Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > “Bringing the 'Heart of Darkness' to Light: The Satirical Root of Conrad’s Impressionism” by Davis S. (Spring 2014)

“Bringing the 'Heart of Darkness' to Light: The Satirical Root of Conrad’s Impressionism” by Davis S. (Spring 2014)

                Throughout the 1800’s, Africa was a petri dish where European colonies grew and sucked the land and its native people of sustenance. Most notably was the Congo Free State, a Dutch colony under the rule of King Leopold II, a tyrant who claimed any valuable resources as his own. Inspired by the current events of his time, Joseph Conrad published his impressionistic novel Heart of Darkness in 1899, a tale of a man’s travel up the River Congo and his encounters along the way. Due to Conrad’s “impressionistic” (or subjective) style, his work has been interpreted as both primarily anti-imperialist by some and primarily racist by others. Martin Price believes that Conrad’s impressionism is brought on by his use of satire, the interpretation of which has been shown to rely on an audience’s predisposition, within a novel. Mark Twain published his satirical article King Leopold’s Soliloquy in 1905, which covered the same topics of race and colonialism as Heart of Darkness yet it never received the same accusations of being racist. Twain’s consistency in his use of satire creates a work that is objectively satiric and leaves little room for interpretation. Comparing Conrad and Twain shows that isolating satire in its own medium, rather than in conjunction with a novel, prevents impressionistic style from developing and preserves the authors intended message.

                Two seemingly contradictory interpretations have come out of Heart of Darkness, that of racism and that of anti-imperialism. The most vocal proponent of Heart of Darkness being racist has been Nigerian scholar and novelist Chinua Achebe, who even went as far as to call Conrad himself a “bloody racist” (9). Achebe argues that Conrad’s depiction of Africa as "’the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization” is undeniably supremacist as it labels Africa and everything in it as uncivilized, while putting white European civilization on a pedestal (3). In defense of Conrad, Professor Cedric Watts, an authority on Heart of Darkness, published the article “'A Bloody Racist': About Achebe's View of Conrad” in which he vehemently defended Conrad’s work as being anti-imperialist and anything but racist. Watts countered that Conrad “most deliberately and incisively debunks such myths” in regards to whites being “morally superior to 'savagery'” and imperialism being an “altruistic matter” (197). Two entirely different interpretations, each with strong evidence to support their claims, arose from the same exhibit source, meaning the content on Heart of Darkness must be subjective in some manner.

                Dr. Patrick Brantlinger first proposed the idea of “impressionism”, a label he assigned to Conrad’s ambiguous style, to account for the reason why some viewed Heart of Darkness as racist and other saw it as anti-imperialist. As Einstein proposed the particle-wave duality of matter in quantum mechanics, Brantlinger assigned the label “impressionism” for the racist-anti-imperialist duality of Heart of Darkness. He claimed that Conrad’s writing was saturated with equivocation, going as far as deeming it “schizophrenic”, and his style allowed Conrad to “maintain contradictory values” (364). Brantlinger believes that Heart of Darkness “offers a powerful critique of… imperialism and racism” but it does so in ways “that can only be characterized as both imperialist and racist” (364). Brantlinger’s analysis of Heart of Darkness indicates that Conrad does not develop a singular, coherent message in his novel. Instead, one can pick and choose certain aspects of the novel to support their claim and defend it, showing how the message of the book is truly subjective.

                Professor Martin Price’s theory predated Brantlinger’s, but if he had the same vocabulary, Price would have attributed “impressionism” to Conrad’s incorporation of satire into a novel. Price takes issue with the way “that satire and the novel can conflict” with one another (226). By combining the two, the story and cast move between two worlds; the “satiric” where people are reduced to simple caricatures, and the “novelistic” where people become three-dimensional characters. When the character and the caricature appear in the same scene, the reader has trouble deciphering whether the setting should be one of satire or one of the novel, causing the intended message to become muddled. As a result, Conrad’s writing “waivers between the sardonic and the sentimental” (Price, 241-2); two mutually exclusive evocations. The majority of those who interpret the novel tend to fall at either end of the spectrum; individuals like Achebe see it as sentimental and Conrad’s actual views coming through the novel, whereas individuals like Watts see it as sardonic and Conrad mocking the racist and imperialist ideologies of his era. Since one specific view cannot be associated with the book, it is entirely subjective whether one sees the book as a work of satire, or a racist novel.

                A recent sociology study performed at The Ohio State University found that people interpreted satire based on their own predispositions and prejudices. Using the pinnacle of modern satire as a case study, researchers had both liberals and conservatives watch The Colbert Report to see how they interpreted the show. The study found was that both parties thought the show equally humorous, however conservatives thought Colbert “genuinely meant what he said” while liberals thought Colbert “used satire and was not serious” about the claims he made (LaMarre, n.p.) The implications of the study are that one’s “ideology influences the processing of ambiguous messages” (LaMarre, n.p.), leaving the message to subjective interpretation. Conrad’s writing certainly fits the mold, as its impressionism is just another name for its ambiguity. As a result, different people with different ideologies have viewed and interpreted Conrad’s writing to be a number of things: racist, satiric, anti-imperialist, supremacist, misogynistic. They are all equally true, because Heart of Darkness, it its ambiguity, opened itself up for subjective interpretation. However, if the source of the problem is ambiguity, which stems from the incorporation of satire into the novel, then the solution may be avoiding the combination of the two.

