Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "The Changing of the Guard: Edward Said and Reassessing Heart of Darkness in a Post-colonial Age" by Crystal L. (Fall 2013)

"The Changing of the Guard: Edward Said and Reassessing Heart of Darkness in a Post-colonial Age" by Crystal L. (Fall 2013)

For most of its history, Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness has been primarily explored within the historical framework of the time in which it was written. However, in recent years, post-colonial critics such as Professor Edward W. Said have embarked on a mission to link imperial literature of the past with contemporary, post-imperial cultural, national, and racial writing and discourse. This guide will focus on Edward Said’s numerous analyses of Conrad and Heart of Darkness, the meaning of post-colonial literary theory and its relevance to texts written during the colonial age itself, and place Heart of Darkness within the timeline of the rise, height, and fall of traditional imperialism, and present Said’s thoughts on Conrad’s abilities and limitations in terms of the criticism of empire.



Said was on the faculty of Columbia University from 1963 until his death, working primarily in the departments of English and Comparitive Literature.


Said’s interest in Conrad started early in his academic career, with a doctoral dissertation he wrote as a student in Harvard and later expanded and published in 1966 as Joseph Conrad: The Fiction of Autobiography. The work is considerably less political than most of Said’s later writings, with more focus on Conrad as writer than Conrad as imperialist writer. Said primarily analyzes Conrad’s fiction in conjunction with Conrad’s personal letters and diaries, examining how the author’s life influenced his writing. Twelve years later, however, Said published his seminal work Orientalism, a milestone both in his own career and in the field of post-colonial critical theory.


The Snake Charmer by Jean-Léon Gérôme formed the cover of Orientalism's first edition and was considered to be exemplary of the West's mystification, sexualization, and Otherization of the "the Orient".


The principal objective of post-colonial criticism is to analyze writing from both during and after the age of traditional imperialism. There is generally a focus on works which originate “from regions of the globe subject to European colonization” (Murfin 285), particularly those which engage in the imperial legacy and what it means for those regions moving forward: culturally, politically, and socially. Said’s Orientalism was noteworthy in its reassessment of “the Orient” and its relationship with the West; one of his primary theses is that “Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient, because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness…” (Said 204) – in essence, East as created by West in order to act as the West’s antithesis and foil, a screen upon which the Occident could project its fantastical impossibilities.

 Culture and Imperialism is, according to Said, Orientalism’s broader, more all-encompassing successor. It is also the work in which Said returns to Conrad as a primary example of imperialist literature that treads the line between protesting and upholding the status quo. In the chapter “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness”, Said contends that “Conrad’s tragic limitation is that even though he could see clearly that… imperialism was essentially pure dominance… he could not then conclude that imperialism had to end…” (Said 30). Said points out that both Kurtz and Marlow acknowledge the darkness they encounter as a being independent of themselves, but they are unable to take the next step and realize that very darkness was in fact an entity capable of fighting against Western hegemony and reclaiming not only physical but intellectual and cultural territory.

Much of post-colonial literature is focused on this act of resistance – Said dedicates a good portion of Culture and Imperialism to the acknowledgment of countermovements originating from the victimized and the oppressed. Post-colonialism is the process of coming to terms with the end of an older form of imperialism and its replacement, both of which involve not simply the domination of land and markets but of culture, knowledge, and perception. Said devotes Culture and Imperialism and his criticism of Conradto the argument that culture is a reflection of politics and vice versa, a departure from his earlier literary analyses which were much more insulated. He writes that Heart of Darkness contains only an image of Africa, an ill-taken photograph, and that this fact matters because “to represent Africa is to enter the battle over Africa, inevitably connected to later resistance, decolonization, and so forth” (Said 68).

Said’s criticism takes advantage of his luxury of hindsight: he is able to juxtapose Heart of Darkness with Things Fall Apart, Conrad’s Africa with Chinua Achebe’s. He brings up later authors, primarily African, who subvert the messages of Heart of Darkness in an attempt to restore humanity and balance to the image Conrad presented his public – movements that are part of a long, difficult, and only occasionally successful changing of the cultural guard. Said concludes that “what results is not simply a reclamation of the fictive territory” (Said 212) but clarification and control of Conrad’s discrepancies and their consequences. Said, and post-colonial theory in general, places a great deal of power into the hands of art and culture: he gives Conrad and authors like him the the capability to allow one group to achieve control over another, but he also gives the oppressed the power to fight, to struggle, and take back what they have lost using the same means by which they were disempowered to begin with.


Murfin, Ross C. "What Is Postcolonial Criticism?" Heart of Darkness: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Ross C. Murfin. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's, 2011. 285-94.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. 1st ed. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993.

Said, Edward W. Joseph Conrad And The Fiction Of Autobiography. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 1st ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.