Heart of Darkness

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Racism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Heart of Darkness, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Racism Theme Icon

Students and critics alike often argue about whether Heart of Darkness is a racist book. Some argue that the book depicts Europeans as superior to Africans, while others believe the novel attacks colonialism and therefore is not racist. There is the evidence in the book that supports both sides of the argument, which is another way of saying that the book's actual stance on the relationship between blacks and whites is not itself black and white.

Heart of Darkness attacks colonialism as a deeply flawed enterprise run by corrupt and hollow white men who perpetrate mass destruction on the native population of Africa, and the novel seems to equate darkness with truth and whiteness with hollow trickery and lies. So Heart of Darkness argues that the Africans are less corrupt and in that sense superior to white people, but it's argument for the superiority of Africans is based on a foundation of racism. Marlow, and Heart of Darkness, take the rather patronizing view that the black natives are primitive and therefore innocent while the white colonizers are sophisticated and therefore corrupt. This take on colonization is certainly not "politically correct," and can be legitimately called racist because it treats the natives like objects rather than as thinking people.

Racism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Racism appears in each section of Heart of Darkness. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Racism Quotes in Heart of Darkness

Below you will find the important quotes in Heart of Darkness related to the theme of Racism.
Part 1 Quotes
In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

To support his point on the old darkness of London, Marlow constructs a tale of a Roman citizen who arrived in what is now England. With a language that will later parallel his descriptions of the Congo, Marlow describes the insidious way a new and inhospitable environment will challenge the morality and identity of someone unfamiliar with its domains.

At first the description seems to juxtapose the inner civility of the Roman with the outer “savagery” of the environment: The “forest,” “jungles,” and “wild men” are all figures that must be confronted without any fore-knowledge. And that lack of understanding notably makes them “detestable,” alluding to the deep hatred and fear that can stem from encountering foreign environments. Yet in the second half of the image, Marlow’s position takes a dramatic turn. He observes that the savage “mysteries” also hold a “fascination.” The inner civility of the Roman, he implies, is actually susceptible to and allured by the savagery of the external environment.

Whereas we might assume that the violence in the situation is the result of the Roman simply rejecting the new savage lands, Marlow implies that it comes from a strange combination of hatred and “fascination.” The hypothetical character is pulled in two directions, hoping to leave, but also succumbing to the savagery and thus arriving at a state of intense “hate”—presumably for both himself and for others. These lines clarify the reason Marlow attributes darkness to London, and they also foreshadow the encounter of supposedly civilized Europeans with hostile foreign environments later in the text.

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The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

After having ruminated indirectly on colonialism, Marlow makes a more direct criticism of the enterprise here. The comment is a challenge both to the narrator and other listeners aboard the ship who may be implicated in colonialism—as well as to the European society reading the novel itself.

In order to substantiate this comment, Marlow first redefines the subtly positive term “conquest of the earth,” which would present the English as powerful victors controlling the land of the earth. Yet Marlow points out that this earth is already populated by people and that to conquer means “taking it away” from others. Furthermore, the biggest difference between these others and the English is nothing moral or spiritual, but rather something based on surface-level physical details: “complexion” and “flatter noses.” Marlow directly calls out the racism inherent in colonialism.

His reference to looking closely into things is, however, a bit more ambiguous. On the one hand, Marlow implies that his listeners should look more closely into the conquest of the earth and more critically evaluate their actions. This idea is supported by the fact the statement comes from a novel, in particular a novel dense with metaphorical imagery that demands its own reader look very closely. Yet at other times in the text, Marlow criticizes characters who investigate too much, who look too closely; he prefers, as a captain, to take solace in the surface of navigation and efficient work. We see here not so much an aggressive moral judgment as a portrayal of a character who has come to recognize deep flaws in colonialism and yet who remains uncertain of how to negotiate them.

When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages—hate them to the death.
Related Characters: Chief Accountant (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

The Chief Accountant reflects on the role of order to Marlow during one of their conversations at the Outer Station. As a representative of European efficiency, the Chief Accountant is deeply frustrated with the Congolese who interrupt his numerical mind. He is provoked to frustration first by a dying local housed in his room and second by a caravan of locals who arrive at the camp and make a great deal of noise.

