Short Tales of Joseph Conrad

Critical reception

Style

Conrad, an emotional man subject to fits of depression, self-doubt, and pessimism, disciplined his romantic temperament with an unsparing moral judgment.

Despite the opinions even of some who knew him personally, such as fellow novelist Henry James,[2]:446–47 Conrad – even when he was only writing elegantly crafted letters to his uncle and acquaintances – was always at heart a writer who sailed, rather than a sailor who wrote. He used his sailor's experiences as a backdrop for many of his works, but he also produced works of similar world view, without the nautical motifs. The failure of many critics in his time to appreciate this caused him much frustration.[2]:377, 562

An October 1923 visitor to Oswalds, Conrad's home at the time – Cyril Clemens, a cousin of Mark Twain – quoted Conrad as saying: "In everything I have written there is always one invariable intention, and that is to capture the reader's attention."[2]:564

Conrad the artist famously aspired, in the words of his preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897), "by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel... before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand – and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask."[30]

Writing in what to the visual arts was the age of Impressionism, and what to music was the age of impressionist music, Conrad showed himself in many of his works a prose poet of the highest order: for instance, in the evocative Patna and courtroom scenes of Lord Jim; in the scenes of the "melancholy-mad elephant" and the "French gunboat firing into a continent", in Heart of Darkness; in the doubled protagonists of The Secret Sharer; and in the verbal and conceptual resonances of Nostromo and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'.

Conrad used his own memories as literary material so often that readers are tempted to treat his life and work as a single whole. His "view of the world", or elements of it, are often described by citing at once both his private and public statements, passages from his letters, and citations from his books. Najder warns that this approach produces an incoherent and misleading picture. "An... uncritical linking of the two spheres, literature and private life, distorts each. Conrad used his own experiences as raw material, but the finished product should not be confused with the experiences themselves."[2]:576–77

Many of Conrad's characters were inspired by actual persons he had met, including, in his first novel, Almayer's Folly (completed 1894), William Charles Olmeijer, the spelling of whose name Conrad, probably inadvertently, altered to "Almayer."[10]:11, 40 The historic trader Olmeijer, whom Conrad encountered on his four short visits to Berau in Borneo, subsequently haunted Conrad's imagination.[10]:40–1 Conrad frequently borrowed the authentic names of actual individuals, e.g., Captain McWhirr[note 19] (Typhoon), Captain Beard and Mr. Mahon ("Youth"), Captain Lingard (Almayer's Folly and elsewhere), Captain Ellis (The Shadow Line). "Conrad," writes J. I. M. Stewart, "appears to have attached some mysterious significance to such links with actuality."[10]:11–12 Equally curious is "a great deal of namelessness in Conrad, requiring some minor virtuosity to maintain."[10]:244 We never learn the surname of the protagonist of Lord Jim.[10]:95 Conrad also preserves, in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', the authentic name of the ship, the Narcissus, in which he sailed in 1884.[2]:98–100

Apart from Conrad's own experiences, a number of episodes in his fiction were suggested by past or contemporary publicly known events or literary works. The first half of the 1900 novel Lord Jim (the 'Patna' episode) was inspired by the real-life 1880 story of the SS Jeddah;[10]:96–7 the second part, to some extent by the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.[31] The 1901 short story "Amy Foster" was inspired partly by an anecdote in Ford Madox Ford's The Cinque Ports (1900), wherein a shipwrecked sailor from a German merchant ship, unable to communicate in English, and driven away by the local country people, finally found shelter in a pigsty.[2]:312–13 [note 20] In Nostromo (completed 1904), the theft of a massive consignment of silver was suggested to Conrad by a story he had heard in the Gulf of Mexico and later read about in a "volume picked up outside a second-hand bookshop."[10]:128–29 [note 21] The Secret Agent (completed 1906) was inspired by the French anarchist Martial Bourdin's 1894 death while apparently attempting to blow up the Greenwich Observatory.[32] Conrad's story "The Secret Sharer" (completed 1909) was inspired by an 1880 incident when Sydney Smith, first mate of the Cutty Sark, had killed a seaman and fled from justice, aided by the ship's captain.[10]:235–6 The plot of Under Western Eyes (completed 1910) is kicked off by the assassination of a brutal Russian government minister, modelled after the real-life 1904 assassination of Russian Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve.[10]:199 The near-novella "Freya of the Seven Isles" (completed in March 1911) was inspired by a story told to Conrad by a Malaya old hand and fan of Conrad's, Captain Carlos M. Marris.[2]:405, 422–23

