Shea's Demesne


Modern sensibilities do not undermine the masterpiece of Heart of Darkness

2 April 2024


It is trite to say that great literature strikes at truth with such force that the reader is often profoundly affected. The proportion of literature that has this effect is probably small; nevertheless, in absolute terms it is still a large number. Immortal literature, however, strikes at truth with such intensity that inevitably the reader is profoundly affected. It is the universality of its effect that makes it immortal. The number of works that are immortal are small both in proportion and in number.

The immortality of literature cannot be assessed by reference to its entertainment value as perceived by the reader in isolation. A work’s entertainment value might effect its ability to convey the truth and move the reader. Nevertheless, it is still the intensity at which the truth is depicted that is the principal and exclusive factor. I would argue that this is axiomatic. As Finnis has demonstrated, knowledge is a good that is pursued for its own intrinsic value. This is self-evidently true and can be denied by no-one — to deny it is to accept its premise. Thus, insofar that a work of literature is conducive to knowledge, it is good; and immortal literature, in its enduring depiction of eternal truths, is forever conducive to knowledge. Entertainment value, however, can never be universal; entertainment is not something pursued for its own intrinsic value. What it is changes from person-to-person, culture-to-culture, age-to-age, generation-to-generation. Truth is immutable.

Literature not aimed at truth will never endure. Today’s literature espousing the doctrines of certain contemporary ideologies with relativism, particularly moral-relativism, as its foundation will never endure. That literature which subverts truth in its ideological or political pursuit, which romanticises the loathsome, the ugly and the immoral, because it is consistent with this pursuit will perish from memory when those ideologies inevitably collapse under the weight of their own contradictions, relativism, and hatred.


That Heart of Darkness has a profound affect on its reader is, after one-hundred years after its publication, beyond doubt. A great volume of academic commentary is dedicated to it, and even that commentary is subject to further academic commentary. Heart of Darkness is persecuted and praised in just about every field of discourse. However, for me the best illustration of the force of its effect on the reader is how it affects the lay reader. Goodreads is perhaps a good barometer of lay-reader sentiment (though not for much else). Goodreads also contains the fair depiction of the contemporary sensibilities of a certain demographic of society (that is, the young and the (university) educated) and their sentiment to towards works of literature. There, Heart of Darkness is the picture of polarisation; you will find no indifferent reaction to it in the reviews; these reactions ranging from the contemplation of committing violent suicide, to praising its masterpiece. A person not having read Heart of Darkness will be struck by the bewildering seesawing of sentiment. This is because Heart of Darkness will inevitably affect the reader in a profound way. By profound it is meant that the book is not shocking or purposefully provocative in an offensive sense. But rather, the effect it has is on the intelligence of the reader; it is conducive to knowledge. It must be remembered there are some that are utterly repulsed by the truth.

For the young and university educated reader, his or her contemporary sensibilities will result in him or her having a strong negative reaction to the effect that Heart of Darkness has on him or her. This reader will totally discount the literary merit of the book, disclaiming it as a grotesque relic of a time of moral depravity of the West. Accordingly, it should no longer be read because it does not accord with the values or sensibilities we ought to now possess. Why this means we ought not read it is unclear.

In any case, quite clearly to have this sort of reaction is to, ironically, acknowledge Heart of Darkness’s literary merit. But why is this the inevitable reaction of modern sensibilities? I believe it is the same reason why Heart of Darkness will be an immortal work of literature — it tells the truth; and by telling the truth, it illuminates on immortal truths. In my view, this is only possible because Conrad does not shy away from the very basic facts that underpin the truth; and he does not seek to undermine reality by applying a relative outlook on moral principles; he is not willing to call something good when it is not; he is not willing to romanticise a state of existence he himself would not adopt — this being something that the reader too would not, and in fact has not, adopt despite what he or she may otherwise think of his or herself. This is the most powerful element of Heart of Darkness — its most enduring truth — which remains unacknowledged by the contemporary reader: Conrad tells the truth about ourselves.


The principal criticism of Heart of Darkness from the modern reader, largely from post-colonial readings of the text, is that Conrad ‘dehumanises’ Africans, reducing them to a mere backdrop to explore the white man’s inner struggles. Thus, such readers accuse Conrad as describing black people as unreal or a person the reader may empathise with. This apparently undercuts Heart of Darkness’s depiction of the horrors of colonisation, and precludes it from being considered a masterpiece or even a text of any value.

