Summary and Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

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Heart of Darkness is a novella written by Polish-English author Joseph Conrad in 1899, just after the Scramble for Africa, the period of the late nineteenth century that began with the Berlin Conference of 1884, which regulated European trade in Africa, and about a journey up the Congo River into the Heart of Africa.

Joseph Conrad himself was a professional sailor, and the novel was inspired by one of his voyages to Africa. A Belgian business commissioned him to serve as captain of one of its steamships plying the Congo River. At the time, King Leopold II had acquired huge areas of the Congo Basin. The location was already known for its economic exploitation. The book describes the Belgians’ insatiable desire for the priceless ivory concealed in the African interior and how they left no stone unturned to obtain it, even if it meant oppressing the locals.

The story is of Charlie Marlow, a 32-year-old Ivory trader working for a Belgian firm, who embarks on a harrowing trip into the heart of Africa in quest of an enigmatic person known only as “Kurtz,” who has taken on the stature of a deity. While the work does represent Joseph Conrad’s colonial attitude, it also serves as a stinging critique of the entire colonial project and the colonial rhetoric that portrayed the indigenous as inferior, uncivilised, and in need of salvation on the part of their European counterparts.

In addition, notable writers including Nigerian novelist and essayist Chinua Achebe and American literary critic Edward Said have panned the work. Achebe went so far as to say that it was racist and that it had to be removed from Western literature in his criticism. The terms Conrad uses to describe Africans as primitive have been questioned by Said, a moderate critic.

The book, if read from a perspective it was never intended to be read from, is a documentation of the horrors the colonists unleashed upon the Congolese through their development programs and a wake-up call to those who continued to cloak the disastrous project in the language of civilization and improvement, warning them that the “pilgrims” have turned cruel. One wonders why Joseph Conrad included a framing story in “Heart of Darkness.” The argument is that Conrad’s frame narrator, like the readers, discovers that his conception of European Imperialism is based on several falsehoods and that there is a nefarious purpose behind all the charity activity.

An attack on Colonial Discourse

The book criticises colonial ideologies, such as orientalism, that portray Arabs and Indians as uncivilised and crude, and portrays European colonialism as a civilising mission rather than an exploitative business. The colonisers had indoctrinated the colonised into believing that the mission would ultimately benefit them since they would become civilised via interaction with the superior European race. In other words, it was considered that the colonists were guiding the Natives toward the peak of civilisation. In contrast to Edward, who focused on colonial speech in the Middle East, Joseph Conrad provided us with the pervasive racist discourse about Africa in Europe. The rhetoric that justified the European Empires’ partition of an entire continent.

The fundamental logic of orientalism and African colonial discourse is quite similar, in the sense that in African colonial discourse Africans were portrayed as primitive and childlike, requiring the tutelage of enlightened Europeans. Thus, the conquest of Africa in the late 19th century was described as an illuminating endeavour, just as the occupation of the Orient was explained as such previously.

This classic of British literature focuses on the odd way in which Colonial rhetoric on Africa warped reality. It is a reflection of the disparity between colonial ideology and the brutality of the colonial process.

The term “Heart of Darkness” echoes the colonial discourse that portrayed Africa as lacking in intellectual and moral enlightenment. Marlow learned about the falsehoods he had been told about the Africans through a lengthy and incremental process and through direct observation.

During his stay at the outer station, he watched the construction of a railway project, which was marketed as a sign of progress, but he deemed it a terrible waste of money because it did not help the inhabitants. According to him, instead of emancipating the natives, the initiative had transformed them into slave labour. In addition, he watched the starving and dying African labourers on the site, who were ostensibly colonialism’s beneficiaries. When he got to the Inner Station, where Kurtz’s home was located, he discovered the grim reality of the colonial endeavour, which was in stark contrast to the imperial discourse. Using binoculars, he observed wooden poles around the Kurtz residence. What looked to be beautiful knobs on top of the poles were, upon further inspection, dried skulls of Africans displayed in this manner to instill fear in the local populace. This was a preview of the activity through which Kurtz forced the natives to search for the Ivory.

At this point in the narrative, the term takes on a new meaning and importance, since Darkness is no longer linked with Africa and Africans but with the legendary European figure Kurtz and the process of colonial resource exploitation. In this way, Conrad’s story inverts the colonial discourse and debunks the fiction of the civilising mission by juxtaposing it with the horrific realities of colonialism. Read from this perspective, Heart of Darkness appears to be Conrad’s contrapuntal reading of the colonial discourse.

Is the novella Racist?

