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Racism in Heart of Darkness: Quotes & Examples

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Racism is a prevalent theme in Joseph Conrad's novella ''Heart of Darkness.'' In this lesson, we'll look at some examples of racism and examine how it is depicted in various scenes throughout the story.

Racism in Literature

Historically, racism has been a common theme in a lot of American and European literature. Racism is prejudice or discrimination against someone of another race, with the belief that one race is superior. For example, you've probably seen or heard discussions about racism in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness also contains many examples of racism, directed from the white European colonists toward the African natives.

Slave Labor

One of the most prevalent examples of racism in the novella lies in how the natives are used to perform slave labor. They are given jobs deemed hazardous and that white men don't want. They are technically paid, but only in brass wire, which is useless in the Congo where the novella takes place. In addition, their safety and health are completely disregarded, while a white man's is valued.

We see this quickly after Marlow, the protagonist, arrives in the Congo. There, the white men maintain a trade operation, and they use the natives for the harder, more dangerous work. Marlow sees what happens to some of these men: 'They were dying slowly--it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now--nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.' In other words, the natives are not looked after by the white men and simply crawl away to die when they can't work anymore.

Later, Marlow takes a large number of natives with him to carry his supplies, and we see a direct comparison between how the white men and natives are treated. Marlow describes the trek: 'Day after day, with the stamp and shuffle of sixty pair of bare feet behind me, each pair under a 60-lb. load. Camp, cook, sleep, strike camp, march. Now and then a carrier dead in harness, at rest in the long grass near the path, with an empty water-gourd and his long staff lying by his side.'

Marlow comments on the death of the natives as though it is unimportant. Yet when Marlow's white companion faints due to the hot climate, the man is carried or waited for and provided shade until he recovers. Clearly, these differences between the treatment of natives and whites point to racism.

Dehumanization

Racism is also evident in the way the white men talk about the natives and view them as primitive savages. They are described as less human than white men and are rarely called 'men.' Instead, the white men refer to them as 'niggers,' 'savages,' and other dehumanizing terms. Marlow puts this impression into words during the steamboat journey: 'It was unearthly, and the men were--No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.'

Essentially, what Marlow is saying is that the white men don't want to believe the natives are human. It's a negative thing for them to be reminded they are all, in actuality, human. To combat this, they rarely refer to the natives using humanizing terms and instead choose to treat them as primitive, less intelligent beings.

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