Racism in ‘Heart of Darkness’ [full version]

Heart of Darkness is often regarded as an anti-colonial text in the sense that Conrad points out the hypocrisy of the ideals of the European ‘civilising’ mission and casts doubt as to the validity of the ideals in the first place (Hawkins, 2006). Marlow even says at one point about a group of Africans rowing a boat off ‘their’ shore that they were want of no ‘excuse’ to be there, as opposed to himself and the other Europeans. Nonetheless, anti-colonialism does not necessarily equate to an absence of racism. In evaluating how far Heart of Darkness supports Achebe’s view, this argument will outline attitudes towards race at the turn of the nineteenth century, examine the Marlow-Conrad distinction and Conrad’s linguistic treatment of Africa and its inhabitants, drawing on the work of Achebe, Hawkins, Wallace and others.

Firstly, is Marlow merely a persona of Conrad? Achebe (1988) states ‘…fictional narrator … irony and criticism …layers of insulation…cordon sanitaire… neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference.’ With this statement, however, Achebe dismisses the fact that Heart of Darkness is a work of novelistic fiction, and not a strict rendering of Conrad’s diaries. Conrad is not Marlow, just as Bret Easton Ellis’s writing of Patrick Bateman does not make him a serial killer. However, Jones (2009) suggests that Conrad did have a close relationship with Marlow, as he was a recurring character in his work over 14 years. Virginia Woolf described Marlow as Conrad’s alter-ego (1924) and as Heart of Darkness is drawn from personal experience, it is reasonable to assume, as Achebe (1988) does, the homogeneity of the two men.

In Conrad’s time racism was essentially the norm,  “the word did not exist”. (Firchow, 2000, in Hawkins 2006). Negroes were believed to have weak or non-existent moral sentiments, exhibiting ‘the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state’ (Hegel, 1830:209). Social Darwinists like Wallace (1870) felt that Anglo-Saxons should exterminate the ‘lower’ races as it was inevitable and would in fact be the decent thing to do. This attitude is exemplified by Kurtz’s scribbled addendum “Exterminate all the brutes!” to his report (Hawkins, 2006), a phrase that Marlow delivers to his audience with dramatic antithesis to its altruistic build-up, though his opinion remains implicit.

Conrad frequently uses derogatory, negative and dehumanising terms to describe the Africans, such as ‘grotesque’, ‘horrid’ and ‘fiendish’. ‘Savage’ is used twenty-five times, ‘brute’ three times and ‘nigger’ ten times and there is more than one instance of ‘rudimentary souls.’ He also compares them with ants, hyenas, horses and bees (Hawkins, 2006; Achebe, 1988). Perhaps the most controversial of these is ‘nigger’, however, Fowler’s (1926) prescriptive Dictionary of Modern English Usage states that applying the word ‘nigger’ was felt as an insult only when applied to people other than full or partial Negroes and it could be argued that Conrad only uses the word for effect. Achebe points out Conrad’s ‘fixation on blackness’ (p.345), however, despite the seeming heavy-handedness of it, the emphasis is not inherently racist (Chory, 2009). In addition, this kind of emphasis and repetition of descriptive terms is not limited to persons­­ —Africans or no— but to the concepts of the jungle and the inner psyche. As Achebe remarks, Conrad certainly has a fondness for emotive adjectives, though his repertoire for expressing these concepts feels limited, revolving around a ‘repetition of two antithetical sentences, one about silence, the other about frenzy… change of adjective… inscrutableunspeakable… mysterious…‘ (p.338).

Hawkins (2006) notes that none of the African characters are named, which is true, but in fact barely any characters of any race have names other than Marlow, Kurtz and the Dane, Fresleven. Otherwise characters are referred to by the simplest denominator; ‘the Russian’, the ‘Director’, the ‘Manager’, etc. Also, with the exception of Kurtz’ mistress, none of the African characters features for more than half a paragraph. We are not shown the point of view of any Africans and ‘apart from “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” and “short grunting phrases” … their speaking roles … four pidgin sentences’ (p.336). Due to Conrad’s previously proving this could not be attributable to inadequate cultural knowledge, it is quite perceivably intentional (Hawkins, 2006). Even a described character, his fireman, is ‘an improved specimen… a parody of a dog in breeches’ (p.36) and though he does seem to value him and the cannibals and regard them as ‘fine fellows… men one could work with’ (p.34), he does still place them in the category of the uncivilized and they retain a marginalized place within the story (Hawkins, 2006).

