The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)
1610–11 Prospero enslaves Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, one of the earliest fictional works to depict colonial attitudes.
1719 In Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s hero teaches the native Friday the “superior” ways of the Western world.
1924 E M Forster’s A Passage to India questions whether there can ever be a true understanding between the colonizer and the colonized.
1930s The Négritude literary movement, led by Aimé Césaire and L-S Senghor, rejects French colonial racism for a common black identity.
1990s The study of colonial representation in literature – Postcolonialism – becomes popular in literary theory.
During the 19th century, imperialism reigned supreme, and many European countries wielded immense power over their distant colonies. Western writers often held fiercely colonial attitudes, and the sense of superiority felt by the colonizing nation can be seen in novels of the period.
But at the turn of the 20th century, colonialism, and its brutal effects on subjugated peoples, was starting to be questioned. Authors moved away from imperialist perspectives to explore the complexities of colonialism, and the rights and wrongs of empire. For example, Rudyard Kipling’s work subtly challenges the image of the benevolent British Empire. But nowhere are the themes of colonial exploitation and intolerance seen more clearly in the literature of this era than in the works of Joseph Conrad, in particular in his short novel Heart of Darkness.
"Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world."
Heart of Darkness
The darkness within
Africa, the setting of the novel, was for Victorian Britain “the dark continent”. Conrad uses this image of darkness throughout the book – he refers, for example, to the River Thames leading out towards “the heart of an immense darkness”. Yet London was also “one of the dark places of the earth”. The novel suggests that this darkness can exist within as well as without – a white man operating beyond the confines of the European social system, such as the book’s enigmatic ivory-trader Kurtz, might begin to glimpse the darkness in his own soul.
At the beginning of the novel, a group of friends sit in a boat moored in the Thames. One of them, Marlow, tells the story of his time in the Belgian Congo, prefacing it with thoughts about what he calls “the conquest of the earth”, which is “Not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. Conquest relies on dispossession, on taking “from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves”.
Marlow’s journey up the Congo reads like a voyage into hell: black Africans dying of overwork and malnutrition; white Europeans going slowly mad; his boat under attack from those who live in the jungle. He is obsessed with stories about Kurtz, who has amassed huge amounts of ivory but has embraced the darkness around him – or within him. The report that Kurtz has written about how to suppress “savage customs” ends, Marlow discovers, with a scrawled sentence: “Exterminate all the brutes!” Conrad here suggests that under the surface of the supposed mission to “civilize” Africa lies an urge to exterminate those of a different complexion.
But just as Marlow realizes his kinship with his cannibal crew (“good fellows”, he calls them), so he understands his kinship with Kurtz. Conrad, a contemporary of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, offers the suggestion that the “heart of darkness” may lie inside, that Marlow’s voyage deep into the African continent can be read as a voyage into the human psyche.
Joseph Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on 3 December 1857, in the Polish Ukraine. After his mother’s early death and his father’s political exile to Siberia, Conrad was brought up by his mother’s brother in Kraków. At the age of 17, he moved to France and made many bohemian friends; he took work at sea as a pilot, and his observations during this time laid the groundwork for much of the detail in his novels. Conrad later settled in England, with the intention of becoming a naval officer. He spent 20 years as a sailor, slowly learning English and beginning to write. He became a British subject in 1886 and began his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, in 1889. The time he spent in command of a steamship named Le roi des Belges in the Belgian Congo in 1890 provided the outline for Heart of Darkness. Conrad died in 1924 at the age of 67.
Other key works
1900 Lord Jim
1907 The Secret Agent
1911 Under Western Eyes
See also: Robinson Crusoe • The Story of an African Farm • Nostromo • A Passage to India • Things Fall Apart