The European, White Male vs. the Other in Heart of Darkness
The novella Heart of Darkness has, since it's publication in 1899, caused much controversy and invited much criticism. While some have hailed it's author, Joseph Conrad as producing a work ahead of it's time in it's treatment and criticism of colonialist practices in the Congo, others, most notably Chinua Achebe, have criticized it for it's racist and sexist construction of cultural identity. Heart of Darkness can therefore be described as a text of it's time, as the cultural identity of the dominant society, that is, the European male is constructed in opposition to "the other", "the other" in Heart of Darkness being defined as black and/or female. Notions of cultural identity are largely constructed through language and setting and are essential to the reader's understanding of the text.
While many characters are critiqued or criticized by Conrad for their exploitation of Africa and it's inhabitants, they remain the dominant and superior race, both according to Conrad, and his primary narrator Charlie Marlow. The African characters are not only constructed as "other", but also as inferior and to an extent subhuman. This is evident through their lack of language or voice throughout the text. Africans are denied language, and are instead granted "grunting" noises and a "violent babble of mouth sounds" relegating them to an inferior status.
Only on two occasions are the natives given language and expression by the author. Firstly, when cannibalism is seen to overcome them, and one of then when asked what they will do with the body of one of the dead crew, replies "Eat 'im". The second occasion is when the enigmatic figure of Kurtz, whom Marlow has been sent to find, dies. An "insolent" African man announces "Mr Kurtz - he dead". In the first instance, Conrad grants the Africans language in order to express their burning desire for human flesh. In the case of the second instance it is somewhat appropriate that the "leader's" death is announced by one of the people of the group he is seen to have joined. Therefore Africans are constructed as being inferior to Europeans through Conrad's refusal to grant them the power of language and speech and even when they are given the opportunity to speak, Conrad constructs Africans as being largely inarticulate. Thus confirming the superiority of the white race.
Conrad further marginalises and degrades the African characters and race not only through the denial of language but also the denial of human form. When Marlow first sees Africans in a small boat on the water, he describes them in terms of their "muscles", "bones" and "white teeth", despite also recognizing a vitality and spirit. The disembodiment continues when Marlow encounters the chain gang at the outer station. It is when seeking "shade" however that Marlow stumbles upon the grove of death. Here he finds emancipated and dying...