Race in Conrad Heart of Darkness

Race in Conrad Heart of Darkness

It is true that Africans are discriminated against in the western society since the colonial period. The book, Heart of Darkness has attracted debate in the field of literature about whether it is a racist book or not. Chinua Achebe accuses the author of the book, Joseph Conrad as a “bloody racist” (343) by claiming that Conrad has an issue with niggers. Africans are seen to be primitive but less corrupt, and this forms the foundation of racism in the book.


Some authors argue that the Heart of Darkness portrays the whites as more superior than the Africans. Conrad’s literary work explains the relationship between the whites and the blacks. Conrad depicts the African image as “the other world,” and exemplifies a behavior of racists in the way he uses different characters in different contexts. Conrad patronizes the black natives as primitive. The Heart of Darkness argues that Africans are less corrupt and more superior to the whites. However, this argument about Africans superiority is founded on racial irony. Conrad uses symbolism and irony throughout the novel to justify the theme of racism.

To begin with, racism is witnessed in the Heart of Darkness when Marlow tries to describe a native. The symbol of a dog wearing feathers has been used to ridicule the natives in the novel. For example, Marlow describes the natives by comparing their appearance with a dog wearing feathers. Marlow says, “He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs” (Conrad Chapter 2 4). Marlow symbolizes racist of the highest order by the natives. Describing the person as an animal is being racially biased, and shows how the society is composed of different people who consider others to be inferior to them when it comes to facial appearance. Skin color is the main foundation of this racism. The feeling by Europeans that they are more superior to Africans had developed this notion.

As demonstrated through the symbolism of the dog, it is evident that Africans are considered to be inferior to the whites. Also, their skin color and facial appearance is an issue to their progress in the European society. Readers have much empathy to the natives thus understand why racial prejudices should to be alleviated. Through this symbolic representation of dogs, the author attempts to establish awareness to readers that the Africans fail due to their inferior perception in the society by the whites.

Second, the single female African character in the book is symbolically objected. The symbol of wild-eyes is used to oppose women’s success in the society. For instance, Conrad writes “she is savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there is something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush…..sorrowful land, the immense wilderness……” (Conrad 137). At first, the author writes positively about the African woman by describing her as superb and magnificent, but this is objection nonetheless. He plots the woman as a race that had fallen long ago while in her sorrowful land (Africa), which the writer refers to a land of immense wilderness. The accusation by Conrad that the African character was looking at a passionate soul is also symbolism and tries to view the African race as irresponsible, less caring, and not romantic enough to the African women. This symbolism is similar to Conrad’s most positive portrayal of African men characters in his literary book, Heart of Darkness. At first, he presents the male African characters as beautiful- he later terms them as originators of salvage landscape that is despoiled by the whites.

From the quote, African men and women are highly criticized in the society. The blacks are highly stereotyped, oppressed, and ridiculed by the whites in the society. This makes the reader understand the devastating effects of inferior racial misconceptions and stereotypes to people in the society. Though this symbolism of wild, magnificent eyes, Conrad educates the readers there exist inferior racial misconceptions that pull the society backward.

On the other hand, irony is another literary device used by Conrad in his book. Conrad calls the Europeans unfair treatment to Africans as high and just, and this is ironical. In this instance, Conrad ends chapter one of his Heart of Darkness novel by stating that the Europeans inhuman treatment of the Congolese people is “just and just proceedings” (Conrad 12). The author’s detailing about how the whites inhuman, unfair, and oppressive treatment to the Congolese (Africans) is proper and just shows how racist he is. Being a well-respected and educated author in literature, this statement is ironic of him and depicts the mindset Europeans had about Africans at that period. The same way the Europeans create a narrative and plot the Congolese people as uncivilized, the whites tend to believe that they are more special than Africans. Again, based on Conrad’s statement; it is clear that the Europeans consider themselves to be nobler at the expense of Africans with such unjust acts.

Today, there are racial stereotypes about the Africans by the whites. The white natives hold that the Africans deserve to be exploited, tired, and work for them; and this is a mindset formed since time immemorial. The whites view the blacks as uncivilized and enemies to their progress. The Africans should awaken and fight for their position in the society to end these racial stereotypes. In this irony, Conrad attempts to bring awareness that there are racial stereotypes against some skin colors in the society.

Also, there is an element of irony in Kurtz’s conversion to the Congo society. Kurtz is seen as an intelligent agent of a company who at a time wrote a pamphlet explaining the formal roles of the whites in Africa. According to Kurtz, the whites could suppress the savages, their brutality in killing Africans, and their norms of living as well as civilizing the backward people. The irony in his statement comes near the end of the novel when he says “Exterminate all the brutes” (Conrad 80). Initially, Kurtz wrote in the pamphlet that the blacks had equal rights to the whites. Here, the character is portrayed to have a very progressive and high concept on how to tame cannibals. However, his saying that all brutes need to be exterminated brings the irony for he previously had written about the constructive roles of the whites. There is a big contradiction between his statement and what he wrote. However, Kurtz himself becomes a savage too.


As a matter of fact, most people are hypocrites and change their behavior in different environments. When the whites deal with the natives, they behave normally; but when dealing with the blacks; become savages. People tend to forget their mission, and some are even transformed by the people whom they sought to transform. Through the irony representation of Kurtz, Conrad attempts to create awareness to the society that people lose focus on their missions on a daily basis.

In conclusion, Conrad brings the aspect of racism that is witnessed in the European society against the other colors. The blacks are considered inferior to the whites, a stereotype that needs to be alleviated. Symbolism has been used by Conrad to explain the uncouth and primitive behavior of the Africans as stereotyped by the Europeans. On the other hand, Conrad uses irony in the novel to bring the theme of race, and this helps readers to understand literary work of the author. The colonialism and prejudice against the blacks continue to exist in today’s society, and this is evident in modern literature as written by the European authors.

Work Cited

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness. 1902.” Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Selections from The Congo Diary, intro. Caryl Phillips (New York: Modern Library, 1999) (1990): 1-96.

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of darkness.” Heart of darkness. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 1996. 17-95.

Joseph, Conrad. Heart of Darkness. Strelbytskyy Multimedia, 2017.

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