Lord Jim: “Millions of pink toads”

It struck me how one may similarly apply the centrality of Achebe’s arguments in “An Image of Africa” onto the reading of Lord Jim – the way in which Conrad’s metaphysical mulling about the strengths and failings of the human soul may be perceived as Eurocentric, as well as several racist elements that may be sieved from the novel.

Fragments of Jim’s character are pieced together in a non-linear fashion like an incomplete puzzle through Conrad’s dense modernist art of multiple narrators, but there is a sense that the real story is never really told – where is the narrative of the eight hundred pilgrims who were cast away and obliterated to the margins as such? Is it only heard through Marlow from the French captain? Jim as the focal character provides the basis for an insight into European-conceived notions of gentility or what is the sailor code – morality, honesty, honor, etc and his –along with the others’- defilement serves to rupture the constructedness/moral conceptions of such ideals to render a complex depiction of human nature. Yet Marlow’s sympathy with Jim raises the issue of complicity as he tries to defend the latter countless times. This excessive preoccupation and obsession with the need to side Jim as “one of us” renders the other narrative of the “masses”, being the eight hundred pilgrims, obsolete.

Secondly, deep racist sentiments may similarly be sieved from various incidents in the text. Jim in his moment of blind panic on board the Patna hit out at the man asking for water, the racial hierarchy which spatially segregates the pilgrims on the deck with the other white sailors, and the mad engineer’s oblique references to the pilgrims as “Millions of pink toads” are but a few examples. Similarly, Chester’s plan to make Jim the “supreme boss over the coolies” despite his earlier moral condemnation of Jim’s character being “no good” again reflects the unchallenged and assumed sentiments of European superiority over their inferior Others.

Modernist Elements in Lord Jim

What struck me in my reading of Lord Jim were the modernist elements of the novel, especially the relationship between the novel’s formlessness and the elusiveness of Truth. The novel’s formlessness emerges through narrative fragments and slippages; not only are we presented with various narrators, stories, letters and manuscripts, we are also made aware that time and space within the novel is fragmented as we are not presented with a linear, contained narrative but one that jumps back and forth in time and space. Indeed, what we have is a ‘disjointed narrative’ (88), and although one can argue that Marlow serves as the main narrator who frames majority of the narrative, he is at best piecing together different accounts of Jim from various sources, in an attempt to represent him as truthfully as possible. In Marlow’s words, ‘[Jim] existed for me, and after all it is only through me that he exists for you’ (172). However, because of the fragmentary nature of Marlow’s framing and his appropriation of Jim’s voice, we ultimately we never know Jim; we only know about him.

The novel’s formlessness thus accentuates the elusiveness of Truth, epitomised by the figure of Jim. As much as Marlow tries to pin him down and represent him, he escapes Marlow. In Marlow’s words – ‘I wanted to know – and to this day I don’t know, I can only guess’ (62). Jim remains ‘incomprehensible, wavering, and misty’ […] as the novel underscores his ‘capricious, [in]consolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp’ (138, emphasis mine). In fact, Marlow’s description of Jim – ‘he would appear to my staring eyes distinct of form and pregnant with vague appeal like a symbolic figure in a picture’ (103, emphasis mine) – is brilliantly illustrated by Phil Hale on the cover page of the 2007 Penguin Classics Edition of Lord Jim (view image attached). Indeed through the novel’s formlessness and the novel’s search for truth, Conrad is suggesting that we, like Marlow, who searches for Jim’s ‘imperishable reality’, can only ‘approach nearer to absolute Truth, which, like Beauty itself, floats elusive, obscure, half submerged, in the silent still waters of mystery’ (166).

Lord Jim

Guilt and the production of discourse

In Lord Jim, the character Jim seems unable to admit that he made a decision to jump at the very last minute and does not take responsibility for his actions despite appearing to confess his crime to the narrator by telling his supposedly true version of the events.  Each time he appears to admit to his mistake, he actually subtly tries to downplay the responsibility which he must take for his actions by qualifying it saying ” I had jumped… It seems,” ‘I knew nothing about it till I looked up”.  And with each reference to his guilt, it shifts subtly further and further away from his fault to the fault of others as he goes on to say he was “driven to do a thing like that” and later starts to blame others for the “abhorrent opportunity”, even going as far as to accuse them saying “It was their doing as plainly as if they had reached up with a boat hook and pulled (him) over.” 

This is may be juxtaposed with his insisting that he is different from the men who have planned to jump ship from the very onset and ” there was nothing in common between him and these men.” Unlike those men who “made up” a story that “was not a lie” but “wasn’t truth all the same,” he tells the truth of events and attempts to confess to the narrator in the hope of some form of absolution.  However we soon see that with each supposed honest admission of jumping, he goes further and further away from the truth, which shows him to be making up stories about himself like the other men.

It is interesting to see that the narrator initially appears to align himself with Jim by repeatedly mentioning that he is “one of us” while telling another person’s story. Much talk is generated by this event and everyone seemed to be unable to stop talking about it. It seems strange that the narrator feels the need to talk to others about this event and try and gather information about the event to piece it together when he isn’t the main character and there is no apparent relationship between him and Jim. Perhaps, I would suggest that the narrator is somewhat like the ancient mariner who feels compelled to tell a story due to guilt and Jim’s story is very much his as well because what happened was significant enough ” to affect mankind’s conception of itself”.

