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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Heart of Darkness and Victorian Anthropology


Well known for the way in which it has many layers of narration, Heart of Darkness recreates the detached ways in which the Victorian anthropologist gathered data on, and represented, native culture. In the scene with the 'African Queen,' Conrad creates a dramatic drawing together of objective, rational, Europeanism with abstract, magical Africanism, a crossing of the "shadow lines" which exposes the falsehood of making a scientific distinction between observer and patron, and observed and patronised.


In the wake of Darwinism, the Victorian ethnographer was wary of the paradox that stepping across the "shadow-line" in order to penetrate and study a "primitive" culture could lead to the bewildering degeneration of the civilised (and civilising) observer.1 The methodological buffers which the anthropologist could use to avert this dilemma are encapsulated in James Gordon Frazer's acclaimed Golden Bough (first published in 1890).2 Asked once whether he had ever met any savages, Frazer exclaimed "But heaven forbid!," and his physical denial of intimate field practice – he often extrapolated his findings from questionnaires completed by "men in the field" – is paralleled in the rhetorical barriers established in his writing:3

The Kapus or Reddis are a large caste of cultivators and landowners in the Madras Presidency. When rain fails, women of the caste will catch a frog and tie it alive to a new winnowing fan made of bamboo. On this fan they spread a few margosa leaves and go from door to door singing, "Lady frog must have her bath. Oh! rain-god, give a little water for her at least." While the Kapu women sing this song, the woman of the house pours water over the frog and gives an alms, convinced that by so doing she will soon bring rain down in torrents. Sometimes, when a drought has lasted a long time, people drop the usual hocus-pocus of imitative magic altogether, and being far too angry to waste their breath in prayer they seek by threats and curses or even downright physical force to extort the waters of heaven from the supernatural being who has, so to say, cut them off at the main.

By denying the presence of individual subjects through the collective nouns ("the women," "the Kapus"), and in the twist of knowing and sardonic humour in the final sentence, this passage suggests the paternalistic attitude adopted by the scientist. Through language, the hierarchy of the Western scientist over the colonial subject is reinforced, as complex oral rites are rendered into English with the simplicity of a child’s nursery rhyme and tantrum; further, the observer is detached from the observed as he styles himself as an omniscient narrator looking down on the characters of his story. Frazer encapsulates the methodology of the Victorian social sciences, where examination and interpretation of those suffering from a "degenerate" class or racial condition took place not through first-hand witnesses, but through field reporters, and not through oral dialogue and negotiation with the subject, but through dispassionate text rewritten in an office. In spite of its claims to objectivity, scientific language is infected with hierarchical ideology.

This bias was evidenced by craniologists fashionable in Europe and America in the 1890s who, although they encountered their patients at first hand, exercised a buffering through the objective reading of the body as the only safe way into the deficient mind. Conrad is particularly alert to the methods of such actors, who exemplify the biases of sciences purporting to have social benefits. In The Secret Agent, for example, Conrad presents in the Professor a caricature of the Italian criminologist, Lombroso,4 whilst in Heart of Darkness, one of the disciples of alienism is introduced to Marlow at the Company headquarters.5 He notes that "It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals on the spot, but..." (27), a comment repeated ironically by Marlow when he feels himself becoming "scientifically interesting," although the scientist is not there to observe this vital evidential shift (40). The telling ellipses of the doctor's statement suggest the stasis and purposeful isolation of the specialist who cannot bring himself to venture either physically, imaginatively or linguistically into the realm of the other whom he studies. Further, the practice of his discipline enables the doctor to assert his national authority:

I have a little theory which you Messieurs who go out there must help me to prove. This is my share in the advantages my country shall reap from the possession of such a magnificent dependency. The mere wealth I leave to others. Pardon my questions, but you are the first Englishman coming under my observation... (27)

By placing him "under" observation as a Francophised "Messieur," the doctor, with his scientific registers overwhelmed with capitalist and nationalist rhetoric, temporarily turns Marlow into a Belgian imperial subject. Of course, there is a double irony here as Conrad’s biography undermines his empirical and linguistic experiment. When Marlow is set against the ultimate author of Heart of Darkness, the reader is aware that his English nationality was endowed upon him through the conscious adoption of the English language, by a Pole, Conrad. It is this outsider who provides a humorous perspective on both the English and the Belgian scientific discourses which seek to present each other, as well as their respective colonial subjects, as Other.

As well as this localised satire on the imperialist rhetoric of the scientist, at a general level Heart of Darkness is structured to expose the detachment with which colonial studies are produced. The shadowy narrator is, apparently, the only one with the authority to write the story of the witness, Marlow, who thinks it "absurd" attempting to tell this story to those "moored with two good addresses" (80). Rather than having the "direct simplicity" of a seaman's yarn (18) as the intermediate narrator claims, Heart of Darkness is neither directly related, nor simply rendered.

