Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

5.4: Student Writer at Work: Ashley Eckhardt’s Postcolonial Paper in Action

  • Page ID
    • Anonymous
    • LibreTexts
    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    In her Introduction to Literature class, Ashley read Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s “An Image of Africa.” She was intrigued by Achebe’s argument, and wanted to delve deeper into the postcolonial implications of Conrad’s novella. As you read Ashley’s paper, take note of the different kinds of sources she uses and how she incorporates these sources into her argument. In ethnic and postcolonial critiques, scholars often use both primary sources (which include historical documents as well as literary works) and secondary sources (texts written by scholars about a particular literary work, time period, or other topic). With this in mind, let’s begin reading Ashley’s paper.

    Ashley Eckhardt

    Professor John Pennington

    ENGL 150: Introduction to Literature

    April 20, 20–

    The Convergence of Races: 19th Century Imperialism and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

    Europe in the 19th century experienced a rash of imperialistic sentiment as nations competed to gain political and economic control of the African continent while supposedly civilizing the African people. The scientific developments of the time contributed to the concept of white supremacy as social Darwinism grabbed hold of the European population and turned the colonizers into saviors and reformers of inferior and backward barbarians. Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, explores the effects this mad rush to conquer Africa had on the African natives and the land itself as colonizers enslaved the natives and depleted their natural resources which they so valued. This “Scramble for Africa” caused European society to deteriorate as well, as nations became embittered against one another in their pursuit of more territory and economic success in Africa, resulting in brutality towards one another and the native populations within Africa and the European continent. Conrad portrays how the colonizers’ original philanthropic intentions turned to brutality and exploitation through the character of Kurtz, who creates a monopoly on the ivory trade in the Congo and subjugates the native tribes in his region through fear and violence.

    Contemporary critics argue that Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness embraces the racist viewpoints of the 19th century through its use of derogatory descriptions of the African natives Marlow encounters in the Congo. The racism that ran rampant in 19th century Europe changed for some after Darwin’s publication of his theory of natural selection in 1859. Some scientists and thinkers applied Darwin’s ideas to society, in a movement known as social Darwinism, allowing people to justify their racism on the basis that certain races, like certain animals, were genetically designed to be superior to others. To the European mind-set, this meant that “white” Europeans were superior to all other races, particularly the “yellow” Asians and “dark” Africans (de Gobineau 167–68). Through the use of these misdirected scientific developments, many Europeans regarded the imperialistic activity of their governments as either their natural right as the superior race or as a civilizing mission to save the inferior and backward populations of Asia and Africa. It was this mind-set that led to King Leopold of Belgium’s mission to the Congo at the end of the 19th century to “improve the well-being’ of the inhabitants of the Congo” (Hawkins 292). Conrad shows the hypocrisy of this mission in Heart of Darkness as much of Marlow’s journey through Africa takes place in the Belgian-controlled region surrounding the Congo River. Marlow describes these “civilizing” Europeans as “they wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it” (Conrad 44). To Conrad, these European philanthropists were hiding their true greed and self-righteousness behind the mask of civilization and enlightenment, one of the most disgusting and hypocritical aspects of imperialism, yet Conrad himself had difficulty in detaching himself from the social practices of his time. Joseph Conrad’s main purpose in writing his novella Heart of Darkness was to relate the atrocities of 19th century, but he unconsciously succumbed to his own inherent Eurocentrism, allowing the stereotypes propagated by social Darwinism and racism to become evident within his work.

    Let’s take a quick break from Ashley’s paper to look more closely at how she’s putting these ideas together.


    1. Note how Ashley combined several ideas into her introductory paragraphs. In her class they discussed colonialism (the “scramble for Africa”) and also the way that social Darwinism shaped social thought at the time. Ashley creates a new argument by bringing together different threads that she has not seen combined in the secondary sources she’s read.

    Your Process

    add here

    1. Does the idea of writing a “surprising” claim sometimes seem daunting? Rather than coming up with a world-changing, completely unique idea for your postcolonial paper, how might you bring together several ideas to create something new?
    2. Create a list of different ideas you’ve discussed in class around the work you hope to write about (ideas like “social Darwinism” or “civilization,” as Ashley discusses in her paper). Do you spot connections between these concepts? Feel free to draw arrows between them, group them in a separate note, or otherwise indicate the connections you see.

    Now let’s turn back to Ashley’s paper.