Marlow's perspective on the Accountant is ambivalent. On the one hand, he values the physical order and logical approach the Accountant maintains in a tropical environment that moves many Europeans to irrationality and despair. The “correct entries” of his accounting represent this steadfastness. Yet the obsession with that correctness also makes the accountant greedy and callous toward others—in particular the locals. Their supposed distractions cause him to call them “savages” and then to use a revealing expression “hate them to the death.” Conrad has notably added in an extra article “the” to slightly disrupt the saying "hate them to death"—perhaps to draw our attention how the European hatred for the locals actually results in literal deaths. There is a deep horror beneath the order of the accountant to which Marlow has begun to be attuned.

Part 2 Quotes
It was a distinct glimpse: the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home—perhaps; setting his face towards the depth of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow conjures this image of Kurtz as he eavesdrops on the General Manager’s conversation with his Uncle. The two trade gossip about how Kurtz may be ill, and offer the evidence that he had planned on leaving the Inner Station before suddenly deciding to return.

Marlow finds himself taken with the poetry of this scene. On one level, it rejects the narrative desired by other Europeans seeking their fortune: that is, enter as deeply as possible into the Congo, extract large quantities of ivory, and then rapidly return to civilization. These people would equate headquarters with “relief” from the wilderness and see it as a step back across the sea toward a European home.

But Kurtz seems to be attracted to the “depth of the wilderness,” the same incomprehensible entity for which Marlow is developing both respect and fear. Kurtz turns away, too, from social contact and order, opting for a space described only in the negative terms of “empty” and “desolate.” Instead of valuing the European comrades of his home, he chooses the “paddling savages.” Though the General Manager and his uncle interpret the scene as either an indication of illness or a secret plot, Marlow focuses on the “distinct glimpse” or the poetry of the image. Something in Kurtz’s rejection of civilization appeals to him.

It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

After contemplating the physical environment of the Congo, Marlow begins to consider the Congolese people. The lines reveal a deep racism, for they deny the humanity of the “natives,” but they also imply that the supposedly civilized Europeans engage in similarly brutal behaviors.

Marlow introduces these ideas not with an assertive claim, but rather through a self-correction. He catches himself about to compare the “unearthly” environment with the “inhuman” men, but realizes while forming the sentence that it would be erroneous. Unwilling to fully commit to the humanity of the Congolese, he describes this as a “suspicion.” He also implies, when he describes this thought as coming slowly to him, that it is a conclusion he reached from his exploration of the Congo. The lesson, it seems, is to look beyond the appearances or superficial actions and instead consider the more common “kinship” and common “humanity” between the locals and the Europeans.

This similarity is not, however, located in a positive human ideal, but rather in a common horror, in something “ugly” about all humans. Perhaps it is the same greed Marlow has repeatedly observed in those surrounding him. The “trace of a response” recalls his earlier anecdote about the Roman citizen who, arriving in a savage England, became fascinated by the abomination of the environment. And Marlow himself has been drawn to (and frightened by) the “meaning” of the inscrutable wilderness. Here, he implies that the “meaning” is found at the origin of humanity, and that to access that origin one must journey back in time to penetrate the heart of a human darkness. So while these lines are blatantly racist—a racism that has made many readers deeply skeptical of Conrad’s work—they also reveal a complex relationship to human nature. Marlow points to a universal evil that Europeans have merely covered up in the social graces of their society.

It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: "Exterminate all the brutes!"
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow sees this horrifying statement at the end of Kurtz’s treatise “On the Suppression of Savage Customs.” Kurtz, he goes on to explain, had been commissioned to write the report by an International Society of the same name. The majority of the text features grandiose statements on the need for Europeans to civilize natives, but the end radically shifts tone and calls for violent extermination.

The piece of writing shows Kurtz at both his most idealistic and his most brutal. Its simplicity and its attention to “altruistic sentiment” mark it as a prophetic text that could significantly alter colonial attitudes back in Europe. Perhaps the treatise would cause Londoners to adopt less brutal and more benevolent practices in the Congo. Yet after seventeen pages of that “serene sky,” the scrawled postscript demands complete annihilation. The shift implies that Kurtz has lost his noble sentiments—perhaps due to mental illness, perhaps due to an epiphany reached in the Congo—and now has been consumed fully by hate and avarice.

That Marlow observes this change in a piece of writing is revealing, particularly considering his own role as a storyteller. Marlow is attentive to the way language functions as a mask that obscures rather than reveals reality. Though Marlow is at first enraptured by Kurtz’s words—as he has been by the ideal of Kurtz to offer something less hollow than other Europeans—he comes to realize that the treatise is yet another linguistic mask.