Thus, just like Jim, the narrator is compelled to tell the story in a way which tries to distance himself from the events by a form of sublimation- making it into yet another form of discourse. However, when he tells the story, what he actually reveals, like Jim,  by the way in which he shapes his version of the events is his guilt and complicity in the unspeakable crime.  It is significant that Jim never actually manages to articulate the exact moment of his transgression thus his confession, like the narrator’s exists in the gap between discourse and the truth.

Lord Jim and Modernism

I’ve always had a kind of sketchy view on what “high Modernism” really means, but in reading Conrad’s Jim, I think I might be starting to understand the shift to Modernist aesthetics. What struck me most was the fact that Conrad seeks not only to debunk the idea of glorifying and romanticising sea stories, but also works to undermine the very essence of “heroism”. Modernism (to me) rejects the idea of a SIMPLE truth, and explores whether this “truth”/Truth can ever be knowable through not only action, but language as well.

In Jim, “facts” (25) are described as “something else besides, something invisible…” (25). Not only is truth made invisible to those who seek it, but Conrad personifies the seeking mind as “a creature” (26). This makes me think that Modernists do not DENY the existence of Truth, but that they define it as something fluid (maybe even alive like the case of the Marabar Caves) and ultimately undefinable. We actually see hints of this in 19th Century poetry by the likes of Keats and Shelley- Shelley’s poem, “To A Skylark” is an (self-proclaimed) attempt to pin down and define that which is ultimately undefinable.

Thus, Modernists believe that Truth is so elusive and difficult to conceive because it is something that is alive, and possibly constantly changing, and therefore always remaining out of reach. For Conrad, he portrays the inadequacy of the human mind to conceive the notion of “heroism” by exaggerating Jim’s ideas of it, of “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line…” (7). High-flown notions are thus easily recognisable and exist to expose the artificiality of “questing for truth”, yet we are left with the question of: if what we know is false, where is truth?

Lord Jim

In Lord Jim, the authority of Marlow as the narrator of Jim’s story is constantly being undermined or destabilized. Rather than really controlling the judgments that readers should cast on Jim, Marlow makes it clear that even his own intimate, first-hand contact with Jim, fails to allow him to come closer to the truth of what the man really is. As he declares, “I wanted to know –and to this day I don’t know, I can only guess.” Just as Heart of Darkness, in which the framed narrative underlies how the limitations of observations and Marlow’s own omission of details may deter readers from obtaining the true account, Lord Jim also reveals such complications, and to a much larger degree. Truth is rendered so elusive that judgments become very difficult at time. Marlow is so often in doubt of his own judgments, “I don’t pretend I understood him. The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog –bits of vivid and vanishing detail…upon the whole he was misleading.”
Marlow’s encounters with other characters sometimes provide a platform for readers to assess the different viewpoints and how they may contribute to painting a ‘big picture’ for clearer understanding of Jim’s character. However, this can contribute to the moral ambiguity as well. For instance, how is Jim to be judged for his actions for the incident of Patna? The French Lieutenant earnestly admits, “Man is born a coward…” Therefore, rather than enforcing a universal standard or reading, it seems that Conrad prefers to let readers be confronted by the shortcomings of human ideals, actions and inerpretations and judge for themselves.

Morality of the Native

In Lord Jim, I found a lot of interpretations on the morality of Jim’s abandonment of the Patna by the other characters. Jim, for example, finds his cowardice unacceptable and thus insists on standing trial for it. The French Lieutenant, on the other hand, holds the view that everyone is a coward, that “there is somewhere a point when you let go everything” (150). However, I couldn’t help wondering about morality with regards to the native. For example, was Doramin’s revengeful killing of Jim seen as equally morally ambiguous? Or was it seen as a morally acceptable or morally unacceptable? I personally felt that the issue of morality didn’t even seem to come into question, which is curious given that this whole book seems to deal with the issue of moral ambiguity and I wonder if this is a show of Conrad’s “racism”.


            For example, Doramin’s people are described by Marlow as were “intelligent, enterprising, revengeful, but with a more frank courage than any other Malays” (232). Doesn’t Doramin’s revenge killing of Jim support this over-generalizing and somewhat racist statement about his people, that they are revengeful? By not even bothering to deal with the issue of morality of the native, is the book suggesting that the issue of the native’s morality isn’t even an issue because what Doramin did is simply in the “nature” of his type of people? Or, is the issue not called into question simply because the whole book is about Jim and Jim’s journey. In which case, isn’t the text simply marginalizing the native in favour of concentration on Jim?

“You don’t think yourself a – a – cur?”

In Lord Jim, words do not contain singular meanings and its plurality results in the confusion over meaning. The word “cur” means different things to different characters, depending on various contexts, and this results in misunderstandings that arise between characters. The innocent remark made by Marlow’s companion in relation to the yellow dog, “Look at that wretched cur” (Conrad, 58), is misunderstood by Jim. He comprehends it as a personal verbal attack, assuming wrongly that he is being criticized by both Marlow and his companion: “I won’t let any man call me names outside this court” (Conrad, 59). This disjuncture between the companion’s intended meaning and Jim’s perceived meaning results in hostility on Jim’s part towards the initial meeting between Marlow and himself. Since Marlow does not share Jim’s understanding of the remark, he is unable to understand the initial hostility shown by Jim. Later, Jim uses the same word twice – that he took offense at – on himself when he questions his decision to abandon ship, “you don’t think yourself a – a – cur?” (Conrad, 66. And again in the next chapter, Chapter 8).

