Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness - Reading with Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Reading with Literary Theory

Narrative Theory * Psychoanalysis * New Historicism * Postcolonial Studies

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) was written at a time when the late Victorian imperial romance was at the height of its popularity. Unlike other such tales of the era, like Ryder Haggard's She (1887), Conrad's novella is less interested in imperial adventures than in the study of IMPERIALISM as it is manifested in character. From the point of view of Narrative Theory, specifically the theory of the novel, Conrad's choice constitutes a hybrid form in which the emergent “psychological novel,” pioneered by Henry James, combines with the more conventional romance narrative. His story concerns Charlie Marlow, an Englishman employed by a company with a concession to hunt ivory in the Congo, a possession of King Leopold of Belgium. His job is to retrieve Kurtz, a renegade trader. Conrad complicates the propulsive, paratactic movement of the romance narrative by heightening certain elements of the narration itself, especially Marlow's meditations on barbarism, civilization, human nature, and the importance of self-knowledge.

The story opens with an unnamed narrator who describes a group of unidentified people on the deck of “the Nellie, a cruising yawl,” listening to a story told by Marlow. The unnamed narrator has command of our attention for about eight paragraphs and in this short space establishes that Marlow's stories are not typical: “to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine” (9). Having served the purpose of establishing Marlow as an unreliable narrator, the unnamed narrator all but disappears, save for a brief resurgence a page or so later to supply one more telling detail about the storyteller: “he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower” (10). The kind of expectations set up by the romance narrative are gratified by this reference to Marlow's “Eastern” character, but his story seems to bog down in lengthy descriptions of COLONIAL administrators and his own commentary on the difference between Europeans and Africans. Several times he meditates on the nature of storytelling and insists that no one can communicate the “truth” about lived experience. In one of the rare moments when Marlow directly addresses his listeners on the Nellie, he tries to communicate to them (and, indirectly, to the reader) this very impossibility. “ ’Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream… . No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the lifesensation of any given epoch of one's existence - that which makes its truth, its meaning - its subtle and penetrating essence' ” (30). With this statement, the reader is warned not to expect the kind of revelations typically found in romance narratives. The only message conveyed by Marlow's narration is an impression of his experience, not the truth of it, much less the truth of anything beyond it. In this way, Marlow's story - non-linear, digressive, overtly figural - achieves a kind of expressive form, shaping itself to the storyteller's “hazy” sense of the truth of his own experience.

Narrative Theory alerts us to other possible motifs, including journeying, questing, and wandering - all of which can add nuances to a reading focused on Marlow's impressionistic storytelling. More than one reader has been struck by the quest motif and the irony of substituting Kurtz, the renegade from reason and civilization, for the more exalted object of such narratives. The quest motif can also be regarded from the point of view of Psychoanalysis. Thus Marlow embarks on a metaphorical journey into the unconscious, both his own and his culture's. According to Freud, the unconscious contains traces of ancient prehistoric human experience, precisely the quality that most persistently attracts Marlow's notice about the Congo: “ ’Going up river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings' ” (35). Passages like this invite us to see this journey as an exploration of the unconscious. Marlow's language - lushly modified with vaguely sinister adjectives and adverbs repeated in an incantatory style - gives us a sense of a strange, unearthly landscape: it is inscrutable, abominable, impalpable, ominous, timeless. Moreover, as Marlow himself suggests, his experience is like a dream, “ ’that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams' ” (30). He regards his own memories of the past “ ’in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream' ” (36). If the Congo symbolizes the unconscious, the elements that make up the landscape - the river, the jungle, the native inhabitants - symbolize

repressed material (“latent content”) that is transformed through “dream-work” into the “manifest content.” Certainly there is a sense that the jungle withholds something from Marlow, something he suspects he may have repressed: “ ’I saw a face amongst the leaves on the level with my own, looking at me very fierce and steady … I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes' ” (46). What is it that Marlow (that humanity) represses? His own OTHERNESS, perhaps, which is projected onto the African natives as their birthright but also as part of non-human nature. Marlow thinks he understands his glimpse into the unconscious; he sees that what he (and humanity) represses is his own “ ’remote kinship' ” with “ ’this wild and passionate uproar' ” (38). His championing of Kurtz, who in this reading might stand in for the id, the force of unconscious instinct, can be read as an act of displacement or disavowal, an attempt to acknowledge indirectly a part of his personality that he cannot confront openly. In ways like this, through various symbolic substitutions and exclusions, Marlow's experience attains the quality of a dream whose truth is impossible to share without distortion and misinterpretation.

