Heart of Darkness: Racist or not?
Many critics, including Chinua Achebe in his essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness", have made the claim that Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, despite the insights which it offers into the human condition, ought to be removed from the canon of Western literature. This claim is based on the supposition that the novel is racist, more so than other novels of its time. While it can be read in this way, it is possible to look under the surface and create an interpretation of Conrad's novel that does not require the supposition of extreme racism on the part of Conrad. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that Conrad was a product of a rather racist period in history, and it seems unfair to penalize him for not being able to transcend his contemporaries in this respect.
This novel, it seems, must be read in a symbolic manner. Objects and characters are not so simple as they seem. Achebe tells us: "Quite simply it is the desire... in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest" (251-252). If Africa is a foil to Europe, as stated here, then perhaps Conrad only uses the continent of Africa symbolically, without regard to its people - as Achebe himself states, descriptions of Africans as anything more than vague limbs in the darkness are few and far between in the novel. The opposition between light and darkness in the novel, far from being Conrad's own, is traditional in Western literature. Conrad simply uses the most familiar of symbols for the dichotomy between good and evil to enhance his novel's psychological resonance with its readers.
Furthermore, "darkness" is more of a state of mind than the physical phenomenon of the absence of light. About Kurtz, Marlow tells us: "His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines" (Conrad 117). The reference is to Kurtz's altered mental state, we learn on the next page: "I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair" (118). The reference is clearly not to Kurtz's physical darkness - Marlow describes him as "ivory" - but rather to a mental darkness. The departure of Marlow and Kurtz from the Congo also corresponds to the end of Kurtz's...