    Conrad explores the treatment of Africans by the colonists in Heart of Darkness in an attempt to relate the atrocities committed by the European colonizers to the populace in Europe. Conrad was agitated over the brutal treatment of the native populations under European control and determined that the entire 19th-century imperialist system was immoral and needed to be abolished. Conrad saw imperialism as a system that brutally exploits native populations for greed and national pride, and he believed that such systems should not have been allowed to remain a mainstay in the governments of apparently civilized and enlightened countries. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow witnesses this unjust system in action immediately upon stepping onto the African continent as he watches a chain gang coming toward him:

    Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind wagged to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking.… [T]hey were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea (Conrad 33).

    Conrad, like Marlow, was greatly affected by this sight of imperial might and brutality and thus devoted himself to speaking out against the institution. His audience, however, was already imbued with racism against non-European cultures, making his task extremely difficult, as “Conrad’s objection to imperialism on the grounds that it disrupted indigenous cultures was unusual in an era that failed to see the worth of those cultures” (Hawkins 294).

    The population within Europe itself fully believed in the good intentions of their colonial missions, being equally saturated with the ideas of social Darwinism and the racism that followed from it. They gave their full support to these expeditions, as seen when Marlow’s aunt commends him for his effort at “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways” (Conrad 28). Even Kurtz’s original intention, when he first began his expedition in the Congo, was to enlighten the Africans. It was only after he had been within the continent for some time that the temptation of immense wealth and power overcame him and he transformed into the greedy and self-serving despot that Marlow discovered on his own journey through the Congo. Conrad took it upon himself to alert the European populace to the vulgarities of the imperialistic actions they so admired. Conrad “came to believe that it was his task as a novelist to unmask society, to look below its surface to discern its essential character,” and what he “discerned [was] a rapacious colonialism” (Raskin 120). With all the scientific justifications of imperialism, Conrad certainly had an arduous task before him, one that was made even more challenging by the numerous political and economic benefits acquired through this nefarious system.


    1. Note how Ashley modifies the ideas of writers like Achebe. While Achebe simply calls Conrad “racist,” Ashley attempts to navigate a middle ground. She acknowledges the deep racism of Conrad and his society but also recognizes that Conrad at least believed he was writing against imperialism.
    2. When Ashley disagrees with the ideas of other scholars, she doesn’t dismiss them outright. Instead, she incorporates the ideas she agrees with and respectfully counters those she sees as misguided, overstated, or incomplete. This kind of respectful disagreement is the foundation of most academic discourse.

    Your Process

    add here

    1. It can be tempting to simply write arguments that agree with the secondary research you read. After all, the people writing those articles are likely professors, and you are just a student. However, English professors value students who are unafraid to counter the status quo, so long as they do so using good primary and secondary evidence.
    2. Have you read any criticism that you feel didn’t quite get the novel, story, poem, play, or essay you’re writing about right? Perhaps you didn’t disagree with the entire essay, but you did disagree with one or two points that it made. Jot down those areas of disagreement.

    Behind the façade of a civilizing mission lay the real motivations for European imperialism in the 19th century: political and economic control of these territories. As nationalism grew within the countries themselves, the European nations became increasingly competitive with one another. The acquisition of colonies became a symbol of national pride as well as of superiority. Conrad, despite his opposition to imperialism, remained unconsciously influenced by this sense of nationalism; a concept espoused by Fredric Jameson in the “ideology of the form,” in which a contradiction exists between the content of the writer’s work and the social conventions of the writer’s time (Jameson 1957). It became necessary to be in control of colonies somewhere within the world to be considered among the great nations of Europe, and those that held numerous, and especially large and lucrative territories, reigned supreme. Political leaders of the time stressed the importance of imperialism to ensure their nation’s prosperity. Paul Leroy-Beaulieu shares these sentiments when he states that “a people which colonizes is a people which projects into the future the foundations of its grandeur and eventual supremacy” (178).

