English teachers love and despise Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because it resists simple interpretation. Students cannot “decipher” it like a crossword puzzle clue. This brief classic admits as many interpretations as there are students in a room—which infuriates teachers who relish control. But it also rewards the curious and inquisitive with its constantly shifting secrets.
Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa” comes packaged with many editions of Heart of Darkness, accusing Conrad of overt racism in his depiction of African savagery. Achebe has a point, insofar as Conrad doesn’t bother understanding Africans, depicting them with any psychological depth, or even giving them names. But reading Heart of Darkness in light of what I know about modern mythology, I can’t quite accept that depiction.
Rather than celebrating racism, Heart of Darkness (hereafter HoD) reads like an exposé of failed imagination. Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, ascends an unnamed African river, which readers accept as the Congo, failing to see Africans as a true, but structurally distinct, society. He fails to see the Belgian colonial masters as attempting to build anything beyond themselves. And he fails to see Africa as anything but a consumable resource.
In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner advanced his “Frontier Thesis,” claiming we can only understand America through the lens of the frontier. Our egalitarian democratic ideals, and our trust in aggressive virility and innovation, rely on a frontier. Only at civilization’s boundaries can we reject constraints, test our abilities to the utmost, and become the persons we are meant to be. I've written about this before.
Even Turner failed to anticipate how important Americans consider the frontier. When the literal frontier closed, we created mythic frontiers. President Kennedy (and Captain Kirk) called space “the final frontier.” University researchers probe “the frontiers of science.” Boosters call the oceans, the Internet, Alaska, and the human mind “The Last Frontier.” We aggressively seek that which remains concealed, to prove ourselves to ourselves.
A Study in Scarlet: only devolutionary yayhoos would leave the motherland to help occupy the expanding empire.
This bias only becomes more pronounced as Marlow treks upriver. Instead of stepping out boldly and proving himself in unknown territory, he brings a shawl of civilization with him on his boat. Even when he reaches his destination, he won’t venture far from the landing, instead watching the Africans from a distance, and describing them in terms that combine Halloween, xenophobia, and a witch hunt.
Anyone who has seen the most famous HoD mass media adaptation, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, will recognize this attitude. The boat on the Nung river is a footprint of America. Everything outside the boat is Enemy. Getting too close to shore, another boat, or even the water will result in tragedy. Here there be dragons, indeed.
In other words, where an American writer might make Africa a test of mettle (as Teddy Roosevelt would, years later), Conrad makes HoD a venture beyond safety, into a failed world. Africans, to Conrad’s Marlow, are not people to meet, or even to conquer. They’re just landscape for his version of Hell. Achebe accurately says that Conrad’s Africa is “the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization.”
But Achebe, whose classic Things Fall Apart provides a worthy counter-narrative to HoD, assumes Conrad’s attitude derives from race. The text scarcely supports that. Though Marlow repeatedly uses a well-known racial epithet against the Africans, he shows no more respect to colonial Europeans. Conrad disparages Africans, not because of their race, but because they are not like the good people at home.
Conrad could not know he was writing in the final glimmerings of European empire. The “great” nations that pushed across the world with virile purpose during the Renaissance had turned ingrown, like a tumor. The vigorous imagination that propelled their empires gave way to the incestuous mess that would precipitate two world wars. Conrad’s Marlow stood not at the cutting edge of empire, but on the fringe of its shed skin.
HoD remains worth reading, but not for any reason Conrad conceived. From our vantage, we know what Conrad and Marlow could not. This classic novella provides an accurate portrait of why empires inevitably fail, and why empire builders never realize their efforts are doomed.