Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Historical and Cultural Context

In the late 19th Century, the "Scramble for Africa" saw major European powers race to colonise the continent. This rush was marked by the brutal treatment of African populations, particularly evident under King Leopold II's rule in Congo. The exploitation was driven by the hunger for economic gains, with Europe voraciously extracting Africa's raw materials, such as rubber and ivory.

Literature of this era often reflected the prevailing imperialist attitudes. Many works framed imperialism as a noble mission, aimed at civilising the so-called "savage" nations. Yet, writers like Joseph Conrad began to interrogate and challenge these prevailing narratives, shining a light on the darker facets of European expansion.

The Victorian era, in which Conrad wrote, was steeped in racial prejudices. Influential theories, like social Darwinism, propagated the belief in European racial superiority. Africans were widely viewed as inferior and in need of European guidance. However, this period also witnessed emerging critiques against these entrenched racial biases.

Joseph Conrad's personal experiences deeply informed Heart of Darkness. Born in Poland, he transitioned from life as a seaman to become a renowned English author. His voyage to Congo in 1890 exposed him to the grim realities of Belgian imperialism. Drawing from this journey, Heart of Darkness stands as a profound reflection on the cruelties and contradictions of European imperialism.

1. What was the 19th Century race by European powers to colonise Africa known as?

A.  African Invasion

B.  The Great African Race

C.  European Expansion

D.  The Scramble for Africa

2. Which European ruler is notably known for his brutal rule in Congo?

A.  King Henry VIII

B.  King Leopold II

C.  Emperor Napoleon

D.  Tsar Nicholas II

3. Which two raw materials were highly sought after from Africa by Europe during the 19th century?

A.  Gold and Silver

B.  Cotton and Silk

C.  Rubber and Ivory

D.  Oil and Diamonds

4. How did many 19th-century literary works depict imperialism?

A.  As a grave mistake

B.  As an evil act

C.  As a noble mission

D.  As a passing trend

DISCUSSION:  The journey is a common theme in literature. What are some famous stories about journeys? How do journeys change the main characters?

Further reading

1. Achebe, Chinua. “‘An Image of Africa’: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, edited by Robert Kimbrough, W. W. Norton & Company, 1988. Chinua Achebe critiques Joseph Conrad's portrayal of Africa in Heart of Darkness as racially prejudiced.

2. Bloom, Harold, editor. Marlow. Chelsea House Publishers, 1992. This book, edited by Harold Bloom, provides a collection of critical essays and perspectives on the character Marlow, prominent in Conrad's works.

3. Cheng, Yuan-Jung. Heralds of the Postmodern: Madness and Fiction in Conrad, Woolf, and Lessing. Peter Lang Publishing, 1999. Yuan-Jung Cheng analyses the connections between madness and fiction in the works of Conrad, Woolf, and Lessing, underlining their transition to postmodernism.

4. Eagleton, Terry. Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory. Verso, 2006. (Reprint edition). Terry Eagleton offers a Marxist lens for examining literary theory and its implications in societal structures and ideologies.

5. Firchow, Peter Edgerly. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Firchow delves into Heart of Darkness, focusing on its representations of Africa, and the themes of racism and imperialism.

6. Guetti, James L. The Limits of Metaphor: A Study of Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner. Cornell University Press, 1967. James L. Guetti explores the boundaries of metaphorical expressions within the literary works of Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.