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An Image of an Image of Africa: Subjectivity and Race in

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Although much of the Western world had abolished slavery by the first half of the 19th
Century, fin de siècle Europe saw the horrors of colonialism continue unabated; as Joseph
Conrad wrote to Roger Casement in 1903: “it is an extraordinary thing that the conscience of
Europe which seventy years ago put down the slave trade on humanitarian grounds
tolerates the Congo State today.” (270) Understanding why the horrors persisted well into
modernity is a trouble task, and yet one that requires some nuance; the approach of too
many postmodern critics, however, has been one of unconstructive horror, bordering on
nihilism. Take the extreme example of the contemporary writer Sam Kriss, whose hopeless
assessment of English imperialist pursuits is simply thus: they were motivated by “a brutally
murderous boredom”, making their countrymen “the most evil people on the planet” [sic].
This approach evinces a uselessly impoverished view of history: the past is a barren moral
wasteland, and the present is… what exactly? These critics would hardly suggest it might be
a more enlightened age, we feel. Is it, then, merely a continuation of brutality? How,
precisely? A cynical view not only renders the past rarefied and arcane, but the present
oddly indistinct.

A slight trace of this ungenerous, listless misanthropy can be detected in Chinua Achebe’s
famous – albeit infinitely more measured – approach to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In “An
Image of Africa”, Achebe condemned the author as a “bloody racist”, deigning to use Africa
as a mere “prop… for the break-up of one petty European mind.” (347) Earlier versions of
the lecture drew parallels to the Nazi Germany, and although in subsequent interviews he
rescinded his implicit suggestion that Heart of Darkness should not be taught, he
nonetheless continued to suggest, as recently as 2000, that it is a text that “promotes
genocide” (Hawkins, 366). The irony of Achebe’s famed, and often persuasive, diatribe, is
that it has breathed a new lease of critical life into a text that, in an era of culturally diverse
and sophisticated literature, might well have otherwise receded to critical obscurity as a
mere relic, rife with anachronistic slurs and a superficially-crude depiction of Central Africa.

It is the purpose of this essay to refute Achebe’s claims that Heart of Darkness is borne
along on an undercurrent of barely-suppressed racism, as well as the softer claims of later
post-colonialists such as Edward Said, who has much that is positive to say about the novel,
despite arguing that its “politics and aesthetics are, so to speak, imperialist”, and that it

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therefore fails to find “other, nonimperialist alternatives” (424). This essay will defend
Conrad’s decision to do so, contending that the text has greater power, and offers a more
caustic critique of imperialism, by embedding itself so unflinchingly in the imperialist mind-
set, offering an explanation of colonial violence that extends beyond “a brutally murderous
boredom”, into something more recognisably human, and therefore more unnerving – yet
also more remediable. This essay, then, hopes to repudiate postmodern cynicism with what
James Seaton calls the “humanistic alternative […] [that] takes literature for what it is:
neither divine revelation nor an intrinsically worthless ‘text’ that merely expressed cultural
biases or furthers oppressive social arrangements” (21).

In Conrad's essay ‘On Books’ he suggests a similar disregard for nihilistic tendencies within
the criticism of his own day, writing that,

what one feels so haplessly barren in declared pessimism is its arrogance. It seems
as if the discovery made by men at various times that there is much evil in the world
were a source of proud and unholy joy unto some of the modern writers […] it gives
the author – goodness only knows why – an elated sense of his own superiority.
(285)

Whilst he made pains to point out that he was not suggesting that artists must “necessarily
think that the world is good”, he also was keen to suggest that it was dangerous,

for the artist in fiction [to enjoy] the freedom of moral Nihilism. I would require from
the man acts of faith of which the first would be the cherishing of an undying hope;
and hope, it will not be contented, implies all the piety of effort and renunciation.
(285)

As Jakob Lothe writes, central to Conrad’s writing, as we can view here, is “a declared fear
of the corrosive and faith-destroying intellect – doubled by a profound and ironic scepticism”
(50). It is my argument that it is Conrad’s need to balance both a loathing of nihilism and a
loathing of blind faith that gives way to his ambivalent, and notoriously ambiguous, depiction
of imperialism – but that readers willing to tread this tightrope alongside him might just find a
rewarding way of reconciling the present with a murderous past.

