In 1890, Joseph Conrad received employment in the Congo working as the captain of a steamboat. After six months, he returned because of illness. Recording his experience in the Congo, Conrad wrote his highly famous novella, Heart of Darkness. Since its publication in 1899, Heart of Darkness has attracted many literary critics. Although many critics have supported the publication of Heart of Darkness, other critics, such as Chinua Achebe, have scrutinized the novella on the grounds of racism. Research does not lead to a conclusive decision on racism in the novella, as there is evidence to support themes of both racism and anti-imperialism.
As previously mentioned, Chinua Achebe is the best known literary critic of Heart of Darkness. In his essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Achebe clearly presents that he is disgusted with Heart of Darkness and believes “Joseph Conrad [is] a thoroughgoing racist” (1977, pg. 5). Achebe calls attention to many examples where Conrad subjected Africa and its people to racist illustrations and descriptions. One instance of imagery that has stuck with many critics of Heart of Darkness describes the suffering of the Africans. “Near the same tree, two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up” (Conrad, 1900, pg. 21). Many have pointed out that this caricature and pose of the African native infantilizes him and takes away his humanity.
Both Achebe and another critic, Memory Chirere, a writer for The Herald, find many faults with Conrad’s stylistic imagery. While Achebe believes that Conrad’s style “[Induces] hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery,” Chirere calls attention to a different impact caused by Conrad’s imagery (Achebe, 1977, pg. 2). While many supporters of Heart of Darkness believe that Conrad uses his “derogatory” imagery to evoke sympathy of the inhumane treatment of Africans, Chirere disagrees. Chirere states “If the [novella] caused sympathy towards that African, it was that sympathy one has for an animal in agony, not fellow human beings” (Chirere, 2013, pg. 2). Apart from these illustrative descriptions, critics point to the racist differences in speech between the Africans and the Europeans, the differences in illustration of the mistress and the Intended, and the differences in description of the Congo River and the Thames River.
Although critics such as Achebe and Chirere have classified Heart of Darkness as racist, there are still an abundance of supporters. Many believe that instead of advocating racism, the novella promotes an anti-imperialist theme. C.P. Sarvan and Patrick Brantlinger have written essays testifying to the amount of anti-imperialism in Heart of Darkness. According to Brantlinger, “[Cedric] Watts interprets Heart of Darkness as an exposé of imperialist rapacity and violence” (1985, pg. 278). This exposé of violence can be found in many of the descriptions that are made of...