xxx Savage, Silent, Stoic and Entirely Human


A Commentary on the “Racism” in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

It is commonly assumed that the Africans possess no voice in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. There is no grammatical or contextual evidence that they utter much more than the two famous lines: “Eat ‘im!” and “Mistah Kurtz—he dead” (73, 131). It seems, to some, almost racist: surely the Africans had more to say about the European colonization of their land?—or anything, for that matter. Chinua Achebe explores this possibility in “Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Those very lines, Achebe points out, illustrate two distinct orders of racism: the prescription of cannibalism to all Africans and the automatic insertion of a dialect to an African speaker when other opportunities for the inclusion of dialect are ignored. Achebe also addresses the African woman, who he believes serves the main purpose of being contrasted with Kurtz’s Intended, the “other” woman, in every sense of the term. “The difference in the attitude of the novelist to these two women is conveyed in too many direct and subtle ways to need elaboration,” Achebe writes. “But perhaps the most significant difference is the one implied in the author’s bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other. It is clearly not in part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language to the ‘rudimentary souls’ of Africa” (213). It’s quite true that the two women appear to exist only for the purpose of being compared. Their physical discrepancies are profound despite maintaining feminine countenances. Yet their most startling difference, one which Achebe believes requires no elaboration, is the very point that dismisses his accusation of racism entirely: that in the end, it is the African woman, not the white woman, who is deemed most admirable.

When I first read her, she was to me the “African queen.” With further consideration, I altered this title to “African empress.” Her fierce and military mannerism, not to mention exotic ornamentation, makes her more akin to Athena than Elizabeth. Like Kurtz, I felt a twinge of possession of the fine body, the radiant and superb being. Thus she became “my African empress.” What I failed to realize was the very nature of my sense of possession. She was not mine. More accurately, she was me, as I was her. We, women, stoic and silent, powerful and painted. And this is why she is so critical to the novella. Marlow dismisses women as idealistic, as out of touch with reality, so that we might disregard the importance of a female presence. Their world is “beautiful,” he admits, but it would never work. It is impractical. Some “fact” men have accepted eons ago would cause their kingdom to crumble. Yet everything that constitutes men’s kingdoms is written upon women’s bodies, such that women are walking, breathing flags; they stand as religious icons, constructed with the care and purpose of art. Artifacts, indeed: the image alone of a woman provides a bountiful supply of clues into her culture’s beliefs and practices. That queens and empresses number fewer than their male counterparts is almost irrelevant. Just their image, cast in stone or bronze or pigment, is all one needs to recognize their universal divinity. Women have always been worshiped, in one way or another.

And what shape does the apparition of the African woman take? She enters with steps “measured,” glowing “wild and gorgeous.” Marlow describes her in terms of accessories: fringed cloth, ornaments that flash and bracelets that jingle. She is entirely decked out in a wide variety of metals, wires, beads, and—most importantly—ivory. “She must have had the value of several elephant tusks on her,” Marlow estimates (113). This is the ivory that belongs to Kurtz. This is the ivory that Kurtz calls his own, that Kurtz will travel beyond borders and uncharted wilderness to retrieve, threatening the death of those who fail to offer the precious fossils. Yet there it shines in all its glory upon a beautiful black body, an image that not just Marlow admires. A hush falls upon the land in her presence, and within it he observes that “the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul” (113). The soul of Africa radiates from her being. She is, in her essence, the muted but electrifying voice of the African people. She has earned the right to bear Kurtz’s ivory and holds the will of the African population in the mere gestures of her arms. She is often referred to by critics as Kurtz’s mistress, but there is no real proof of the specifics of their relationship. She is presented entirely unique in her specific power, in the fear and awe she elicits. If not Kurtz’s lover, she is clearly an object of his respect. All this power, yet not a single audible phrase. Impressive, no?