    Marlow witnessed the extent these colonizers were willing to go to achieve political and economic dominance in Europe, as they subjected their colonies to devastation and virtual rape of resources in their attempt to become the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Europe. Kurtz reflects the selfish desires for wealth and power that was common to many of the imperialists; “he desired to have kings meet him at railway-stations on his return from some ghastly Nowhere, where he intended to accomplish great things. ‘You show them you have in you something that is really profitable, and then there will be no limits to the recognition of your ability,’ he would say” (Conrad 110). The colonizers not only stole the natural resources of the territories they conquered, but imposed their own culture and industry onto the existing populations. The chain gang that Marlow witnessed at the outset of his experiences in the Congo portrays how the legal system was used within Africa, condemning Africans, who were completely innocent within their own cultures, but were now branded as criminals by the European invaders. The attempt to build a railroad along the Congo to aid the Europeans in their desire to move goods from within the interior of Africa to the coast was not for the benefit of the African natives either, but rather to expedite the colonizers’ shipments so they could become more prosperous more quickly. Greed and self-righteousness led to the devastating destruction of the virgin forests and rivers of Africa, which, in Conrad’s opinion, was pointless and shameful; the construction of the railroad that Marlow observes is described as “objectless blasting,” and seemed to be devoid of any purpose or progress whatsoever (Conrad 33).

    The destruction of the native populations in Africa and Asia led to the similar destruction of European society as it became inundated with the immoral and selfish actions of the colonizers, justifying them through social Darwinism. Conrad wished to prevent this decline by preaching against the evils of imperialism through works like Heart of Darkness. He foresaw the negative effects imperialist actions would have, and were already beginning to have, on Europe itself. “The European conquerors sundered the tribes to make Africans serve alien material aims. In doing so, Conrad indicates, imperialism destroyed the cultural integrity not only of Africa but of Europe as well” (Hawkins 296). The competition between the nations often led to bitter resentment and even warfare. The Boer War in South Africa, for example, occurred between the Dutch and the British over territory and diamonds. The British were jealous that the Dutch occupied the land with the majority of the diamond deposits and were thus driven by greed and national pride to acquire portions of that land for themselves. Similar situations occurred between other European nations throughout Africa and Asia in the 19th century, although not all came to the extreme consequence of war.

    Imperialism was also destroying individual Europeans psychologically, as many people blamed the brutal actions of the colonizers on their barbaric environment. To many Europeans, including Conrad himself, Africa epitomized the idea of savagery; consequently Heart of Darknessexpresses “the fear of the Victorian English that if whites were to be isolated from their secure environment and its refinement, they would degenerate into abominable savagery and become beasts of unspeakable lust” (Okafor 19). Kurtz appears to be the victim of his environment as this originally moral and upright citizen succumbs to the animalistic nature of Africa, turning to a life of violence, greed, and gratification. Even Marlow feels his surroundings are changing him as he recollects the European doctor’s desire to witness the mental changes of individuals during their sojourn in Africa and he determines that he is suddenly “becoming scientifically interesting” after being in the Congo for only a few weeks (Conrad 40). This portrayal of Africa as savage and subversive led many contemporary critics of Heart of Darkness to consider it racist and a reflection of Conrad’s Eurocentrism.


    1. As she read various secondary sources, Ashley noticed that most postcolonial criticism focused on the experience of the colonized. Ashley wanted to expand these ideas and to think about the detrimental effects of colonialism on the colonizers. You can see those ideas developing here, as Ashley extends typical critiques of colonialism to discuss the novel’s meaning for its European readers.

    Conrad, despite his lofty ideal of persuading the European population to terminate their imperialistic activities, was unconsciously a product of the very system he was preaching against. Jameson claims that a “host of distinct generic messages” can be detected in a text, “some of them objectified survivals from older modes of cultural production, some anticipatory.” As a result, Heart of Darkness suffers from Conrad’s rejection of imperialism and yet his inability to fully eradicate his own personal racial biases (Jameson 1958). Many of his descriptions of Africa and its population were negative or derogatory, hindering the effect it had on his European audience. Africa is portrayed “as a land of savages who do not have any worthwhile culture or civilization,” propagating this stereotype to an audience that fully accepts this perception of the continent and its people (Okafor 20). To this audience, it is Africa itself, in its wild and savage ways, that corrupts the white Europeans and makes them commit the atrocious acts that they did; inevitably they turn Conrad’s message on its head, the Europeans only became brutal and selfish once they were within Africa and under the “heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw [one] to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions” (Conrad 106–07). As a result, Conrad’s novella encouraged many of the stereotypes that propagated the imperialist movement within Europe in the 19th century. One particular example is the comparison between Kurtz’s Intended and his African lover. Kurtz’s Intended represents the chaste, moral, and flawless character that self-defined Europe at the time; “her forehead, smooth and white, remained illumined by the unextinguishable light of belief and love” (Conrad 120). Kurtz’s African lover, however, was “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her” (Conrad 99). Both women symbolize the stereotypes of races in the 19th century; the white race was considered perfect in morals while the “dark” races where considered animalistic and wild, with a sense of danger about them. Conrad was unable to avoid these stereotypes within his writing, flawing his ability to portray the evils of imperialism, as he was unable to free himself from the racism that fueled it.