"as well as this localised satire on the imperialist rhetoric of the scientist, at a general level Heart of Darkness is structured to expose the detachment with which colonial studies are produced."
Comparing Heart of Darkness with its single most important source, Conrad’s experiences as recorded in "The Congo Diary," it is clear that there is a stylistic gulf between the stripped-down, bluntly-emotional recordings of the observer in the field, and the complex, subtle evocation of atmosphere and event which characterises the fictional, publishable, text.6

The distortions that occur in such a translation from the reports of the field agent to the text of the ultimate author are highlighted in the scene with Kurtz's African mistress (98-100). As the most individuated and distinctive coloured character in the novel, the close examination of her is at odds with the "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery" Leavis remarked upon and which Achebe, in his tread, saw as the novel's means of masking black identity.7 In engaging with her persona, Conrad deliberately obscures the difference between his own writing, and his writing in the mould of Marlow or of the intermediate narrator, raising tensions and ambiguities about the distance the ultimate author puts between himself, the one who reports to him, and the scene that reporter studied in person.

The woman processes to the foreground of the text, and of the tribe, through distinct layers. Typical of the general tone Achebe noted, there are the "Dark human shapes [which] could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest" (98); out of this camouflaging backdrop emerge the "two bronze figures on the bank"; these individuals are in turn distinguished from the ambivalently "tawny" woman herself. There is a far, middle and near narrative and ethnic distance (an almost cinematic effect, or perhaps, less anachronistically, even a replication of the composition of formal photographs of colonists and their subjects), in which each level of progressively closer presentation adds a privileging, non-uniform dimension to the spectrum of self and colour. This new perspective is not replicated explicitly in the removal of the layers of narration: in physical terms, it is still the shadowy narrator who talks here, rather than Marlow or Conrad relating directly a personal, biographical experience. However, this very deliberate narrative strategy can take place only at the level of the ultimate author. Carefully constructed, obviously a way of opening this segment to political interpretation, it seems an impossible outcome of a spontaneous, oral narration, particularly given that Marlow is rarely subtly manipulative, preferring to make his political statements explicit. The delicate and conscious opening out of textual and physical space in which the woman stands to be described seems an unusual departure for the man who is otherwise content to summarise the native with a minimum of vocabulary and effect – "Fine fellows – cannibals – in their place" (61). That this rhetorical voice is less Marlowe's as the orally narrating intermediary and closer to Conrad's own literary one is endorsed by textual history.8 Conrad made several changes from the serialised version of "The Heart of Darkness" as it appeared in Blackwood's Endinburgh Magazine (1899), in particular adding an additional dimension of colour and characterisation, replacing "Several figures could be made out," with "Dark human shapes could be made out" and replacing "near the river two standing leaning," with "near the river two bronze figures standing."

As well as staging her presence in the text, stylistically the prose becomes concentrated and exotic, charged with a mixture of awe, intrigue and fear. The poetics of the line "there was something savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent" (99) imply an imaginative understanding of her symbolic resonance. Conrad connects in textual space, and enforces through alliteration and the iambic rhythm, the highly-ideological, negatively-inflected terms "savage," "wild," "ominous," with the acclaim of "superb" and "magnificent," and the monarchical adverb "stately."

"The woman is the point of collision between the European civilised discourse, which reaches its highest order in poetry, and the African, which may have its own brand of aesthetic quality."
Conrad juxtaposes conventions, illustrating that this magical subject – who in conventional, anthropological discourse on the supernatural savage (like that exhibited in The Golden Bough) would have been described in simplistic, explicitly objective terms – can be represented with a stylistic flair recruited from the English poetic tradition. The woman is the point of collision between the European civilised discourse, which reaches its highest order in poetry, and the African, which may have its own brand of aesthetic quality.

However, as Said has pointed out, Conrad can not quite escape the linguistic and political cultures which enshrine African as other, as the site for economic and sexual exploitation, even though he is aware of them and highlights their presence to the reader.9 Certainly, although Conrad visions the scene with an unusually tight focus on the individual body of this African woman (with an intimacy and style unlike the top-down perspective adopted by Frazer considering the social body), Conrad still does not write as the other: she is still looked at as the object, voiceless, mystic (rather than seen through, expressive, explanatory, demystifying), and the poetic conventions with which she is described are English, rather than being drawn from the rhythms of African speech. Marlow still makes capital judgements, as if examining a specimen: "she must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her" (99). Finally, of course, there is an undercurrent of sexual fetishisation of the "wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman." Although racially she is individuated and empowered, in a gendered sense she is still the object of a male gaze which views woman in material terms. The apprehensions of the scene derive from the fact that actively and intrusively she returns that gaze, rather than withering and acquiescing beneath it, a terrifying prospect for the man who previously has noted, "It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own" (28). She destabilises the authority of Marlow by intruding on that masculine world, stepping across the "shadow line."

