Image of Africa in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Or Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness


Critics of Heart of Darkness will often tell us that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz. Africa as setting and backdrop eliminates the African as human factor. Africa is a metaphysical battle field devoid of all recognizable humanity into which the wandering European enter at his peril.

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 . The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the race that peopled its banks." But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old - age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world ".

Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, and the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hints of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too “has been one of the dark places of the world.” “It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginning.

The most interesting and revealing passages in Heart of Darkness are, however, about people. Let us quote here from about the middle of the story when representatives of Europe in a steamer going down the Congo encounter the denizens of Africa:   - - -  " We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign and no memories ". Herein lays the meaning of Heart of Darkness and the fascination it holds over the western mind: “What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity - like yours -ugly ".

Having shown us Africa in the mass, Conrad ten zeros in half a page latter on a specific example giving us one of his rare descriptions of an African who is not just limbs or rolling eyes. As everybody knows, Conrad is a romantic on the side. He night not exactly admire savages clapping their hands and stamping their feet but they have at lest the merit of being in their place, unlike this dog in a parody of breeches. For Conrad thing being in their place is of the utmost importance.
     “Fine fellows - cannibals - in their place ", he tells us pointedly. Tragedy begins when things leave their accustomed place, like Europe leaving its safe stronghold between the policeman and the baker to take a peep into the heart of darkness.
      Further, towards the end of the story Conrad lavishes a whole page quite unexpectedly on an African woman who has obviously been some kind of mistress to Mr. Kurtz and now presides like a formidable mystery over the inexorable incoherency of his departure.
     " She was savage and superb , wild eyed and magnificent - - --She stood looking at us with out stir and like the wildness itself , with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose "

This Amazon is drawn in considerable detail, albeit of a predictable nature, for two reasons. First, she is in her place and so can win Conrad’s special brand of approval and second, she fulfills a structural requirement of the story: a savage counterpart to the refined, European woman who will step forth to end the story.

So, in conclusion it is not unfair to say that Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in this book. It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear it . For reasons which can certainly use close psychological inquiry the west seems to suffer deep anxiety about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa. If Europe, advancing in civilization, could cast a backward glance periodically at Africa Trapped in primordial barbarity it could say with faith and feeling: " Keep away from Africa, or else! Mr. Kurtz of Heart of Darkness should have heeded that warning and the prowling horror in his heart would have kept its place, chained to its Lair. But he foolishly exposed himself to the wild irresistible allure of the jungle and to! The darkness found him out ".   

 Ardhendu De  


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