Orientalism and Heart of Darkness
In , Edward Said analyzes an attitude he calls “orientalism.” Then, in Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914, Patrick Brantlinger applies this concept to the novel Heart of Darkness (see Chapters 6 and 9).
Discuss the application of orientalism to Conrad’s novel. First, explain in your own words what Said means by orientalism and why he finds it problematic. Then, apply this concept to Heart of Darkness. (If your instructor did not assign Heart of Darkness, you may have to rely on Brantlinger’s discussion of Heart of Darkness in Chapter 9 of his book.) In what ways does Conrad reflect the British attitude of orientalism toward Africa in Heart of Darkness and in what ways does he challenge such attitudes? Be sure to cite specific passages from the texts to support your interpretation.
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“To say that orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact” (p.65) is a quote by Edward W. Said in his book Orientalism. According to Mitchell (2018), orientalism is a concept developed by Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism, which discusses how the Western world, particularly the British, has historically viewed the East, including areas such as the Middle East and North Africa. Said argues that this view is often one of exoticism, which is problematic because it reduces the East to a series of stereotypes like exotic, mysterious, and backward region, full of irrationality, despotism, and uncivilized people and fails to recognize the complexities of the area and its people. According to Said, Orientalism is not only a field of academic study but also a way of constructing and representing the Orient in Western literature, art, media, and politics (Mitchell, 2018). It is a form of colonial knowledge and power that enables Westerners to dominate and control the Orient by creating a binary opposition between the West and the East, where the former is depicted as rational, modern, and progressive, and the latter as irrational, traditional, and stagnant; This binary opposition, Said argues, is based on a series of stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions about the Orient that have been internalized and naturalized by Westerners over the centuries (Mitchell, 2018). The concept of orientalism is problematic and applied in Heart of Darkness as it reflects the British attitude of orientalism toward Africa.
Said finds orientalism problematic for several reasons. Chittiphalangsri (2019) states that Said argues that orientalism is a form of cultural imperialism that perpetuates the West’s domination and subjugation of the Orient. By creating a distorted and reductive image of the Orient, Westerners justify their colonial and imperialist projects in the region and their interventions, invasions, and wars. Chittiphalangsri (2019) stated that “Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness” (p. 3). Thus, Said finds orientalism problematic because he argues that orientalism is a form of cultural imperialism that perpetuates the West’s domination and subjugation of the Orient
Secondly, Said finds orientalism problematic for being based on a flawed epistemology that separates the knower from the known, the subject from the object, and the West from the East. According to Ahmad (2023), orientalism creates a false dichotomy between the West and the East, where the former is seen as the norm and the latter as the other; This dichotomy not only distorts the reality of the Orient but also hinders the possibility of dialogue, understanding, and cooperation between the two regions (Ahmad, 2023). Thus, Said finds orientalism problematic for being based on a flawed epistemology that separates the knower from the known, the subject from the object, and the West from the East.
Heart of Darkness is a novel that portrays orientalism. According to Watts (2019), Heart of Darkness is a novella by the British writer Joseph Conrad, first published in 1899 and set in the Congo Free State during the late 19th century. Watts (2019) also stated that the story follows the journey of Marlow, a seaman and narrator, up the Congo River to find the enigmatic ivory trader Kurtz. In Heart of Darkness, this Othering is evident in how Conrad portrays Africa as a dark and mysterious continent full of danger and savagery. For example, Marlow describes the Congo River as a “mysterious place” that is “enveloped in a veil of impenetrable darkness” (Conrad, p.7). Similarly, he refers to the African landscape as a “brooding gloom” that is “inexpressibly dreary and forlorn” (Conrad, p.13). These descriptions suggest that Africa is a primitive and uncivilized place devoid of beauty or civilization. Conrad’s portrayal of Africans in the novella reinforces Orientalist stereotypes of the Other (Watts, 2019). Africans are depicted as exotic and mysterious creatures that are barely human. They are often referred to as “savages,” “natives,” or “cannibals” and are described as having “black faces” and “rolling eyes” (Conrad, p.23). They are also portrayed as lacking in agency or voice and are reduced to the status of objects or obstacles that Marlow must overcome in his journey. For example, Marlow describes the African helmsman as “an improved specimen” that “could steer a ship through a hurricane” but “could not be trusted to behave himself ashore” (Conrad, p.40). This description suggests that Africans are competent in some skills but are still primitive and irrational in their behavior. Thus, orientalism is portrayed in Heart of Darkness as the novel portrays Africa as a dark and mysterious continent full of danger and savagery.