Another example in the novel of the plurality of meaning in language is seen in the begging of water by a passenger. Jim admits his incredulity at the meaning of the word: “Water, water! What water did he mean?” (Conrad, 73). Jim does not share the passenger’s context and this leads to his mistake in comprehending the word. Jim’s focus on the immediate potential danger that the sea poses results in the confusion of meaning, and he realises only later that “[the passenger] wanted some water – water to drink” (Conrad, 73). Language is vague in the novel and Conrad does not offer clarity.

Conrad rejects the presentation of a simple, singular meaning in his novel to portray a reality that is complex and multi-faceted. This plurality of meaning in language compliments the ambiguous nature of his novel that seeks to pose more questions that to answer them. I also think that much can be said about the metaphor of the sea and its various meanings that is contained in Lord Jim.

Symbolism in Lord Jim

As Yuxin has mentioned, the subtitle for Lord Jim is “A Romance” and i think in many ways, we see this romantic quality in Jim’s vivid imagination. Marlow describes Jim as a dreamer (much like Ishmael from Moby Dick) who is constantly obsessed with his heroic ambitions. And this quality makes him unsuitable to be a sailor. Marlow speaks for Western rationality as he believes that a sailor should be alert so that he can keep his ship afloat, to ride out the destructive elements of a storm.  Yet Stein has a very different view, a romanticised one, he believes that Jim should “in the destructive elements immerse” (164).

This conflicting perspectives could perhaps be used to think about the West and the East. The muslims on board the Patna could be seen as adopting Stein’s romanticised view as they are seeking to “follow their dream” (in Stein’s terms) by going for mecca. They could also be seen as synonymous with water and immersion for they “streamed aboard over the gangways…flowed down the yawning hatchways, filled the inner recesses of the ship-like water filling a cistern” (17).  Thus, the East seems to embody this sort of romantic image where one is immersing into the deep dangerous sea of the unknown as described by Stein.

The West however, conforms to Marlow’s idea of rising above the tumultous sea and this is seen in the image of the lighthouse. A lighthouse stands for the guiding light, a firm structure of stability in the everchanging sea. And this symbol is in line with the vision of the empire. Did they not come to the colonies to be a guiding light? to bring civilization to the savages? And another interesting symbol is the clock that Jim leaves behind before arriving in Patusan. The clock seems to represent Western notions of time and continuity. Perhaps the act of losing the clock could mean that Jim is leaving his past behind? And yet this clock imagery haunts him while he was struggling in the mud. He could only think about mending the clock. Perhaps this shows that Marlow cannot evade his past and he is perhaps missing Western civilization i.e. England, a place he can never return to.

Failure of the Quests in the Sea Novel ‘Lord Jim’

Novels about sailors and novels set in the sea are often adventure tales. Challenges are posed to the protagonist and in overcoming them, the protagonist displays his virtues and becomes a hero. Jessica had presented the notion of The Quest in Fielding’s A Passage, but I think this theme/ motif becomes more apparent in Lord Jim than in the previous two novels we have studied. In many ways, Lord Jim departs from the traditional ‘sea novel’ and does this by complicating our idea of the quest, as well as the chronology and the narrative structure of the text. I feel that this particular ‘sea novel’ is more about the failure/ impossibility of the quest than it is about heroism/ redemption (as shown in the second part of the novel when Jim suffers a bullet in his heart and gets called ‘Tuan Jim’ by the natives).

For one, most sea adventurers like Odysseus and Robinson Crusoe return home after completing their quest and proving themselves. However, Jim keeps moving East. His tale has less fixity, and more of a nomadic quality to it. The novel begins in media res, and the first adventure of the text (the accident of Patna) gets ‘chopped up’ and ends rather abruptly in chapter 4. The nature of the adventure/challenge is itself called into question. The collision of Patna with ‘something floating awash’ (rendered ambiguous) is hardly noticeable. It generated ‘less than a sound, hardly more than a vibration’, which lends the whole event a slightly comical light.  It is only much later that we know that the passengers did not die at sea- a deliberate withholding of truth/ information on Conrad’s part that only serves to undermine the adventure even further.

The subtitle of Lord Jim is ‘A Romance’. We can definitely start another thread about how we can consider the tale ‘Romantic’. But in some ways, it is ironic that Jim only redeems himself and fulfills his romantic, heroic destiny on land. However, I would like to suggest that there is another challenge going on in the text and that is the reader’s quest to find out the identity of Jim, of who Jim really is. The need to reconcile the division/ fragmentation of the protagonist is already hinted at from the start when we read about Jim’s other name. This last, particular epistemological challenge can never be fully met by the readers for the novel ends with a question that is unanswerable: ‘Who knows?’ On that note, the Romantic figure of the dark, brooding over-reacher (someone who attempts to exceeds his own limits) is somewhat present in Marlow and the reader. The connection between Jim, Marlow and the reader is also an interesting aspect that we could look into.

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Note-taking for Heart of Darkness (Part 2)

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.