The first obvious answer to this is that Conrad is not describing, dehumanising or otherwise Africa or Africans; Marlow is. What must be kept firmly in mind is that the narrative is told, not only through a first-person perspective, but through the perspective of someone listening the story being told by Marlow. Whatever Conrad’s true perception of the peoples depicted are, it is not depicted in the text. Any accusations that Conrad is a racist (which he might be) based solely on the text alone cannot be supported. More likely, such an accusation is levelled based on things external to the Heart of Darkness itself, such as the common reading that Heart of Darkness is semi-autobiographical, where Marlow is a fictionalisation of Conrad himself. That cannot be known from the text alone, and is therefore irrelevant to its literary quality.

Secondly: what of this dehumanising depiction of the peoples inhabiting the areas adjacent to the Congo River by Marlow? Presumably the contemporary reader with modern sensibilities considers that the text would have been enhanced, or cured, if only Conrad, through Marlow’s narrative, had ‘humanised’ the Africans depicted in Marlow’s narrative. Then we, the reader, would have been able to ‘empathise’ with the horrors which are befalling them by the rapacious colonisers. To the contrary, it is Conrad’s rejection of this approach that enhances the text. Conrad gives as a view into the mind of those who made up colonial powers — not just through Marlow’s narrative, but through the narration of the character whose perspective the reader inhabits and provides a contrast between the ideal and the reality. The narrator talks of that ‘venerable stream’ — the Thames — and of the men it carried, these men being the ‘bearers of a spark from the sacred fire’ and the carriers of ‘the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires’. This introduces the reader to the idealism underpinning the desire to colonise. In relation to this idealism, two things are alluded to: the first is a noble desire to lift the colonised out of moral destitution, as according to moral beliefs considered to be objectively good, and other beliefs, to the extent of any inconsistency, being objectively bad or evil. The second is perhaps a less-noble pursuit: the desire to birth empires and expand in power and wealth. But even this, within its lofty and inspiring language, is a subtle hint that this idealism has destructive consequences: the ‘germ’ of empires can be a disease to those colonised — metaphorically and literally. Marlow’s narrative, building on what is subtly hinted at, explicitly explores the more sinister motivators of imperialism. Chief among these is some level of dehumanisation. In each participant of imperialism is the notion that those colonised are at an inferior state of advancement morally, technologically, in terms of strength or otherwise. Marlow is no exception; and it does not assist the narrative or its quest for truth by inventing a fiction whereby Marlow, a participant in colonisation, is somehow free of this element of character. Why is this even an expectation? It would run utterly contrary with the most powerful theme of the book. Marlow is a sophisticated man; he has an intelligence and powers of observation greater than all other characters encountered; he is inward looking; he is often profound. And yet, despite his precocity, he is afflicted with that very same defect of ‘tribalism’ which is present in every participant in colonisation. Significantly, this includes the Kongolese, who also participated in colonisation. If it were the contrary, if Marlow was not afflicted, it would, ironically, reinforce a notion of European moral superiority. But Conrad does not attribute to the white man this superiority in matters of colonisation.

Another point that can be made is that, aside from the fact that to do so would undermine the ability for the text to illuminate truth, to have Marlow humanise the Africans depicted in a way that is inconsistent with the actual attitudes of the participants of colonisation is completely superfluous. Conrad assumes that the reader will do this themselves; he correctly determines that it is unnecessary to fictionalise the otherwise real attitudes of the time. How else has Heart of Darkness always been regarded as an anti-colonisation text? The entire power of the famous line ‘the horror, the horror’ is practically predicated on this. In the line’s nearly infinite depth, the first ‘horror’ that strikes at the reader is the horrors committed against the Kongolese; the second is the horror of what humans, from the first of the civilised to the last of the uncivilised, can do and will do to each other. Is it really suggested that an explicit humanisation of Africans depicted is necessary for this line to have this effect? for the text as a whole to have this effect? I think not; that would be to insult the intelligence and the humanity of the reader to the utter cost of the power of the text itself. It also misses the point.

