The relationship between the living Conrad and his fictional character Marlow has been analysed repeatedly since the novel was published to try to establish how far the author actually identified with his creation. While it has often been suggested that the narrative “can be explained by reference to Conrad’s own life”11, giving the novel an autobiographical emphasis, it could be argued that as a work of fiction the alignment of the author’s own opinions with his principle character is irrelevant to the reading of the text itself. However, Marlow’s role as a narrator reinforces exactly why the presence of Conrad in his writing is both necessary and historically relevant to the novel.
Just as Conrad’s own experiences on the Congo allowed him to reconstruct and remould his fictional counterpart, so Marlow as the storyteller is able to “juxtapose events and impressions” to relive “a fictional present”12. Marlow’s restructuring of his experiences make the reader aware that some kind of past history, or experience is being poured into the narrative, echoing that of Conrad’s own as Marlow expresses, “it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence- that which makes it’s truth, its meaning-its subtle and penetrating essence”13. So the reader is simultaneously drawn into the narrative by the historical pull of human experience while being distanced by its fictive barriers.
Conrad himself described the story in 1902 as “mainly a vehicle for conveying a batch of personal impressions”14 while admitting that it could be described as “experience pushed a little (and only a very little) beyond the actual facts of the case”. This demonstrates the complicated intertwining of fact and fiction involved in the writing of such a novel. While Conrad was able to express his own disillusionment with the systems he had experienced through his representations of Marlow and Kurtz, it can be shown that he is subject to his own criticisms by the very aspect of those experiences. Despite his strongly critical portrayal of white man and colonial victories, Conrad has often been accused of racism in his literature, and evidence of which, (whether conscious, or unconsciously displayed) helps to show why it is therefore difficult to separate a work of literature from its historical source of writing.
In “Heart of Darkness” the allegory for the psychological journey to the heart of the human mind is bound inseparably to the physical one related by Marlow and experienced by Conrad in reality. If the story is to be read only as a metaphor which discovers the horrors and corruption lurking at the bottom of man’s heart, the implications of using Africa as “an external parallel, for a physical setting to match the inner darkness”16reveal that despite Conrad’s attempts to subvert colonialism he betrays his own prejudices from the outset.
While Conrad has been described as a “man of his times17 holding prevalent western attitudes such as that “primitive people were morally inferior to civilised ones”, Marlow’s corresponding attitudes can be identified by his reaction to the Africans and in particular the cannibals in aligning the two. His sympathy for the black race is reflected in the negative portrayal of white man yet the superficial nature of his sympathies are revealed when he encounters the cannibals.
He expresses his horror that there might be some connection between them and himself, admitting “Well, you know that was the worst of it- this suspicion of their not being inhuman”. Again, it is the undertone of colonial prejudice breaking through the surface gloss of compassion which Conrad has allowed Marlow to display. While “he feels sorry for them when he sees them dying, when he sees them healthy, he feels nothing but abhorrence and loathing”19. Conrad’s ambivalent attitudes towards colonialism are therefore revealed not just through Marlow’s ironic narrative technique but by the underlying tone of colonial prejudices which pervade the imagery of the novel.
The stark contrasts of white and black, light and shade, presented in the imagery of the novel function in a very specific way through the designation of roles, the creation and disintegration of stereotypes, and the assertion of hegemonies in the discourse. Conrad’s portrayal of Africa as the “blank space”20 on the map which then becomes a “place of darkness”21 ready for western discovery and domination initiates the assignment of metaphorical colouring.
However, as Chinua Achebe pointed out the mystery and shadow cast by Conrad’s portrayal of Africa “was and is the dominant image of Africa in the western imagination”22and reinforces Conrad’s position as a product of this mass consciousness. As the metaphor is extended to the associations of good and evil accompanying this imagery, it is clear that Africa has been consigned to a “symbol for an evil and primeval force”23 within this westernised structuring of stereotypes. In his portrayal of the African women as “like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding…” he both places her in the context of colonial domination of land and subordinates her to the depravity associated within the imagery of darkness.
While the balance of fiction and fact contributing to “Heart of Darkness” blur the boundaries between critical commentary and aesthetic or artistically based literature, the novel is constantly subject to the conditions present during its creation. Benita Parry’s claim that what Marlow sees “belongs not to history but to fantasy” may be true but despite Conrad’s literary and political intentions, his western preconceptions appear to be daubed throughout the novel, particularly in his portrayal of Africa and Africans.
The distancing of himself from any direct narrative responsibility almost reinforces the presence of Conrad within the novel and while his authorial role should not direct a reading of the text, his alignment and identification with Marlow does add a dimension to its analysis. Finally, the ambivalence with which the novel approaches attitudes towards colonialism demonstrates how important the respective roles of historical and modernist contexts are in uncovering the complex layering of narrative voices. In this way “Heart of Darkness” “produces a critical reflection on the very forms of consciousness it illuminates”25and by doing so self-consciously acknowledges its own debt to historical context, whilst echoing the patterning of past, present and future which create the literary as well as literal temporality both in art and life.