"The horror! The horror!": Controversial Legacy of Conrad's Heart of Darkness


Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness explores imperialism and racism through the western perspective. "Although the novel was hardly a popular success during Conrad’s life" (Moore 2004, p. 4), nowadays it is translated into various languages, and is still a subject of debate for academics. Postcolonial theorists such as Edward Said and Chinua Achebe read Heart of Darkness as a racist novel which dehumanizes the Congolese people. Achebe strictly criticized the novel in his lectures which were later published under the name of “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness” in 1975 whereas Said criticized “Conrad’s tragic limitation” in his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism.


Still, the novel has been a source of inspiration for other artists such as the American film director Francis Ford Coppola who adapted the story to the Vietnam War in his masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979). Just like the book that inspired it, the movie is also criticized for its representation of the natives. For example, Nguyen Nguyet (2015) suggests that Coppola’s stereotypical, shallow representation of the faceless Vietnamese people reminds of a portrayal that Said would have called “typically Oriental” (p. 53) .In addition to that, the Vietnamese literary critic Nguyen Khac Vien (1981) asserts that “while Coppola knows the war well from the American side, he does not fully grasp it from the side of the Vietnamese and Indochinese peoples” (p. 43).


Figure 1: Joseph Conrad by George Charles Beresford, 1904

Conrad was born into a Polish family in Ukraine. English was his third language and he first encountered it at the age of eight while watching his father translate Shakespeare’s works in order to make a living. Since his childhood, he was interested in sailing and discovering foreign lands so much that he said: “It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa at the time and putting my finger on the blank space, I said to myself: ‘When I grow up I shall go there’” (Norton, p. 72). He was able to realize this dream after immigrating to England. His novels are mostly based on his personal experiences and adventures at sea and Heart of Darkness is not an exception. Indeed, in 1890 Conrad sailed to Congo on a steamboat. During that time, Congo’s official name was Congo Free State and it served as King Leopold II of Belgium's private colony. After four months, Conrad returned to England and wrote Heart of Darkness in which he reflected about his traumatic experiences in Congo and reported on the way Europeans treated indigenous peoples in the colonies.

Figure 2: The Congo River by Pascal Maitre, 2015

The novella opens on the river Thames where a little crew of five sailors talk on a yawl. One of them Charles Marlow, begins by telling the story of how he went to Africa as the captain of a steamboat for an ivory trading company. In the flashback, Marlow goes to Congo but due to an accident involving his ship, he is forced to prolong his stay. During this time, he learns about Colonel Kurtz, a respected ivory trader, who joined a group of natives and became their leader. Marlow is told that Kurtz has lost his sanity and could be dangerous. Marlow and his crew follow the Congo River and go to Kurtz’s camp. They find Kurtz indeed worshiped by the natives, but very ill. Somehow, they convince him to come with them to the main station. On the journey Kurtz’s situation worsens. He dies shortly after Marlow hears him weakly utter the words: “The horror! The horror!”.


Heart of Darkness is an example of an early modern novel. It is linguistically innovative, maybe thanks to the fact that English is not Conrad’s mother tongue as Said (1974) underlines: “He was misled my language even as he led language into a dramatization no other author really approached” ( p.116). Moreover, Marlow is supposedly the voice of Conrad himself (Hawkins 1979, p. 286). The title of the novel can be interpreted in many ways, but there is a certainty: Conrad discovered something which changed him forever at the heart of Africa as he later told Edward Garnett: “Before the Congo I was just a mere animal.” (Norton, p. 72) Additionally, it is possible that Conrad tried to heal his trauma through storytelling, as psychologist Deborah Serani highlights: "While it may not be easy to revisit the sights, sounds and psychic memories of your trauma, it can help you heal" (Serani 2014).

Figure 3: "Heart of Darkness" illustration by Katerina Chadoulou, 2014


In his critique of Heart of Darkness, Attridge (2018) indicates that “giving Thames as the setting allows Conrad to foreshadow one of the novel’s central conceits: the lack of any absolute, essential difference between so-called civilized societies and so called primitive ones”. Before starting to tell his story, Marlow says that when the first ancient Roman soldiers arrived in Britain, it was “one of the dark places of the earth”. Therefore, Marlow suggests that the so-called primitive lands can also develop through the invasion of the so-called civilized countries. European colonialists have historically used this idea to justify their actions. This is the reason why Achebe (1978) calls Conrad “a bloody racist” (p. 9). According to Achebe, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as "the other world," the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality” (p. 3). Furthermore, he argues that the Congo River was given as the antithesis of the Thames. “The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting peacefully "at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks” whereas the Congo is described as “We are told that "going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world” (p. 3). In addition to Achebe, Said (1993) sustains:


Conrad’s tragic limitation is that even though he could see clearly that on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that imperialism had to end so that “natives” could lead lives free from European dominion (p. 30).


Although Conrad criticizes the imperial exploitation in Africa, throughout the book indigenous people are limited to flat characters and hardly show any sign of intelligence. However, this also could be due to Marlow’s narrow perspective and, more broadly, it could be interpreted as western people’s honest view on the colonies' population.


Figure 4: Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz on the set of Apocalypse Now


Heart of Darkness is always accompanied by criticisms and praises. Attridge underlines: “If Achebe did not succeed in having Heart of Darkness struck from the canon, he did ensure that academics writing about the novel could no longer ignore the question of race.” Whatever the criticisms may be, Heart of Darkness protects its universality and remains relevant still to this day. It applies to the Vietnam War as in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, or to any other place where crimes against humanity are committed. The horror in Vietnam was the same horror in Congo. It is the same darkness in many people’s hearts as the one we can find in Kurtz’s. In conclusion, it is an enigmatic story which is difficult to understand and needs to be solved but also undeniably fascinating. It is captivating for an immigrant who learned English later in life to write such an impressive work, or maybe it was thanks to his background that Conrad, a Polish man who experienced Russian oppression and occupation, was able to write such a complex and universal story.


Bibliographical References

Achebe, Chinua. (1978). An Image of Africa. Research in African Literature, 9, 1, 1–15. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3818468.


Attridge, John. (2018). How Conrad’s imperial horror story 'Heart of Darkness' resonates with our globalised times. UNSW Sydney Newsroom. https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/art-architecture-design/how-conrad’s-imperial-horror-story-heart-darkness-resonates-our.


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2022). Joseph Conrad. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Joseph-Conrad. Accessed 8 July 2022.


Greenblatt, Stephen. (Ed.). (2018). Joseph Conrad. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 67-71.


Hawkins, H. (1979). Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness. PMLA, 94, 2, 286–299. https://doi.org/10.2307/461892


Moore, Gene M. (Ed.). (2004). Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. Oxford University Press.


Nguyen, Nguyet. (2015). Which Mirror Is ‘Truer’? Portrayal of the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now and Cánh Ðôȍg Hoang. The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 22, 1, 45–71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43898404.


Said, Edward W. (1974). Conrad: The Presentation of Narrative. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 7, 2, 116–32. https://doi.org/10.2307/1345092.


Said, Edward W. (1993). Two Visions in Heart of Darkness. Culture and Imperialism, New York, 19-31.


Serani, Deborah. (2014). Why Your Story Matters: The healing power of personal narrative. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/why-your-story-matters.


Vien, Nguyen Khac. (1981). Apocalypse Now Viewed by a Vietnamese. Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 14, 42–43. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44111793.

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