For the natural surroundings of the high seas, the Malay Archipelago and South America, which Conrad described so vividly, he could rely on his own observations. What his brief landfalls could not provide was a thorough understanding of exotic cultures. For this he resorted, like other writers, to literary sources. When writing his Malayan stories, he consulted Alfred Russel Wallace's The Malay Archipelago (1869), James Brooke's journals, and books with titles like Perak and the Malays, My Journal in Malayan Waters, and Life in the Forests of the Far East. When he set about writing his novel Nostromo, set in the fictitious South American country of Costaguana, he turned to The War between Peru and Chile; Edward Eastwick, Venezuela: or, Sketches of Life in a South American Republic (1868); and George Frederick Masterman, Seven Eventful Years in Paraguay (1869).[10]:130 [note 22] As a result of relying on literary sources, in Lord Jim, as J. I. M. Stewart writes, Conrad's "need to work to some extent from second-hand" led to "a certain thinness in Jim's relations with the... peoples... of Patusan..."[10]:118 This prompted Conrad at some points to alter the nature of Charles Marlow's narrative to "distanc[e] an uncertain command of the detail of Tuan Jim's empire."[10]:119

In keeping with his scepticism[7]:166[10]:163 and melancholy,[10]:16, 18 Conrad almost invariably gives lethal fates to the characters in his principal novels and stories. Almayer (Almayer's Folly, 1894), abandoned by his beloved daughter, takes to opium, and dies;[10]:42 Peter Willems (An Outcast of the Islands, 1895) is killed by his jealous lover Aïssa;[10]:48 the ineffectual "Nigger," James Wait (The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', 1897), dies aboard ship and is buried at sea;[10]:68–9 Mr. Kurtz (Heart of Darkness, 1899) expires, uttering the enigmatic words, "The horror!";[10]:68–9 Tuan Jim (Lord Jim, 1900), having inadvertently precipitated a massacre of his adoptive community, deliberately walks to his death at the hands of the community's leader;[10]:97 in Conrad's 1901 short story, "Amy Foster", a Pole transplanted to England, Yanko Goorall (an English transliteration of the Polish Janko Góral, "Johnny Highlander"), falls ill and, suffering from a fever, raves in his native language, frightening his wife Amy, who flees; next morning Yanko dies of heart failure, and it transpires that he had simply been asking in Polish for water;[note 23] Captain Whalley (The End of the Tether, 1902), betrayed by failing eyesight and an unscrupulous partner, drowns himself;[10]:91 Gian' Battista Fidanza,[note 24] the eponymous respected Italian-immigrant Nostromo (Italian: "Our Man") of the novel Nostromo (1904), illicitly obtains a treasure of silver mined in the South American country of "Costaguana" and is shot dead due to mistaken identity;[10]:124–26 Mr. Verloc, The Secret Agent (1906) of divided loyalties, attempts a bombing, to be blamed on terrorists, that accidentally kills his mentally defective brother-in-law Stevie, and Verloc himself is killed by his distraught wife, who drowns herself by jumping overboard from a channel steamer;[10]:166–68 in Chance (1913), Roderick Anthony, a sailing-ship captain, and benefactor and husband of Flora de Barral, becomes the target of a poisoning attempt by her jealous disgraced financier father who, when detected, swallows the poison himself and dies (some years later, Captain Anthony drowns at sea);[10]:209–11 in Victory (1915), Lena is shot dead by Jones, who had meant to kill his accomplice Ricardo and later succeeds in doing so, then himself perishes along with another accomplice, after which Lena's protector Axel Heyst sets fire to his bungalow and dies beside Lena's body.[10]:220