Modern editions of Heart of Darkness often provide just the sort of context that makes New Historicist readings possible. Conrad had himself made a journey up the Congo working as a merchant marine, and there were a number of people who had an interest in exposing King Leopold's practice of awarding concessions to adventurers. Roger Casement, an Irishman serving as British consul in Africa, investigated conditions in the Congo in the 1890s and delivered a highly critical report to the British Parliament in 1903. Conrad's novel is not simply further evidence of what Casement discovered; it is a fictional version of the same anti-colonialist discourse. Casement criticized colonialist efforts to compel natives to harvest india rubber and regarded the atrocities in the region as a direct result of these efforts. This compulsion is nowhere more graphically expressed than in Marlow's impressions of the same colonial context: “ ’Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path… . Black rags were wound round their loins… . I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck… . They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages' ” (19). Marlow's account of atrocities in the Congo joins Casement's as part of a larger discourse on African colonialism. Certainly the story's impressionistic manner and dream-like logic lend themselves to interpretations that extend beyond the Congo. For example, the Boer War (1899-1902) was being conducted during the same period Conrad was revising his serialized version of Heart of Darkness. This was not a popular war, especially among Liberal politicians and the intelligentsia, so it is conceivable that Conrad's critique of European imperialism is meant to indict British interests elsewhere in Africa. There is something almost allegorical (and thus transportable) about Conrad's historical vision, a feature that is brilliantly confirmed in Francis Ford Coppola's appropriation of the narrative structure of Heart of Darkness for his haunting portrayal of the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now.

For a Postcolonial critic like Chinua Achebe, Conrad's novel is not a critique of colonialism but a symptom of it. Achebe's famous critical response to Heart of Darkness, “An Image of Africa” (1971), accuses Conrad of racism and of effectively silencing the African natives in his representation of the Congo. To be sure, Conrad's representations of Africans are problematic; by and large, they are rendered as SUBALTERN SUBJECTS, threatened by colonial violence and enslavement. There are very few instances in which an African speaks; one famously says, “ ’Mistah Kutz - he dead,' ” “ ’in a tone of scathing contempt' ” (68-69). There are no occasions on which Africans are presented as members of peaceful, organized, communicative societies. Too often, they are associated with “ ’a complaining clamor, modulated in savage discord' ” or a “ ’tumult of angry and warlike yells' ” (41, 47). To the Europeans in Heart of Darkness, the sound of drums is part of this general incomprehensible clamor produced by an insidious natural environment. Over against this silence, this wordless clamor, we have Marlow's obsession with Kurtz, his presence and authority guaranteed by the gift of his voice: “ ’He was very little more than a voice. And I heard - him - it - this - voice - other voices - all of them were so little more than voices' ” (48). Achebe takes issue with this repression of the African voice in his essay as well as in his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart (1959). Though Achebe's novel is written in a recognizably realist style, it is an “appropriated” style, borrowed and modified for the purposes of COLONIAL MIMICRY. It is shot through with Ibo phrases, names, and proverbs that block any easy facility with realist conventions and at the same time communicates to the Western reader something of the materiality of Ibo culture. Narrative style is simple and direct, in contrast to the complex frame-narration of

Heart of Darkness, and the skeptical impressionism that suffuses Conrad's story is utterly missing from Achebe's. Things Fall Apart is told from the perspective of a self-assured, traditional culture whose proverbs “are the palmoil with which words are eaten” (7). In contrast to the angry discord Marlow hears, Achebe's characters hear familiar and comforting sounds: the air is “message-laden” with the sound of drums, a part of “the living village”: “It was like the pulsation of its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even in the trees, and filled the village with excitement” (120, 44).

The traditional world articulated by these meaningful drums begins to deteriorate with the encroachment of Christian missionaries on tribal lands. Okonkwo, the protagonist, values the traditions of his own culture, but he is also a victim of one of its most serious taboos. He kills a neighbor's son accidentally and receives the ultimate punishment. “It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land” (124). From his position in exile with his mother's kinsmen, Okonkwo grows increasingly disturbed about the influence of the Christian missionaries and ultimately becomes involved in a violent and impetuous act of anti-colonial resistance. Upon hearing of Okonkwo's suicide, the white District Commissioner “changed instantaneously” from the “resolute administrator … to the student of primitive customs” (207). The novel ends with the Commissioner meditating on the “reasonable paragraph” that Okonkwo's story will fill in his book, “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.’’ These words, the echo of a white man's colonial desire, conclude Achebe's novel and reinforce what the reader already knows: the people of Umuofia will never be the same again. Achebe's message is one that Frantz Fanon had himself conveyed just a few years earlier: only when the West recognizes the humanity of primitive “savages” can it begin to undo the dehumanizing legacy of colonialism.


Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1988.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor 1994.