by PH

Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, which first appeared in 1899, should be considered the starting point for European modernist literature; its psychological depth and Nietzschean undertones are remarkable for a work begun during Queen Victoria’s reign. However, though Conrad is apparently opposed to the imperialist ideology that drives his novel’s antagonist, Colonel Kurtz, the work has, since the 1970s, generated controversy over its portrayal of Africa and Africans. Understanding why this debate still dominates scholarly discourse over “Heart of Darkness” is crucial to examining the relationship between morality and literature. Given that there are few things more morally reprehensible than racism, should we reject works as immoral if there is a possibility that they are racist? And is “Heart of Darkness” definitely racist?


Conrad’s narrative is fairly simple; his alter-ego, Charles Marlow, tells his shipmates, whilst docked in London, the story of the expedition he lead into the Belgian Congo to find Colonel Kurtz. Kurtz turns out to be a charismatic megalomaniac who seemingly recants the violence he has used towards the native population before succumbing to fever and death. Marlow then returns to Europe repulsed by the entire experience. Here, the brutality and racism of colonialism is seemingly exposed, yet some have refused to accept this interpretation.


The distinguished Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, in an article of 1977, challenged Conrad’s anti-imperialist credentials. By purveying “comforting myths” about the “dark continent” of Africa, Achebe argued Conrad “dehumanised and degraded” Africans, especially with his “tautological iteration of the adjective black”, used with negative connotations. In short Conrad was a “thorough-going racist”.  Even more favourable discussions of Conrad have suggested, as C.P. Sarvan did, that Conrad was not “immune to the infection of the beliefs and attitudes of his day”.

Yet is this the case? There are frequent examples in the text when Conrad suggest that there is no  difference between Europeans and Africans, implying at one stage that then-current European beliefs about Africans are the same as ancient Roman beliefs about native Britons. Even if it is the case that Conrad uses terms which are hugely objectionable, should we reject Conrad’s work because it fails to measure up to modern standards of morality? Or is it totally inappropriate for critics to suggest when other people should or shouldn’t be offended?

The most useful piece of information to bear in mind in this debate is that it is not clear where or what the “Heart of Darkness” actually is. Achebe located it geographically in Africa, at the end of Marlow’s search for Kurtz, the heart of Conrad’s constructed “Dark Continent”. However, it could refer to Kurtz, who is “hollow to the core” and filled with the grotesque greed of imperialism, or perhaps more intriguingly to Marlow, and therefore to Conrad himself. Marlow is after all telling the story to his shipmates in the late evening as darkness descends upon London’s docklands; his physical presence is at the heart of the literal darkness that surrounds him, whilst his narrative presence is at the heart of the psychological darkness of the story. Is Conrad therefore, as someone who had completed a similar expedition to Marlow and physically assisted the progression of colonialism, the heart of the darkness?


When critics are referring to a text as ambiguous as “Heart of Darkness”, any attempt to establish the author’s moral code in order to establish whether the text is morally acceptable is risky. A mistake could lead us to reject a classic on insufficient grounds. This text must therefore be viewed apart from any external implications; the decision to accept or reject “Heart of Darkness” should be reliant on the individual readers’ assessment of whether the novel is meritorious or de-meritorious artistically and morally. As it is impossible to say whether Conrad’s work is or isn’t racist this is a debate that will continue for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that the work’s ambiguousness means that every reader’s interpretation may be different. In the distorted world of “Heart of Darkness”, it is my belief that darkness is in the eye of the beholder.