Crucial to Heart of Darkness is its narrative perspective which, as already alluded to,
entrenches itself mercilessly in the pitiless subjectivity of Marlow, Kurtz and their colonial

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enterprise. As Conrad famously insisted in his “Preface to The Nigger of ‘Narcissus’”, his
creative mission was “before all to make you see.” (281) The narrative itself has several
layers, providing ample buffer between experience and reality. Opening on the Nellie, a ship
anchored at the sea-reach of the Thames, waiting for the turn of the tide. Despite an
idealistic opening image of sea and sky “welded together” across a “vanishing flatness” (3),
the novel soon reveals a less seamless wedding of experience and storytelling. The
captain’s work is not out in the “luminous estuary”, but behind him towards London’s
“brooding gloom” (3). Between the sailors is “the bond of the sea” (3) – not an indivisible
union like sea and sky, but an ability to hold their hearts together despite “periods of
separation… making us tolerant of each other’s yarns” (3). The opening page, then, is
already drawing on two different pools of imagery, that of solidarity and separation – the
infinite stretch of sea and the narrow reaches of the city; the “immensity of unstained light”
(4) versus “the mystery of the unknown earth” (5). This is further exacerbated by the novel’s
narrative proper which – unlike the simplicity of seamen’s yarns, “the whole meaning of
which lies within the shell of a cracked nut” (5) – is enigmatic, predicated on what FR Leavis
memorably called “an adjectival insistence on incomprehensible and inexpressible mystery”
(Bloom, 8). The result is a vast distance between the reader and the events; a radically
fissiparous impressionism that offers only an impression of Marlow’s impression.

Conrad’s choice to plant the narrative’s perspective within the minds of imperialists has its
obvious, unpleasant incongruities, making the African characters not only peripheral but
ontologically inconceivable. Yet, this is a part of Conrad’s objective; as Abul JanMohamed
writes, “Africans are an incidental part, and not the main objects of representation” (Hawkins,
370). Whilst this is inevitably problematic, the claustrophobic vision makes sense given the
epistemological importance of the unfathomable in Conrad’s work. Ian Watt has
demonstrated that this can be witnessed even in the title; by freeing itself from the
“restrictions of the article”, Conrad prepares us for a world of indeterminacy: “if the words do
not name what we know, they must be asking us to know what has, as yet, no name” (362).

Achebe’s views such distancing as “layers of insulation between [Conrad] and the moral
universe of his story” (342), allowing him to hide his prejudices by simply refracting them
through two separate narrators. Yet, given Conrad’s insistence on seeing as his central goal
(never mind the fact that, at the time, such widespread prejudices needn’t be so fastidiously
concealed) it can be argued that his impressionism is a more philosophical gambit, trained
on exposing pervasive myths about the European mind. It is worth considering another
expert on seeing, John Berger, who argues that, following the general trend towards
individualism in European art, “distancing” became a way of shielding individualism from its

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inhered equalitarianism. Writing about Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”, a painting of two 16th
century colonialists, he argues:

What is new and disconcerting here is the individualised presence which needs to
suggest distance. Individualism finally posits equality. But equality must be made
inconceivable. (97)

Berger argues that these oil paintings shielded themselves from their problematic realism by
this distance; they made it “impossible to imagine [the painting’s subjects] considering us in
a similar way” (99). Heart of Darkness is continuously aware of this distance, yet its
embedded narrators allow for a criticism of such contrived distancing, rather than a
capitulation to it; it is an image of an image of Africa. In this respect, it is proffers the obverse
meaning of De Witte’s “Admiral De Ruyter in the Castle of Elmina” (pictured below), which
depicts an admiral facing a supplicant African, who holds up a painting of a Dutch castle in
Western Africa. Whilst this painting demonstrates a rosy image of an image of Africa – a
colonialist’s unabashed celebration of Africa’s subjugation to a European ideal – Conrad’s
novel is firmly critical; as Lothe writes, he maintains “an ironic stance” (46).

