Aman Thakar

“While both novels in their different ways and at a different moment in history certainly function as damning critiques of colonialism, in each case their central concerns go further than this”

Compare and contrast Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians in light of this statement. As well as addressing the central ideas and themes which the two novels explore, you must take into account narrative form and structure, relevant contextual factors and critical responses to each.

These two novels are unequivocally linked by the theme of colonialism with it being pivotal to the heart of each novel, though Heart of Darkness and Waiting for the Barbarians are beset by several other issues, some perhaps more predominant than that of colonialism. The fact that it was written in the early 20th century means Conrad’s novella has a real prescient quality to it. One of Conrad’s aims when writing was undoubtedly to raise awareness of what was happening in Africa, particularly in regard to Leopold the II of Belgium and his rule in the Congo.

This is an issue Coetzee would also have had to deal with due to the Apartheid regime which lasted until 1994 in the aftermath of the Boer wars which left deep scars within South Africa. There would still be a great deal of political animosity over this issue but Coetzee approaches the issue rather indirectly in the form of a fable of oppression suggesting his primary concern was in his art.

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What is also interesting is that the lessons both novels contain have an aspect of universality to them. Both explore issues that can be applied to the current war in Iraq and the relationship established by Coppola between Heart of Darkness and the conflict in Vietnam is there for all to see.

Heart of Darkness clearly does function as a damning critique of colonialism. It explores the issue, illustrating the way indigenous people are exploited and expresses how wrong this issue is via the guilt Marlow feels. Due to Marlow’s complicity in serving under his manager he feels a great amount of remorse for his role, however subsidiary it may be, within such a regime. Marlow tries to deal with his guilt by using irony as a shield from the horror he has to witness. When he first arrives in Africa he says, “We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on”, and refers to the ” decent young citizen in a toga”. He also attempts to deal with his guilt through the futile gestures he offers, such as offering the biscuit to the small boy in the grove of death. He is genuinely shocked by the child whose “eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly”, unable to endure this he quickly moves away. Given Conrad’s own ill fated trip to Africa Marlow is also to some extent a megaphone for Conrad to express his views, and since Conrad described Leopold’s work in the Congo as ” the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the human conscience”, it is clear what his opinions are.

With colonialism Marlow believes, ” What redeems it is the idea only”. Marlow understands that when colonialism was first pursued it was to enlighten others, exposing them to that “flash of lightning in the clouds” and open their eyes to the lifestyle of the west, as seen in the painting of the girl with the torch. But due to corruption and even the darkness within man it has turned into a horrific affair which has boiled down simply to “taking it away from those who have a slightly different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves”. Marlow respects the natives and their ways of life, he is taken aback by the “wild vitality”, the natives exhibit when rowing. This helps inspire some of the compassion he displays towards the natives. This respect for their way of life also helps fuel the anger that he feels towards the men who have pillaged their land. Marlow’s anger causes him to believe the barbarians are superior and the bureaucrats such as the company Manager are the true savages. He believes the manager to have no substance, saying “Perhaps there was nothing within him “. The very embodiment of civilization, which is seen in the accountant, reflects this. Described as a miracle with his pristine appearance it is revealed ” I’ve been teaching one of the native women about the station. It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work”. Within this there is clearly something sinister.

What this leads to the question who are the true savages? The aboriginal people or the men who push all boundaries taking to things to the extreme such as Kurtz? They’re horrific treatment of enslaved natives makes them the true savages. Kurtz is a further illustration of this. Kimbrough describes Kurtz as a ” European Knight”, and this embodiment of the west, since entering the dark lands has been utterly seduced by the power at his disposal, embracing the darkness within him and falling to a base level. He is described as having “no restraint “, being a “tree swayed by the wind”. He has fallen to a much lower level then the natural occupants of the land leading a depraved, purely hedonistic life, he is truly a savage and compared to him the natives are civilized. Particularly when we compare this to Marlow fascination with the restraint that the cannibals show that are on the boat. He is shocked in the way that these people can compose themselves and have such great self control in the face of a demon which shatter the resolution of a European. He says “No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is”, but this is on show in front of him despite him thinking “I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses on a battlefield”. Such comparisons with hyenas may be what pushed Achebe to call Conrad ” a bloody racist”, but Marlow expresses great admiration for these people.