                In comparison to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mark Twain’s satirical article King Leopold’s Soliloquy was not criticized as being racist because it remained consistently satiric throughout the whole article, eliminating any impressionist style. The article was published in 1905, merely 6 years after Heart of Darkness, and satirized King Leopold’s involvement in the Congo and his abuse of the country and her people. It was written in the same time frame, about the same content, with similar satiric intent as Heart of Darkness. The reason Twain escaped the same level of scrutiny was not due to him using less stereotypes or racist undertones, as he uses far more than Conrad. For instance, Twain refers to the people of the Congo as “niggers” who frequently practice “cannibalism”, painting them in a much worse light than Conrad, if he were to be taken literally (Twain, n.p.). The reason Twain escaped accusations of racism was because he does not incorporate his satire into a novel. Twain isolates his satire so that it is objectively satiric, as opposed to Conrad’s subjective satire, and removes any room for interpretation otherwise. Twain sticks to using simple caricatures, that way no one can be seen as a 3-D character or cause confusion as who is meant to be satiric and who is meant to be real. Twain also utilized a number of political cartoons to portray the cast as caricatures rather than characters. By remaining objectively satiric, and overtly so, the only people who could possibly think he is serious are those who have an extremist ideology and would belong in a small minority.

Caricature of "cannibal chief" from King Leopold's Soliloquy (Twain, n.p.)

                The difference between objective satire and subjective satire is the amount of room left for interpretation by the author. By intertwining the realms of satire and novel, Conrad muddled the lines between the two, spawning his impressionist style of writing. Due to the ambiguous nature of Heart of Darkness, the message that Conrad intended to send was not objective, but subjective. The study performed at The Ohio State University showed how people interpret ambiguous messages based on their own predispositions, so they will see whatever aligns with their ideology. In the case of Achebe, he latched on to the “sentimental” view of Heart of Darkness, and failed to separate satire from the novel, considering the work to be racist. Watts, on the other hand, viewed the novel in a “sardonic” light, allowing him to appreciate the satire, considering the work to be anti-imperialist. Twain managed to avoid room for interpretation by overtly expressing his use of satire, and satire alone. In doing so, King Leopold’s Soliloquy sent a very clear anti-imperialist message. Understanding how a literary device such as satire will be perceived by the public is necessary to ensuring that an author’s intended message will not fall on deaf ears. In order for modern satirists to ensure that one’s satirical message is objective, as opposed to subjective, it should not be used in conjunction with realistic aspects, such as a novel. Instead, it should be kept within its own category; much like the famed satirical news outlet The Onion does not publish real news stories, people know to expect every article to be satirical.


Annotated Bibliography

Achebe, Chinua. An Image of Africa. Research in African Literatures, Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue on Literary Criticism. (Spring, 1978), pp. 1-15.

This is an argument source which claims that Heart of Darkness is a racist novel. It will be used to show one possible interpretation of the novel.

 Watts, Cedric. “'A Bloody Racist': About Achebe's View of Conrad”. The Yearbook of English Studies , Vol. 13, Colonial and Imperial Themes Special                           Number (1983) , pp. 196-209

This is an argument source defending Heart of Darkness from being criticized as racist, and asserts that it is anti-imperialist. It will be used to show an alternate interpretation of the novel.

 Brantlinger, Patrick. "Heart of Darkness": "Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?" Criticism , Vol. 27, No. 4 (fall, 1985) , pp. 363-385.

This is an argument source which blames Conrad’s writing for a lack of a coherent message. It can be used to explain stylistically the problem with “Heart of Darkness”.

 Price, Martin. “Conrad: Satire and Fiction” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 14, Satire Special Number. Essays in Memory of Robert C. Elliott 1914-1981                   (1984), pp. 226-242.

This is an argument source that argues satire and the novel should remain separate because it creates an equivocal message. It will be used to demonstrate how satire can be lost on an audience.

 LaMarre, Heather L., Kristen D. Landreville, and Michael A. Beam. "The Irony of Satire Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in                     The Colbert Report." The International Journal of Press/Politics 14.2 (2009): 212-231.

This is a study performed that found that one’s reception to satire is based on their existing ideology and beliefs. It could be used as a theory source to explain the confusion that results from satire, especially in the case of “Heart of Darkness”.

 Twain, Mark. King Leopold's Soliloquy. LeftWord Books, 1970.

This is a satirical work by Mark Twain that attacks Belgium’s involvement in the Congo, written from the perspective of King Leopold. This can be used as an exhibit source to show how satire from that era looked and how it functioned in comparison to Conrad’s writing.