Throughout its long history as a seminal text in the English canon, there has been a strenuous debate over whether Heart of Darkness is itself a racist book. That is, does the book itself, quite apart from the individuals in it, express racism? Or does any racism in the book express an opinion of Conrad’s? The first major work on colonialism, the novella is clearly written from the perspective of a foreign white man on a boat in a strange country. This in itself creates problems for many readers, who see Conrad’s effort to write about Africa and Africans as presumption or even racism in itself. On the other hand, this perspective would taint every attempt to express what one has learned about another culture. A better question is whether Heart of Darkness leads the reader to support rather than to criticize the expressions of racism or colonialism that one can find in the novella.
The most famous accusation that Conrad is a racist comes from the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. In his essay “An Image of Africa,” Achebe wrote, “Clearly Conrad has a problem with niggers … his inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts.” Achebe also refers to the famous scenes where Marlow describes disembodied “black arms” waving in the bush, and Achebe asks ironically, should the reader expect them to be white? Although this minor detail is hardly enough on which to hang an argument, one certainly should note that Conrad’s fascination with the group movement of the black natives establishes these individuals as Others. It is unclear whether this is a function of racism or simply the wonder with which someone observes unfamiliar group activities. Conrad does not assign any personal will or agency to these characters as a group, yet this is not an uncommon way of describing any group.
A non-African critic, Cedric Watts, takes issue with the characterization of Conrad as a racist. He argues that Conrad presents both the rapacious imperialists and the mute but always threatening natives with such cartoonishness that he must be lampooning the whole situation. Watts argues that Heart of Darkness is written with a guiding black irony: those who appear civilized are not actually civilized at all.
Since Heart of Darkness remains a signal work of the Western canon, this debate is ongoing. Again, it seems that the central issue is the distance of Conrad from Marlow. The story of Marlow corresponds so neatly with Conrad’s own biography that it is easy to assume that Marlow registers Conrad’ own perspective, including his prejudices and perhaps racism. But on the basis of the novella alone, it is impossible to determine whether Conrad expresses his own views by simple transference or, as one might credit a great writer with doing, by lampooning the imperialists. Although the natives are often incomprehensible in the tale, they also are more innocent. To make one’s own decision about this issue, one should consider the overall themes of the work and how this issue relates to them—but also how Conrad would have expected his contemporary audiences, themselves of varying opinions about race and colonialism, to read his book.