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  • One Colonialism, Two Colonialisms:Teaching Heart of Darkness in Hong Kong
  • Julia Kuehn (bio)

On the surface, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness represents a perfect teaching text, offering much that is of interest in both form and content. Published in three parts as “The Heart of Darkness” in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, it was revised and brought out in one volume in 1902, without the definite article in the title. It remains on the short side—a novella rather than a full-blown novel, although discussion about the exact distinction between these two forms still abounds.1 It tells a gripping story: an outer as well as an inner journey into the centre of Africa (the “dark continent”) and the depths of the human mind and soul. It introduces two of the most complex characters in Victorian fiction: the (for the most part) trustworthy, likeable and “sane” Englishman Charlie Marlow and the object of his increasing obsession, Kurtz. Kurtz remains an “insoluble problem” (“The Heart of Darkness” 480) to Marlow and to the reader: he is both despicable and tragic in his losing battle against a corrupt colonialism whose reality stands in stark contrast to any proclaimed African mission of “humanising, improving, instructing” (634).2

While length, plot, and character matter most to the student, it is significant to the teacher that Heart of Darkness was published at the tail end of the Victorian period, signalling the dawning of a new age. Historically, the novella represents the tipping point from imperial confidence and success to a different kind of nationalism and different political alliances, which together would snowball into World War I. Stylistically, it foretells the developments from realism to anti-realism, symbolism, and modernism. Its subject matter—“the criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing work in Africa”—is, as Conrad wrote to his publisher on 31 December 1898, “of our time distinc[t]ly” (Collected Letters 139–40). And yet the topic and Conrad’s reflection on it are also ahead of their time as the novella’s long afterlife suggests, not least in the most famous of all adaptations, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam film Apocalypse Now (1979).3 Similarly, in terms of form, it represents a “typical” late-Victorian blend of biographical tale, traveller’s yarn, and exotic adventure [End Page 20] story, but it also anticipates the psychological dramas, cynical meditations, and mythical narratives of the modernists (see Watts 45).

Indeed, Heart of Darkness provides an exemplary illustration of late-Victorian changes in the publishing industry: the increased demand for shorter fiction and the development of the novella form. It offers an opportunity to teach plot, character, point of view, narrative framing and layering as well as stylistic and narrative devices such as theme, motif, symbol, irony, and paradox. It shows students the difference between narrative modalities—realism, romance, symbolism, or the development of a mode of interiority and stream of consciousness that would be perfected by the modernists.

However, teaching Heart of Darkness becomes a challenge in Hong Kong when addressing the colonial history in which the book participates and which—although not Belgian and Congolese—also forms part of Hong Kong’s own history. Accordingly, sessions on Heart of Darkness go smoothly up until the inevitable point at which Chinua Achebe’s 1975 lecture on the text is mentioned. Achebe famously denounced the novella, suggesting that Conrad reveals himself as a “bloody racist” by depicting the African continent as a “place of negations … in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (251–52; 257).4 To verify his claim, Achebe invokes Conrad’s depiction of the chain-gang in the Outer Station as the “unhappy savages” who are “nothing but black shadows of diseases and starvation” (“The Heart of Darkness” 205–06); Marlow’s thoughts, while advancing to Kurtz’s Inner Station, that the natives “were not inhuman” (483); the famous, disturbing postscript to Kurtz’s pamphlet “Suppression of Savage Customs,” which reads “Exterminate all the brutes!” (498); and the depiction of Kurtz’s “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent” native mistress who exhibits a “mournfulness that lies over all the...


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