How is the postcolonial idea of ‘othering’ explored in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?

Featured Image is the Old Belgian River Station on the Congo River, dated 1889  

When discussing the colonisation of Africa, Philip D. Curtin duly notes that ‘the reporting often stressed precisely those aspects of African life that were most repellent to the West’ (1965: 23). These ‘repellent’ aspects were defined entirely by what the colonisers’ sense of normal was and, therefore, served to identify the abnormal characteristics of the native population (Miles, 1989: 21); feelings of abnormality or difference in regards to a person, or group of people, produces the ‘other’. A malleable concept and an unstable construct the other is based on the qualities that ‘we – as individual subjects, social groups or even nations – most fear, or dislike, about ourselves’ (Allen, 2006: 164). Consequently, the process of othering seeks to separate the coloniser and the colonised where the latter characterised as primitive, savage and whom needs the coloniser to civilise them. This discourse justifies the very act of colonialism itself and the imperialist rhetoric that follows it. While Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness does present imperialism as a hypocritical system it simultaneously reinforces its ideology, the distinct representation of the native African population as the other fundamental to this.

As Marlow travels up the Congo River, Conrad’s writing intertwines descriptions of the native African population with the local physical geography. It would be simplistic to suggest that Conrad constructs a negative image of only the African people when in fact he presents a complex human geography that, in the conception as the other, ‘helps to consolidate the (superior) identity of those responsible for its construction’ (Allen, 2006: 165). As Fouberg, Murphy and de Blij explain, a human geography is used to ‘make sense of others and ourselves in our localities, regions, and the world’ (2015: 5). Conrad initially describes the African geography as ‘like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world’ (2009: 36), this simile establishing the environment as a complete opposite to the ‘modern’ West that Marlow knows. Written, and set, at the end of the nineteenth century Marlow’s narrative would have been influenced by the recent and vase scientific, technological and industrial developments happening across Britain and Europe; all of which consolidate his notion of what modern society is. Africa not having had an Industrial Revolution leaves it, in Marlow’s view, as an underdeveloped society with its ‘poverty, insecurity, and dependence on the bounty of nature’ compared to the developed West’s ‘wealth, security and freedom of choice’ (Perkin, 2003: 3). Importantly, as Allen asserts, ‘‘opposition’ between self and other is never neutral but always hierarchical’ (2006: 165), thus for Conrad to other the geography of Africa by presenting it as the opposite of Western modernity establishes that modernity, through colonial imperialism, as superior.

Conrad goes on to reinforce this ideology where he describes Africa as ‘a prehistoric earth’, ‘an unknown planet’ and ‘unearthly’ (2009: 38-9), these adjectives creating an image of Africa as a strange and uncivilised place; one which is far removed from the West Marlow knows. This descriptive geography is, therefore, fundamental in establishing Africa as part of the Orient and producing the native population as the other. When discussing orientalism Edward Said summarises the Orient as ‘the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies […] and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other’ (2003: 1). Conrad reflects this strange and uncivilised Africa in the way he presents the native population by constructing them in a similar manner, referring to them as ‘prehistoric man’, ‘savage’, ‘brutes’ and as having ‘wild glances and savage movements’ (2009: 38-9, 55, 64). These language choices reinforce the binary separation created between the coloniser and colonised where ‘The colonized subject is characterized as ‘other’ through discourses such as primitivism and cannibalism’ (Ashcroft et al, 2013: 186). Thus, Conrad’s use of a ‘human geography’ in the text by relating human and geographic traits, enforces the West’s imperialistic view of Africa, and its people, as uncivilised and, therefore, as the other.