Note-taking for Heart Of Darkness (Part I lecture five)

As discussed, the central problems posited by the group’s presentation may be broached upon through several questions: Why truth? How is modernism’s representation of truth relevant to our understanding of Empire and colonial imperialism and why is it important? How may language and in that sense, modernist techniques, obscure and bring us further and further away from Truth? Also, is there really an all-encompassing Truth reflecting reality – the essential reductive quality of Kurtz’s famous epiphanic vision, or are there simply many various versions of truth co-existing in a plethora?

Firstly, the examination of “Truth” in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness  is important because it helps us determine the extent to which the text may be deemed as critical to the workings and exploitations of colonialism if we accept Marlow’s judgments at surface value. Yet the deeper underpinnings of the text may be read by its “failure of representation and communication” – whether thematically, structurally or in terms of narration – and how the modernist concept of “Truth” evades and eludes us. The inability of Marlow to approach such moments of truth and admit to it, highlights the undercurrents of the novel, where far from merely criticizing the greed and ills of imperialism, actually unveils the way in which the text is complicit in and subconsciously reinforcing the ideological powers of Empire.

One prominent example raised by the group is the way in which the hypocrisy of the colonial enterprise not only differ in their altruistic ideas and actual practice, but also the insidious exclusivity of colonial imperialism, which seeks to demarcate between the white colonists who have the access to “truth”, against the ignorance of the wider public who are left to propagate the myth of Empire and harbor romantic delusions about civilizing the barbaric outside world. There is also a gendered aspect to this reading in the spatial and ideological demarcation within the text.

The issue remains that language cannot fully encapsulate the horrors of what Conrad is trying to convey, for while it is the modernist impulse to uncover the Truth, it paradoxically reveals how we can never actually get to it. Every reading and secondary interpretation have a way of defining the little truths about the text, but every determining statement for language necessarily eliminates other possibilities and as such, Truth remains mysteriously elusive, much like the dense fog which literally and metaphorically obscures Marlow’s vision in the novel. One question remains unanswered, that if modernism veers away from the Truth and contends itself with the plethora of perspectives, is it finally unable to adequately address the wrongdoings and guilt of colonialism? Finally, the point is raised that while the novel may be read as a critique against imperialism and Empire, there is also a competing narrative to the story in the personification of Africa (effeminate, wildly sexual but also untameable), which does not fully spell out the secrets the land promises within the engulfing darkness of the novel.

“A Bloody Racist”?

To say that ‘Conrad was a bloody racist’, might perhaps been a little indulgent on Achebe’s part. In his essay “An Image of Africa”, Achebe presents a political reading of Heart of Darkness by identifying Conrad with Marlowe, a plausible argument that in the end does proves to be rather unconvincing.

There is certainly generalizing and simplifying with regards to the African people in Heart of Darkness that is a hallmark of racism. The native people in Conrad’s novel are, according to Achebe, distinguished not by any cultural achievements, but by their status as emanations of the jungle, described in zoological terms. It is true that the Europeans do not come off well, either, but theirs is the more dramatic and significant failure of the superior race. Even so, I found Achebe’s accusation of racism on Conrad’s part in Heart of Darkness weak and unconvincing. I believe the novel reflects the common racism of the day, but that does not make it a racist  but rather more of an observations on race.  The treatment that Conrad has his narrator give to the natives enhances the effect of the novel in allowing readers to view the Africans through the eyes of the colonizing forces, and not a politically correct third person narrator. It is therefore unfair that one aspect of a writer’s rich output should be considered sufficient to hang the label of a racist on him.

Achebe’s standard of great art

“The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in this world. And the question is whether a novel that celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. ” (Achebe 344)

In “An Image of Africa”, Achebe reacts very strongly against what he perceives as Conrad’s racism. However, his chief concern is not with a single person’s xenophobia but an entire civilization’s xenophobia. The question of what should be considered “a great work of art” is not merely a question of aesthetics but a question of politics. In fact, Achebe does not doubt Conrad’s artistic talent – he commends Conrad for writing one of the most memorable passages in English literature. Yet, he insists that by categorizing Conrad’s work as a great work of art is to be complicit in his racism. By categorizing “The Heart of Darkness” as a landmark piece in English literature is to stand by the Conrad’s racist outlooks. And to Achebe, it is proof of an entire civilization’s racism.

For Achebe, an artwork is not merely measured by its aesthetics but also by the type of values it promotes, subtly or otherwise. Achebe’s standard of great art highlights one of the central problems of modernism. Modernism wishes to celebrate art for art’s sake. Yet, very often art cannot be divorced from its own political/social implications.

Perhaps, the modernist’s aspirations can only be fulfilled when his art is kept within the safety of Europe. Once the work is exposed to the colonized world, the modernist will be forced to examine the political/social/economic implications of his work. He must then answer the questions of Achebe and the likes on what can truly be considered “great art”.

The horror!

Heart of Darkness is like a travelogue gone mad, like the Discovery: Travel and Living channel meeting Chucky. I’m not entirely sure it’s racist, nor if it’s pro-colonial, but one thing I am sure of is that halfway through reading it I forgot about what makes it a part of modernist fiction. I think I’ve actually forgotten what Modernist literature is as well, muddled as I am with thoughts of colonialism from the previous book. Surely colonialism and racism do not make a modernist novel, nor do techniques like stream-of- consciousness. The one thing however I would say for sure that makes the story “modernist” is its depiction of a crisis of morality through a hostile environment where just about anything goes. Such a crisis perhaps trumps all the other three; it doesn’t matter what we know, how we see or who we think we are if all humanity has is a heart of darkness.