When a principal character of Conrad's does escape with his life, he sometimes does not fare much better. In Under Western Eyes (1911), Razumov betrays a fellow University of St. Petersburg student, the revolutionist Victor Haldin, who has assassinated a savagely repressive Russian government minister. Haldin is tortured and hanged by the authorities. Later Razumov, sent as a government spy to Geneva, a center of anti-tsarist intrigue, meets the mother and sister of Haldin, who share Haldin's liberal convictions. Razumov falls in love with the sister and confesses his betrayal of her brother; later he makes the same avowal to assembled revolutionists, and their professional executioner bursts his eardrums, making him deaf for life. Razumov staggers away, is knocked down by a streetcar, and finally returns as a cripple to Russia.[10]:185–87

Conrad was keenly conscious of tragedy in the world and in his works. In 1898, at the start of his writing career, he had written to his Scottish writer-politician friend Cunninghame Graham: "What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. [A]s soon as you know of your slavery the pain, the anger, the strife – the tragedy begins." But in 1922, near the end of his life and career, when another Scottish friend, Richard Curle, sent Conrad proofs of two articles he had written about Conrad, the latter objected to being characterised as a gloomy and tragic writer. "That reputation... has deprived me of innumerable readers... I absolutely object to being called a tragedian."[2]:544–5

Conrad claimed that he "never kept a diary and never owned a notebook." John Galsworthy, who knew him well, described this as "a statement which surprised no one who knew the resources of his memory and the brooding nature of his creative spirit."[33] Nevertheless, after Conrad's death, Richard Curle published a heavily modified version of Conrad's diaries describing his experiences in the Congo;[34] in 1978 a more complete version was published as The Congo Diary and Other Uncollected Pieces.[35]

Unlike many authors who make it a point not to discuss work in progress, Conrad often did discuss his current work and even showed it to select friends and fellow authors, such as Edward Garnett, and sometimes modified it in the light of their critiques and suggestions.[2]

He also borrowed from other, Polish- and French-language authors, to an extent sometimes skirting plagiarism. When the Polish translation of his 1915 novel Victory appeared in 1931, readers noted striking similarities to Stefan Żeromski's kitschy novel, The History of a Sin (Dzieje grzechu, 1908), including their endings. Comparative-literature scholar Yves Hervouet has demonstrated in the text of Victory a whole mosaic of influences, borrowings, similarities and allusions. He further lists hundreds of concrete borrowings from other, mostly French authors in nearly all of Conrad's works, from Almayer's Folly (1895) to his unfinished Suspense. Conrad seems to have used eminent writers' texts as raw material of the same kind as the content of his own memory. Materials borrowed from other authors often functioned as allusions. Moreover, he had a phenomenal memory for texts and remembered details, "but [writes Najder] it was not a memory strictly categorized according to sources, marshalled into homogeneous entities; it was, rather, an enormous receptacle of images and pieces from which he would draw."[2]:454–7

But [writes Najder] he can never be accused of outright plagiarism. Even when lifting sentences and scenes, Conrad changed their character, inserted them within novel structures. He did not imitate, but (as Hervouet says) "continued" his masters. He was right in saying: "I don't resemble anybody." Ian Watt put it succinctly: "In a sense, Conrad is the least derivative of writers; he wrote very little that could possibly be mistaken for the work of anyone else."[2]:457[note 25]

Conrad, like other artists, faced constraints arising from the need to propitiate his audience and confirm its own favourable self-regard. This may account for his describing the admirable crew of the Judea in his 1898 story "Youth" as "Liverpool hard cases", whereas the crew of the Judea's actual 1882 prototype, the Palestine, had included not a single Liverpudlian, and half the crew had been non-Britons;[2]:94 and for Conrad's turning the real-life 1880 criminally negligent British Captain J. L. Clark, of the SS Jeddah, in his 1900 novel Lord Jim, into the captain of the fictitious Patna – "a sort of renegade New South Wales German" so monstrous in physical appearance as to suggest "a trained baby elephant."[10]:98–103 Similarly, in his letters Conrad – during most of his literary career, struggling for sheer financial survival – often adjusted his views to the predilections of his correspondents.[2]:105 And when he wished to criticise the conduct of European imperialism in what would later be termed the "Third World", he turned his gaze upon the Dutch and Belgian colonies, not upon the British Empire.[2]:119

