Postcolonialism in Heart of Darkness

Instructor: Thomas White

Thomas holds a BA in education and English literature and has taught middle school English.

In this lesson, we explore two opposing interpretations of Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' and identify the question you should ask while reading. You'll also gain an understanding of how the postcolonial perspective approaches the book.

What is Postcolonialism?

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a simple narrative -- Marlowe journeys deep into the African jungle to find Kurtz, who has gone insane -- yet it remains popular over 100 years since its original publication. This is partly thanks to its controversial (and frequently debated) message, particularly among postcolonial critics.

Postcolonialism is a type of literary criticism that reads stories in light of the political, socio-economic, and psychological consequences left over from European colonization. Postcolonials go beyond accepting a book in its context and time period to ask 'what are the effects of this story?' The question with Heart of Darkness is: can this be a positive book for Africa?

The Argument Against Conrad

The negative argument -- that Heart of Darkness presents a negative, even racist, outlook on Africa -- is perhaps the more evident view. This perspective was argued by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in his essay 'An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.' Achebe argues that Heart of Darkness, 'better than any other work,' displays 'the desire -- one might indeed say the need -- in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.'

In other words, Africa loses any identity or purpose of its own. Its only use is so that, in contrast, we can better understand Europe.

When viewed this way, it's easy to see why postcolonial critics would believe Heart of Darkness is a racist novel. The African characters have no real identity or agency -- they are nameless slaves, sick both in physical and spiritual health. They are dying of disease and worshipping the evil and undeserving Kurtz. Africa, meanwhile, is portrayed as the wilderness, far from civilized society; it's only in traveling so far into the depths of nature that Marlowe comes to really understand the difference between the civilized and the uncivilized world. In this way, Africa exists as the 'other,' while Europe is the rightful society. This is what the title can come to mean -- when Marlowe travels into the deepest part of uncivilized land, he reaches heart, the center, of darkness.

The Argument for Conrad

This isn't the only postcolonial view of the novel. Other critics believe that Heart of Darkness presents a positive message. This view suggests that Achebe's argument is simplistic and surface-level; after all, the ivory trader Kurtz is the villain of the story. Throughout the novel, the European colonial power is not portrayed as a good thing. It's Kurtz' mistreatment of his workers that is presented as the primary problem. Kurtz is a monster, and the workers are victims. In the end, Marlowe is disgusted with what Kurtz -- the representation of European colonial power -- has done.

The Essential Question

So is Heart of Darkness racist, or is it a scathing attack on European colonization? The answer to that may lie in what created Kurtz. On his way into the jungle, Marlowe hears only good things about Kurtz. By any colonial standard, Kurtz is the best man they have. This raises a question: was Kurtz a good man who was corrupted by the uncivilized world, or was the darkness always inside Kurtz, and he just needed the opportunity to act on it?

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