The portrayal of the African people in Heart of Darkness is in line with the British attitude toward orientalism. According to Andreason (2020), Africans in Heart of Darkness are depicted as primitive and uncivilized, lacking agency and voice. They are often referred to as “savages” or “natives” and are described as having “black faces” and “rolling eyes” (Conrad, p.23). They are reduced to the status of objects or obstacles that Marlow must overcome in his journey. Andreason (2020) also stated that Marlow describes the African helmsman as “an improved specimen” that “could steer a ship through a hurricane” but “could not be trusted to behave himself ashore” (Conrad, p.40); This description suggests that Africans are competent in some skills but are still primitive and irrational in their behavior. Thus, the portrayal of the African people in Heart of Darkness is in line with the British attitude toward orientalism.
Conrad challenges the British attitude of orientalism in Heart of Darkness as he critiques the European colonizers depicted as greedy and ruthless agents of imperialism. According to Conrad (2020), Europeans are portrayed as exploiting the African land and people for their profit and as indifferent to the suffering and exploitation of the natives. Conrad (2020) suggests that the colonizers, rather than the African people, are responsible for the “darkness at the heart of the novel” (p.45)). The character of Kurtz challenges the idea that Africa and Africans are fundamentally inferior. Conrad (2020) also stated that Kurtz is a white European who has become “corrupted by the greed and brutality of the colonial system” (p.14). He is depicted as being able to understand the African people and their culture and having developed a deep respect for them. Kurtz’s character suggests that it is not the African people who are fundamentally primitive or savage but the European colonizers who corrupt and exploit Conrad (2020). Thus, Conrad challenges the British attitude of orientalism in Heart of Darkness as he critiques the European colonizers who are depicted as greedy and ruthless agents of imperialism.
In conclusion, Edward Said’s concept of orientalism is a critical and influential contribution to postcolonial and cultural studies. Edward Said’s concept of orientalism can be used to analyze Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a text that perpetuates and challenges Orientalist stereotypes of Africa and Africans. While the novella portrays Africa as a dark and mysterious place full of danger and savagery, it also critiques the European colonizers, who are depicted as greedy and ruthless agents of imperialism. The character of Kurtz challenges the idea that the source of darkness lies in Africa or its people and suggests that the real source of darkness lies in the colonial project itself. Heart of Darkness reflects the British attitude of orientalism toward Africa by portraying the continent and its people as exotic and primitive. However, Conrad also challenges these attitudes by critiquing the European colonizers, who are portrayed as greedy and ruthless agents of imperialism, and by suggesting that the real source of darkness lies not in Africa or its people but in the colonial project itself. Conrad’s depiction of the character of Kurtz challenges the idea that Africa and Africans are fundamentally inferior and suggests that the European colonizers are corrupting and exploiting the African people. By exposing the power dynamics and ideologies underlying Western representations of the Orient, Said challenges the dominant narratives and discourses that have shaped the relations between the West and the East for centuries. Said’s critique of orientalism invites us to question our assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes about other cultures and peoples and to strive for a more nuanced, respectful, and inclusive understanding of the world.
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Andreasson, S. (2005). Orientalism and African Development Studies: the ‘reductive repetition motif in theories of African underdevelopment. Third World Quarterly, 26(6), 971-986. https://doi.org/10.1080/01436590500089307
Conrad, J. (2020) Sample Section A response: Heart of Darkness.
Wikström, T. (2018). Was There a Pan-European Orientalism? Icelandic and Flemish Perspectives on Captivity in Muslim North Africa (1628–1656). The Dialectics of Orientalism in Early Modern Europe, 155-170.
Chittiphalangsri, P., & Henitiuk, V. (2019). Orientalism. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies (pp. 395-401). Routledge.