The singularity of the universe depicted in Conrad's novels, especially compared to those of near-contemporaries like his friend and frequent benefactor John Galsworthy, is such as to open him to criticism similar to that later applied to Graham Greene.[36] But where "Greeneland" has been characterised as a recurring and recognisable atmosphere independent of setting, Conrad is at pains to create a sense of place, be it aboard ship or in a remote village; often he chose to have his characters play out their destinies in isolated or confined circumstances. In the view of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, it was not until the first volumes of Anthony Powell's sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, were published in the 1950s, that an English novelist achieved the same command of atmosphere and precision of language with consistency, a view supported by later critics like A. N. Wilson; Powell acknowledged his debt to Conrad. Leo Gurko, too, remarks, as "one of Conrad's special qualities, his abnormal awareness of place, an awareness magnified to almost a new dimension in art, an ecological dimension defining the relationship between earth and man."[37]

T. E. Lawrence, one of many writers whom Conrad befriended, offered some perceptive observations about Conrad's writing:

He's absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was: I wish I knew how every paragraph he writes (...they are all paragraphs: he seldom writes a single sentence...) goes on sounding in waves, like the note of a tenor bell, after it stops. It's not built in the rhythm of ordinary prose, but on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can't say or do or think. So his books always look bigger than they are. He's as much a giant of the subjective as Kipling is of the objective. Do they hate one another?[7]:343

In Conrad's time, literary critics, while usually commenting favourably on his works, often remarked that many readers were put off by his exotic style, complex narration, profound themes, and pessimistic ideas. Yet, as his ideas were borne out by ensuing 20th-century events, in due course he came to be admired for beliefs that seemed to accord more closely with subsequent times than with his own.

Conrad's was a starkly lucid view of the human condition – a vision similar to that which had been offered in two micro-stories by his ten-years-older Polish compatriot, Bolesław Prus (whose work Conrad greatly admired):[note 26] "Mold of the Earth" (1884) and "Shades" (1885). Conrad wrote:

Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of to-morrow....

In this world – as I have known it – we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause or of guilt....

There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that... is always but a vain and fleeting appearance....

A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains – but a clod of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.[7]:166

In a letter of late December 1897 to Cunninghame Graham, Conrad metaphorically described the universe as a huge machine:

It evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! – it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider – but it goes on knitting. You come and say: "this is all right; it's only a question of the right kind of oil. Let us use this – for instance – celestial oil and the machine shall embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold." Will it? Alas no. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident –and it has happened. You can't interfere with it. The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can't even smash it. In virtue of that truth one and immortal which lurks in the force that made it spring into existence it is what it is  – and it is indestructible!

It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions  – and nothing matters.[2]:253

Conrad is the novelist of man in extreme situations. "Those who read me," he wrote in the preface to A Personal Record, "know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests, notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity."

For Conrad fidelity is the barrier man erects against nothingness, against corruption, against the evil that is all about him, insidious, waiting to engulf him, and that in some sense is within him unacknowledged. But what happens when fidelity is submerged, the barrier broken down, and the evil without is acknowledged by the evil within? At his greatest, that is Conrad's theme.[1]

What is the essence of Conrad's art? It surely is not the plot, which he – like Shakespeare – often borrows from public sources and which could be duplicated by lesser authors; the plot serves merely as the vehicle for what the author has to say. A focus on plot leads to the absurdity of Charles and Mary Lamb's 1807 Tales from Shakespeare. Rather, Conrad's essence is to be sought in his depiction of the world open to our senses, and in the world view that he has evolved in the course of experiencing that outer, and his own inner, world. An evocative part of that view is expressed in an August 1901 letter that Conrad wrote to the editor of The New York Times Saturday Book Review:

Egoism, which is the moving force of the world, and altruism, which is its morality, these two contradictory instincts, of which one is so plain and the other so mysterious, cannot serve us unless in the incomprehensible alliance of their irreconcilable antagonism.[2]:315 [note 27]

