[Work: Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, 1899]
A Controversy Worth Teaching:

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Ethics of Stature



Chinua Achebe Sketch - Joseph Conrad - Heart of Darkness - An Image of Africa - racism, writing

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.
[High-res prints available here]

By far the most enduringly famous of Joseph Conrad’s literary works (with the possible exception of Lord Jim) is Heart of Darkness, a novella that has encountered boundless acclaim and boundless disdain in the century since its release. Its proponents highlight its contemporary progressivism; its impressionistic prose style; and its thematic depth. Its opponents highlight its confusing, vague, and slow-moving plot; its backgrounding of Africa and Africans behind a story about Europeans; and its intermittent direct characterizations of late-19th-century Africa and Africans as primitive and uncivilized.

In my estimation, both camps are correct. Conrad was an English prose master as well as a confusingly vague writer. Conrad was a progressive as well as a racist. Heart of Darkness is a deeply troubled book. So, was professor and novelist Chinua Achebe correct when he wrote that, in light of its flaws, Heart of Darkness should not be so widely taught nor so highly lauded?

Chinua Achebe is himself a master of prose, and his novels (e.g. Things Fall Apart) are works of genius. He is also a brilliant reader of Conrad, and his 1977 essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,'” is a compelling and careful examination of the many racist assumptions and implications contained in Heart of Darkness. On every exegetical point which Achebe makes in that essay with regard to racism in Conrad’s novella, I wholeheartedly agree. But on his closing point, that the book should be stricken from every list of great literature and from as many curricula as can do without it, I disagree.

The Writing of Heart of Darkness:

The first of the two reasons that I think Heart of Darkness should continue to be widely read, despite its definite flaws, is for the writing. Achebe, as a novelist operating squarely within the typical bounds of realism, sees no value in vagueness: “In the final consideration [Conrad’s] method amounts to no more than a steady, ponderous, fake-ritualistic repetition of two antithetical sentences, one about silence and the other about frenzy. [. . .] Of course there is a judicious change of adjective from time to time, so that instead of inscrutable, for example, you might have unspeakable, even plain mysterious, etc., etc.” (Achebe 252).

Achebe is correct in identifying the underlying primitivism implied by this imagery, but misses potential benefits of this imagery by saying that even its defenders consider it a stylistic flaw. The achromatic imagery and insistence on inscrutability throughout the novel are part of its value: it is a sustained treatise on hazy perceptions and periods of stasis. This is no lazy deception; this is a frame narrator’s active concealment as expressed through pointillist imagery.

For such formal inventions, the influence of Heart of Darkness on twentieth century literature was immense. Conrad was one of the writers whose perspectival shifting of realism heralded the coming of modernism. His style of prose, as Professor Maurizia Boscagli has remarked, displays in literary descriptions the sort of depictions of light and forms typical of impressionism. This emphasis on the blurry rather than the clear leads to some of the novella’s most stirring passages, such as the following:

I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. (Conrad 116)

There is something thoroughly anticlimactic to the sort of death Marlow comes near. And the basis of that anticlimax, drawn out and expounded with images of a missing or farcical struggle and of uncertainty, is that “impalpable grayness.” That phrase accomplishes something remarkable in its pairing of “impalpable” with a color, producing a synaesthetic quality which further explicates both the complexity of the death and the dissatisfaction of its foggy intangibility.

Joseph Conrad 1904 - Chinua Achebe - Heart of Darkness - An Image of Africa - racism, writing

The Racism of Heart of Darkness:

The second reason that I think Heart of Darkness should continue to be widely read is for its flaws and for its racism. Nothing opens a dialogue about the ills of the past quite as well as a primary text rife with those ills. That there should be a work of literature so artistically rendered and yet so blatantly racist is an aid to the teaching of postcolonial theory, and not a detriment. It is a text strangely poised between the racism and liberalism of its time.

Heart of Darkness, after all, is an indictment of most colonialist practices. Unfortunately, the book also presents two unsavory corollaries to that indictment. The first ugly corollary is that one of the various reasons that colonialism is often a bad thing is the dangerous proximity it necessitates between ‘advanced people’ and ‘primitive people.’ Kurtz’ case is meant to showcase the probable result of such proximity, and this same danger is being highlighted in the famous passage where Marlow identifies London and the Thames as having once been a ‘dark place.’ The second ugly corollary is that there is a right way to do colonialism, when it is based solely on the benevolent desire to spread civilization.

The ugliness of these propositions needs hardly to be explained, and will be familiar to any attentive reader of Rudyard Kipling: they both take for granted that anywhere unlike Conrad’s civilization is inherently inferior, and that anyone inhabiting such a place is thoroughly primitive, or even inhuman. But the fact remains that Conrad’s novella was received in its time as a stinging criticism of the violence that often accompanies colonialism (the sort of brutality associated with Belgian colonialism in the Congo). This does not exempt Conrad from his xenophobia in Heart of Darkness, but it shows his place in his society as a man who opposed the old way and its horrifying violence. As Achebe writes, “Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth” (Achebe 261).

A related part of this second reason is that changing social mores do not invalidate great literature of the past. Jane Eyre is not discarded because its various feminist ideals were only progressive in the context of Victorian England. Robinson Crusoe is not discarded because of its normalization of slavery. These are details which have been and continue to be engaged by modern literary scholars, and which become part of the richness of teaching or studying the works. As Stephen Greenblatt observes,

The student of Shakespeare who asks about racism, misogyny, or anti-Semitism is not on the slippery slope toward what George Will calls “collective amnesia and deculturation.” He or she is on the way to understanding something about Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice. It is, I believe, all but impossible to understand these plays without grappling with the dark energies upon which Shakespeare’s art so powerfully draws.

[. . .]

If we allow ourselves to think about the extent to which our magnificent cultural tradition — like that of every civilization we know of — is intertwined with cruelty, injustice, and pain, do we not, in fact, run the risk of “deculturation”? Not if our culture includes a regard for truth. Does this truth mean that we should despise or abandon great art?

Of course not.

Like most teachers, I am deeply committed to passing on the precious heritage of our language, and I take seriously the risk of collective amnesia. Yet there seems to me a far greater risk if professors of literature, frightened by intemperate attacks upon them in the press, refuse to ask the most difficult questions about the past — the risk that we might turn our artistic inheritance into a simple, reassuring, soporific lie. (Greenblatt)

Perhaps one day artificial intelligences will have all of the rights that humans now possess, but the past century of science fiction will still likely retain its cultural as well as literary value. Indeed, it will have gained new value in relation to the new perspectives from which the works will then be read.


When I was a student, I encountered Heart of Darkness on the curricula of two classes. In both cases, Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” was also assigned.

Although it would be even better if it were taught alongside African art from the same period, this still seems right to me. Heart of Darkness is a book well worth teaching, well worth reading, well worth praising, and well worth condemning.

Works Cited:

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.” Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988. Pgs. 251-261. Web.

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Pgs. 37-124. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Turning Literature Into a Celebration of New World Order.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Washington, DC: The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1991. Web.

[Work: Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, 1899]
A Controversy Worth Teaching:

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Ethics of Stature

was last modified: November 21st, 2021 by Daniel Podgorski
Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed