Conrad as anti-imperialist
Growing up during a time where Poland was faced with the trials of national self-determination, and with a father who was a red revolutionary, anti-imperial sentiments pervaded Conrad’s personal and family background. Such a background perhaps contributed to anti-imperialist developments in Conrad’s worldview, which translated to his many novels. In fact, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was hailed as the quintessential anti-imperial text in British literary canon of his time.
However some of us felt that Conrad was not critical of imperialism but of the inefficiency of imperialism, citing that in Heart of Darkness, the economic exploitation of the Africans for ivory was frowned upon (‘the work was going on, the work’) but not the civilising mission of imperialism. This was redressed by looking at how Conrad compares the civilising mission to a primitive form of idolatry (‘something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to’), clearly intending to mock the notion of the civilising mission. Other anti-imperial sentiments were discussed, such as injustice towards the Africans (‘they were not enemies, they were not criminals’) and the irrelevance of imperialism (‘it looked startling round his black neck this bit of white thread from beyond the seas’).
Conrad as racist
While recognising Conrad’s anti-imperialism in Heart of Darkness, Achebe takes him to task for his racist representation of Africans as dehumanised and disembodied, by identifying them through body parts and perpetuating a binaristic mode of thought that promotes racism. Achebe further mocks the values of British literary canon for holding the text up as high art, when such a text propagates racism. Thus, by acknowledging that Conrad condemned the evils of imperialism, and yet asserting that he was ‘strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth’, Achebe draws a clear distinction between anti-imperialism and anti-racism, asserting that they are not two sides of the same coin. Conrad was both an anti-imperialist and a racist.
Conrad as modernist
Conrad’s work can be seen as one that highlights the uncertainty of narrative perspective, presenting us with an unreliable narrator as well as the breaking down and switching of perspectives, at times even creating a film-like quality in his narrative. However, some of us also highlighted that ultimately we are given a unitary perspective, for the entirety of the novel is after all a narration. In this light, Conrad’s work would not seem to be modernist. Ultimately, Conrad’s work embody both modernist and non-modernist aspects; it is all a matter of perspective.
Conrad as symbolist
Conrad’s work can be seen as gearing towards breaking conventions of how we see the world, of realism. Ian Watts terms Conrad’s technique as one of delayed decoding, one where he provides sensory experience first, while meaning and information is only revealed later or maybe not even at all. In this manner, delayed decoding not only anticipates our pre-conceived notions but also suspends them. Seen in this light, Conrad can be viewed as a symbolist or an impressionist.