Throughout the history of civilization, superpowers have used the precept of morality and a self-serving interpretation of good versus evil to further their economic and political stronghold. Such an example lives in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, where racism, sexism, human rights violations and economic imperialism collide to expose a chilling example of the darkest side of human nature. Through the storyteller, Marlow, Conrad recounts his personal experiences in the Congo, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and opening up a Pandora’s Box of controversy and debate which will, for more than a century, cast doubt on his own morality and motivation.
Much has been written about Conrad’s style of narration in Heart of Darkness, and it is believed that he may have been heavily influenced in this regard by fellow writer and mentor, Henry James (Watt 160). Certainly his style of narration is central to the ultimate effect of this work, and thus, is worthy of closer examination. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad uses a nearly anonymous first person narrator, as Marlow has no role in the story other than that of the narration itself. We hear what he is saying, but we don’t know what he is thinking or feeling, thus creating a narrative distance that adds a level of complexity to the story. This distance forces the readers to engage their own imaginations and allows them to actively participate in the story’s ultimate meaning.
Although this tool may or may not result in the meaning the narrator originally intended, it allows the reader to become more intimately connected to the story, and in effect, share authorship. According to author Alicia Rasley in her book The Power of Point of View, “… a little narrative distance can make characters and their emotions even more appealing” (234). She advises writers to allow the power of the scene to provide the emotion, rather than that of the narrator’s point of view. We see this tact used frequently by Conrad as he describes scenes on the river that defy words, leaving us, the reader, to evaluate and interpret, making the story one of collaboration, and in the process, fully substantiated.
William W. Bonney writes of one such example from Heart of Darkness, as Marlow struggles to convey the emotion he felt at the thought of never getting to meet Kurtz. ” … Absurd! Absurd be – exploded!” (Conrad 90). Bonney submits that “… Marlow can scarcely be blamed. He is trying to render an awareness that transcends the possibilities of his language” (137). In doing so, however, he provides the perfect example of allowing the scene to provide the emotion, calling upon the reader to fill the gap between this narrative distance, drawing them in and solidifying their share of ownership. Ian Watt states, “Conrad … so hypnotizes us with the wide-ranging urgencies of Marlow’s voice that we hardly notice our increasing bewilderment at the almost unimaginable inclusiveness of what we are being left to piece together” (169).
In the case of Heart of Darkness, narrative distance accomplishes more than just a sharing of authorship by the reader, however. The narrative style itself is symbolic of the unreliability of our perceptions. The book proves to us that we never really know someone else. Kurtz was revered by those in his life at home as being stalwart, moral and righteous. The people from his company that Marlow encountered early on spoke of Kurtz as “… a very remarkable person” who “sends in as much ivory as all the others put together” (Conrad 55). In speaking of Kurtz, his fiancé tells Marlow “… all his promise, and of all his greatness, of his generous mind, of his noble heart, nothing remains – nothing but a memory” (Conrad 123). Yet we know from the narration that the Kurtz who resided in the depths of Africa was an altogether different person.
This distance from home allowed Kurtz to be the person he truly was, somewhat akin to how the narrative distance in Heart of Darkness causes us to cast doubt on the reliability of this first person account. Take, for example, Marlow’s exchange with the Intended, as she asked him to repeat to her Kurtz’s last, dying words. Marlow could not bring himself to tell her the truth, even though it would have been the justice Kurtz deserved. Rather than repeating, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 124), Marlow instead lied, and told Kurtz’s fiancé, “The last word he pronounced was – your name” (Conrad 124). Marlow’s ability to tell such a complete and unqualified lie makes us question the reliability of the entire story we have just heard him tell. So in the end, the narrative distance used to tell this story is somewhat symbolic of the distance between reality and fantasy; a sort of detached association that distorts the truth through a series of misinterpreted, subconsciously manipulated chain of events.
There is no denying, however, the significance of Heart of Darkness, regardless of how much is raw truth and how much was embellished. Prior to Conrad’s trip to the Congo in 1890, many nations of the world were scrambling for rights to the abundant and exotic resources of Africa. The economic rewards to be realized were substantial, first from ivory, and later from rubber. King Leopold II of Belgium realized this potential early on, and in 1876, convened an international conference in Brussels under the auspices of science and humanitarianism. Over the next eight years, the ensuing entities from this conference, highly influenced by Belgium, worked hard to establish a Belgian stronghold and dominate the ivory and rubber trades (Schimmer). The resultant flurry of European imperialism played out in a series of unimaginable events – essentially the epitome of ruthlessness and greed. As A. Michael Matin reveals in his introduction to Heart of Darkness, the scene was “… so uniquely horrific in its sheer scale of suffering and death that it has been termed the African Holocaust” (Conrad xxxii). Conrad recorded his experiences in the Congo during these few short months, and it was this diary that served as the basis for Heart of Darkness, which was published nine years later, in 1899.
