Since Heart of Darkness remains a signal work of the Western canon, this debate is ongoing. Again, it seems that the central issue is the distance of Conrad from Marlow. The story of Marlow corresponds so neatly with Conrad’s own biography that it is easy to assume that Marlow registers Conrad’ own perspective, including his prejudices and perhaps racism. But on the basis of the novella alone, it is impossible to determine whether Conrad expresses his own views by simple transference or, as one might credit a great writer with doing, by lampooning the imperialists. Although the natives are often incomprehensible in the tale, they also are more innocent. To make one’s own decision about this issue, one should consider the overall themes of the work and how this issue relates to them—but also how Conrad would have expected his contemporary audiences, themselves of varying opinions about race and colonialism, to read his book.
Although Heart of Darkness was one of the first literary texts to provide a critical view of European imperial activities, it was initially read by critics as anything but controversial. While the book was generally admired, it was typically read either as a condemnation of a certain type of adventurer who could easily take advantage of imperialism’s opportunities, or else as a sentimental novel reinforcing domestic values: Kurtz ’s Intended, who appears at the novella’s conclusion, was roundly praised by turn-of-the-century reviewers for her maturity and sentimental appeal. Conrad’s decision to set the book in a Belgian colony and to have Marlow work for a Belgian trading concern made it even easier for British readers to avoid seeing themselves reflected in Heart of Darkness. Although these early reactions seem ludicrous to a modern reader, they reinforce the novella’s central themes of hypocrisy and absurdity.