    1. In the following section, note how Ashley weaves extratextual primary sources (Conrad’s letter to his cousin) and secondary sources (Parry’s book) into her argument.

    Conrad also remained ambivalent about imperialism itself throughout his life, further detracting from his ability to persuade European society of its evils. He appeared to laud British imperialism, as he once wrote to his cousin about the Boer War, “that they—the Boers—are struggling in good faith for their independence cannot be doubted; but it is also a fact that they have no idea of liberty, which can only be found under the English flag all over the world” (Hawkins 293). This uncertainty about his own views regarding imperialism is found within Marlow as well. He is clearly agitated over Kurtz’s conduct in the Congo, but still remains faithful to him and protects his reputation. Marlow lies to Kurtz’s Intended about his last words and his actions while in Africa; as a result, his failing to recognise the import of the real lie when he protects Kurtz’s reputation in Europe with evasions and by deliberate deception abets the exalted fantasies of the Intended, is the fiction’s means of showing up Marlow’s capacity for self-delusion and the strength of a commitment to Europeanism which blinds him to the act as one that is a betrayal of his principles. (Parry 36)

    Marlow, like Conrad, cannot completely eradicate his Eurocentrism, weakening his argument against the institution of imperialism within Europe in the 19th century.

    Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness during the high point in European imperialism of the 19th century. His purpose in writing the novella was to speak out against the system of imperialism that he felt was corrupting both the colonized populations as well as Europe itself. Conrad lived in a period of rampant racism, justified by social Darwinism, which supported the “civilizing” expeditions to Africa and Asia, and later the brutal exploitation of the native people of those regions. The political and economic benefits that resulted from imperialistic endeavors also contributed to the popular support that surrounded the vicious system. As a result, Conrad’s attempt to persuade the European people of the detriments of imperialism was hampered by his unconscious Eurocentrism, as seen in his savage descriptions of Africa and its people in relation to the purity of the Europeans. Despite this setback, however, Conrad’s novella did much to enlighten his European audience to the true nature of imperialism and “inspired the reformers who eventually ended [King] Leopold’s rule” (Hawkins 293). Heart of Darkness is still important one hundred years after it was written to portray the atrocities of 19th century imperialism to a contemporary audience.

    Works Cited

    Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

    De Gobineau, Arthur. “The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races.” Heineman 165–69.

    Hawkins, Hunt. “Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness.” PMLA 94.2 (1979):286–99. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2005 <linksjstor.orgisici?sici-0030...286%3ACC011H%E 2.0.00%3B2-P>.

    Heineman, John L., ed. Readings in European History: 1789 to the Present. 2nd ed. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1994. Print.

    Jameson, Fredric. “The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1937–60. Print.

    Leroy-Beaulieu, Paul. “Colonization and Modem Nations.” Heineman 178–79.

    Okafor, Clement Abiaziem. “Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe: Two Antipodal Portraits of Africa.” Journal of Black Studies 19.1 (1988): 17–28. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2005 <links.jstor.orgisici?sici=00219347%28 198809%2919%3A1%3C17%3AJCACA%3E2.0.00%3B2-1>.

    Parry, Benita. Conrad and Imperialism: Ideological Boundaries and Visionary Frontiers. London: Macmillan, 1983. Print.

    Raskin, Jonah. “Imperialism: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Journal of Contemporary History2.2 (1967): 113–31. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2005 <links.jstor.orgisici?sici=002...292%3A2%3C113% 3AICHOD%3E2.0.00%3B2-8>.

    Ultimately, Ashley’s paper extends the insights of postcolonial critique, arguing for a more nuanced understanding of the novella’s attitudes toward race while, for the most part, agreeing with postcolonial critics like Achebe that the text displays a deeply problematic racism. What’s more, Ashley ties these postcolonial ideas to the historical subtext of social Darwinism, which adds a new dimension to her postcolonial analysis.

    This page titled 5.4: Student Writer at Work: Ashley Eckhardt’s Postcolonial Paper in Action is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anonymous.