Read in a 1980’s Penguin edition with an introduction by Paul O’Prey
Throughout the novel Conrad plays with the theme of light and darkness:
“It (Africa) had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.” (33) This is an interesting inversion of the common notion of the time that exploration of Africa by Europeans was bringing light to the Dark Continent; instead Marlow argues that in exploring Africa Europeans were darkening it.
The plot is extremely well known, so I will keep this brief. Marlow, an old sailor, tells some colleagues a tale of his last trip to Africa, captaining a steamer up the Congo to escort some traders collecting a shipment of ivory. He hears tales of one of the upriver agents, Kurtz, and at the end of his journey meets him. He falls under Kurtz’s spell, although why it is hard to understand. He speaks frequently of Kurtz’s extraordinary eloquence, but very little of this is directly reported. Kurtz’s charimsatic personality is also emphasised by Marlow, and by Kurtz’s fiance who is introduced in the closing episode, but the reader is given nothing to make their own judgment upon. Kurtz appears to have “gone native” – but the extent of this is very hard to judge given Marlow’s highly fragmented narrative, a fragmentation that continues throughout the novel, so much so that by the closing chapters the time scheme lurches dramatically, and incidents that would normally have been focussed upon, such as Kurtz’s death, are mentioned only in passing.
Is this novel racist? I asked the same question at the end of my review of Scoop, and dodged answering. The n-word is used throughout the novel, and African people are treated as little more than animals. Marlow appears to endorse Kurtz’s recommendation “Exterminate all the brutes” – but elsewhere the portrayal of the cost of imperialism is damning:
Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out of, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment and despair. …This was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die. They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, therey were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confused in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the receesses of the coast in all the legaility of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air – and nearly as thin. (44)
The references to legality and freedom point out the contrast between the state of these workers, worked to breaking point and beyond and then abandoned, and their forebears, who would have been enslaved. There is little difference between the free men broken and left to die, and their predecessors. Wage slavery is still slavery.
I think if you can work your way past the use of the n-word, which Conrad uses without spite or malice, then this is not otherwise a racist novel, but more a novel of racist times, which are shown unblinkingly as such.