On representation, and art for art’s sake or just a pure heart of darkness?

Achebe contends that “the real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.” (344)

What Achebe says (in italics) compels me to recall Fanon’s assertion that “It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.” (2)

No doubt, that the West creates the image of Africa in opposition to itself is problematic and highly disturbing. Achebe is thus strongly against classifying Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, which would only perpetuate vulgar prejudices and insults towards Africa and Africans.

However, I think we should also be considering another question: Which is the lesser of two evils? Representation albeit in a negative, misguided light, or total non-representation, completely writing Africa and Africans out of history?

With representation comes the question of motive: what is Conrad’s motive for portraying Africans in such a light? To perpetuate the dehumanization of Africans (as opposed to the utmost civilization of the West), or simply adding his creative flair to existing stereotypes? On the other hand, non-representation seems to be even more problematic in that Africans aren’t even significant enough to be represented. There is probably no easy answer, as both misrepresentation and non-representation still signify a kind of violence committed towards Africa.

Achebe’s angst towards the vulgar portrayal of Africans is thus understandable. But should we still consider Heart Of Darkness as a great work of art? Well, in the modernist line of thought, as art for art’s sake, then perhaps Conrad’s novel does seem to achieve it with its enthralling and well-written narrative. But if we choose to think like Achebe, then “no easy optimism [is] possible” (Achebe 348) and we’ll only see the heart of darkness in people.

The Eternal Flame

As I was reading Heart of Darkness I noticed that the motif of the flame, light and darkness appeared several times. To Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (48). The figure of the harlequin seems conspicuously out of place in the dark narrative of Heart of Darkness. Marlow talks about envying his possession of “this modest and clear flame” (119), the harlequin’s single-minded devotion to Kurtz and to what he knew as right or wrong.

I would like to put forward the notion that this glow represents our attempt to explain, interpret and share all that we know. When you light a candle, the flame can only illuminate a small portion of darkness.  It is the glow of the flame that casts light on the things around us. The flame is the medium through which the Truth is represented and conveyed to the masses. In the case of Heart of Darkness, this would be Marlow’s storytelling. In the center of the flame, there exists a black dot that we cannot access without getting scathed by the flame itself. This black dot represents the Truth, which is eternally inaccessible and unknown to us. Therefore the quest for Truth in Heart of Darkness can be represented by the motif of the candle and the flame- the eternal flame.

‘Positions’ of reading

Reading the Achebe reading, I couldn’t help but feel that he was taking a lot of Conrad’s racism too personally. Then, in the course of reading up for my presentation, I came across a reading by Nina Pelikan Straus, “The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness””. Straus talks about how women have been excluded both in and out of the text—how the women in the text are silenced and ‘protected’ from the ‘truth’.

One of the most interesting question Straus asks is whether the female reader can really ‘rely’ on her reading of the text, or if she would be stuck at questioning her responses to it as being coloured by the ‘trauma’ of male suppression in and out of the text.

For me, what was significant about reading these two readings in relation to each other was the fact that Straus seems much more self-aware about a reader’s ‘baggage’ in reading any text. Although I’m personally more pro-colonised, and less pro-feminist, I really felt that the Straus article gave me more insight into the text, and my position as a reader, than the Achebe reading. Although it seems like a self-evident point that every reader comes with his/her own baggage, what the Straus reading highlighted to me was that this shouldn’t just a fact to be taken for granted, but one to be questioned and considered as well. What kind of position am I as a reader taking, and how was that position shaped? Should I try to read from another position, or is it pointless to try, because even that is in itself shaped by other, more dominant trends?

Comparing Images of India and Africa

I thought it was interesting that one of the first things that Achebe mentioned about Heart of Darkness is the projection of images of Africa as “the other world” and “the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization.” In comparison to images of India in Forster’s Passage, Africa is painted in a much less flattering light.

Between my earlier post on the first few pages of Passage and Conrad’s illustration of Africa in Heart of Darkness, Achebe points out that Conrad very vividly paints a picture of a mysterious, “savage” land, in stark contrast to the wholly uninteresting, unremarkable Chandrapore to which we are introduced in the beginning pages of A Passage to India.

Perhaps Conrad’s–pardon the pun–strict black and white view is due to his being, as Achebe says, a “thoroughgoing racist.” Conrad’s voice, his nearly chant-like repetition of particularly colored words and phrases (Achebe makes a funny jab at his use of the word “nigger”) shows the reader a hardened, unrelenting view of Africa as the aforementioned antithesis to civilization.

I am unsure whether to agree with Achebe on Conrad not completely being held accountable for perpetuating his views on Africa due to his merely being a representative example of the Western ways of thinking at the time. However, I don’t know enough about Conrad himself to adequately assess whether he could be held more accountable for how he conveys Africa or not.

The Existence of Savages and Stereotypes

After reading both Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s article, I feel that I can sympathy with the anguish that Achebe is experiencing. However, I feel that he might have misread the intentions of Conrad, as seen from Achebe’s naming of Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist”. As described in Achebe’s anecdote, he is obviously not pleased with the ‘under-recognition’ of African history and culture in America. But my main point is, how did that lead him to scrutinize and focus on deciphering Conrad’s short novel, one that was written 100 years ago?

