To be entirely honest, I was supposed to read Heart of Darkness in high school. I read some of it, hated it, and stopped reading and faked my way through quizzes. Eventually, I had to read it for another college course, and I did, but still struggled with it. I struggled with it this time as well and if I ever have to read it again, I’ll struggle with it then, too. The first time I “read” the story, we followed it by reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The second time, when I actually read the story, we followed it by reading Achebe’s An Image of Africa. I would rather read Achebe than Conrad any day. If you get the chance, I recommend reading Achebe’s essay linked above. It’s an interesting one, in which he really calls Heart of Darkness out for being a racist depiction of Africans.
The views relayed by Conrad’s white characters were the views held by a lot of white Europeans of the time. I don’t know enough about Conrad to know if he himself was racist, but this racist portrayal of Africans as “savage” is what Achebe took issue with, and rightfully so. Conrad was attempting to show the cruelty of the European colonists, but does that excuse the way he wrote the Africans? In Achebe’s (and my own) opinion, no. But does that invalidate Conrad’s points about the cruelty of colonialism and imperialism? Also no? Maybe? I told you, I struggle with this story a lot.
My favorite point that Achebe makes in his essay is that white colonialists did with the Africans what they tended to do to any native populations: completely ignore and disbelieve any history that the group had. Conrad shows the viewpoint that too many European colonialists had of Africans as being childlike and of having no sense of society until the Europeans brought it to them. All of this combined makes me wonder how this story would have been viewed if it had been written at any other time than when it was. What would the reaction have been if this story had been published recently? Something to think about.