

conrad In Part 1 of this examination of Heart of Darkness: Symbols, Associations and Achebe’ famous Critique,  I examined some of Chinua Achebe’s  accusations against Conrad in his critique from the mid-70s which called Conrad’s work a deplorable and offensive book and Conrad a “thorough-going racist”. His argument focused particularly on the use of black Africans as symbols, how words and language are denied to black people in the novella, how Africa itself used as a mere backdrop to explore European concerns and the imagery of darkness itself  in the book. In Part 2, I’ll explore voices and voicelessness, the symbolism and associations with darkness, and examine how layers of association and meaning travel and change and why this powerful novella still speaks to us today.

Voices and Voicelessness

One of Achebe’s major arguments to outline Conrad’s racism is the lack of voice given to Africans – indeed the lack of language given to them in the book.

We are used to the idea of sexism and racism  working by omission: the dominant voice in so much literature being the white western male.

That Conrad denies his black characters a proper voice is definitely true in Heart of Darkness – the Africans have practically no voice and are frequently described making noise – but without a sense of proper language. And if we stop there it’s an obvious win for Achebe :

Achebe 1, Conrad 0.


A cover of Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary by Penguin Classics

But, the trouble with Achebe’s argument,  is that the text has the theme of voices and voicelessness as a running motif throughout the novella, with Conrad’s attitude not being so clearcut. For example, language – or lack of a common language – comes into play at the key moment when the African helmsman dies – which I explored more fully in Part 1. Marlow says about this death:

“we two whites stood over him, and his lustrous and inquiring glance enveloped us both. I declare it looked as though he would presently put to us some question in an understandable language ; but he died without uttering a sound”

In this moment, Conrad uses the possibility of shared language – of verbal communication – to show the connection between the two men. After what has gone before, this moment also seems to denote a change of attitude in Marlow.  Marlow usually presents the Africans as “other”, as primitive, as something unknown and threatening on the banks of the river or deep in the jungle – unconnected to him. Marlow’s idea that the helmsman might speak shows the perceived gap closing by his slowly changing realisation.  It is not hard to see why Achebe finds this distasteful – there is something patronising about Marlow deigning to grant a man his humanity simply by the idea he might speak HIS language. Who does he think he is? Europe and European attitudes – as ever – is put at the forefront by Conrad. However, I do think that Conrad is showing a shift in Marlow’s attitudes and assumptions here. Before, Marlow talked of the faint call in himself towards what is happening on the bank in a rather stereotypical presentation of notions of wild Africa – but in the above passage we see him with a shifting attitude – a move towards engagement and recognition of the helmsman as an individual human being…

But why  just a move towards? Why is there no point of view provided by black African characters?  Is this evidence again of Conrad’s racism as Achebe claims, or is there another reason?

A few years ago I visited the Museum of Commonwealth and Empire in Bristol (now tragically closed). It was the most extraordinary place – calling itself a museum of ideas it charts the history of colonial Britain, of the goods and commodities, the companies that ran the colonies, the status goods that drove entire economies. I had no idea that status goods – useless purposeless high-end status goods – were so powerful. Whale-bone corsets, for example, or the top hat – which decimated the Beaver population in Canada.  I was struck forcibly how money, exploitation, plunder and stealing often seems to go first – with racism following hot on its heels. For some reason, I’d always assumed it was the other way round. But racism seemed to become a kind of ideology to back up what people were already doing -for their own selfish greed – the economic role in all of this was fascinating.  At the time I was visiting, the museum contained a brilliant – and very harrowing – slavery exhibition. In the midst of all the inhumanity, death and torment, it was chilling to view ledgers and books outlining the complex systems of categories invented in order to create hierarchies and systems  (and control) through intricately worked out racist categories – different names and statuses allotted to different colours, mixes and parentage – often across numerous generations. This was systematised racism – a whole ideology creating a system and a “justification” for the exploitation and inhumanity towards fellow man. Whether by notions of bringing civilisation to the primitive, Christianity to the heathen or saving souls – underneath it was the same old human evils of plunder, pillage, rape and enslavement. It maybe seems strange to us that racism could provide any “justification” – as though racism itself was the moral imperative. But in so many cases racism – whether by coming up with nonsensical theories of how people were devolved, or lesser, or subject to savage customs – was used to justify the horrendous dehumanising treatment of so many people.

What has this got to do with Conrad?

On his journey up the Congo, Marlow experiences many things – many terrible things. Accountants checking their ledgers whilst people – worked to death – lie groaning in the grove of death, a black man beaten (possibly to death) for a fire that was not his fault. Men chained together by the neck. But the heart of darkness seems to be the interior at Kurtz’s cut-off station. Whatever it is about meeting Kurtz, Marlow is shaken to the core. As a hardened captain, he is not sentimental. We have already seen that with his ability to endure other horrific sights. So what is the darkness that surrounds Kurtz? Is it simply evil, madness, the darkness at the soul of mankind? And why is Kurtz right at its core?

It seems to me that it is all these things – but also more than that. The difference between Kurtz and the other appalling colonial characters we meet is that gap between what he says and what he does. The lie at the heart of his ideology. And remember all of Europe has gone into the creation of Kurtz.