Language

Conrad spoke both his native Polish language and the French language fluently from childhood and only acquired English in his twenties. Why then did he choose to write his books in, effectively, his third language? He states in his preface to A Personal Record that writing in English was for him "natural", and that the idea of his having made a deliberate choice between English and French, as some had suggested, was in error. He explained that, though he was familiar with French from childhood, "I would have been afraid to attempt expression in a language so perfectly 'crystallized'."[38]:iv-x In a 1915 conversation with American sculptor Jo Davidson, as he posed for his bust, in response to Davidson's question Conrad said: "Ah… to write French you have to know it. English is so plastic—if you haven't got a word you need you can make it, but to write French you have to be an artist like Anatole France."[39] These statements, as so often happens in Conrad's "autobiographical" writings, are subtly disingenuous.[2] In 1897 Conrad was paid a visit by a fellow Pole, Wincenty Lutosławski, who was intent on imploring Conrad to write in Polish and "to win Conrad for Polish literature". Lutosławski recalls that during their conversation Conrad explained why he did not write in Polish: "I value too much our beautiful Polish literature to introduce into it my worthless twaddle. But for Englishmen my capacities are just sufficient: they enable me to earn my living". Perhaps revealingly, Conrad later wrote to Lutosławski to keep his visit a secret.[40]

More to the point is Conrad's remark in A Personal Record that English was "the speech of my secret choice, of my future, of long friendships, of the deepest affections, of hours of toil and hours of ease, and of solitary hours, too, of books read, of thoughts pursued, of remembered emotions—of my very dreams!"[38]:252 In 1878 Conrad's four-year experience in the French merchant marine had been cut short when the French discovered that he did not have a permit from the Imperial Russian consul to sail with the French.[note 28] This, and some typically disastrous Conradian investments, had left him destitute and had precipitated a suicide attempt. With the concurrence of his uncle Bobrowski, who had been summoned to Marseilles, Conrad decided to seek employment with the British merchant marine, which did not require Russia's permission.[2]:64–66 Thus began Conrad's sixteen years' seafarer's acquaintance with the British and with the English language.

Had Conrad remained in the Francophone sphere or had he returned to Poland, the son of the Polish poet, playwright and translator Apollo Korzeniowski – from childhood exposed to Polish and foreign literature, and ambitious to himself become a writer[2]:43–44 –might have ended writing in French or Polish instead of English. Certainly his mentor-uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski thought Conrad might write in Polish; in an 1881 letter he advised his 23-year-old nephew:

As, thank God, you do not forget your Polish... and your writing is not bad, I repeat what I have... written and said before – you would do well to write... for Wędrowiec [The Wanderer] in Warsaw. We have few travelers, and even fewer genuine correspondents: the words of an eyewitness would be of great interest and in time would bring you... money. It would be an exercise in your native tongue—that thread which binds you to your country and countrymen—and finally a tribute to the memory of your father who always wanted to and did serve his country by his pen.[2]:86

Inescapably, Conrad's third language, English, remained under the influence of his first two languages – Polish and French. This makes his English seem unusual. Najder observes:

[H]e was a man of three cultures: Polish, French, and English. Brought up in a Polish family and cultural environment... he learned French as a child, and at the age of less than seventeen went to France, to serve... four years in the French merchant marine. At school he must have learned German, but French remained the language he spoke with greatest fluency (and no foreign accent) until the end of his life. He was well versed in French history and literature, and French novelists were his artistic models. But he wrote all his books in English—the tongue he started to learn at the age of twenty. He was thus an English writer who grew up in other linguistic and cultural environments. His work can be seen as located in the borderland of auto-translation [emphasis added by Wikipedia].[2]:IX

Inevitably for a trilingual Polish–French–English-speaker, Conrad's writings occasionally show examples of "Franglais" and "Poglish" – of the inadvertent use of French or Polish vocabulary, grammar or syntax in his English compositions. In one instance, Najder uses "several slips in vocabulary, typical for Conrad (Gallicisms) and grammar (usually Polonisms)" as part of internal evidence against Conrad's sometime literary collaborator Ford Madox Ford's claim to have written a certain instalment of Conrad's novel Nostromo, for serialised publication in T. P.'s Weekly, on behalf of an ill Conrad.[2]:341–42

The impracticality of working with a language which has long ceased to be one's principal language of daily use is illustrated by Conrad's 1921 attempt at translating into English the Polish columnist and comedy-writer Bruno Winawer's short play, The Book of Job. Najder writes:

