Is Heart of Darkness Racist?

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

My synopsis: a white middle-class dude tells other white middle-class dudes about his trip up the Congo river to extract yet another white middle-class dude because the latter went nuts and, instead of just robbing the native population, proclaimed himself a god there. Because it’s easier to rob them that way. This story-telling event takes place on a luxury yacht on the Thames river, near London, as the dudes wait for the turn of the tide. Which is of course very symbolic.


My thoughts: I love Heart of Darkness, or at least loved it. It’s such a rich, nuanced, brilliant book. The dude who tells us about his journey is Charles Marlow, a racist and sexist man who also happens to be charming and intelligent. So as readers go on a journey to the Congo with him, they must guard themselves against liking him. That’s how I used to think about the book.


Until recently.


Until Ferguson.


Then I started thinking about Heart of Darkness again. Yes, Joseph Conrad does show that Marlow is a racist, but he does not punish him. One can argue that no, Marlow is punished because as he sits and tells his story, he is alienated from the other men. They—or at least the man who retells Marlow’s story to us later—see him as Buddha with yellow skin. In other words, Marlow is no longer seen as a white man, and he is compared to a foreign god. He lost his Britishness. The horror. But is it enough?


The Europeans killed the native population of Africa in staggering numbers, so is it enough that Marlow has yellow skin now (jaundice? malaria?)? Is it enough that nobody on that yacht might be listening to his story? They might be all asleep. Or should have the natives got together with the Intended* and killed Marlow?


True, this murder would not have been realistic, but realism in books is a murky concept, and if, let’s say, Tolstoy kills off Anna Karenina because she’s an adulteress, then Conrad could have made Marlow commit suicide because, let’s say, Marlow is haunted by his Congo trip. Which he really is. So what is just? What is enough?


*That’s how Kurtz refers to his fiancée. Marlow deceives her about Kurtz’s last words because…well, it’s a huge debate why, but one of the reasons is definitely because she is not a dude. Because Marlow tells the truth to the white dudes on that yacht, Kurtz’s last words and all.