Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Race

By Joseph Conrad


Chapter 1

"[…] with a large, white, rascally grin, and a glance at his charge, seemed to take me into partnership in his exalted trust. After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings." (1.36)

Conrad mocks the idea of imperialism as humane by contrasting adjectives like "exalted," "high," and "just" with the brutal reality of the chained slaves. Those are some big words to describe the exploitation of cheap black labor.

[After the shed fire]: "'What a row the brute makes!' said the indefatigable man with the moustaches, appearing near us. 'Serve him right. Transgression—punishment—bang! Pitiless, pitiless. That's the only way. This will prevent all conflagrations for the future. I was just telling the manager…'" (1.60)

Nice. The so-called pilgrims' goodness pitilessly beat the black man blamed for the fire. They have no compassion for his suffering; his whimpers are registered only as a "row" made by "the brute." They treat the man like an animal, as if he will only learn his lesson from repeated beatings.

Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!…The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires. (1.6)

The colonists are described as shiny, altruistic pioneers sallying forth into the dark uncivilized world to bring salvation and civilization to the ignorant races. Oh, but also terror, rape, enslavement, and forced conversion. Awesome!

[The accountant]: "'What a frightful row,' he said. He crossed the room gently to look at the sick man, and returning, said to me, "he does not hear. 'What! Dead?' I asked, startled. 'No, not yet,' he answered, with great composure. Then, alluding with a toss of the head to the tumult in the station-yard, 'When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages—hate them to death.'" (1.47)

Ugh it is so annoying when we're trying to get our work done and the other agents keep dying. Where'd be put our Bose noise-canceling headphones?

"I got my appointment - of course; and I got it very quick. It appears the Company had received news that one of their captains had been killed in a scuffle with the natives. This was my chance, and it made me the more anxious to go. It was only months and months afterwards, when I made the attempt to recover what was left of the body, that I heard the original quarrel arose from a misunderstanding about some hens. Yes, two black hens. Fresleven—that was the fellow's name, a Dane—thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn't surprise me in the last to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs. No doubt he was; but he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old n***** mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people watched him, thunderstruck, till some man, - I was told the chief's son, - in desperation at hearing the old chap yell, made a tentative jab with a spear at the white man—and of course it went quite easy between the shoulder-blades." (1.21)

On the surface, this is a description of African brutality and violence. If you read it closely, though, it's more about how the Africans are forced into brutality by Fresleven's own viciousness—and they don't even mean to kill him. Who comes off looking bad in this little exchange?

Charlie Marlow

"I had then, as you remember, just returned to London after a lot of Indian Ocean, Pacific, China Seas - a regular dose of the East - six years or so, and I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you." (1.16)

Marlow makes fun of the colonist's motto—to civilize savages—by comparing it to an idle traveler imposing himself on hosts too generous to make him leave. The implication is that the colonists' arrival with all their rhetoric of civilization is ultimately undesired by the native African inhabitants. What, you mean the native Africans don't actually want to be civilized?

[Marlow]: "Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. 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's the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea." (1.13)

Aaaand, now Marlow undermines everything he just said about the nobility and good intentions of the explorers. He's seen how messed up colonization really is, and he knows that the colonizing countries care only about efficiency and profit. The explorers aren't heroes; they're robbers and murderers who just wanted to bring home profit.

[On the black slaves at the first station]: "[…] but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meager breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily up-hill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages." (1.36)

Ooooh, how scary: a bunch of beaten, abused slaves are such a threat that the overseers still somehow think it necessary to chain them up. But how could these men be considered dangerous enemies.

"Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner, his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre of a pestilence. While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone." (1.39-41)

Here we see the true consequences of imperialism—mistreated and overworked slaves who are left to die on their own. They're given no food, care, or medicine, and are left to die outdoors. But notice how Marlow calls them "bundles," "creatures," and phantoms"? They're treated so inhumanely that Marlow can't even see them as fully human.

"Good heavens! and I was going to take charge of a twopenny-half-penny river-steamboat with a penny whistle attached! It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital—you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman [Marlow's aunt], living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways," till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable." (1.27)

Marlow finds that his aunt expects him to be something of a missionary—a man on the way to Africa to teach the native Africans—but all this talk makes Marlow uncomfortable. He knows that he's not traveling for altruistic ends.