“Admiral De Ruyter in the Castle of Elmina” by De Witte 1617-1692

This stance is partially maintained by the impressionism of Conrad’s style. Oil-painting’s


hyperrealism led to a spurious sense of objectivity; as Berger writes, “the inherent
contradiction of perspective was that it structured all images of reality to address a single
spectator who, unlike God, could only be in one place at a time.” (16) To see how this
applies to race we need only examine Hegel – who truly was “a thoroughgoing racist” – and
his discussion of “The African Character”, which traces the “inferiority” of the African people
to their inability to escape the solipsistic confines of subjectivity and focus on some guiding
Absolute principle, writing that no African has,

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…attained the realisation of any substantial objective existence – as for example God
or the Law […] this distinction between himself as an individual and the universality
of his essential being… has not yet been attained […] only with consciousness of a
Higher Being does [man] reach a point of view which inspires him to real reverence.
For if arbitrary choice is the absolute, the only substantial objectivity that is realized,
the mind cannot in such be conscious of any Universality. (208)

Hegel goes on to explain how such a lack of Universality accounts for their ostensible lack of
respect for human life (and, on the subject of specious objectivity, it’s worth noting that
Hegel likely never met an African in his life; he certainty never visited the continent). Whilst
in some ways this idea that there must be some greater telos than the self chimes with
Conrad’s aforementioned dismissal of narrow nihilism, Heart of Darkness dramatically
repudiates Hegel’s ideas that such objectivity can be found in the European mind, finding
their notions as dubious as the feigned objective perspective of an oil painting. Conrad’s
impressionism is a clear demonstration that objectivity is impossible; as Watt writes, the
broader Impressionist movement demonstrated that “in every domain of human concerns
the priority [had] passed from a public system of belief – what all men know – to private
views of reality – what the individual sees.” (352-3) This helps us understand the ambiguity
and distancing of Conrad’s narrative in a way far more coherent then Achebe’s; despite
criticised Conrad’s ambiguity as a broach of “artistic good faith” (338), Achebe’s
nonetheless, somewhat hypocritically, claimed to have found “the real meaning of Heart of
Darkness” in its suggestions of African brutality, as if the novel resembles a sailor’s yarn,
once the nut has been cracked. But the novel firmly resists the idea of deeper meaning, of
ever escaping human’s perceptions of themselves, perceptions Bloom calls “impairing
subjective” (25).

This subjective viewpoint is only occasionally pierced by the suggestion of something other –
of what might count as Said’s mythical “nonimperialist alternative”. Whilst this could support
Achebe’s argument that the novel “wilfully” (348) elides African subjectivity, I would like to
demonstrate this is quite a fundamental misreading: when these alternatives threaten to
pierce the colonialist mind-set of Marlow and his crew, the subjectivity doubles down and
strengthens, as Conrad shows us not simply the way colonialists saw the world, but also the
psychic self-preservation they constantly underwent to maintain their illusion of racial and
national superiority. Rather than dismissing their motives as a “brutally murderous boredom”,
Conrad shows us the complex mental defences these men developed in order to support
their complicity in widespread suffering. T.S Eliot wrote that “human kind cannot bear very

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much reality”, and Marlow at one point also remarks upon the dangers of nakedly lucid
introspection: “One can’t live with one’s finger everlastingly on one’s pulse” (41).