It is therefore a paradox, that Marlow, narrating retrospectively, fails to take the opportunity to reinstate some form of agency by denying the mystery of her actions, as he (or rather, Conrad) does elsewhere through his use of what Ian Watt has described as "delayed decoding."10 Instead, the magical quality of this "apparition" is retained:

Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky, and at the same time the swift shadows darted out on the earth, swept around on the river, gathering the steamer in a shadowy embrace. A formidable silence hung over the scene. (100)

There is no resolution as to the true degree of control this kind of Earth-mother exercises over the natural environment, and the humorous, patronising tone on the ritual adopted by Frazer is certainly absent; hence the odd response, "If she had offered to come aboard I really think I would have tried to shoot her," as if the man of patches half-expects his bullets miraculously to pass through if, that is, he can even raise his gun (100). Instead of reinstating a logical realism by "decoding" her, the scene with the African woman is endowed with a sense of the Freudian uncanny.11 She is less alien, but rather "familiar and old-established in the mind," in fact already experienced in a different context, and now re-experienced by Marlow in his spontaneous narration. That different context, the site of the familiar, is the civilised European. In the tragic image of the bereaved fiancée, Marlow sees also the image of the African woman:

She put out her arms as if after a retreating figure, stretching them back and with clasped pale hands across the fading and narrow sheen of the window. Never see him! I saw him clearly enough then. I shall see this eloquent phantom as long as I live, and I shall see her, too, a tragic and familiar Shade, resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness. (122)

When he recollects this passage from a more safely detached perspective, with the locale of the narrative restored to Europe, Marlow does deny the challenge of the African woman by describing her as being "bedecked with powerless charms." However, this shift reminds that it is odd that such a rational, non-superstitious, assertion was not evident at the earlier moment of narration; it seems as if the woman retains her mysterious power because Marlow re-experiences in telling (as Conrad may have done, in rewriting from "The Congo Diary"), the European in the African, and the alien in the familiar. This injection of African culture into European civilisation is solidified in Marlow's final lie to the fiancee, in which Kurtz's final words "The horror! The horror!" (112) are replaced by "– your name" (123). The implication in this metonymic substitution is that the European woman becomes as terrifying as the mysterious, unnamed African Queen.

In this scene in particular, then, Conrad, dramatises the latent fear of the Victorian anthropologist (who was always male) that they might become consumed by their subjects in such a way that the binary categories of "primitive" and "civilised" break down beneath a range of sexual, racial and cultural congruences: female confronts male, African meets European, "civilisation" has currents and resonances in the "primitive." In the scene with the alienist, Conrad exposes quite cleanly those scientific registers and methods which are charged with nationalist and imperialist rhetoric which the scientist uses maintain a hierarchy and difference. The presence of a female, African, other prevents such buffers from being established. Conrad disrupts conventions (both those of anthropology, and those he himself has established in his earlier representations of Africans) by describing the woman with poetic flair, and by dramatising the unsettling conflict when the male observer is threatened with seeing the European reflected in the mirror of the African. The anthropological paradox was experienced, at length, by Kurtz, the "Universal genius," who marries the scientific, observational perspective on race, in his treatise "Suppression of Savage Customs," with poetic introspection ("Kurtz discoursed. A voice! A voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart" [110]). One element of the multivalent "horror" he expresses is that neither art nor science can objectively and detachedly observe, describe or critique the experience of the European mind recognising itself in the native other. This recognition is the "change inside" that the doctor hopes to access but which, except via personal experiences in the field which also, paradoxically, threaten the status of the European, male observer, cannot be penetrated or understood.

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  1. John Griffith, Joseph Conrad and the Anthropological Dilemma (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995) 13-45. [Back to text]

  2. James Gordon Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1922), comp. David Reed, Project Gutenberg, Jan. 2003, 13 Dec. 2004 . [Back to text]

  3. I.C. Jarvie, The Revolution in Anthropology (London: Routledge, 1964) 2. Jarvie reports that "The academic lineage of which Frazer was the head was soon blessed with two academic sons, B. Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown...The weapon the sons used for the assassination [academically speaking, of Frazer] was the accusation that their father had never directly observed all the savage customs he wrote about" (1-2). [Back to text]

  4. Norman Sherry, Conrad's Western World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971) 275-276. [Back to text]

  5. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 2000). [Back to text]

  6. Joseph Conrad, "The Congo Diary," Heart of Darkness, ed. and introd. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 2000) 150-61. [Back to text]

  7. Chinua Achebe, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," Massachusetts Review, 18 (1977) 782-94, rpt. in Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, ed. Robert Kimbrough, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Norton, 1988) 251-62. [Back to text]

  8. Peter V. Allingham, "The Initial Publication Context of Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine ('Maga'): February, March, and April, 1899," The Victorian Web, Ed. George P. Landow, 6 Dec. 2000, 13 Dec. 2004 . [Back to text]

  9. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto, 1993) 26. [Back to text]

  10. Ian Watt, "Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness," Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, ed. Robert Kimbrough, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Norton, 1988) 311-336, at 317. Rpt. of Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: U of California P, 1979) 168-200, 249-53. [Back to text]

  11. Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny," Standard Edition, trans. James Strachey, vol. 17 (London: Hogarth Press, 1955) Miall: Freud on the Uncanny, David S. Miall, 12 Dec. 2004 < http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Gothic/Freud-uncanny.htm>. [Back to text]

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This page was published on December 15, 2005 | Keywords: Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, anthropology, colonialism

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