Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "Journey into the Past: the Sociocultural Interpretation of Heart of Darkness" by Lydia B. (Spring 2014)

"Journey into the Past: the Sociocultural Interpretation of Heart of Darkness" by Lydia B. (Spring 2014)

         In his short novel, Heart of Darkness, author Joseph Conrad often makes references to various minorities, such as women and blacks. Over time, historians have debated Conrad’s intent with these comments: are they a display of Conrad’s deep-seeded racism? Or rather, do these remarks merely show Conrad’s ignorance, common in his time period, to culturally sensitive topics such as race and gender bias? By using the following sources to examine the social, cultural and psychological factors that shaped Joseph Conrad’s viewpoint, the underlying messages and ideas portrayed in Heart of Darkness will be made clearer. In doing this, it will be evident whether Conrad’s language is intentionally or carelessly degrading the minorities in his work.

       The exhibit source for this study is the short novel itself, The Heart of Darkness. Published in 1899 by Polish-British author Joseph Conrad, the work is highly controversial for its language towards minorities. In one well-know excerpt from the short novel, “the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway and said…‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’ ” (Conrad 86). By having this young black man speak in notably poor English and by describing him offensively as an “insolent black head”, Conrad depicts him in a way that many consider offensive and racist. In addition to Conrad’s racist language, there are places in the text that literary critics deem sexist. For example, early on in the novel, Conrad’s main character Marlow remarks, “it’s queer how out of touch women are” (Conrad 27). By stating that women are ‘out of touch with reality’ and therefore lacking a trait that men do possess, many believe that Conrad is saying that the female sex, as a whole, is lesser than men. Additionally, critics have deemed other parts of the novel offensive, specifically to women or to blacks. After dissecting the corresponding sources in this study, the environment that shaped Conrad’s language will become elucidated. Then it will be possible to determine Conrad’s intent, and ultimately the context in which to read The Heart of Darkness.

       The first argument source is the well-known essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ ”, by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. In this essay, Achebe argues that The Heart of Darkness is racist due to the way Conrad describes the black people of The Congo. Achebe comments on Conrad’s prose by saying:

“Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting as when he gives us this brief description: ‘A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms’. . . .As though we might expect a black figure striding along on black legs to wave white arms”! (Achebe 257)

       Achebe states that Conrad’s racism can be seen in this excerpt’s continued use of the word black, which, through repetition, emphasizes the racial difference between the people of the Congo and Conrad’s main character Marlow. Achebe insinuates that it is Conrad’s obsession with repeating this word that crosses the line from accidental to intentional degradation.

       My first background source for this study, Conrad and His World, provides a strong base in which to understand the racial context behind Conrad’s writing. By examining Conrad’s background and views of other races, I will be able to understand Conrad’s true intentions and examine Achebe’s claims of racism throughout the novel. The first background source, Conrad and His World by British-American author Norman Sherry, gives a historical perspective on Joseph Conrad’s life, which addresses the way that Conrad’s personal experience of moving to a new country at a young age contributed to his perception of racial differences. Known for his extensive biographies of famous authors, Sherry delves into the intricacies that characterized Conrad’s life. Specifically, Sherry discusses the deep connection that Joseph Conrad felt to the countries of his youth: Poland and the Ukraine. The Eastern European culture is one that can occasionally be bigoted towards other races and Conrad’s deep tie to this region would suggest that his writing does in fact have intentional, bigoted undertones. However, Sherry makes an interesting comment: that Conrad’s move at an early age from the Ukraine to Poland affected his psychological development, which then evolved into the sense of ambiguity often found in Conrad’s works. In saying this, Sherry argues that Conrad’s cultural acuity leads him to make great distinctions between various ethnic groups in general, not only ones that are racially different. Although Conrad makes distinctions between blacks and white, he may make equal distinctions between the Poles and the Ukrainians: two groups that are of the same skin color. This source analyzes the cultural, psychological, and social factors that shaped Conrad’s life and perception of race, as well as responds to Achebe’s allegations of racism in the text Heart of Darkness. This new perspective of Conrad’s early, formative years will determine whether Achebe’s claims of racism are accurate.

       The second argument source for this study is the essay “A Feminist and Gender Perspective” by Joanna M. Smith, which addresses the ideas of sexism and gender bias in Conrad’s book. One of the quotes that Smith brings to the forefront is a quote by Marlow that was mentioned earlier in this essay: “It’s queer how out of touch with the truth women are” (Conrad 27). Smith comments that “here it is assumed (“it’s queer” – that it is strange but true) that all women (extrapolating from one woman) are out of touch with ‘truth’ ” (Smith 199). She argues that it is Conrad’s assumption and ridicule of the entire female sex, rather than just one woman, which crosses the line to sexism. In addition to this quote, Smith addresses many other places in the text where she finds a disparity in how the male and female characters are referenced. The second background source, Joseph Conrad As I Knew Him, is a biography of Conrad’s life written by his wife, Jessie George.

