Heart of darkness
This novel opens with Marlow noting that England was once one of the dark places of the earth. This can be read two ways. First, Marlow may mean that “Western” civilization is just as barbarous as African civilizations. This reading may contradict the European belief that white men are more “civilized” than their colonial subjects, but it hardly mitigates racist notions about primitive or degraded “savages”: it just means that Europeans are as “bad” as that which they have constructed as the lowest form of humanity. The second way to read Marlow’s comment is as a reference to the historical precedent for colonization of other peoples. England, after all, was once a Roman colony. Again, this reading is more ambiguous than it seems. On the one hand, it implies that all peoples need a more advanced civilization to come along and save them; on the other hand, though, it also implies that the British would and did react to an exploitative colonial presence in the same way the Africans are reacting. The ambiguity and angst inherent in the statements this book makes about imperialism suggest that Achebe’s condemnation is too simple. Additionally, moments of irony and narrative unreliability are scattered throughout the text, suggesting that Conrad does indeed provide a framework against which Heart of Darkness can be read as critical or ironic. At the same time, the fact that Africa is set up as a place where white men can go to have profound experiences and think philosophically could be read as reinforcing Achebe’s claim that “Africa [is used] as [a] setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor” in a troubling way.