It’s undeniable that Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad has a lot of racist elements. The dehumanization of Africans within the story and the framing of them as savages and animals is very obvious. It has been commented on by noted African writers such as Chinua Achebe. While the story does at least seem to condemn the greatest brutalities of British imperialism and colonialism towards Africans, it’s undeniable that Africans are depicted as if they are primitive animals.
Conrad constantly uses dehumanizing language to describe Africans throughout his narrative. He describes them as savage, primitive and uncivilized on several occasions. He often compares them to the wilderness, framing them as untamed animals. For example, this is his description of an African woman: “She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent ….She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose” (Conrad 168). Even while complimenting her beauty, the narrator still acts as if she is some magnificent and exotic animal, rather than a human being like himself.
In describing Africans, the book states “They were not enemies, they were not criminals, and they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom” (42). While the description is sympathetic to the plight of the Africans, it still describes them as unearthly and confused, even using their skin color to liken them to darkness and shadow.
Conrad refers to Africans as “the prehistoric man”(96), which reveals Conrad considers Africans to be less “evolved” than white men and that he considers their intelligence to be comparable to Neanderthals. In reality, Africans were and are just as intelligent and “evolved” as any white man. Conrad even goes so far as to refer to an African who is acting as a fireman and using modern technology as a “like a dog in a parody of breaches” (99). There is no other way to interpret this, the book is saying Africans are like animals trying to be human when they do “civilized” things. Part of his objection to imperialism is an idea that these “cannibals” need to be in their “place” (93), rather than journey into the world of the white man.
Conrad even dismisses the specific language those along the Congo speak as less refined and therefore lesser than English. He describes the language as “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” (48). Conrad is even framing the very language they speak as violent and uncivilized, implying he thinks the very nature of Africans is violent and uncivilized. This is pretty ironic coming from a man who is supposed to be condemning the violence his people visited on Africans. In reality, the language these particular Africans were speaking is no less civilized or beautiful than English.
African writer Chinua Achebe has personally taken issue with the racist descriptions in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Achebe writes “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality”. Achebe notes that those who defend the book say Conrad himself is not racist since the story is narrated by one of his characters, Marlow, rather than Conrad himself. But Achebe notes that Marlow is framed by the narrative as a witness of truth and that Conrad himself took a trip to the Conrad similar to Marlow’s. Therefore, it is likely that Marlow is supposed to represent Conrad’s views. Conrad, like Marlow, views Africans as pitiable savages.
Memory Chirere writes “If the novel caused sympathy towards the African, it was that sympathy one has for an animal in agony, not fellow human beings.” This is a perfect summary of the racist elements of the novel. Africans are represented as animals to be pitied, not human beings with a rich culture of their own.
- Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.” Massachusetts
Review. 18. (1977). Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
- Chirere, Memory. “Zimbabwe: Is Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ Racist?” AllAfrica Global
Media. The Herald, 08 Apr 2013. Web. 4 Dec 2014.
- Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Plain Label Books, 1899. Web.