Singh (1978) argues that ‘Conrad viewed Africans as evil … what has corrupted Kurtz’ (Hawkins, 2006:371). She believes that Heart of Darkness “carries suggestions that the evil which the title refers to is to be associated with Africans, their customs and their rites” and that Africans have the power to “turn a white man’s heart black” (cited in Hawkins, 2006:371). However, it is clear that Marlow believes that Kurtz’s corruption comes from Europe and primarily from inside Kurtz himself. Having been freed of the legal and social restraints of Europe, Kurtz, who is “hollow at the core” (p.57), allows himself to sate his “various lusts” (p.57) unhindered.

Marlow does, despite Achebe’s view to the contrary, acknowledge kinship with the Africans, ‘humanity—like yours. Ugly… kinship … if you were man enough you would admit … there being a meaning in it which you … could comprehend.” The often misinterpreted point of this quote is that the ugliness in question is like that of the Europeans; a universal truth. Hawkins notes that Marlow ‘…realises that African drums may have  “as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country” …they are kin… because …have reverence. When drums represent savagery, Marlow’s excited response … kin … he also contains primal urges’ (2006:372) He learns through experience to overcome his prejudices enough to ‘acknowledge the “claim of distant kinship”‘ with his helmsman. ‘Getting to Kurtz, he says, was not worth the loss of his life’ (Hawkins, 2006:372). However, even then he is still patronizing, ‘…for months I had him at my back … partnership. He steered for me… I worried about his deficiencies … subtle bond … claim of distant kinship affirmed …’ (p.50). and even the novella’s overarching acknowledgement is tainted by a repeated association between the Africans and the wild or uncivilized; ‘the mistress mirrors the wilderness. The paddlers are ‘natural’. The honour of the cannibals is ‘primitive’ (Hawkins 2006: 372)

Hawkins goes on to suggest the pertinence of differentiating degrees and kinds of racism. Conrad  ‘certainly did not share the extreme racism of his time…annihilation of non-Europeans…’ (p.374) and overall the book offers views on many topics, including race, that are ‘…multiple, ambiguous, ambivalent, conflicting and perhaps even ultimately incoherent.’ (Hawkins 2006:336). Conrad highlighted the fact that the Negroes were human beings with societies, customs and beliefs and were more closely related to Europeans than the latter would care for. This standpoint, compared to contemporary attitudes, was revolutionary in itself.

Nonetheless, Conrad still expressed race in the terms of the time —Darwin and Wallace’s Evolutionary Theory had become firmly entrenched by the time of his writing— and while sympathetic and empathetic in parts, he ultimately viewed the Negroes as ‘less’ than Caucasians and this makes him racist. Anti-colonial does not equal not racist; empathy does not equal equality. So in terms of the evidence within Heart of Darkness, Conrad would perhaps be better described as ignorantly racist as rather than actively racist.


Achebe, C. (1977, 1988) An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Armstrong, P. B. (ed.) (2006) Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition (4th ed.), London, W. W. Norton & Company.

Chory (2009) ‘Racism Couched in a Critique of Racism’, Good Reads. Available from: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/49633021 Accessed 15th December 2009.

Conrad, J. (1910, 2006) Heart of Darkness in Armstrong, P. B. (ed.) (2006) Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition (4th ed.), London, W. W. Norton & Company.

Fowler, H. (1926) Winchester, S. (introduction in 2003 reprint). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford Language Classics Series). Oxford Press.

Fulton, H. and Huisman, R., Murphet, J. & Dunn, A. (2005) Narrative and Media, Cambridge University Press.

Hawkins, H. (1982, 2006) Heart of Darkness and Racism in Armstrong, P. B. (ed.) (2006) Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition (4th ed.), London, W. W. Norton & Company.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1830-31) The African Character,  in Armstrong, P. B. (ed.) (2006) Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition (4th ed.), London, W. W. Norton & Company

Jones, S. (2009) Conrad’s Marlow, English Advance Access, 2009, vol. 58, pp. 184-187. Available from: http://english.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/58/221/184. Accessed 15th December 2009.

Wallace, A. R. (1870) Are humans one race or many? in Armstrong, P. B. (ed.) (2006) Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition (4th ed.), London, W. W. Norton & Company

Woolf, V. (1924) Joseph Conrad in Armstrong, P. B. (ed.) (2006) Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition (4th ed.), London, W. W. Norton & Company

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