Throughout Marlow’s narrative, we feel that there is a certain structural precarity to his
viewpoint. Sometimes this is demonstrated by lapses from the tone of lofty, literary authority
Marlow mostly adopts. On his way to the Congo, he floats across the sea in an oneiric haze,
which is occasionally punctured by “a momentary contact with reality” (13-14), such as a
French Man-of-War shelling the coast: “it appears the French had one of their wars going on
thereabouts” (14). This quotidian digression into the colloquial causes colonialism’s mask to
slip momentarily, revealed for the arbitrary pursuit it is, implying a meaningless succession
of impossible-to-remember wars, in vague and ill-defined locations. Again, it suggests
subjectivity: rather than infused with God-given purpose, the phrasing would be better suited
a bored description of a man’s tedious hobbies. We also witness this subtle modulation of
register in Marlow’s most explicit discussion of the imperial project:

“Mind,” he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand
outwards, so that with his legs folded before him he had the pose of a Buddha
preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower […] What saves us is
efficiently – the devotion to efficiency. […] The conquest of the earth, which mostly
means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly
flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it… an unselfish belief in the
idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…”
(6-7)

Here Marlow is drawing a distinction between colonialists and conquerors, suggesting, that
for all the obvious violence of the former’s pursuit, it is redeemed by a devotion to both
“efficiency” (the still-extant argument goes something like this: colonialism, for all its human
costs, often did wonders for infrastructure) and an ineffable, nameless “idea”, a pseudo-
religious Absolute. The depiction of Marlow dressed as a Buddha in European clothes
perhaps suggests the depravity of the Hegelian Absolute and European objectivity; such a
philosophy borrows the profound ideals of Eastern thought but without effecting an escape
from the narrow confines of the self and its desires. It is Buddhism “without a lotus-flower”,
meaning Buddhism without the painful process rebirth and sacrifice – no Buddhism at all. As
Bloom writes, much of Heart of Darkness constitutes “a vehement diatribe against the basis
of moral failure, the conceit of the individual in society” (25). The “European clothes” Marlow
wears also work to this end, as even sartorially, European philosophy colonises and

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bastardises. Once more the fluency of Marlow’s narration halters; the awkward parenthetical
insertion of a definition of conquest – “which mostly means the taking… away from those
who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves” – suffers from
clumsy phrasing, leant an extemporaneous quality by the inelegant bathos of “slightly flatter
noses” – here Marlow cannot help, if just for a moment, lay bare the crude incoherence of
the “idea” that justifies their aims.

The unnamed idea is, perhaps, the idea of the nation state, or the superiority of European
racial stock – but by persisting in his unyieldingly ambiguous subjectivity, Conrad suggests
the intangibility of such ideas. As the earlier quote from his “Books” essay demonstrates,
Conrad was highly sceptical of such devotion that involved “piety of effort and renunciation”,
in which the outward actions redeem or occlude their motives. The spatial positioning of the
idea “at the back” of the colonialist’s minds, whilst the “conquest of the earth” is right before
them, hideous when they “look into it too much”, implies that the idea underpinning their
actions is hidden behind them, unsettlingly vague. Perhaps if they were to re-orientate
themselves they might glimpse it for the hollow notion it is, but Conrad’s characters can
never quite confront the horrors abaft them, for to do so represents an existential and moral
threat of profound proportions. Here, I would argue, Conrad arrives at a criticism of
colonialism that is far more powerful than an offering of “nonimperial alternatives” – it is a
criticism that comes from within – articulated by a character who is hardly aware that he is
doing so – and comes clothed in all of the self-justifying, torturous logic of the torturer.
Conrad manages both to criticise colonialism and to sympathetically understand its
practitioners, explicating the internal mechanisms of evil on a deeply intimate level.