Chapter 2

"He [Kurtz] began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, 'must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings - we approach them with the might of a deity,' and so on, and so on. 'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,' etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm." (2.29)

Kurtz honestly believes, or used to believe, in the goodness of imperialism. He believed that the white man could bring goodness and enlightenment to the black Africans. But to Kurtz, this is only possible if the white man plays the part of a god. Kurtz envisions a utopia not of equality between the two races, but of a peaceful and benevolent reign of the white man over the black—a kind of master/ slave relationship. But Kurtz seriously underestimates what that means.

Charlie Marlow

"It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but 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 your self that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend." (2.8)

Marlow begins to feel a teeny, tiny sense of kinship with the native Africans, and he even says that he's starting to understand their screams. At this point, Marlow is turning away from the traditional views of imperialists, who do not see the conquered native Africans as human.

"And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity—and he had filed teeth too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. He was useful because he had been instructed; and what he knew was this—that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance. So he sweated and fired up and watched the glass fearfully (with an impromptu charm, made of rags, tied to his arm, and apiece of polished bone, as big as a watch stuck flatways through his lower lip), while the wooded banks slipped past us slowly…." (2.8)

Marlow may not be a total racist jerk, but he still doesn't consider the native Africans his equal. He sees them instead as animals, calling this fireman "a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs." They don't bother teaching him anything about hydraulics or engineering; they just tell him that an evil spirit will take revenge if the boiler ever becomes empty. This is essentially the same as getting your kid to stay in bed by telling her that there's a monster under it.

Chapter 3

"'He [the harlequin] suspected there was an active ill-will towards him on the part of these white men that—.' 'You are right,' I said, remembering a certain conversation I had overheard. 'The manager thinks you ought to be hanged.'" (3.21)

The manager's racism extends towards Russians as well. He wants to kill the harlequin simply because he's different from the others. That, or maybe he just doesn't like the guy's silly clothes.

[When leaving the Inner Station with Kurtz]: "In front of the first rank, along the river, three men, plastered with bright red earth from head to foot, strutted to and fro restlessly. When we came abreast again, they faced the river, stamped their feet, nodded their horned heads, swayed their scarlet bodies; they shook towards the fierce river-demon a bunch of black feathers, a mangy skin with a pendant tail—something that looked like a dried gourd; they shouted periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language; and the deep murmurs of the crowd, interrupted suddenly, were like the responses of some satanic litany." (3.30)

White men view the native Africans as "savages" in their paint and armed with their strange weapons. Their language is so alien that it sounds like a "satanic litany." Which, unless it says "here's to my sweet Satan" when played backwards, sounds like a stretch to us.

"I had no idea of the conditions, he [the harlequin] said: these heads were the heads of rebels. I shocked him excessively by laughing. Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear? There had been enemies, criminals, workers—and these were rebels. Those rebellious heads looked very subdued to me on their sticks." (3.6)

Add "language" to the list of things that don't quite hold up to close inspection. The white men have called the Africans "enemies, criminals, workers" and now "rebels"—which is especially ridiculous, because the Africans haven't been allowed nearly enough power or freedom of choice to be called such things. (But it sure does make sticking their heads on sticks a lot more justifiable.)

"It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares." (1.31)

The fact that Marlow refers to his journey as a "pilgrimage" implies that his mission is one so pure as to be blessed by God. Um, not so much. We bet that lie helps him sleep better at night, though.

"More than once she [the steamboat] had to wade for it, with twenty cannibals splashing around and pushing. We had enlisted some of these chaps on the way for a crew. Fine fellows—cannibals—in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face: they had brought along a provision of hippo-meat which went rotten, and made the mystery of the wilderness stink in my nostrils. Phoo! I can sniff it now." (2.7)

Before you start patting Marlow on the back for being all evolved and anti-racist, notice that he only calls them "fine fellows" if they're "in their place." They're also forced to give up their habit of cannibalism to put their employers at ease. (Although, we're kind of behind that move, to be honest.)