Reflections on The Heart of Darkness: Racism and Audience

One of the books I read last summer after finishing up my Thesis was Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. I had not read it before, but I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit. While I browsed around for more Conrad books to read (eventually settling on The Secret Agent), I came across some reviews The Heart of Darkness. There were two prevalent critiques: racism and difficulty of reading, particularly in regard to the verbiage. I understand both complaints, but find both to be invalid.

It is readily apparent in The Heart of Darkness that Conrad is a product of his times and certainly has many of the same prejudices of his time. He is no more racist than his contemporaries and considerably less so than many. So, yes, there are racist elements in The Heart of Darkness, but that does not discredit him. The descriptions in the book, without yet broaching Conrad’s messages about human nature and “civilization,” are incredibly vivid and are critical of colonial exploitation. Keeping in mind that the entire story is told as a reminiscence of Marlow, a man who was employed by a colonial company Conrad depicts “the whites” as the active characters juxtaposed by the more or less passive “blacks.” Even if he did not intend fore there to be an overarching critique of the white behavior (which I think he did intend), and disturbing (though accurate) descriptions of behavior in much the same way as Mark Twain created, The Heart of Darkness still serves as an insight into the conscience of a generation. Was Conrad a racist? Perhaps, but he is also clearly uncomfortable with exploitation and provides a scathing critique of civilization and imperialism–even if there is also an admission that lawlessness is worse.

For what it is worth, I have not read what Edward Said has written about Conrad (though I would like to).

Conrad’s writing is beautiful, direct, and honest. I had few problems with the verbiage and syntax, though I can see why some people may struggle. Frankly, school systems in this country ill prepare people for the humanities in general and particularly history and English. Though I love reading and have a good vocabulary, I hated assigned books and most of the accompanying exercises. Most of the vocabulary and syntax knowledge people get is through their independent reading. Books are widely available, but many of those that are widely read have easier structure and vocabulary. For the most part this is to make them accessible. Many classics of literature were not meant to be as widely read simply because the literate stratum of society was not as large. Conrad uses “big” words, but I suspect that those people who read it upon release would have had no difficulties. In order for a work to survive it has to be read immediately, so I doubt any author attempts to predict what writing would make his work readable in perpetuity. Yes, Conrad provides a challenge to read, but in The Heart of Darkness it is well worth the effort.

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