Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is one of the most infamous portrayals of central Africa ever written. In dramatising the narrative of its protagonists journey down the Congo river, the novella serves an allegorical function as a depiction of the potential for humanity to descend into barbarism. It does so at the expense of an entire population of indigenous people. By mobilizing manifestly racist depictions of indigenous African people, the novella has been argued to feed into an inherently racist discourse surrounding the construction of specifically western view of the a colonized ‘other.’ The way in which this happens is a specific concern of post-colonial criticism and has been claimed, by the scholar Eward Said to follow the trend of what he terms to be ‘Orientalism,’ that is the process by which the discursive practices of an occupying nation construct the colonized in such a way that justifies and even necessitates their domination. By considering key moments in the novel, alongside the description of orientalist viewpoints that Edward Said gives in his book ‘Orientalism’ this paper will demonstrate the ways in which Conrad’s novella serves to create and back up discourses of colonization.
Said defines Orientalism as a practice whereby individuals and races are described in such a manner that they are exoticized, othered and rendered sufficiently different to a colonizing power to provide a biological justification to the existence of the coloniser. He writes that in Orientalist discourse; ‘

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”An assumption has been made that the Orient and everything in it was, if no patently inferior to, then in need of corrective study by the west. The Orient was viewed as if framed by the classroom, the criminal court, the prison, the illustrated manual. Orientalism, then, is knowledge of the Orient that places things Oriental in class, court, prison, or manual for scrutiny, study, judgment, discipline or governing’ (2003 41).

Orientalism is a manner of writing and talking about the non-western world in such a way that the occupation and scientific study of that world, alongside the extraction of its natural resources, are granted historical legitimacy. It is clear that such a process can be seen in ‘Heart of Darkness,’ a novel that Said himself would later claim is one of the most perfect instantiations of the imperialist vision that he had ever come across (2014 70).

As Marlow, Conrad’s protagonist, describes his journey then he encounters several times a local population that is rendered opaque and inhuman, and also is deemed to posses an exotic and dangerous level of threat. This population is understand on the one hand to be possessed of a mystical power that defies explanation and also to be equally sub-human and devoid of the capacities for reason and thinking that animate the non-black characters in the story. At one point, when travelling down the river with Kurtz, Marlow describes seeing actions of the local inhabitants of the area in terms which are similarly opaque and threatening:

‘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… and the deep murmurs of the crowd, interrupted suddenly, were like the responses of some satanic litany’ (2007 40).

In this passage, Conrad deliberately employs devices that can be seen as explicitly orientalist. The local population is presented as an amorphous mass devoid of reason, and at the same possessing a logic of its own, although one that is unlike that of either Marlow or his companion at this point, Colonel Kurtz. The indigenous people in this passage can therefore be seen to occupy a double bind. On the one hand they intellectually bereft according to the standards of the narrator, however they are nonetheless extremely dangerous and are possessed of something like an actual primal energy that reminds Marlow of a satanic ritual. These people are not powerless, but they are clearly not civilized. As such the description in which the locals are judged based on white standards, and are found to be wanting, both serves to make the intangibly alien and tangibly dangerous and threatening. In this sense, the presence of the colonizer is justified as this lack of possible explanation behind the actions witnessed can then be seen to legitimate the presence of the white observer and the reasonable thinker. This description, alongside others like it, serves to actively generate a sense of otherness with regard to the population and to therefore legitimate the presence of a colonizing power who may or may not be overwhelmed by.

In conclusion, this paper has argued that ‘Heart of Darkness’ is best viewed from a post-colonial perspective if one considers it from the perspective of Said’s ideas with regard to Orientalism. This way of thinking and writing should be viewed as a mode of discourse through which a colonizing power generates an image of a colonized other in such a way that their presence as colonizers is legitimated. It is clearly the case that such a discourse is present in ‘Heart of Darkness.’ This discourse can be seen in the descriptions that Conrad offers of local populations along the Congo river that serve to consistently generate them a irrational others and as possessing a dark and inexplicable force that is inimical to the reasoned and thoughtful actions of the white protagonist and his companions.

  • Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin, 2007.
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 2003.
  • Saidm Edward, Power Politics and Culture. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.