Personally, I feel that it lies with Conrad’s strikingly vivid description of Africans or in Conrad’s words – “savages”. His almost larger than life portrayal of the Africans would reel readers (especially during Conrad’s time) in and convince them of the ‘reality’ of the description. I suppose this would probably be the stereotype that readers of Conrad’s time have in their mind. In other words, the stereotypes would be the very truth for the Western civilization, more than a hundred years ago. And I think it is this stereotype that Conrad is trying to play on, perhaps, somewhat out of control. It does illuminate the complicity of the English people – who are feeding on this stereotype and would therefore colour the imagination of those who sail to Africa in their ‘quests’, and this is illustrated by the ending quote of the novel: “The tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed … into the heart of an immense darkness”.

Nonetheless, it still seems straightforward to Achebe that Conrad’s portrayal of Africans in such a negative light led to a continual impression that Africa is backward and remains outside the realm of knowledge even till his time. If not, why Heart of Darkness?

Racist Achebe?

It occurs to me – as much as I concede Chinua Achebe’s argument on Heart of Darkness as epitomizing the “dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination” – that Achebe has unfortunately made himself a racist in this very essay. This is because Achebe, albeit his usual aplomb, has made the mistake of criticizing Conrad as a “thorough-going racist” instead of the book’s narrator. To put it more specifically: how convincing is someone who, on the one hand, condemns an author for “inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words” while using equally emotional language in that same debate? (For instance, he is convinced of “Conrad’s purpose [as] letting the European glimpse the unspeakable craving in their hearts”; emphasis mine). To redress the atrocities of literary colonization through literature is without any doubt much more than showing the colonizers their barbaric reflection. This opinion of mine may be insubstantial, but it certainly isn’t beside the point.


I must reiterate that I find Achebe’s essay both cogent and insightful, especially in his reading of Marlow’s anxiety as “the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness” instead of having simple contempt for traveling to the “heart of darkness”. However, isn’t Achebe’s conflation of the racist Marlow as the direct mouthpiece for Conrad doing the same injustice Marlow does to Africans, on the basis of judging the latter’s acts of non-modernity as “primordial barbarity”?


To me, Heart of Darkness is indeed a racist text; yet, both authors that are discussed here are, although to a different extent, racist.

From Euro-centric to Afro-centric

While reading An Image of Africa, I was persuaded to take Achebe’s stand against Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as I felt that his anger was reasonably justified against Conrad’s supposed racism.

Achebe’s problem with the novella arises from the way in which language was appropriated by Conrad in his depiction of Africa and Africans and the insidious quality of Conrad’s narrative in reinforcing hierarchies of power that is based on racial lines. The article reminded me of the Gikandi article where Picasso denied the African artist any intellectual capacity by viewing him as an object for his art. Racism on Picasso’s part is not overt, but insidious as it dehumanises the African and this likewise seen in Conrad’s inferior depiction of the Africans.

Achebe opposes the use of binary oppositions in the depiction of Africa and Europe in the novella: “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation” (Achebe, 338). However, I feel that the comparison of the Thames and the Congo is not reflective of Conrad’s worry about the “lurking hint of kinship” (Achebe, 338) or the desire to view Africa in opposition to the English. Instead, Marlow’s fixation on rivers as water routes for the civilisation project provides a parallel between the arrival of the Romans on the Thames and the civilisation of the British, with the British moving to Africa with the same mission. This conflation of the two worlds highlights the recognition of the self in the ‘other’ as an attempt to reappropriate the ‘other’.

The postcolonial reading of Heart of Darkness is an attempt to rethink fiction and critique colonial ideologies yet Achebe was perhaps too extreme in his critique of the text. While he was justified in his anger towards racism in Conrad’s novella due to the dehumanisation of Africans, he is similarly using “emotive words” (Achebe, 338) to persuade readers to join him in discrediting the inclusion of Heart of Darkness in the literary canon.

Self and Other in Heart of Darkness

According to Chinua Achebe, there has been a “desire … in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations … remote and vaguely familiar”. This can be seen largely in Heart of Darkness, where the natives are seen as “Black shapes” or “black shadows”, whose ways are incomprehensible to Marlow. The natives are posited as wild and exotic, such as in the glimpse Marlow has of “a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping…”. It is quite unlike the city Marlow goes to meet his employers, which is like a “whited sepulchre”, a phrase that suggests silence and solemnity.


However, while Achebe argues that the comparison with the tranquil river Thames and wild river Congo illustrates this desire, I felt that the “common ancestry” does not reveal the anxiety on Conrad’s part about the “lurking hint of kinship”, but rather situated the British in the position of the Africans, as they too had once been seen as savages” living in a land of “Sandbanks, marshes, forests… precious little to eat fit for a civilised man”. Indeed, Kurtz’s “exalted and incredible degradation” seems to be the emergence of a darkness within himself. As Marlow noted, Kurtz’s soul had “looked within itself, and… it had gone mad”. The “heart of darkness” is as much Congo as the darkness within Kurtz’s heart. However, at the same time, it was “Being in the wilderness” that brought out the darkness within him. In that sense then, Africa is still posited as this wild, primitive place that allows the “savage” within, usually bond in by the trappings of civilization, to come free.

Is there a language of non-discrimination?