There is more to this novella though, as Cedric Watts says, ” it holds a remarkably wide range of reference to problems of politics and psychology, morality and religion, social order and evolution”. This novella is preoccupied by an exploration of the depravity of man and the darkness within us all. Central to this issue is the perception of the identity or the self. Marlow manifests a ” vigilant humanity “, as Watts puts it. Kurtz is the complete opposite to this acquiring deity status. Marlow has get in touch with his own humanity in the face of this half-human, almost soulless creature. In pursuit of this Marlow is compelled to make a voyage of self-discovery up the river into the heart of darkness eventually discovering how while Kurtz “had made the last stride – I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot”. He has to go to the brink and return in order to truly discover what he is truly made of. One believes he would not be able to live with himself if he did not test himself

The darkness is something that is omnipresent. Even London was “one of the dark places of the earth”, and is still present, ironically emerging as within all when countries reach a pinnacle and attempt to expand. This ideal brought through prosperity eventually leads back to the darkness. This is at the center of the novella and is explored through the fight for oneself in the face of such vice, the ability to truly be able to have restraint and control ones overcoming temptation. It is something the cannibals are able to do, they refrain from the darkness and are civilized due to their self-restraint even though “It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonor and the perdition of ones soul – than this kind of hunger”. The aboriginal in this way are more civilized then these barbarian invaders who struggle to control themselves.

Another theme is that of mystery and enigma. Marlow embodies this with his stories described as “one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine”. He has a Buddha like quality which always gives him the appearance of having real substance, containing east and west. He is captivated by mystery demonstrated the book containing apparent cipher, he describes this as an “extravagant mystery”. He becomes entranced finding this reminder of civilization within the wilderness. Initially drawn to that “blank space of delightful mystery”, on the map looking at the river and proclaiming “The snake had charmed me”. The darkness is the main mystery within the novella; this darkness is the unknown of “abomination” and malignancy within the hearts of wild men. It seduces Kurtz and establishes a link to Marlow’s roots which, despite himself, he is forced to acknowledge the “faintest trace of response”.

The mystery takes on a physical form through the fog leaving them enveloped in “mysterious stillness”, here it feels almost unnatural. With the incessant drum beat his curiosity over the natives way of life grows with his incessant questioning of things like the piece of white worsted around the mans neck in the grove of death and the meaning of the drum beat. This is coupled with his recollection of hunger in the face of admiration of the cannibal’s self. Mystery is constantly alluded to throughout from things as simple as the account of Fresleven, Marlow needs to know the power of the darkness which can drive a man to such actions. The mystery is also something that is two way with the natives seeing the white man as an enigma. They see Fresleven as a deity thus afraid to venture near his body and are confused when branded criminals “the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery form the sea”. Kurtz takes advantage of the naivete. Metaphors are used as a crux to what is going on within the book, the central one is the oil painting of the blind women carrying the torch. This one metaphor really ties together everything within the book. It represents the apparent advance of civilization into an Africa without vision and still within darkness. The mystery is within the torch itself though, despite apparently showing colonialists as “bearers of a spark from the sacred fire”, the fire could also be incendiary rather than illuminate.

Waiting for the Barbarians is an incriminating condemnation of colonialism. Being of South African origin, Coetzee would be fully aware of the damaging effects of colonialism which spilled out in the form of segregation and the disparity this caused between various ethnic groups. Despite his Afrikaner roots Coetzee resisted inertia holding many liberal principles to heart. Given the climate during the writing of this book it would be difficult for it not to have a significant impact upon Coetzee. The Magistrate embodies the spirit of resistance against an irrational and oppressive government. This drive for change is fuelled by the guilt within him. Due to the Magistrates personality he is not able to lie back and allow things to slide, such complicity, or even being part of a system which represents dangerous ideals such as “Pain is truth”, is something he cannot allow himself to do. The Magistrate has a self-lacerating personality with which he is able to find fault with almost everything he does even in acts of kindness. When he is helping the boy who has been taken prisoner by Jol with his father, the thought crosses his mind “It has not escaped me that an interrogator can wear two masks, speak with two voices, one harsh, one seductive”. And this is driven by guilt, similar to the guilt that besets Marlow for his part within the company. Like Marlow with the biscuit in the grove of death, he is reduced to offering futile gestures in the face of such wrongdoing.

The Magistrate like much of the white community within South Africa has allowed himself to fall into a state of inertia. But this allows the system to fall into decay and for a colonial power such as the Third Bureau wanting to keep a tight grip on power this is where its problem lies. In order to maintain its grip it is forced to squeeze that much harder, forcing its hand into more extreme measures. This is most vivid when the barbarians are lined up and “A simple loop of wire runs through the flesh of each man’s hands and through holes pierced in his cheeks”. Power is falling to the police and they have the law behind them forcing people into conformity for the service of protecting them from a non-existent threat. Through this it seems Coetzee is sending a message, a warning of the dangers of imperialism, captured in the way the Magistrate reacts to the extending of barracks and prison cells, “time for the black flower of civilization to bloom”. The Magistrate does now allow himself to be shackled by idleness, he fights against what is wrong. This guilt the Magistrate feels is similar to that which Coetzee himself feels due to his Afrikaner heritage, it is something inescapable.

