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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 Conrads 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 mans
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. Its 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? 002223-0028

Heart of Darkness is a novella about, among many other things, the evaluation of the
European mans soul in contrast with that of the African natives. 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 Europes 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 expos 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 mans 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
masksbut 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
arent 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
Companys 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? 002223-0028

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.
Its 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 ... leaving hardly a sign -- and
no memories. This prehistoric earth together with the prehistoric man is set up as an antithesis
to Europe and its civilization
. 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 doesnt recognize this
as his past self. This passage makes the natives of Congo otherworldly. They have rudimentary
souls and most primitive instincts.
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 Sahara which creates an imagery of the natives devoid of feelings,
personality or dignity in an endless and lifeless desert.

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? 002223-0028

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
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.