Before the actual colonisation of Africa, Europe had been in contact with Africa through the slave trade. Africa became a hot topic following the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 when European empires became concerned about the expansionist plans of France and Belgium. Africa was divided up like a cake and dispersed among the empires. Commodities and raw resources needed by the West’s capitalist empires were in high demand from the rest of the world. What drew European Empires to Africa, according to Albert Adu Boahen in his 1987 book “African perspectives on colonialism” were its vast untapped resources of raw materials and a profitable market for European-made products. Africa’s overwhelming response to colonialism was an armed conflict, but the colonists’ greater military might ultimately prove too much for the Africans to overcome. Colonization spread over Africa in a matter of ten years, except for Liberia and Ethiopia. Discriminatory attitudes toward Africans in Europe were disguised by the racist colonial rhetoric about Africa that was already prominent in Europe. To depict their advance into Africa as a civilising mission for the savage and barbarous inhabitants, they employed this language skillfully. Africans were shown not as the victims, but as the beneficiaries, of colonialism.

When it comes to Edward Said and Chinua Achebe’s criticism of The Heart of Darkness, the colonialist prejudice utilised in the novel is one of the key points of contention. The idea that Conrad was a product of his period, the son of a racist continent, and writing for a racist audience may be made by saying that he was an unfortunate victim of his circumstances. To justify their colonial rule over Africa, Empires employed racial rhetoric at the time. The author’s comment also reveals that Conrad exaggerated the Africans’ vicious reputation with the “purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the reader.”

The fact that he refers to Africans as “niggers” and other such pejorative terms reveals the fact that, despite his strong condemnation of the colonialists, he is a member of the superior European race and shares certain major ideological premises with them. In spite of this, Conrad was writing at a period when the historical depiction of Africans has always been a discourse of racism. Furthermore, he had spent most of his time at the African basin with white males, therefore he had little knowledge of the African culture. Furthermore, he has highlighted the hypocrisy of Europeans by making demonic analogies to the invaders and ridiculing “Europe’s civilising mission” in his work.

Conrad has inserted a few English words in the mouths of a few Native characters, lending credence to the charge that he has forced the language of invaders on the Natives. It assumes that the colonisers are the superior race, that their culture and language are superior, and that the locals must accept it at the expense of their own. The protagonist portrays Africans using racist language: “They howled and jumped and whirled and made horrible faces.” According to Chinua Achebe, he rids them of human conduct by giving them animalistic behaviour, which calls into doubt the humanity of black people. “One of the creatures got on its hands and knees and crawled towards the river on all fours to drink.” In these lines, Conrad compares Africans to apes.

By depicting Marlow’s journey along the river as “traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world,” Conrad implies that Europeans are in a more advantageous position than Africans, who have yet to emerge from prehistory. He is the agent of colonialism. Marlow is a prejudiced character. He believes Africans to be barely human and in need of civilization. By assaulting his own riverboat, Marlow labels the attackers as savages. It is reasonable to assume that Marlow is a racist character and that his ideas resemble Conrad’s. He had minimal contact with the Africans, yet he continues to make these nasty statements. British Colonialism is supported by Marlow. His other character, Kurtz, is a very cruel and merciless individual. Even if it requires genocide, he wishes to kill the Natives. He murders the natives and sets their heads on top of the wooden poles.

Achebe and Said Perspectives

Achebe believes that “Heart of Darkness” is an example of the Western habit of setting up Africa “as a foil to Europe, a place of negations . . . in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.” Conrad, obsessed with the black skin of Africans, had as his real purpose the desire to comfort Europeans in their sense of superiority.” ‘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 bestiality.” He wanted the Novella to be dropped from Western fiction.

Edward Said says that Conrad, like Marlow and Kurtz, was encased in the mindset of imperial dominance and hence could not conceive of any alternatives; that is, Conrad could only conceive of Africans under European authority. Heart of Darkness does contain a few vague and widely separated lines that appear to celebrate the British variant of international dominance.


“Heart of Darkness” transports the reader back in time to the racist and xenophobic age of colonial control, when the dominant discourse portrayed Africans as “the other.” Joseph Conrad held the opinion that Europeans are superior, cultured, and enlightened to other authors of his period. Similarly, he believed in the necessity for Africans to advance at the same rate as Europeans. And by this advancement, they meant eradicating the native language, culture, and all of their centuries-old habits. We cannot reject the novel as the product of a racist author’s imagination, as some have argued. Conrad is a product of his period, and his viewpoints mirror the prevailing discourse of his era. Even though Marlow occasionally feels pity for the natives, he nevertheless carries the baggage of bigotry.

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