Conrad’s subjectivity is, as Bloom puts it “extreme and solipsistic” (8) – this further helps us
understand why Conrad does not, as Achebe suggests he ought, access the inner minds
and “unspeakable cravings” (341) of the Africans, and their portrayal remains crude and
distant. For Conrad the boundaries of nations prove an elusive, impermeable symbol for the
empathetic boundaries between humans. In his essay “Geography and Some Explorers” he
celebrates these borders’ geometric capacity for mystery, and it was Africa that inspired him
the most. Yet the essay ends on an odd note; having arrived in the Congo, his boyish awe
evaporates, his hopes prove vaporous, and all is supplanted by profound melancholy: “Still,
the fact remains that I have smoked a pipe of peace at midnight in the very heart of the
African continent, and felt very lonely there.” (278) Just as Africa refuses to yield its
mysteries, so too does the Other in Conrad’s writing; Marlow remarks that “it is impossible to
convey the life-sensation… of one’s existence. We live, as we dream – alone.” (27)

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In Ways of Seeing, Berger describes a similarly solipsistic voyeurism, in which,

[the] relations between conqueror and colonised tended to be self-perpetuating. The


sight of the other confirmed each in his inhuman estimate of himself. The circularity
of the relationship can be seen in the following diagram – as also the mutual solitude.
The way in which each sees the other confirms his own view of himself. (96)

Achebe argues something similar, that “Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Grey”
(348). This reinforcing espial circle of “mutual solitude” can be found in Conrad’s
impressionistic attempts to “make us see”. For the most part, we only glimpse the colonised
from the viewpoint of the colonised, but, as already demonstrated, a (spiritually costly) way
out of this cycle does occasionally present itself. In one scene, Marlow briefly realigns his
viewpoint, and realises that the native occupants are,

…not inhuman. That was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman
[…] what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought
of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly
enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was…
meaning in [their expressions] … which you could comprehend. And why not? The
mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well
as all the future. (36)

This is an intensely loaded, complex passage that seems alternately triumphantly


progressive and deeply racist. Achebe, and many others, have pointed out that this
epiphany of common humanity seems predicated on the “ugliness” of the Africans; he writes
that what “worries Conrad… [is] the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry” (343).
Although he is correct to assert the unpleasantness of these lines, this conclusion that

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Conrad is worried by the kinship is debatable; instead, Conrad appears enchanted by it, and
uses it imply that the European way is equally barbaric and corrupt, co-opting the imagery of
social Darwinism which had used the idea of a common ancestry to justify theories of racial
superiority. Conrad inverts this; instead of elevating the European man he effects his
descent. This, of course, is still hugely problematic – as Hawkins writes, this idea of slipping
on an evolutionary scale is still racist “since it continues to assume Africans are at the low
end of the scale.” (369)

Yet, I would argue that Heart of Darkness might have been a weaker novel had Conrad
attempted to provide a more ennobling, richer picture of African life, qua Achebe’s Things
Fall Apart. Any attempt to depict a gentler picture of the Congo would not only have been
immediately discredited by his contemporaries (even Roger Casement’s “Congo Report”,
which was fundamental in swaying public opinion against Leopold’s reign, is peppered with
condescending incredulity towards the native people’s own testimonies), but wouldn’t have
been entirely true. It is important to realise that the Congo Free State has been a poverty-
stricken nation before Leopold’s invasion; by the time of Heart of Darkness, they were a truly
brutalised people, and, unsurprisingly, sometimes acted brutally. Hawkins points out that
there was widespread cannibalism – one report documents that between 800 and 1000
slaves were “eaten by the natives of the Congo State annually” (367). Achebe’s argument
for a gentler depiction of Africans also has a curious hue of Western-centricism; he
describes informing an American child fascinated by African tribal practises that they are
really no different from those “of his own tribesmen in Yonkers, New York” (337) – there is
an implicit suggestion, perhaps, that the occupants of the Congo are noble and civilised by
recognisable European standards and vice versa.