One of the horrific sights which Marlow recounts is of his early encounter with the slaves working at the station. “They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthy now, – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom” (Conrad 53). That scene, miserable enough, may not even have been the worst of what Marlow encountered in the African abyss. Even more macabre was what he discovered when he arrived at Kurtz’s compound. “Now I suddenly had a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow … These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic … food for thought and also for the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky … those heads on stakes” (Conrad 102).
Given the evil within and about Kurtz, one has to wonder then, how Marlow could be both so appalled by and attracted to him, for although he is well aware of the holocaust unfolding around him, Marlow remains loyal to Kurtz to the very end. In his essay, “His Sympathies Were in the Right Place: Heart of Darkness and the Discourse of National Character,” Pericles Lewis explains that Marlow himself cannot come to grips with this contradiction. “His reasons remain unclear to him until the end, but it seems that, after the struggle between his disgust at Kurtz’s barbarism and his hatred for the Company’s hypocrisy, the appeals to national sympathy and solidarity made by the harlequin and Kurtz in large part determine his choice” (Lewis 238).
Among the many criticisms thrust upon Heart of Darkness over the years has been Marlow’s treatment of women. Many have gone so far as to call him a sexist outright. It is interesting to note that none of the women in the story are actually referred to by name. This would make sense for the background characters that, for the most part, are relatively unimportant to the story. Take for instance, the two women Marlow encounters in his company’s offices upon first arrival. Although he describes them at great length, they remain nameless. “She wore a starched white affair on her head, had a wart on one cheek, and silver-rimmed spectacles hung on the tip of her nose” (Conrad 46). The unimportant female characters, however, are not the only ones who go unnamed. Marlow’s aunt, who was singularly responsible for securing his job, is referred to as “… a dear, enthusiastic soul” (Conrad 43) and “…my excellent aunt” (Conrad 47). Kurtz’s African mistress is called, “…a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman” (Conrad 106) and “… the woman with the helmeted head and tawny cheeks” (Conrad 113). Even Kurtz’s Belgian fiancé, whose existence was paramount to the importance of the story, is referred to only as the Intended, both by Marlow and Kurtz.
In his essay, “Marlow’s Morality,” Daniel Brudney accuses Marlow of sexism, and bases his accusation on events somewhat less superficial than his failure to speak of the female characters by name. One example Brudney uses to defend his claim is Marlow’s attempt to protect the Intended from the truth. To Brudney, the mere fact that Marlow chooses to lie to the Intended proves that he believes women are not capable of dealing with life’s dark side. “Marlow does not think the Intended incapable of comprehending concrete evil: that she could comprehend it is a condition of his attempt to deprive her of its knowledge… It is not that Marlow thinks the Intended could not endure pain or could not acquire knowledge: he thinks she could not endure knowledge” (Brudney 321).
Whereas Brudney uses this example to criticize Marlow, Florence Ridley uses it to praise him. In her essay, “The Ultimate Meaning of Heart of Darkness,” Ridley applauds Marlow for his gallantry. She writes, “Marlow, on the contrary, does remain faithful to the Intended, protects her from, rather than subjects her to, the darkness into which Kurtz would have plunged her” (50-51). So, whether or not you believe Marlow was sexist appears to depend on your chosen attitude toward appropriate gender interaction and whether or not you believe it is acceptable to respect and protect someone’s feelings at the risk of dishonesty.
There is no doubt that Conrad’s writing of Heart of Darkness was in response to the shock he experienced and disdain he felt regarding the immoral treatment of Africans in Europe’s quest for economic and political gain via the exploitation of the African continent. However, there is no shortage of critics who believe that Conrad himself was a racist, and that Heart of Darkness is a prime example of amoral literature (Maier-Katkin 585). In his essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,” Chinua Achebe argues that Conrad is indeed a racist, and uses a variety of examples throughout Heart of Darkness to illustrate this allegation. He accuses Conrad of deliberately choosing inflammatory adjectives to describe the Africans, their actions and surroundings. Achebe further purports that Conrad intentionally chooses inconsistency and contradiction within his narration when it serves his purpose to further prove the natives’ savagery and inhumanity (Achebe).
Inconsistency and contradiction are indeed rampant throughout Heart of Darkness, especially where reference to the native peoples is concerned. Often times it seemed as if Marlow was struggling with his own bigotry, not really knowing on which side of the fence he wanted to land. It was almost as if he was coming to the realization that that which he had feigned to know all his life was perhaps not so. In recounting the experience of the darkness and those who resided within, he said, “No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman… what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar” (Conrad 76). Here, Marlow seems to have had an epiphany, understanding for the first time that the Africans shared a spot in the human race.
