Representation in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"

Term Paper, 2010

22 Pages, Grade: 2,0




1. Introduction

2. Historical background
2.1 King Leopold and the Congo
2.2 The meaning of ‘imperialism’ and ‘racism’ for Conrad

3. Representation
3.1 Representation in theory
3.1.1 Representation, culture and language
3.1.2 Representation ofthe ‘Other’
3.2 Representation in HeartoftDeaknHss
3.2.1The mapping of the world
3.2.2 The opening scene: past and present
3.2.3 Work and work ethic
3.2.4 Languages
3.2.5 Nature and culture

4. Final remark

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, first published serially in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, has been regarded not only as the first truly modern work of fiction in the English language but also as the “first great work of literature in which a characteristicfeature ofthe colonial experience”1 is recorded.

Based on Conrad’s own experiences in the African Congo region between June and December 1890, when he was working for a Belgian trading company that exploited the Upper Congo for raw materials, Heart of Darkness can been seen as a historical document of its time, the time of European imperialism.

During this time the European colonization of the world set up a hierarchy by dividing the world into the West and the non- West. This division caused a consciousness for the ‘Other’, so that the question of identity arose. Due to the fact, that constructing identity implies constructing the identity of the ‘Other’, differences between the West and the non- West became the center of interest. For the first time in history the idea of culture and race turned up.

Since its publication Heart of Darkness has been read as an assault upon imperialism and has been attacked as being offensively racist in projecting “the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization”2.

Starting from Stuart Hall’s theory of “Representation”, this paper is supposed to demonstrate the problem of representation and to offer a discussion as to whether or to what degree Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can be considered imperialist and racist. By the established dichotomy between Africa and Europe, the presence of stereotypes in the novel will be investigated and connected to Achebe’s conclusion, that Conrad “was a bloody racist”3.

2. Historical background

To understand the criticism and to talk about the oppositional representation it is necessary to know about the historical context, in which Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is embedded.

2.1 King Leopold and the Congo

By the time Heart of Darkness was written, much of the Congo region was the personal property of the Belgian king Leopold II. Because of the fact, that Belgium was quite insignificant in international politics and imperial expansion by the end of the 19th century, Leopold had been searching for an area in which he could pursue his dreams of profit and power. The African continent was unexplored and after Henry Mortons Stanley’s exploration between 1874 and 1877 he became interested in the Congo region. At the African Geographical Conference in 1876 he expressed his aims: the abolition of the slave trade and establishing peace among the chiefs. King Leopold employed Stanley and established trading posts along the upper river and was able to claim the territory. After the United States had recognized this claim, Leopold could establish the Congo Free State in 1885.

2.2 The meaning of ‘imperialism’ and ‘racism’ for Conrad

As a property of language, the meaning of a word can change in the course of time. This is the case with ‘imperialism’ and ‘racism’, two terms which can be linked with each other.

At the time Conrad was writing Heart of Darkness, the word ‘racism’ did not exist, but the phenomenon did. One reason for the nonexistence of the word may be, that thinking in terms of race “was so widespread and so ‘normal’ in developed countries like England during the late Victorian period that a word like racism, which suggests a negative view of thinking about race, was simply not needed and hence not thought of.”4 The first word with negative connotations was ‘racialism’ and appeared in 1907. It was defined as the „belief in the superiority of a particular race leading to prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those in close proximity who my be felt as threat to one’s cultural and racial integrity or economic well-being."5 This definition referred to differing racial groups in the West and would not work for describing the attitudes of the Europeans in the Congo towards the Africans, because they didn’t felt their culture threatened nor believed that the Africans could negatively affect their economic status.

The most important difference between Conrad’s understanding of race and that of our time is that for him it included ‘ethnicity’ and ‘nationality’ as the Oxford English Dictionary (1884- 1928)6 confirms:

a. “A limited group of persons descended from a common ancestor; a house, family, kindred.”
b. “Atribe, nation, or people, regarded as ofcommon stock.”
c. “A group of several tribes or peoples, forming a distinct ethnical stock.”

Racism and imperialism are linked, because it was during the first great period of global expansion in the late 15th century when European racism came up. The history of the modern world since about 1850 must be viewed, according to Hannah Arendt, “as a struggle between two dominant, opposing ideologies, namely ‘the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes’ and the ideology ‘that interprets history as a natural fight of races’”7. She differentiates between “British imperialism, which in her view was inspired by a ‘legend’ and other rival European imperialisms, which were rooted in ideologies”8. This distinction was also made by Conrad, although he didn’t use this word. Instead he talked of ‘colonist’ and contrasted them with ‘conquerors’. In Heart of Darkness he describes the Roman subjugation of Britain with these words:

“They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you only want brute force.”9 So Conrad distinguished between two kinds of imperialisms: “one is British and good; another is non-British and, to varying degrees, not good.”10

3. Representation

3.1 Representation in theory

3.1.1 Representation, culture and language

According to Stuart Hall, representation is considered as “one of the central practices which produce culture”11. Because of the fact that culture is about ‘shared meanings’ and meaning is produced and exchanged through language, representation is connected with culture and language.

Culture is seen as “not so much a set of things - novels and paintings or TV programmes and comics - as a process, a set of practices”12. Culture as being concerned with producing and exchanging meaning, “depends on its participants interpreting meaningfully what is happening around them, and ‘making sense’ of the world, in broadly similar way”13. Therefore the participants in a culture give meaning to people, objects and events with the result that they create identity with a group and differences between other groups. Apart from interpreting the word in a similar way, the members of a culture “must share, broadly speaking, the same ‘cultural codes’ [...] and ‘speak the same language’”14.

The following theories serve to explain, how representation of meaning through languages works:

- The reflective approach: According to this theory, language is a mirror that reflects or imitates the meaning lying in the object, person, idea or event.
- The intentional approach: This theory argues the opposite case, namely that the author/ speaker is the one, who imposes his meaning on the world. So words mean what the author intends they should mean.
- The constructionist approach: According to this theory, the meaning is not in the things, nor can the author/ speaker fix the meaning. Meaning is constructed by using systems of representation.

This last theory can be divided into two versions, into a semiotic approach and a discursive approach.

The semiotic approach is concerned with how language produces meaning, with the how of representation, and sources to Saussure.

The two elements of a sign, the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’, are necessary to produce meaning. Their relation sustains representation. Because of the arbitrary of signs, they do not possess a fixed meaning. According to Saussure, signs “are members of a system and are defined in relation to the other members of that system”15. Therefore the marking of difference is crucial for the production of meaning and can be achieved by means of binary oppositions. Saussure’s dichotomy ‘langue’/ ‘parole’ makes clear, that language always is a social phenomenon, because the rules and the codes of the language system (‘langue’) make it possible to communicate meaningfully.


1 Adelman 1987, p. 7

2 Achebe 2001,p. 211

3 ibid.

4 Firchow 2000, p. 4

5 ibid.

6 Firchow 2000, p. 5

7 Firchow 2000, p. 12

8 Firchow 2000, p. 13

9 Conrad 2002, p. 107

10 Firchow 2000, p. 16

11 Hall 2003, p. 1

12 Hall 2003, p. 2

13 ibid.

14 Hall 2003, p. 4

15 Hall 2003, p. 31

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Representation in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
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representation, joseph, conrad, heart, darkness
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Anonymous, 2010, Representation in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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