Conrad builds on these notions of what constitutes civilisation or civilised behaviours by enforcing a series of colonial discourses throughout Heart of Darkness, these further seeking to other the native population. It is important, as Miles observes, that ‘European discourse noted African skin colour and nakedness in order to signify difference’ (1989: 27). This discourse is enforced by Marlow in which his first impression of the natives is as ‘mostly black and naked’ (2009: 16), the adjective of ‘naked’ being particularly prominent throughout the text. Rather than simply being ‘naked’ Conrad takes particular care to describe the natives as having ‘naked breasts, arms, legs’ (2009: 49), by emphasising each facet of their nakedness they are made to appear almost more naked than they actually are. To those reading the text at the height of Western imperialism this would consolidate the ideology of African’s as the other because nakedness exists as a social taboo in ‘modern’ Western society. This being because ‘nakedness simply represents our natural embodied state’ (Carr-Gomm, 2010: 8) and this naturalness could therefore be interchanged with primitiveness and savagery, an uncivilised aspect of human existence; thus to be comfortable and persistent in one’s nakedness would be seen as different and other. This idea is further perpetuated later in the text where Conrad corrects Marlow’s own narrative to reinforce nakedness of the natives: ‘streams of human beings – of naked human beings’ (2009: 64). This use of an em-dash in the text creates a pause in the reader’s experience whereby they will take note of the natives’ nakedness, setting them apart as a different group; not simply ‘human beings’ but ‘naked human beings’. The use of the adjective othering them from what could be a collective group of all human beings, deliberately separating and making them different.

In the process of othering, Conrad enforces another colonial discourse which further perpetuates the construction of the natives as uncivilised and primitive: attributing African’s with a bestial character (Miles, 1989: 27). As well as the natives being ‘black and naked’, they are described that they ‘moved about like ants’ (2009: 16). This simile presenting them as insect-like where they are innumerable, small and insignificant, all facets that colonisers would obviously use to assert their superiority. The use of this particular simile as the inaugural description of the natives makes head way for the use of other animalistic language choices throughout the text. An important example is Marlow’s first close encounter with the native population, in which great detail is made of them and their behaviour:

‘It was unearthly, and the men were – no, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman […] They howled, and leapt, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar’ (2009: 39).

Conrad’s use of the verbs ‘howled’, ‘leapt’ and ‘spun’ alongside the adjectives ‘wild’ and ‘passionate’ creates a strong semantic field of animalism. In particular, the verbs of ‘howled’ and ‘leapt’ are closely associated with that of wild animals and notably dangerous predators, who would use such actions to mark territory or ambush their prey. It is incredibly important that this is the first close-up image of the natives that the reader is introduced to, because it is complicated by the fact ‘they were not inhuman […] that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman’. In a sense the native population exists, in the colonisers’ view, in an ambivalent place where they are instinctive, primal and animal-like but are not so dissimilar that they cannot be considered human, isolating them in a space between the two. This process of othering follows the notion that ‘Othering refers to the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group’ (Ashcroft et al, 2013: 188). This goes on to create a distinct separation between coloniser and colonised where the colonised possesses, as aforementioned by Allen, the traits that the coloniser most dislikes about itself. Evidently, what the coloniser dislikes is the idea that natural and primal instincts exist in human beings, like in the natives and like in themselves. This being because the Western coloniser would have viewed themselves as dissimilar to animals, in no way related or sharing any traits. A discourse evident in Edward Long’s concept of gradation in which ‘the races of man were ranged in a fixed hierarchy […] between God and the lower animals’, this ‘Chain of Being’ in terms of colonial discourse is where ‘Negroes inevitably occupied the lowest place, as the race physically most different from whites, who just an inevitably occupied the highest place’ (Barker, 1978: 45).