The question then becomes: what is the content of this ‘humanisation’ that is apparently lacking in Heart of Darkness? Perhaps the indictment is that, by depicting the Kongo and the Kongonese as savage, Conrad has done an injustice, as has been suggested by some. And the indictment reads that the injustice is not just to the Kongonese but to Africa and Africans as a whole. I think any suggestion of the latter point reveals more about the accuser than the accused. On the former point: the reader again must keep firmly in mind what is actually being depicted here; that is, it is a depiction of those inhabitants of an increasingly remote portions of the Congo River (and the crew of the steamer; however, those depictions are justified above). The Congo River is so remote it was the last place in Africa to explored by Europeans. Not until the mid-19th century did it begin to be probed by the European powers, most famously by Stanley in 1876 and 1877 when he reached the Congo basin interior. This environment was — is — extremely trying; and I have encountered no-one that seriously contends that the peoples that inhabited the remote parts of the Congo River in the 19th century were not primitive, though the dispute their characterisation as ‘savage’. Not even that most esteemed Chinua Achebe in his criticism of Heart of Darkness seriously attempts to persuade otherwise. Rather, he speaks of ‘the most extravagant of turning to a non-European culture’ — that is, the mask given the Maurice Vlaminck in 1905 by the Fang people. Suffices to say that the Fang people are not Kongonese, and they did not inhabit anywhere contiguous with the Congo River. But in any case, this hardly supports any contention that these peoples, around the time Heart of Darkness was published, did not live in primitive conditions. Others point to the Kingdom of Kongo as evidence that those peoples were not primitive but were in fact subject to ‘powerful kingdoms’. This says nothing about the peoples who actually lived contiguous with the river itself; the failure to say anything specific about these peoples is fatal to the argument. The reason for this is clear: the archaeological evidence is against them.

As alluded to, perhaps those that make make this criticism do not dispute the basic facts but rather their characterisation. This argument posits that Conrad fails to appreciate the significance of the activities or culture of the real-life peoples who inhabited the areas contiguous with the Congo River. That the activities of these peoples only seems primitive or uncivilised to a Western mind, where in reality there is no objective measure of how civilised a peoples are. This sort of relativism represents a manifestation of a most pathetic moral cowardice. The people that advance this sort of argument can only do so completely divorced from any actual real-life decision they would have to make. In reality, they would find such conditions of life unbearable, and would not wilfully abandon living in any more-developed circumstances (judged by Western standards) in favour of living amongst the Kongonese. They are totally afraid of confronting a truth that they themselves know on some, perhaps unconscious, level.

I am willing to wager that Conrad’s account is more consistent with the truth of the matter — that is, his depiction of these people living in a state of primitivism — than the account of those who attempt to dispute it. And how could it be otherwise? It is no indictment of these peoples that they were of a limited state of advancement. The ability to even live in such an environment is an achievement of itself. Conrad makes this point: not even the white man — Kurtz, for instance — can fail to succumb to the environment.It is not even the first time Conrad makes this point (it is more explicitly explored in An Outpost of Progress). Such an environment turns even those who have had the benefit of the most advanced of civilisation into a person that would do the most barbaric of acts. Conrad is not willing to depart from the truth of the matter. Such a departure would not serve the narrative, the themes, or the power of the book and how it grasps at the truth. And, more importantly, it is my view that those who seek to romanticise the matter, those who seek to attribute to such peoples a state of moral advancement or especial nobility due to their station of life, are engaging in a greater dehumanisation than Conrad ever did in his fiction. They dehumanise these people by ignoring archaeological truths in favour of political ideology; they exalt a stereotype; they strip away all that that is common to humanity, including our pitfalls — ‘original sin’ for lake of a better word; and by doing so they create an other. And this other is not human. It is a political and ideological vehicle, something to be used to advance their purpose. This consequences of such thinking are nothing short of cowardly. It amounts to, at the very least, an acquiescence in actions of moral depravity: the acceptance of rape, horrible acts against women and children, murder and violence, revenge and blood feuds. That these things are wrong is not relative. I refuse to accept that. And it is my submission that Conrad utterly rejected any moral relativism in his refusal to romanticise the environment of the Congo River or the peoples that inhabited the areas adjacent to it. Conrad, by allowing Marlow to recollect his story consistently with how it would likely be recollected in reality, refuses to treat these people other than human.

So then, how does the dehumanisation of the peoples depicted by its characters detract from the masterpiece of Heart of Darkness? In doing so, Conrad tells the truth in a most courageous way, challenging the morality of colonial powers. Without this truth, the power of the novel is lost. It is essential to many of the themes of the novel, but principally it would strip that most powerful effect that it has on the reader, the effect most ingeniously executed and which it is famous for: through Marlow, he tells the truth about the attitudes of the participants in colonisation; and in depicting the environment and the peoples inhabiting the area adjacent to the Congo River as it was, he ingeniously induces in the reader that startling realisation inevitably results: ‘these people live in such wretched conditions and we live in civility; and yet, they are still human. How could we do this to this to our fellow man? We are really no better than them. We are really no different to them.’ It is powerful. And it is powerful because of Conrad’s commitment to confronting the truth. The white man does not possess a superior morality to any other race, especially those that the white man considered inferior. No; the white man is equally as vulnerable to moral corruption in the Heart of Darkness.


Exploring this principal criticism of Heart of Darkness, in my view, only serves to demonstrate its superior merit. Once it falls away, there is little left to contend that Heart of Darkness is not a masterpiece, even in light of modern sensibilities.