In Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, there are several reoccurring themes. Out of all the themes that reside in this novel, one stood out. Many instances throughout Heart of Darkness the main character, Marlow, illustrates his surroundings in extensive detail. He describes the Thames River as tranquil and mysterious, Africa as a backdrop, and paints a picture in our minds of the people he encounters. The theme that most stood out to me was they way Marlow illustrates the natives. By examining the way Marlow describes those who are not like him, we can see that Marlow only sees the natives as inhuman, beastly, and inanimate. There are various examples throughout the novel that further strengthen this claim.
One of these examples, Marlow states “I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking…All their meager breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill.” (Conrad 12-3). It is apparent when he is looking at the natives, that their features are described as either inanimate objects or features that are beastly. The way he is describing these people is almost as if they are a completely different beast despite them being human just like himself. When we investigate this further, it makes sense why he has this way of thinking towards the natives. The reason being is because of Marlow’s need to classify and create a hierarchy in this foreign land in order for him to better grasp where he is at. His “normal” being a white male like himself is placed at the top of his hierarchy and the natives at the bottom. His thinking mirrors well when we look at Ashcroft’s Post-Colonial Studies: Key Concepts textbook. Under the Race section, it states, “Race thinking and colonialism are imbued with the same impetus to draw a binary distinction between ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ and the same necessity for the hierarchization of human types.” (Ashcroft 181). Essentially this means that it is in our human nature to categorize so we can make sense of the situation around us. We do this with all walks of life, but we tend to micro-categorize within our own species. Any miniscule difference is exemplified when it is presented in an environment that is not familiar to us. When we look further into Conrad’s upbringing, it makes sense why he thinks the way he does.
It is no secret that Conrad is channeling himself into Marlow in this novel. According to Chinua Achebe’s article, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, he states that, “Conrad was born in 1857…It was certainly not his fault that he lived his life at a time when the reputation of the black man was at a particularly low level. But even after due allowances have been made…Conrad’s attitude [has] a residue of antipathy to black people which is peculiar psychology alone can explain.” (Achebe 258). This is a combination of two components. Firstly, Conrad is oblivious to his blatant racism towards black people like Marlow is towards the natives. Secondly, even though Conrad is oblivious to said racism, he holds a deeper grudge towards those who are not like him which, in turn, influences Marlow’s descriptions in the novel. This also implies that Conrad is being an outright racist whether it is intentional or not.
“Racism can be defined as: a way of thinking that considers a group’s unchangeable physical characteristics to be linked in a direct, causal way to… distinguish between ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ racial groups.” (Ashcroft 181). This way of thinking is apparent throughout Conrad’s novel. A perfect example of this illustrates, “You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks— these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast.” (Conrad 19-20). This example, like the one previously stated in paragraph two, points out obvious physical differences between Marlow and the natives. For instance, when Marlow is trying to find a similarity between himself and the natives, the only one he can think of is the whiteness of their eyes and how they glisten. He then proceeds to describe their faces as grotesque masks. It is as if though the only part of them Marlow perceives as human is a feature that is miniscule. He disregards the parts that make them human. He describes these poor people as less than him just because their skin is a different tone and anything that can make them remotely unique is tossed to the wayside and forgotten about. With this in mind, we look at Achebe’s article regarding racism in which he states, “Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.” (Achebe 257). I will extend this part of Achebe’s thesis by stating the distinction we must keep in mind is although the descriptions illustrated in Conrad’s novel are crude, inhumane, and ignorant, we must keep in mind that this is not what Marlow is thinking in this moment. We must detach Marlow from Conrad for just a moment because even though Conrad channels himself through Marlow, Marlow is still just a character in a novel and cannot help what his creator has written for him to see, think, and feel. He is simply trying to make sense of an otherwise strange situation.
In conclusion, race and racism is more complex than what is seen on the surface. We are reading this novel in a different point in time than when it was originally written. Our thoughts and viewpoints are vastly different than those portrayed in this novel. Heart of Darkness is by no means my cup of tea and I am glad to be done with this novel once and for all. As a reader myself, this has made me glad to go back to the book I was reading before for pleasure.
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