[T]he [play's] language is easy, colloquial, slightly individualized. Particularly Herup and a snobbish Jew, "Bolo" Bendziner, have their characteristic ways of speaking. Conrad, who had had little contact with everyday spoken Polish, simplified the dialogue, left out Herup's scientific expressions, and missed many amusing nuances. The action in the original is quite clearly set in contemporary Warsaw, somewhere between elegant society and the demimonde; this specific cultural setting is lost in the translation. Conrad left out many accents of topical satire in the presentation of the dramatis personae and ignored not only the ungrammatical speech (which might have escaped him) of some characters but even the Jewishness of two of them, Bolo and Mosan.[2]:538–39

As a practical matter, by the time Conrad set about writing fiction, he had little choice but to write in English.[note 29] Poles who accused Conrad of cultural apostasy because he wrote in English instead of Polish,[2]:292–95, 463–64 missed the point – as do Anglophones who see, in Conrad's default choice of English as his artistic medium, a testimonial to some sort of innate superiority of the English language.[note 30] According to Conrad's close friend and literary assistant Richard Curle, the fact of Conrad writing in English was "obviously misleading" because Conrad "is no more completely English in his art than he is in his nationality".[41]:223 Moreover, Conrad "could never have written in any other language save the English language....for he would have been dumb in any other language but the English."[41]:227–28

Conrad always retained a strong emotional attachment to his native language. He asked his visiting Polish niece Karola Zagórska, "Will you forgive me that my sons don't speak Polish?"[2]:481 In June 1924, shortly before his death, he apparently expressed a desire that his son John marry a Polish girl and learn Polish, and toyed with the idea of returning for good to now independent Poland.[2]:571

Controversy

In 1975 the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe published an essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'", which provoked controversy by calling Conrad a "thoroughgoing racist". Achebe's view was that Heart of Darkness cannot be considered a great work of art because it is "a novel which celebrates... dehumanisation, which depersonalises a portion of the human race." Referring to Conrad as a "talented, tormented man", Achebe notes that Conrad (via the protagonist, Charles Marlow) reduces and degrades Africans to "limbs", "angles", "glistening white eyeballs", etc. while simultaneously (and fearfully) suspecting a common kinship between himself and these natives—leading Marlow to sneer the word "ugly."[42] Achebe also cited Conrad's description of an encounter with an African: "A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days."[43] Achebe's essay, a landmark in postcolonial discourse, provoked debate and the questions it raised have been addressed in most subsequent literary criticism of Conrad.[44][45]

Achebe's critics argue that he fails to distinguish Marlow's view from Conrad's, which results in very clumsy interpretations of the novella.[46] In their view, Conrad portrays Africans sympathetically and their plight tragically, and refers sarcastically to, and outright condemns, the supposedly noble aims of European colonists, thereby demonstrating his scepticism about the moral superiority of white men.[47] This, indeed, is a central theme of the novel; Marlow's experiences in Africa, expose the brutality of colonialism and its rationales. Ending a passage that describes the condition of chained, emaciated slaves, the novelist remarks: "After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings." Some observers assert that Conrad, whose native country had been conquered by imperial powers, empathised by default with other subjugated peoples.[48] Jeffrey Meyers noted that Conrad, like his acquaintance Roger Casement, "was one of the first men to question the Western notion of progress, a dominant idea in Europe from the Renaissance to the Great War, to attack the hypocritical justification of colonialism and to reveal... the savage degradation of the white man in Africa."[7]:100–1

Conrad scholar Peter Firchow wrote that "nowhere in the novel does Conrad or any of his narrators, personified or otherwise, claim superiority on the part of Europeans on the grounds of alleged genetic or biological difference". If Conrad or his novel is racist, it is only in a weak sense, since Heart of Darkness acknowledges racial distinctions "but does not suggest an essential superiority" of any group.[49][50] Achebe's reading of Heart of Darkness can be (and has been) challenged by a reading of Conrad's other African story, "An Outpost of Progress", which has an omniscient narrator, rather than the embodied narrator, Marlow. Some younger scholars, such as Masood Ashraf Raja, have also suggested that if we read Conrad beyond Heart of Darkness, especially his Malay novels, racism can be further complicated by foregrounding Conrad's positive representation of Muslims.[51]


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