Kurtz is described as an idealist brought in by the powers that be above the heads of the more bureaucratic plods of the other stations. Kurtz’ talk – his voice, the ways he speaks, his impressive oratory – is constantly referred to in the text, dreamt about even, and worshipped by those that have heard him, whether that be the Russian who encounters him in the jungle, or his naive fiancee left at home in Europe. Conrad pushes this further, describing the dying Kurtz that Marlow finally meets as:

“A voice. He was very little more than a voice”

No longer really a physical being, Kurtz’ voice is still as potent as ever. The voice itself seems associated with darkness.

In Heart of Darkness, voices and language are presented as enchanting, as intoxicating…but as illusionary lies. Kurtz’ eloquence and rhetoric are legendary but cover over a hollow soul. That voice – those words – are belied by the terrible reality. The cannibals and the helmsman have no words, but their actions earn Marlow’s respect and connection by what they do. Kurtz’ words intoxicate – but in his actions Kurtz is cruel and depraved and without restraint.

Language – or the lack of a common language – can be seen as one way that the colonisers justify their actions and attitudes towards the Africans they exploit and abuse. Language smooths the surface of even greater atrocities – talk of civilising, of saving, of bringing religion and saving souls is the Big Lie masking the rape, pillage and murder of millions of people. An estimated 10 million people were thought to be killed in Belgian Congo – hands and limbs routinely hacked off  in an excess of savagery and extreme cruelty.

The lie at the heart of Kurtz’ rhetoric is itself symbolised by the treatise he was writing for Conrad’s ironically-named  “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs”. The report is described as being full of fine rhetoric, but vague about method (yet a handwritten note from Kurtz has “Exterminate all the brutes!”scribbled in the margins).

Achebe sees the Africans’ voicelessness in Heart of Darkness as evidence of Conrad’s racism. But the text itself appears to explore the idea of voice and voicelessness as Conrad grapples with symbols and imagery with shifting meanings. Voices and language are truly problematic in Heart of Darkness. Is the voicelessness of the Africans really a racist act by Conrad, or is it part of an exploration about high words versus actions – the way words, language can’t be trusted, how moral ideologies are used and manipulated to justify terrible deeds; about the real voicelessness of those  exploited by King Leopold and others? Could this recurring theme of voices and voicelessness offer a wider critique of the whole idea of colonialism itself?

Murder, exploitation, plunder, it’s all there in the novella. But it seems to me that Conrad is sickened by the moral justifications, the fine speechifying, the words that enables the very worst of excesses – the dark lie that lies at the Heart of it all.

Ambiguity and Layers of Associations and Meanings

The sign of a great work of art is that it speaks to us across time and allows us to think. In defending the work against Achebe’s accusations, many point to context – but Heart of Darkness is not just a time capsule only. I’m increasingly of the view that understanding the context of a work is invaluable and interesting and allows us to understand its historical relevance and the contemporary points the author was trying to make. But for a work to survive it has to speak to people in different times. Conrad’s novella is a period piece and understanding its setting and context is essential to getting the most out of the book. But its poetic and literary and symbolic quality – its constant struggle to grasp at truths – is what allow it to speak to us today. It grapples with unspoken thoughts and ambiguities, paradoxes. These things are still with us. There is no one single reading of this text. The power of the novella is that multiple readings may exist simultaneously within the work.

I don’t agree with Achebe that Marlow is Conrad. At least, that he is the Conrad who is writing the book. If Conrad said of himself that he went to Congo a brute and came back changed – then it is the changed man who writes Heart of Darkness. To take Marlow’s prejudices as the message of the novella seems unfair. Heart of Darkness questions everything. And it is that questioning, provoked by the life-changing experience Conrad went through, that makes this book such a very interesting read. (Let’s face it – soft-hearted humanitarian liberal goes to Congo and is shocked by what he finds is not such a powerful message as hardened profiteering sailor goes to Congo and is haunted and horrified for the rest of his life by what he has witnessed there.)

Achebe’s reading is a seminal one in that it made the world consider Heart of Darkness in a new light. It stood up against the predominance of purely psychological readings that had been so prevalent in teaching. Its assertions of racism paradoxically forced greater engagement with the context of the text and the events at the time it was written – even though Achebe does not accept that as an excuse.

For me, Achebe’s interpretation seems so concerned with Conrad himself, it does not engage fully with what the work is struggling to explore. His interpretations of the imagery don’t consider the way the associations move and change and layer up across the novella. Black and darkness is associated with Africa – yes. But Achebe seems to take this straightforwardly as showing Africa as being the problem – the corrupting influence on the European Kurtz. But this is to not consider also the movement – the journey of the book and the ways darkness is associated with many ideas  – sometimes even opposing ideas.