Also confusing was Marlow’s choice of names for the Africans, among them, black fellows, savages, niggers, cannibals, and naked human beings. To most readers, the variability in meaning between the use of “black fellows” and “savages” presents, in and of itself, a monumental contradiction which seems to confirm Achebe’s accusation that Conrad purposely contradicts himself when it serves his literary purpose. There are, of course, many less obvious examples that can be used to illustrate Marlow’s censored bigotry, not the least of which was his numerous insinuations of the inherent association between the natives and satanic demons. When describing the scene as they were evacuating Kurtz, Marlow said, “… they shouted periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language; and the deep murmurs of the crowd, interrupted suddenly, were like the responses of some satanic litany” (Conrad 113). Here, Conrad could most certainly have chosen alternative words to illustrate his point – words that would not have carried with them such strong negative connotations, but would just as effectively have communicated the meaning.
Perhaps it is at this point that one begins to question where Marlow ends and Conrad begins. Certainly Heart of Darkness is a work of fiction, but one cannot help but recognize and give credence to the inseparable flow of emotion and conscious that courses between character and author. For this reason, it may be impossible to examine the morality of Marlow without also considering that of Conrad. In his essay, “The Moral Conditions for Genocide in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Michael Lackey states, “For Conrad, the problem is not defining true morality; rather, the problem is that morality is an empty signifier, a semiotic vacuity that dominant political powers can strategically manipulate in order to justify crimes against humanity” (21). It is for this reason, Lackey purports, “Conrad rejects morality because it makes crimes against humanity … possible” (23). In this submission, Lackey is indeed coming to the defense of Conrad – and thus of Marlow – and effectively deflates the significance of Achebe’s claim that Conrad is a racist, for even if Conrad is a racist, he is a racist in the name of equality and righteousness.
Lackey goes to great lengths to prove the validity of this claim, which is founded in the belief that only God-fearing, chosen people have rights. Consequently, “the British could perpetrate extreme acts of violence on Africans without violating either the Ten Commandments or Christ’s Golden Rule – only humans have rights, so killing an African (animal) would not be immoral” (28). This lies at the very heart of Lackey’s defense of Conrad, submitting that Conrad’s rejection of morality is essential to cultivating an environment where equality can truly exist.
Whether one subscribes to Lackey’s notion or not, in effect, will strongly influence whether one believes Conrad is a hypocritical racist or a true humanitarian. Regardless of which side one takes, however, the fact of the matter is that Conrad’s choice to tell his story did result in a more enlightened world, and the beginning of change which, although slow and painful, extended the concept of human rights across oceans, to Africa and beyond.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.'” In Bloom, Harold, ed. Heart of Darkness, Bloom’s Guide. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 2009. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Columbia College Stafford Lib. Web. 14 Feb. 2010.
Bonney, William W. “Joseph Conrad and the Betrayal of Language.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 34.2 (1979): 127-53. JSTOR. Columbia College Stafford Lib. Web. 14 Feb. 2010.
Brudney, Daniel. “Marlow’s Morality.” Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003): 318-40. Project MUSE. Columbia College Stafford Lib. Web. 9 Feb. 2010.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003. Print.
Lackey, Michael. “The Moral Conditions for Genocide in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” College Literature 32.1 (2005): 20-41. Project MUSE. Columbia College Stafford Lib. Web. 9 Feb. 2010.
Lewis, Pericles. “His Sympathies Were in the Right Place: Heart of Darkness and the Discourse of National Character.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 53.2 (1998): 211-44. JSTOR. Columbia College Stafford Lib. Web. 8 Feb. 2010.
Maier-Katkin, Birgit, and Daniel Maier-Katkin. “At the Heart of Darkness: Crimes against Humanity and the Banality of Evil.” Human Rights Quarterly 26.3 (2004): 584-604. Project MUSE. Columbia College Stafford Lib. Web. 13 Feb. 2010.
Rasley, Alicia. The Power of Point of View. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008. Print.
Ridley, Florence H. “The Ultimate Meaning of ‘Heart of Darkness.'” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 18.1 (1963): 43-53. JSTOR. Columbia College Stafford Lib. Web. 8 Feb. 2010.
Schimmer, Russell. “Belgian Congo.” Genocide Studies Program. Yale University, 2009. Web. 19 Jan. 2010.
Watt, Ian. “Marlow, Henry James, and ‘Heart of Darkness.'” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 33.2 (1978): 159-74. JSTOR. Columbia College Stafford Lib. Web. 8 Feb. 2010.