Achebe contends that it ‘is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa (341). He then goes on to say that what Conrad does with HoD is in fact what goes on in many other areas, and even today: ‘In all this business a lot of violence is inevitably done not only to the image of despised peoples but even to words, the very tools of possible redress’ (349).

It strikes me as being a little ironic that violence is done using language, on language, but more importantly (as Achebe would no doubt agree) it’s about how pervasive and enduring racism in language is, ‘more akin to a reflex action’ (348). This for me directly relates to the issue of political-(in)correctness.

While it is true that Achebe is not merely arguing for great works of art or the Christian Science Monitor to be politically-correct, the suggestion that the right words need to be used when talking about those who have historically been oppressed or marginalised. But what happens when political-correctness itself becomes un-PC, because it inevitably emphasises the need to not be un-PC? The need to single certain groups of people out for special treatment when talking about them becomes the new ‘reflex action’, then politically-correct language is the new language of the bigot.

This is perhaps why american comedies constantly mock PC-ness — is it because they see that the only way to deal with the intractable problems of talking of/about the Other is by not being too serious about it, and being willing to laugh at ourselves and our prejudices? [I am saying this keeping in mind that some of my friends find Achebe a little too serious, in this essay.]

The African Landscape

Achebe’s essay provided me with a lot of food for thought, especially regarding Conrad’s use of ‘Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as [a] human factor’ (Achebe 343). Achebe claims that Conrad’s use of Africa as a space which consumes the African contributes to and perpetuates an ideological construction of Africa which neglects the African. This claim rings true especially when we examine passages that conflate the African person with the African landscape – ‘Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth […] they were nothing earthly now, – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation […] as in some picture of a massacre or pestilence’ (Conrad 63-64). No distinction is made between the African and Africa and everything is reduced to a pictorial representation, depicting ‘Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity’ (Achebe 344).

The symbolism of the African landscape consuming the African is further emphasized when Marlow compares the African helmsman to ‘a grain of sand in a black Sahara’, and when Marlow throws his body into the river, where the ‘current snatched him as though he had been a wisp of grass, and [Marlow] saw the body roll over twice before [he] lost sight of it for ever’ (Conrad 112-113). Again the African landscape aggressively engulfs the African, suggesting that Africa and the African are one and the same, when in fact they clearly are not.

What is the effect of this on readers? As Africa consumes the Africa; we readers consume the novel. The danger thus is that we readers become indoctrinated by the ideological dehumanization of Africa and the African in the novel, and go on to perpetuate this in our thoughts and actions, creating a vicious cycle that will be impossible to stop.

Maintaining colonial superiority

I really enjoyed reading Achebe’s article because when I was reading Heart of Darkness, I found Conrad’s racism so unnerving. But of course, in his defense, he was writing at a time where such racism was considered normal by Western standards, in fact encouraged.

I found Achebe’s discussion on how the representation of the native Africans, the other, as an antithesis to the civilized Westerners especially interesting. The whole notion of projecting Western anxieties onto a foreign other seems rather blatant in Heart of Darkness especially as Achebe’s article points out, in the contrast between the Amazon woman, who is simply described as “savage and superb” (Achebe, 785) and not given a voice,  and the European woman who had the “mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering” (Achebe, 786). It is significant that Conrad chose those exact words to describe the European woman because it represents civility which the African, according to Conrad, seems to lack.

However, the desire to paint the Africans as barbaric stems from the Western anxiety of maintaining superiority. The fact that if Africans were to be “trained”, they would be able to behave perfectly as civilized Europeans simply show that when it comes down to it, there is not really much difference between the “savages” and the Westerners. This troubles the Westerners as they are no longer able to maintain this notion of superiority and in effect the rationale for colonialism, “the civilizing mission”. As such, Conrad is complicit in maintaining the colonial enterprise by perpetuating the barbaric native image.

The instance whereby Conrad perpetuates this barbaric native image is especially apparent in Conrad’s reducing African speech simply to “indistinguishable grunts” and when he does provide speech to the natives, it is only to prove their own barbaric nature. Thus, by taking away the native’s ability for speech, Conrad is not only taking away the civilizing quality of the Africans but also what makes them human. As such, Conrad is guilty in perpetuating the stereotype of the barbaric African but going a step even further by refusing them even their humanity.

The empire- a hollow machine

Whilst reading the heart of darkness, i was amused to find that descriptions about the steam engine which Marlow is the captain of  greatly resembles that of  those which we may apply to the empire. The invention of the steam engine is (if i remember correctly) closely tied to the rise of capitalism and the colonial enterprise is itself a capitalistic venture in many ways.  Marlow himself is always concerned with work and productivity and strangely enough, it is ambiguous if his judgments of the agents of empire arises out of an outraged morality or rather the ineffectuality of the actions, albeit cruel in nature.

While on board the ship, dense fog surrounds it and Marlow is uncertain as to where it is heading, which parallels his confusion concerning to the supposedly savage cannibals who showed great restraint (by not dishonouring their contract and eating the people on board), which is in great contrast to the pilgrims who seemed only able to show a surface restraint. Thus, it is unclear what the empire’s civilising mission is supposed to accomplish and where it would lead both the ‘savages’ and pilgrims to, much akin to navigating in a fog of confusion. 

In another section of the novel, the steam ship is described as hollow, very much like the characters who represent the colonial powers who are a ‘papier-mache mephistopheles'( two dimensional and without depth) or otherwise all appearances without substance like the company’s chief accountant.  Thus, the ’empire machine’ is always in danger of breaking down and in need of repair.

