The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has claimed that Heart of Darkness is an “offensive and deplorable book” that “set[s] Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.” Achebe says that Conrad does not provide enough of an outside frame of reference to enable the novel to be read as ironic or critical of imperialism. Based on the evidence in the text, argue for or against Achebe’s assertion.

This novel opens with Marlow noting that England was once one of the dark places of the earth. This can be read two ways. First, Marlow may mean that “Western” civilization is just as barbarous as African civilizations. This reading may contradict the European belief that white men are more “civilized” than their colonial subjects, but it hardly mitigates racist notions about primitive or degraded “savages”: it just means that Europeans are as “bad” as that which they have constructed as the lowest form of humanity. The second way to read Marlow’s comment is as a reference to the historical precedent for colonization of other peoples. England, after all, was once a Roman colony. Again, this reading is more ambiguous than it seems. On the one hand, it implies that all peoples need a more advanced civilization to come along and save them; on the other hand, though, it also implies that the British would and did react to an exploitative colonial presence in the same way the Africans are reacting. The ambiguity and angst inherent in the statements this book makes about imperialism suggest that Achebe’s condemnation is too simple. Additionally, moments of irony and narrative unreliability are scattered throughout the text, suggesting that Conrad does indeed provide a framework against which Heart of Darkness can be read as critical or ironic. At the same time, the fact that Africa is set up as a place where white men can go to have profound experiences and think philosophically could be read as reinforcing Achebe’s claim that “Africa [is used] as [a] setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor” in a troubling way.

Discuss the importance of the Congo River in this narrative. Why does Marlow travel primarily by boat and seldom on land?

The river is a space that allows Marlow to be simultaneously within and removed from the African interior. On the river he is isolated, a spectator. To discern his surroundings, he must watch and interpret the thin margin of land at the river’s edge: from this he must guess at what lies behind and all around him. This inability to penetrate the continent’s interior is a symptom of the larger problem with interiors and exteriors in the book. Marlow is unable to see into the interior selves of those around him; instead, he, like the doctor he visits before he departs for Africa, must base his knowledge on exterior signs. At the beginning of Heart of Darkness, the unnamed narrator discusses the fact that for Marlow the meaning of a story or an episode lies in its exterior rather than in any kernel of meaning at its heart. Throughout the book Marlow is indeed confronted with a series of exteriors, of which travel on the river is a prominent example. The caravan that goes from the Outer Station to the Central Station provides Marlow with his only opportunity for travel inland, and he finds there only a depopulated waste scattered with a few corpses: it tells him nothing. At the very least, travel by river lays before Marlow a surface to interpret.

Marlow constantly uses vague and often redundant phrases like “unspeakable secrets” and “inconceivable mystery.” At other times, however, he is capable of powerful imagery and considerable eloquence. Why does Marlow use vague and “inconclusive” language so frequently?

In its treatment of imperialism and individual experience, Heart of Darkness is on many levels a story about ambiguity. Thus, Marlow’s use of language is at the very least thematic. Throughout the book, words assume a bizarre, almost fetishistic power: “ivory,” for example, becomes almost more concrete than the elephant tusks themselves. The name “Kurtz” also takes on a life of its own, as it comes to stand for a set of legends and rumors rather than an actual man. Marlow becomes suspicious of words, as they threaten to overtake and distort the meaning they are supposed to convey. On the one hand, words fail to reflect reality adequately, and reality is often so paradoxical that the words don’t exist to describe it; but, on the other hand, words sometimes take on an independent life of their own. Marlow’s vague terminology, in addition to possessing a lyrical beauty, helps him to negotiate the dual threats of language.