       This background source analyzes the dynamic in Conrad and George’s marriage and will be crucial in understanding Conrad’s relationship to the female sex. This source will illuminate the meaning behind Conrad’s implication of women as the lesser sex. This background source provides a more personal insight into the life and views of Joseph Conrad, which addresses how Conrad’s marriage to Jessie George influenced his impression of the female sex. In this work, rather than endorsing Smith’s claims of sexism and gender bias, George continuously illustrates the loving and respectful bond that she and Conrad shared. She depicts this relationship through their many letters and stories of their years spent together. For example, in one letter from Conrad to George, Conrad is discussing his imminent death as he says, “All my sympathy for the little girl that is going to be put to bed or a fort-night. But I know you (of all women) are not going to be unreasonable about such a thing” (George x). By using this quote, George illustrates that indeed Conrad did not consider all women ‘illogical’, as he just commented on his wife’s logic and practicality, even during a period so troubling as loss of a spouse. Although Marlow’s comment bashes the women in the text, Conrad’s complimentary letter to his wife shows that Smith’s quote about women’s illogicality is an example of careless rather than intentional degradation. This source provides an intimate look into Conrad’s life with Jessie George, which will be useful in responding to Smith’s accusations of sexism and gender bias through the text.

       Overall, my exhibit sources bring light to the life and background of Joseph Conrad. They will provide a strong understanding of the cultural, social, and psychological factors that shaped his life and his famous work, Heart of Darkness. Then by assessing these factors, it will be possible to study Conrad’s depictions of minorities, and see whether Achebe and Smith’s claims of bias are accurate in the context of Conrad’s background. Ultimately, these works make it possible to study whether Conrad’s comments on race and sex are intentionally or carelessly degrading these groups, as well as to question his ability to separate his personal experiences from his literary work. This text drives us to ask: to what extent is Heart of Darkness an autobiographical account of Conrad’s interaction with women and blacks?


Annotated Bibliography - Journey into the Past: the Sociocultural Interpretation of Heart of Darkness

Research Agenda: Throughout The Heart of Darkness, author Joseph Conrad makes many references to minorities such as women and blacks. However, it is unclear whether Conrad’s comments are racist, or merely literary commentary. Using the following sources, I will examine the biological, psychological, and sociological context in which Conrad grew up and lived. Then using this new perspective on Conrad’s life, I will be able to more fully understand his intent in these allusions: are his comments racist or merely ignorant? Overall, the following sources will be essential keys in assessing and understand Joseph Conrad’s intention in his work.


Key Words/Phrases:

- “Conrad Eastern Europe”

- “Racism: Heart of Darkness”

- “Sexism : Heart of Darkness”

- “African slave trade in the late 1800s:”

- “Conrad ethnicity”


Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.


- This source will be my exhibit source. This is the book of Joseph Conrad’s that we have been studying in class, and once I have used the other sources to gain a new awareness of the factors that shaped Conrad’s life, I will be more equipped to interpret the various innuendos that Conrad makes towards women and towards gender in his book. Specifically, I will be identifying whether Conrad’s writing style is meant to be detrimental to these minorities, or is merely ignorant.

Sherry, Norman. Conrad and His World. London: Thames and Hudson,

       1972. Print.

- I am studying this source as a background source. This is the source that I presented in class, and using it I will gain perspective on Conrad’s biological, psychological, and social backgrounds cultures. This source gives a full account of Conrad’s life, from his birth in the former Soviet Empire to his death in the United Kingdom. This text will be critical in my study of Conrad’s text. Conrad is of Eastern European descent, an ancestry which has often found itself somewhat bigoted towards others races. By evaluating the in-depth background that this source will provide, I will gain more insight into the way Conrad’s ethnicity affected his writing.

Conrad, Jessie. Joseph Conrad As I Knew Him. State College: Scholarly

       Press, 1972. Print.

- This book will also provide me with a background source. As this book covers some of the same information as Conrad and His World, it should be equally as helpful. However, this source also provides a more concentrated look at Conrad’s viewpoint. Since it is written by his wife Jessie, who was married to him at the time that Heart of Darkness was published, it will provide a clear and accurate account of who Conrad was as he was writing his famed work. By studying the social factors that affected him not only during his whole life, but also specifically during the time of publication, will illuminate the context in which Conrad wrote this work.

Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of

       Darkness'" Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of

       Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources

       Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W.W

       Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261

- This essay by Achebe will be my first argument source. After I have done thorough background research on Joseph Conrad’s life, I will then reexamine Achebe’s claims of racism throughout Conrad’s work. With a new perspective on Conrad’s writing, I will be able to analyze whether Achebe’s assertions make sense within my newfound understanding of Conrad’s text.

Smith, Joanna M. “A Feminist and Gender Perspective”. Heart of

       Darkness. 3rd ed. 1972. Print.

- This essay by Smith is my second argument source. My intent in examining Smith’s essay is similar to that in examining Achebe’s. However, rather than addressing racism in Heart of Darkness, Smith addresses sexism and gender bias that she believes runs throughout the text. After I have addressed the biopsychosocial factors that affect Conrad’s life and writing style, I will return to this study of Smith’s text to evaluate her assertions.

       Overall, these sources will prove to be enlightening and helpful in delving in to the past of Joseph Conrad. They will provide me with a strong understanding of the biological, social, and psychological factors that shaped his life and his famous work: Heart of Darkness. Then by assessing these factors, it will be possible to study Conrad’s allusions to minorities such as women and blacks, and decide whether his prose is deep-seeded racism, or merely a continued ignorance.