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Name: Momina Amjad Candidate Number: 002223-0028 Session: May 2014

Prescribed question:


Power and privilege: “How and why is a social group represented in a particular way?”

Title of text for analysis:

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. London: Penguin Classics, 2007. 1-96. Print.

Task is related to course section:

Part 4: Literature- critical study

Task focus:

This essay focuses on Conrad’s negative portrayal of the natives and an explanation of what narrative purpose that representation serves in the text.

This essay claims that Conrad sets up Africa and its people as an antithesis to Europe and civilization. In order to do that, the native is constantly dehumanized. He is not even given the gift of language and expression. The main purpose of the novella is not to shed light on the ills of colonialism and atrocities committed on the native people, rather its focus is the European man’s mental disintegration which is facilitated by the wilderness and Africa. This reduces the place and its people as a prop to prove a point and eliminates its human factor.

The wilderness is built up as a character on its own in Heart of Darkness, and indeed with much more personality and power than the natives. It’s used complimentarily with the description of natives as savages to prove how ancient this world is and how the white man has evolved beyond the point of recognizing this as their past selves. This essay discusses how this is inherently racist, in spite of the novella famously being an anti-colonial book in classic literature.

Word count; outline: 249 words, essay: 999 words

How and why is a social group represented in a particular way?


Heart of Darkness is a novella about, among many other things, the evaluation of the European man’s soul in contrast with that of the African native’s. Conrad uses a frame narrative to tell the story of Charles Marlow as he makes the long and excruciating journey up the Congo River in central Africa. This journey is a life changing experience for Marlow as he discovers the inherent hypocrisy in imperialism and Europe’s “civilizing mission” and he realizes the depravity and hollowness of the human existence against the backdrop of African wilderness. Marlow learns of sanity and madness, of civilization and savagery and the many shades in between these false dichotomies. However, in a supposed exposé on colonialism, very little is mentioned of the millions of innocent natives who have suffered through this gross injustice. The horror presented by Conrad is not that the natives were exploited like slaves; rather the horror was what happened to the European man’s psyche in the wilderness. To accomplish this narrative end, the black man is constantly dehumanized, to the extent that the horrible treatment he receives is mentioned in passing and the focus is on him being a ‘savage’. The representation of African natives in Heart of Darkness is the focus of this essay and I will discuss how and why a civilized/uncivilized discourse is created.

The natives are stripped off their humanity and any sense of individuality early on in the story. “They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks—…but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement…”, this is the first of many passages in the novel that describe the natives using their discrete body parts. They aren’t recognizable as people, rather only as labor that is profitable. The simile grotesque masks connotes something bizarre and ugly. Elsewhere, the simile of ants is used to further reinforce the idea of them being a collective whole that works menial jobs together and reports back obediently to a ruling figure. It is also used to imply that they can be crushed easily as they are insignificant. Further along the story, black people are repeatedly described as dark human shapes, shadows and unhappy savages in similar fashion.

The natives are also completely silenced in Heart of Darkness. Majority of the natives are shown to be helpless and have no say in their fate. In the beginning when Marlow is in the Company’s offices, he compares one of the black women there to a “somnambulist”; a sleep walker- someone who has no control or agency about themselves. In order to show apparent

How and why is a social group represented in a particular way?


uncivilization of the natives, Conrad stole the natives’ language from them as well. Instead of speech, they made “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” and they exchanged “short grunting phrases”. In the rare instance when the native man is given speech; it only serves to bare more savagery. This is seen when the natives request the body of a fellow native to “Eat ‘im!”, allowing the white man to witness their inherent foulness.

The wilderness is anthromorphized and given a character of its own on Heart of Darkness. It’s an omnipotent and all-encompassing force which has a strong bond with the natives. The wilderness depicts the same uncivilization Conrad wants to talk about as much as any other

description of a “savage”. One of the passages around the midpoint of the story use this in a

combined description: We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth

no memories.This prehistoric earth together with the prehistoric man is set up as an antithesis to Europe and its civilization 1 . In this way, Africa the land and Africa the people are developed as the ‘other, from which the European has evolved so much from that he doesn’t recognize this as his past self. This passage makes the natives of Congo otherworldly. They have “rudimentary souls” and most primitive instincts.

leaving hardly a sign -- and

All of the above becomes even more striking when contrasted to the representations of the Europeans in Heart of Darkness. This is not to say that Conrad does not criticize them, but they are depicted in such a way that each character has a distinct and rich personality. When Marlow first meets the accountant he says, “I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision” and later called him a “miracle”. The words phantom and apparition are used elsewhere in the story while describing the white man suggesting a supernatural aura and also links into Kurtz in the end, who became a god-like figure for the natives. Compare this to how Marlow talks of the deceased African helmsman, Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Saharawhich creates an imagery of the natives devoid of feelings, personality or dignity in an endless and lifeless desert.

1 Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"."

How and why is a social group represented in a particular way?


The thought of their humanity - like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly.Although Marlow struggles with the idea that the natives are inhuman, the thought of their humanity being compared to his is so intolerable that he calls it ugly. Heart of Darkness is a racist book in spite of it speaking against colonialism and deconstructing the ills of the European mind. It can be argued that Conrad was a product of his society and this text was in line with the Victorian approach to racial differences. First published in 1899, the dominant image of Africans in Europe was utilized in the text and the racism was acceptable. However, reading the novella with in retrospect, it is easy to notice how Conrad has reduced Africans as tools and symbols to explore European issues. In the process he dehumanized them severely as mere insects, savages and voiceless objects, reinforcing racist stereotypes.

Word Count: 999


Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness".", 2014. Web. 5 Jan 2014.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Classics, 2007. Print.