Chinua Achebe’s article on how the heart of darkness should not be included in the canon of literary works is quite extreme as when read in the context of a course which addresses racism and the effects of colonialism, it could provide us with a deeper insight into the depth of prejudice which permeates the novel on all levels.  However, i do agree that if this text were to read solely as a great work without addressing its flaws , it would not be fair.

The portrayal of women in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Conrad’s modernist attitudes towards the New Imperialism may be discerned as containing both pro- and anti-colonial effects, with Achebe scathingly (albeit one-sidedly) attacking the way in which Heart of Darkness is really only concern about the moral degeneration of the West – with Africa acting as the muse and the entropic portrayal of human nature – and thus fundamentally euro-centric.   

The phallocentric way in which Conrad attempts to probe his female Other unhinges his deeply misogynistic attitudes in the novel, which is in spite of Conrad’s perceived liberal humanism. On one level, the masculinized sphere of colonialism has no room to include the white woman, as following Victorian tradition, still clearly demarcates the public and private boundaries in which the different sexes are permitted to present themselves in. In the two sparse and brief appearances of the white woman, as represented by Marlowe’s aunt and Kurtz’s wife, they are logically entrapped within the domestic sphere. Spatial demarcations aside, the exclusive spheres of femininity, portrayed condescendingly as an idealized and fairy world, keep them out of ideological and direct participation in imperial discourse. This may be seen in Marlowe’s dismissive saying, “Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she should be out of it. We must help them stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours get worse”.

Conrad’s highly eroticized and exoticized account of the African woman is a genuine reflection of the way in which the powers of imperialism allow the colonial white man to project  his sexual desires onto the doubly ‘Othered’ African woman. It is as if with the African woman (who is also aligned with the dominant tropes of silence and blackness) is stripped of those civilized and cultural codes of femininity which mark the white woman and may thus be objectified solely as the quintessential sexual object from which the collective group of empowered men (Kurtz, Marlowe, pilgrims, etc) may gawk at.

Ridiculing Western Civilisation

Even though Achebe claims that Conrad is a “thoroughgoing racist” and that Heart of Darkness happily ignores the deep-seated racism that the text exercises against the Africans, I feel less inclined to take such a harsh stance towards Conrad’s position as a colonist. Yes, I agree to a large extent that he objectifies, silences and mis/un-represents the Natives yet, I feel that because he is also equally scathing of the Europeans situated in the Congo that perhaps his position is more ambivalent. I understand the contention Achebe has with Conrad isn’t that Conrad is valorizing of the Europeans – but that Conrad has effectively dehumanized and ignored the Africans in his meditation of the downfall of the European male.

However, I prefer to read the Africans as representative of an older, fiercer “humanity” that is “wild and passionate” (Conrad91) and in a way akin to the Europeans. This humanity, although described by a disgusted Marlow as “ugly”, manages to – on many silent occasions even, to prove how ridiculous the institutions of Western civilization like money (“So unless they swallowed the wire itself, or made loops of it to snare the fishes with, I don’t see what good their extravagant salary could be to them” [59]) really are when taken out of the pretentious western contexts. In times like this, even though the Africans are still silenced, the fact that even their silence can reflect the stupidity of Western ideals, to me, is enough to mediate my stance towards Conrad’s racism and take Achebe’s reading with a little bit more salt.

 That being said, I realise too that Achebe is writing in a period where the teething pains of decolonisation are starting to appear, and I can see why he would, in his position, be so adamant about writing against a whole tradition of Conradian scholarship that has effectively contributed to the continual “reduc[tion] of Africa to the role of props.” (Achebe 344)

The African subject in the Victorian Consciousness

Post-colonial criticism recognises the text as “a vehicle of imperial authority “(Achebe 10). Heart of Darkness would therefore be seen as one in this canon, relying on ‘myth and metaphor’, which serves in propagating the Colonial enterprise–the creation of a hierarchy of being, where the colonizer reigns supreme.   The myths in the case of Heart of Darkness is the popular Victorian notion of the subhuman nature of the African as the savage “antithesis of Europe, and therefore of civilization” (2).

The novella is wrought with animal imagery, the comparison of Africans to Apes being the most striking: “Six black men advanced in a file… Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails” (Conrad 22).  Throughout Heart of Darkness, the Darwinian frame of reference is crucial, as it is in almost all cultural and academic artifacts of the time.  To justify imperialism it was necessary to create an inferior or the Colonial Other. Thus the Africans filled this place for Marlow, whom being the Colonizer, is in the privileged position of defining the Other.

The difference between the Indian Colonial subject and the African Colonial subject seems clear this week.  The Indian subject in the Victorian consciousness is attributed the servile and unthreatening de-masculinized role of subordinate, while the African subject is pushed even further down the social hierarchy past the Oriental eunuch figure to that of a humanoid beast .  The horror in Heart of Darkness comes from the intolerable moments of realization (however temporary and fleeting), when the African subject is recognized as legitimately human.  If the Asian subject is a socio-political eunuch then the African is a tool for enterprise.  This line of thinking of course, reduces the colonial impulse to its commercial roots alone.  As such, it is only natural that the image of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ overshadows the self-proclaimed ethical justification for Colonialism (White man’s burden).