Marlow’s first close encounter with the natives can be further examined through the active nature of the verbs that Conrad employs. In this section of the text, the natives are introduced by a ‘burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling’ and that ‘They howled, and leapt, and spun, and made horrid faces’ (2009: 38-9). Marlow’s narrative makes use of the dynamic verbs ‘burst’, ‘whirl’, ‘clapping’, ‘stamping’, ‘swaying’, ‘rolling’ alongside ‘howled’, ‘leapt’ and ‘spun’ to create an ‘incomprehensible frenzy’ (2009: 38). These frantic verbs construct the natives as unable to control their behaviours or instincts. A contrast to the way in which Conrad presents the colonisers who Marlow narrates through a series of stative verbs, where they are left ‘wondering’, trying to ‘understand’ and ‘look’ upon the natives (2009: 38-9). The use of stative verbs as opposed dynamic establishes the colonisers as in control of their behaviours, a binary opposite to the natives who are like a ‘madhouse’ (2009: 38). Even the steamer that the colonisers use, for the physical act of colonisation, is presented through controlled and steady movements as it ‘toiled along slowly’ where they then ‘glided past like phantoms’ (2009: 38). Such a discourse of control may be influenced by nineteenth century British ideals of masculinity, an area that Marlow would have undoubtedly been constructed by, where ‘The hegemonic truth about manliness in the nineteenth century was established through metaphors of control, reserve, and discipline, that were placed in opposition to images of chaos, excess, and disorder’ (Dowling, 2001: 13). By placing the natives as an image of disorder through their frantic movements they are therefore constructed as the opposite to the ideal, the basic foundation of the other.

Conrad’s language choices also make for commentary on how the colonisers view the natives as a collective rather than a group of individuals. By foregrounding their movements using the pronoun ‘they’ Conrad is able to establish that these actions are that of an entirely unified group. As Ashcroft et al explains:

‘The people to be othered are homogenized into a collective ‘they,’ which is distilled even further into an iconic ‘he’ (the standardized adult male specimen). This abstracted ‘he’/’they’ is the subject of verbs in a timeless present tense, which characterizes anything ‘he’ is or does not as a particular historical event but as an instance of a pregiven custom trait’ (2013: 190).

The use of ‘they’ therefore suggests that the native population are unable to change or develop as a people, their uncontrollable behaviours are an ever present tense feature and situate them in a perpetual state of primitivism. This further others them as it reinforces the aforementioned idea of African society as undeveloped society, unlike the colonisers societies which would have seen mass growth and development in the last century. By constructing the natives as a collective ‘they’ Conrad also ignores any individualism they have and so they all become one and the same, with no personal difference or features. A colonial discourse that is exemplified in Reade’s views from his African travel diaries, where he states: ‘Among the natives of Equatorial Africa one finds as little variety as among its features and natural productions. There appears to be no difference between the Mpongwe, Benga, Bakali, Shekani, &c., except such as can be attributed to circumstance and climate’ (1864: 241).

In conclusion, Conrad’s writing establishes the native African population as the other through the colonial discourses that are reinforced. Such discourses attribute various traits and characteristics to the natives which derive from what the West fears and dislikes about itself, this consequently constructs a separated hierarchy in which the colonised natives, because they are attributed these certain traits, are inferior to the Western coloniser. This process of othering constructs an image of the African population as primitive, savage and animalistic which is fundamental to enforcing the ideology of Western imperialism; consolidating the colonisers’ beliefs of their superiority.



Allen, J. ‘Other, the’ (2006) The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. Edited by Childs, P. and Fowler, R. London: Routledge, pp.164-5.

Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. and Tiffin, H. (2013) Postcolonial Studies The Key Concepts. 3rd edn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Barker, A. (1978) The African Link. London: Frank Cass.

Carr-Gomm, P. (2010) A Brief History of Nakedness. London: Reaktion Books

Conrad, J. (2009) Heart of Darkness. Reading: Oneworld Classics. (Original work published 1899)

Curtin, P. (1965) The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850. London: Macmillan.

Dowling, A. (2001) Manliness and the Male Novelist in Victorian Literature.  Aldershot: Ashgate.

Fouberg, E. Murphy, A. and de Blij, H.J. (2015) Human Geography: People, Place, and Culture. 11th edn. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Miles, R. (1989) Racism. London: Routledge.

Perkin, H. (2003) The Origins of Modern English Society. 2nd edn. London: Routledge.

Reade, W. (1864) Savage Africa: Being the Narrative of a Tour in Equatorial, South-Western, and North-Western Africa; with notes on the Habits of the Gorilla; on the Existence of Unicorns and Tailed Men; on the Slave Trade; on the Origin, Character, Capabilities of the Negro and on the Future Civilization of Western Africa. 2nd edn. London: Harper

Said, E. (2003) Orientalism. London: Penguin.


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