Brook Thomas argues that Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness aligns with the tenets of New Historicism by constructing a historical narrative with “no guarantee that we will penetrate to the essential Truth – or non-Truth” (266). Focusing on this subjectivity, Thomas articulates that, as a “historian of human experience,” Conrad’s creates a novel that attempts to decentre Eurocentrism but ultimately presents a temporal narrative that reveals more about European society than African (266). After a brief description of the rise of 19th century historiography, Thomas argues that Conrad’s novel is truer than history; not in its explicit statements but in its forms.
Focusing on Conrad’s choice of indirect, shifting narrative perspectives rather than an omniscient story-teller.
Thomas asserts that Conrad is able to present the impossibility of truth. Similarly, Thomas argues that Conrad achieves truth through his portrayal of Kurtz as a “counter memory” (269). As Kurtz, who embodies Europe’s most noble ideals, recognizes the horrors at the heart of darkness, Marlow’s memory of him – according to Thomas – disrupts the narrative of enlightenment process that European culture tried to tell itself about its history.
Through these elements of form, Thomas suggests that Conrad successfully demystifies 19th century Eurocentrism and belief in human progress. To achieve this demystification, Thomas believes that Conrad subsumes the “Other” into a master narrative about human identity. In doing this Heart of Darkness mirrors the tendencies of 19th century historicism to absorb all cultures into a Eurocentric history (271). This is confirmed by Thomas’s exploration of Conrad’s use of post-structuralism and psychoanalysis to turn the journey into the darkness of Africa into a journey into the darkness of the human unconscious.
Conrad’s focus on the “Other” is used to reveal Europe’s discovery of the “Other” within themselves – a realization that destroys white supremacist justifications for colonization. Through this mirror effect, Thomas argues that Conrad’s novel, like history, creates a story outside of narrative time (277). From this, Thomas shifts to explore a Marxist reading of Conrad’s attempt to stimulate the reader’s memory of a ‘true’ prehistory of Europe through the gaps in Marlow’s perspective. Of Thomas’s interpretations of Heart of Darkness, his close reading of the paradoxical “the earth seemed unearthly” passage is most interesting (Conrad 51). Speaking to this passage, Thomas argues that Conrad is asserting that “what allows Westerners to understand Africans is a loss of control” (274). While Thomas is astute in pointing out that Conrad’s ironic reversals reveal the “savagery” of the European colonisers, his focus on a loss of control seems to miss Conrad’s point. It is precisely because Europeans seek control that they are able to recognize a kinship with Africans. Only through their attempts to colonize and subjugate the Africans do the Europeans achieve close contact and, face to face, observe their similarities.