Kurtz’s Intended, on the other hand, is full of words—too full. When Marlow finally encounters her, he notes her beauty, but it is not in the raw and radiant form of the African woman. Marlow observes in her portrait a “beautiful expression,” one that conveys an eagerness to “listen without mental reservation, without suspicion, without a thought for herself” (136-7). And indeed, Marlow encounters her as he would encounter a black void. She talks “as thirsty men drink,” and in her presence, Marlow feels the “darkness deepen” (142, 141). She is out of touch with reality and leads Marlow to utter the white lie concerning Kurtz’s last words. It is far easier to lie to her and allow her to remain in her beautiful—and false—world. Words, here, make room for lies. Where words do not exist, there is no room for such falsities. While the African woman’s face conveys a “wild sorrow” and “dumb pain,” these emotions are real and unpretentious. Kurtz’s Intended appears “proud of her sorrow,” and admits to this pride (140). Her meaning of existence, then, relies on a dead man of whom she only possesses an illusion. Meanwhile, the African woman carries herself with a confidence she herself owns, and her pain is there only because her face does not deny her honest emotions.

It is this honesty, this right of being for the sake of being right that Marlow admires in the African woman. Achebe extends Marlow’s admiration for her to Conrad because “she is in her place and so can win Conrad’s special brand of approval” (213). Yet Kurtz’s Intended is also in her place as a woman in Belgium, yet she is a strange, naïve sort of shadow, lurking in ignorance. If indeed it is Conrad, as well as Marlow, admiring the African woman, it is not out of mere appreciation for seeing the “Amazon” (Achebe’s term, 213) in her natural setting, as one would appreciate watching monkeys function in their jungle habitat. It is not so much where she is observed, but what she is and what she represents that matters. These two women should not be viewed merely as symbols of their respective homelands, Europe vs. Africa, Western World vs. Third World, Colonizer vs. Colonized. Rather, we should absorb them as individuals—as we have already done—then apply them to their homelands. And in doing the latter, we can see that the judgment is not passed upon each woman as an individual; rather, each woman must be understood to represent her culture as a whole. Once this is understood, Heart of Darkness cannot be imagined without the presence of both women. While Marlow refers to his journey as traveling “into the heart of darkness,” the woman he finds at the center is “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent” (63, 113). She emits a kind of light. It is a quality that pervades the entire African people. The Africans only retreat into the shadows to die. Otherwise, Marlow continually encounters them in the light. “…. I seemed at once bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that has a right to exist—obviously—in the sunshine,” he confesses. The Africans’ “uncomplicated savagery” is a relief because it is honest and unrestrained, qualities that “obviously” belong in the light. Marlow recognizes the truth of their humanity, as well as the truth of his own. It is terrible and ugly to him not because it is a display of savagery, nor because such savagery exists in his very own nature. For the most haunting moment in the novella occurs at the very end, when Marlow describes his experience returning to Brussels, a city full of human beings unaware of their humanity, a city that holds the pale, mourning, delusional femininity of Kurtz’s Intended on a pedestal. She possesses the darkest heart: dark with unfounded pride and ignorance.

Equally disturbing, perhaps, is en route along the river, when Marlow hears the cries of the African people. It is an unpleasant sound, mostly because Marlow does not understand it: “The glimpse of the steamboat had for some reason filled those savages with unrestrained grief, ” he notes (78). These are human voices, lacking in words, perhaps, but more articulate and true than much of the dialogue attributed to individual characters. Does Achebe expect Conrad to have given the Africans knowledge of the English language? Doesn’t the universal human language—the expressions of a face, the cry of sorrow—suffice? Words may try and trick and often are impossible for non-speakers to understand, as is the case when Marlow finds the abandoned book he thought to be notated in cipher, which in actuality is the Russian language—quite unfamiliar to him. But in the cries of the Africans, Marlow recognizes a very human and extremely pained quality. He hears their voices, as did Kurtz. Conrad may be ambiguous and intentionally vague, but he does not fail to suppress the emotional intelligence of the Africans. Sympathy is, after all, recognition of humanity.



Achebe, Chinua. “Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Article from Postcolonial Discourses: An Anthology, edited by Gregory Castle, pp 209-220. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.