AFRICANGLOBE – “Heart of Darkness,” is one the most widely-quoted books by African and European literary critiques when it comes to Africa. It is touted as one of the foundational books on colonialism. Just like Dambudzo Marechera’s “The House of Hunger”, “Heart of Darkness” is often loosely referred to,even by people who have never read it, partly because of its compelling title and the way it depicts white prejudices during early contacts with Africa.
It is for that reason that world-acclaimed Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o has denounced the book as racist given its generalised depiction of Africa and its people.
It is also for that reason that in its wisdom the Department of English Literature at the University of Zimbabwe found it critical to include “Heart of Darkness” and Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” as study texts for first-year students as both are foundational in their own presentations.
While Ngugi is justified in labelling the book racist, it is also important to highlight the fact that Conrad’s novella offers an illumination into the mindset of Europeans of the time.
Partly biographical given the correlation of aspects of Conrad’s life with certain events in the novella, it however fails to completely fit in that category because of its vagueness of characterisation.
Save for Marlow and Kurtz, most characters are known by their titles only like “the manager” and “the lawyer”.
It is this vagueness which is the hallmark of the book’s artistic expression and makes it uniquely captivating text.
But even the nameless characters have outstanding members like the native women of “arresting beauty” or the red-haired blood thirsty pilgrim drunk.
Conrad critiques group thinking and although Marlow is not a heroic character, it is through him that the author illustrates the need for individual thought.
It is important for any freshman studying “Heart of Darkness” to decipher the major themes underlining the novella for a better understanding of how it relates to the current Euro-Afro relations.
One of the pervading themes is primitiveness exemplified in different forms, including the title itself.
“Heart of Darkness”, as a title, symbolises backwardness in literal and metaphorical senses.
As the crew traverses the Congo River, they are confronted by largely unfettered lands sparsely inhabited by indigenous people.
It is at this time that Europeans were beginning to learn through science that Africa was the cradle of mankind.
So instead of the journey being a trip back to the source, it becomes a journey into a prehistoric era. Darkness therefore means ignorance and blindness, and the use of such terms as “noble savage” and “pestilent” completes the picture.
Besides primitiveness, the book is also full of uncertainty.
Nothing is concretised as evidenced by the shores being “hazy” and land looks “like a spine sticking out from a man’s back”.
Marlow is obsessed by Kurtz even before meeting him and his obsession is not explained. A sense of danger pervades the whole trip and Kurtz, who is so admired by Marlow, is an unrefined character largely ruled by impulses.
Thus the idea of darkness is also exemplified by this uncertainty that threads through the whole text.
It is not in doubt that Conrad’s characterisation of European and African characters is largely influenced by his negative perception of the latter which is also poisoned by the imperial authority.
The depiction of Africa as anything goes vigilantism is juxtaposed with that of stewardship in a “civilised” state (police, doctors and bureaucrats) in Europe.
Reading the book, one gets the feeling that the arrival of imperialism heralds a new order.
Black people appear like chain gang members without fathomable individual characters and with very little power.
While it is clear whether the author critiques colonialism, it is apparent that religion is under serious microscopic analysis. The pilgrims and the natives are separated by religion with the former depicted as bloodthirsty.
One of the admirable traits of Kurtz is that he manages to strike a balance between African religion and Christianity and beholden by neither. It is for this reason that Marlow admires Kurtz’s ability to have his own individual opinions in the face of various religions he encounters.
The fact that in real life Conrad had to abandon his stewardship of a ship to Congo because of ill-health is also reflected in the novella as illness appears in physical and mental forms.
By: Lovemore Ranga Matairer