Reading Heart of Darkness and Conrad’s Biography

I’ve read all of Joseph Conrad’s major works – Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo (still haven’t gotten around to finishing the last one, though) – plus several of the not-so-major ones, and have yet to really “get” what it is about him that has inspired such tributes from experts and literary critics. The Guardian are currently running a series of the 100 best novels of all time, and the recently published entry for Heart of Darkness shows how that book remains a central text of 20th-century literature, and a uniquely provocative piece of work. The short and rather insubstantial synopsis of HoD by Robert McCrumb has attracted no less than 332 comments – far more than any other in the series (David Copperfield, for example, only gets 38). The general consensus in these comments is interesting, in that it’s anti-Achebean; that is, it doesn’t accept the view famously put forward by Chinua Achebe that Conrad shows himself in this work to be a “bloody racist”. Rather it takes the searing-indictment-of-colonialism line, or else the ahistorical allegory-for-human-condition line. Both, obviously, are likely to produce reactions more favourable to the novel than the bloody-racist view. These were the views critiqued by Achebe, but they have evidently recovered and remain the dominant readings.

The searing-indictment-of-colonialism line is one that I have always found it difficult to get behind. That wasn’t how it struck me on my first reading of the novel many years ago, and it still doesn’t strike me that way. One key passage is often quoted:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .

This passage is quoted by a poster calling himself “lurgee” on the Guardian page linked above; for the poster, it shows how Marlowe “understands the hollowness of the idea [of colonialism]”. To me, it shows the exact opposite – finishing on the idea of redemption for colonialism, even though it’s admitted to be very unpleasant in practice. I think that HoD, in short, can be seen as more or less an indictment of the practice of colonialism (or a specific practice, even), while remaining a defence of the idea. What I find objectionable in this is that it reads to me like Conrad’s message is that the idea always trumps the practice/ reality. That’s what the closing scene with the Intended is about: the practice/ reality of colonialism in the Congo is painted as horrendous, but even so, Marlow insists that the idea must be protected by the lie to the intended. Here I think Conrad is very Carlylean indeed. Carlyle’s central idea was of the importance of faith, as opposed to material reality:

Faith is properly the one thing needful; how, with it, Martyrs, otherwise weak, can cheefully endure the shame and the cross; and without it, Worldlings puke up their sick existence, by suicide, in the midst of luxury. (Sartor Resartus)

One can also draw a line here to Slavoj Žižek’s definition of ideology, as being related to the as if. The ideologist doesn’t really believe, but acts as if he/ she does. In a cynical, post-theological world, it is through the as-if ideologists that ideology is saved (The Sublime Object of Ideology). And this is Marlow: he doesn’t believe – in fact, he knows he’s speaking untruthfully – but he feels that the beautiful illusion should be perpetuated, even though it’s a mask for exploitation. The pretence of belief is still better than the admission that it’s all a sham. It’s the ideology of the cynic – the dominant form of ideology in contemporary society, according to Žižek. In this, the book really does reveal a “modernist” consciousness.

This probably begs the key point that separates searing-indictment readers from bloody-racist readers: Marlow. How do we read Marlow? Searing-indictmenters will see Marlow as your prototypically modernist unreliable narrator; bloody-racisters will see him as an avatar for Conrad himself. I tend to the latter view.  The term “unreliable narrator” originates with Wayne Booth, who wrote:

For lack of better terms, I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not. (The Rhetoric of Fiction)

Are the norms of HoD different from those espoused by Marlow? The provisional and blog post-ish nature of this analysis (so-called) will be clear when I say that I don’t remember any point in the narrative where this is apparent. There is no narrative outside Marlow bar the framing narrative, which is only a tiny proportion of the word count, and which provides little direct reflection on Marlow. But, then again, what description it does provide of Marlow is patently admiring, not to say worshipful. Think of the visual description:

Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.

There’s a definite sense in the descriptions of Marlow that’s he’s being presented as some sort of sage, a holder of mysterious knowledge beyond the ken of the frame narrator. So if Marlow doesn’t overtly reveal any unreliability, and the frame narrator paints Marlow in rather heroic colours, the only possible way to see Marlow as unreliable is by using the concept of irony.

Irony, quoth the OED, is: “[t]he expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect”. If one sees Conrad as being very ironic indeed throughout HoD, one can say that Marlow is unreliable. But is HoD as ironic as all that? There are moments of irony, certainly, perhaps even a persistent strain of irony, but to see Marlow as unreliable, one would have to posit HoD as being almost totally and wholly ironic because a) almost the whole book is seen through Marlow and b) Marlow is overtly reliable: he’s knowledgeable, articulate, evidently competent at his job, respected by the only other consciousness we’re given access to (the frame narrator).  I’m not inclined to read HoD as being that weighted with irony, and I would suggest that a knowledge of Conrad’s life and politics very much supports the Marlow-is-reliable position (which in turn tends to, I would suggest, undermine or at least complicate the searing-indictment reading).


Biographical readings of literature aren’t really fashionable in academia. One could blame the whole postmodernist author-is-dead-Barthes-Foucault thing for this, but in any case, using the author’s life or personality to explain his work is more associated with biography these days than with literary criticism. But I think it can’t be ignored. As a reader (as opposed to a student of literature), I have always tended to look to the biographies of writers I’m interested in to complement and clarify my reading of their work. And knowledge of Conrad makes it clear that Marlow served for him as a kind of idealized self. Idealized above all in the fact of his being English, for Conrad was above all things an Anglophile. This should be remembered when assessing the attitude to colonialism in HoD. In the text of the story itslelf, Conrad differentiates sharply between British imperialist practice and all the other kinds:

 [A] large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red [the colour denoting colonies of Britain]—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer.

Real work is equated with British colonialism, and British colonialism alone. So for the first readers of HoD, on its serialization in Blackwood’s, there is an indication that their own feelings of patriotism are not being challenged – indeed, they’re being in this passage strengthened by the force of the contrast with all of the Bad Imperialism that’s going on among the continental powers. And this was pretty much exactly Conrad’s own view. Speaking of the Boers of South Africa, he wrote:  “They have no idea of liberty, which can only be found under the British flag all over the world”  (Meyer , Joseph Conrad [Kindle], p. 81). In terms of Anglophilia, its hard to disentangle Conrad’s politics from his personal ambitions and his attempts to fit in. His friend and sometime colloborator Ford Madox Ford noted that “[his] ambition was to be taken for – to be! – an English country gentleman of the time of Lord Palmerston” (Meyer, p. 128). Conrad never fully played the role in real life: his accent always gave him away; his pronunciation was frequently way off. But in fiction he managed it through Marlow, who Meyer sees as the author’s “alter-ego” (p. 190). Marlow was urbane and wise, restrained and understated in a gentlemanly fashion, and above all English.

So, at least, I have always seen the character, and reading Conrad’s biography has, for me, confirmed it. Biography always forms a part of my methodology for interpreting literary works. The work is not a freestanding entity, but was always created by a particular individual with particular experiences, ideals, prejudices, circumstances and what not. And when you bear that in mind for HoD, the savage-indictment line doesn’t really hold up, or is at best half the story.