The symbolism of the novella is so dense it suggests meaning upon meaning. Darkness is associated with Africa, with mystery, with the jungle, with primal instincts, perhaps. But what Achebe does not acknowledge, is how the symbolism and associations build and change. Darkness, curiously, is also associated with knowledge. Conrad describes the map of the Congo river as having been an exciting white space on the map- but now it is dark, dark because it has been mapped, colonised, filled in…

This sense of darkness as not knowing, not seeing, is cleverly reversed in the novella. The darkness of the jungle – that mysterious unknowable place – is  also simultaneously where Marlow gains knowledge. Once you have that knowledge – that darkness – you cannot put it away.  And the darkness itself is part of the overall journey of the novella. The darkness comes with Marlow back to England – not because anything has changed, but because he sees things differently.

At the beginning of the novella, Marlow describes London as having  once been a place of darkness before the conquering Romans. Darkness is associated with the uncivilised, the mystery of the wilderness, the primitive…But after the journey to the heart of darkness – the heart of the Congo, the station of Kurtz – the darkness moves.  By the time Marlow returns to England the darkness has come with him. In the famous scene where Marlow meets Kurtz’  fiancee, he cannot bring himself to tell her Kurtz last words (“The horror! The horror!”) and succumbs instead to the lie that pleases her and maintains the myth about Kurtz: he tells her that Kurtz called out her name. As he utters this last lie – securing Kurtz’ heroic status – Marlow feels the darkness rising around them in the room. He is part of the lie that maintains the ideology, the worship of Kurtz. The European lie. (And in the corner sits the grand piano – that other middle-class status good, with its ivory keys…)

By the time we return to the seaman sitting on the boat in the Thames, listening to Marlow’s tale, the darkness has set in all around them. The heart of darkness is no longer just  the Congo – but is at the heart of all society, of civilisation itself.

Achebe seems angered by Conrad’s ambiguities, his apparent indecisiveness – his refusal to be more overt in his frames and ideas. But perhaps it is Conrad’s struggle that makes Heart of Darkness such an extremely powerful work. That we struggle with it too leads to a greater engagement with these ideas. We can easily condemn the past – but how much do we still continue to kill, to steal oil, to plunder, to exploit, to ruin nations, to take advantage of slave labour or inhumanity propping up our status goods and lifestyles  – just so long as it’s somewhere else and not shoved under our noses.  Do we even know the result of our activities or activities undertaken in our name? And, of course, Congo is still ravaged by war and atrocity to this day. As someone once pointed out to me – it is the richest African countries in terms of material and mineral wealth that seem to suffer the most violence and unrest.

Do those of us in  first world countries of today  – as Europeans past did – still justify ourselves, our wars, our greed with fine words and bogus moral reasoning? Do we still create heroes out of villains? Set up myths for ourselves that can’t be questioned?

Marlow  – and Conrad himself – are part of a system. They cannot get outside it, be totally pure from it. Whilst I understand Achebe’s point and have found it interesting to think about the book through his famous critique – it still seems a little unfair, to me, that Conrad should be so condemned when he was struggling to look into that Heart of Darkness – even if limited by the time in which he lives.

Heart of Darkness is like a rotating miasma of questions and ambiguities – layers of meaning and  associations. Image upon image, layer upon layer of association. In some ways it is more like poetry than straightforward story-telling. Its constant questioning, and the quivering layers of symbols that Conrad creates and the incredible way they shift and move – building up layers of meaning, of connection, of ambiguity  -allows us to engage more fully with the attempt to illuminate what we are, the cruelties we enact, the cruelties that underpin our societies.

And this is why it is such a powerful novella and still speaks to us today.


More reading:

Chinua Achebe’s critique

Interesting interview with Achebe about Conrad:

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

  1. Alison Priest
    November 16, 2013

    Thanks for these fascinating pair of articles. Heart of Darkness has been sitting on my Kindle waiting to be read since earlier this year when I studied The Beach of Falesá (1892) by Robert Louis Stevenson as part of the Open University module A230. My tutor pointed out some of the parallels between these stories, in particular that both have a narrator ‘who calls attention to injustices of imperialist project whilst being integral part of it’ (and Stevenson’s narrator Wiltshire isn’t RLS either!).Both seem to provide an intriguing insight into fin de siècle colonial preoccupations and I will prevaricate no longer!

  2. Jackie
    November 17, 2013

    Darkness is also where things are hidden and I wonder if that is also one of the meanings. Isn’t there a British term “keep it dark”, meaning keep it a secret? Maybe that referred to the behavior, the atrocities, the evil in the hearts of the colonists? And keeping Kurtz’s fiance in the dark about what his real last words were seems like a kindness.
    While reading your comments about language. Could it also be a metaphor that the Africans literally had ‘no say’ over their own treatment, their own country? Maybe the symbolism is unintentional, but it does work.
    Wow, that ending, where you tied the past with modern times, was powerful! That was just perfect. Well done!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings
    November 17, 2013

    Really excellent pieces, both of them. And having read some of the links you put at the bottom, it strikes me that the problem I have with Achebe’s response is that it’s a personal one, not an intellectual one. As a feminist, I often find things in older works deplorable, and the treatment and attitudes meted out to women, and the fact that they too were denied a voice, very very angering – but if I’m reading an older work, I can still stand back and look at it intellectually and appreciate it as a work of art. Thanks for such a thought-provoking work!

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

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

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This entry was posted on November 16, 2013 by in Uncategorized.



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