In dealing with his feelings against the empire he takes on indirect approaches such as taking in the Barbarian girl and delivering her to her people. Through the bathing rituals he attempts to express his feelings against what he is a part of “hoping to find in her movements a hint of an old free state”. But this is essentially empty and he does not gain anything from it. It is not until he adopts total resistance against the empire pushing to the extreme, hitting rock bottom, is he able to alleviate some of the terrible feelings he is afflicted with. In their fighting Marlow and the Magistrate distinguish themselves from those “hollow men”, such as Jol and Marlow’s Manager. The Magistrate is able to display a great deal of courage standing up in front of a blood thirsty mob saying “No!” to the use of a hammer saying “You would not use a hammer on a beast”.

Coetzee also pursues other ideas and ideals within this novel though. Despite the political climate of the time, Coetzee doesn’t allow this to overshadow what he is pursuing in his novel. This is perhaps why the location of this colony is kept deliberately ambiguous unlike in Heart of Darkness so that the novel can act almost as a fable and be universalized, best illustrated in the way that the narrator is known to us as “The Magistrate”. This novel is also a journey of self-discovery, something which is brought out through the Magistrates battle against colonialism. The Magistrate, because of the guilt within him is always highly critical of his actions and more than to other people, he needs to justify what he does to himself. This leads to a great crisis of conscience, and this is just as big an issue as colonialism within this novel captured in the line “I cannot save the prisoners, therefor let me save myself”. This is why the Magistrate goes to great lengths in an effort to purify himself and it is the driving force behind him shaking him out of his languor. This is made even more striking when he is compared to a man like Joll, who is essentially empty and hollow within, using his sunglasses to cover up his eyes to hide “the blackness that is Colonel Joll”, just as Marlow is in the face of the company Manager or Kurtz.

There is an insatiable desire within the Magistrate for knowledge captivated by any mystery not being able to truly rest until it is solved. He feels this with the scars on the barbarian girl saying ” until the marks on this girl’s body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her”. He looks into his dreams as if they have some greater meaning, this plays a great deal upon his mind. He has difficulty comprehending that perhaps there is no great meaning behind his dreams and they are simply empty images. He has to pursue things not letting any detail go, this can be seen in the way that he is constantly trying to remember the barbarian girl in the court yard when she was first brought in, without her blemishes, despite its insignificance, it is something he cannot let go saying ” I must believe she was unmarked as I must believe she was once a child”. We see this portrayed in his pass times with his scrolls in some ancient language he cannot decode, in the way the Magistrate is similar to Marlow who shares this passion as seen in the book he finds in the hut with the markings in cipher.

At the end of the novel we see the emergence of this ” road that may lead nowhere”. This encompasses what the Magistrate does with mystery, pursuing it despite it not having any real meaning. The way he says the children do not acknowledge him leaves a feeling of alienation, but despite the road leading nowhere, it is still one he must follow and in this his journey is unfinished. There is some resemblance with the end of Heart of Darkness. Marlow is compelled to follow a path that “seemed to lead into the heart of immense darkness”. Marlow’s journey feels unfinished with his path going the way of the waterway and to inescapable darkness. Both men are condemned to continue this inescapable journey.

These two novels clearly have other central concerns than that of colonialism. For me though in Waiting for the Barbarians, it is the Magistrates personality which inclines him to resist the way he does. Because of his guilt, he has to fight against the imperialists and Coetzee sets up his character for that purpose. Saying this Coetzee, despite the climate doesn’t tackle the issue head on as is seen in the constant ambiguity in the novel, it seems his central concern is more producing a great novel rather than producing a condemnatory work. In Heart of Darkness though, as much as being a critique of colonialism, it is also a real exploration into the base and tribal nature of man and his corruptibility. It is Conrad trying to portray what he himself discovered while in Africa as much as it is a critique of colonialism. Both characters clearly embody the spirit of resistance against this injustice, but despite such an imposing backdrop it does not overshadow any other concerns, allowing them to be illustrated with some even overtaking colonialism in prevalence.

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Aman Thakar. (2018, Dec 01). Retrieved from

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