So Conrad, instead of attempting to inject his Congo with an ennobling vision of comfortably
European manners, suggests something quite radical: that even at their most desperate, its
occupants are no less human or deserving of dignity. In a letter to Roger Casement in 1903,
Conrad wrote the following that “Barbarism per se is no crime deserving of a heavy
visitation; and the Belgians are worse than the seven plagues of Egypt insomuch that in that
case it was a punishment sent for a definite transgression.” (271) This defence is also found
in Heart of Darkness, in which the existentially tortured European is contrasted with a crew
of black sailors who “wanted no excuse for being there” (14). But Conrad does not suggest a
condescending “noble savage” of refreshingly uncomplicated desires. Another passage from
his letter begins on an uncomfortably Social-Darwinist note before offering a direct
repudiation of Hegel’s ideas of subjectivity, suggesting that the African people are every bit
as capable of considering the Absolute:

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It seems to me that the black man… is deserving of as much humanitarian regard as
any animal since he has nerves, feels pain, can be made physically miserable. But
as a matter of fact his happiness and misery are much more complex than the misery
of or happiness of animals and deserving of greater regard. He shares with us the
consciousness of the universe in which we live – no small burden. (270-1)

Whilst Said writes that ultimately Conrad “could not grant the natives their freedom” (428), it
is worth noting that the only characters who ever manage to demonstrate any sovereignty
over the self, any trace of transcendence, are the cannibals who man Marlow’s ship. Despite
weeks of hunger, they somehow manage to retain their “precarious grip on existence”, and,
most astonishingly, exude “something restraining, one of those human secrets that baffle
probability” (41). Marlow briefly escapes the imperialist mind-set one more time; in “a new
light”, the pilgrims on the vessel look “unwholesome” by comparison – and Marlow even
worries that he too might resemble their “unappetising” aspect, with their “fantastic vanity”.
Achebe argues that Conrad’s Congo River is the “antithesis” (338) to the more civilised
Thames. This an interesting choice of words, for what Conrad actually achieves is
something closer to (irony of ironies) a Hegelian synthesis: as Bloom writes, his approach is
“curiously dialectical” (8), as he finds that these two symbolic rivers are not as opposed or
contradictory as they appear – it simply the way of seeing them that it is at fault.

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Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Heart of Darkness: A
Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Paul B. Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 336-349, 2006. Print.

Achebe, Chinua, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Heart of Darkness: A
Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Paul B. Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, 2006. Print.

Bloom, Harold, “Introduction”, Heart of Darkness (Bloom’s Guides), Chelsea House Publishers, pp. 3-
20, 2009. Print.

Casement, Roger, “The Congo Report”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Paul B.
Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 131-159, 2006. Print.

Conrad, Joseph, “Books”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Paul B. Armstrong, W.W
Norton & Company, pp. 283-286, 2006. Print.

Conrad, Joseph, “Heart of Darkness”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Paul B.
Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 3-77, 2006. Print.

Conrad, Joseph, “Preface to The Nigger of Narcissus”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition,
Ed. Paul B. Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 279-284, 2006. Print.

Conrad, Joseph, “Preface to Youth”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Paul B.
Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 279-284, 2006. Print.

Conrad, Joseph, “Selected Letters”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Paul B.
Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 292-306, 2006. Print.

Forster, E.M, “Joseph Conrad: A Note”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Paul B.
Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 314-316, 2006. Print.

Hawkins, Hunt, “Heart of Darkness and Racism”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition, Ed.
Paul B. Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 365-376, 2006. Print.

Hegel, G.W.F, “The African Character”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition, Ed. Paul B.
Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 208-212, 2006. Print.

Kriss, Sam, ‘United Kingdammerung”, http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2014/united-kingdammerung/,


Web. Accessed January 2017.

Lothe, Jakob, “Jakob Lothe on Conradian Narrative”, Heart of Darkness (Bloom’s Guides), Chelsea
House Publishers, pp. 46-54, 2009. Print.

Said, Edward W., “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition,
Ed. Paul B. Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 422-429 2006. Print.

Watt, Ian, “Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness”, Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical
Edition, Ed. Paul B. Armstrong, W.W Norton & Company, pp. 349-365, 2006. Print.

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