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For one hundred years, Heart of Darkness has been among the most widely read and taught novels in the English language. Hailed as an incisive indictment of European imperialism in Africa upon its publication in 1899, more recently it has been repeatedly denounced as racist and imperialist. Peter Firchow counters these claims, and his carefully argued response allows the charges of Conrad's alleged bias to be evaluated as objectively as possible. He begins by contrasting the meanings of race, racism, and imperialism in Conrad's day to those of our own time. Firchow then argues that Heart of Darkness is a novel rather than a sociological treatise; only in relation to its aesthetic significance can real social and intellectual-historical meaning be established. Envisioning Africa responds in detail to negative interpretations of the novel by revealing what they distort, misconstrue, or fail to take into account. Firchow uses a framework of imagology to examine how national, ethnic, and racial images are portrayed in the text, differentiating the idea of a national stereotype from that of national character. He believes that what Conrad saw personally in Africa should not be confused with the Africa he describes in the novel; Heart of Darkness is instead an envisioning and a revisioning of Conrad's experiences in the medium of fiction.

Peter Edgerly Firchow, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, is the author of several books on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and culture, including The End of Utopia: A Study of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

"Heart of Darkness has assumed the status of a politically controversial text. It has been repudiated as racist and interpreted as an apology for imperialism and colonialism. Firchow's book successfully counters these accusations and offers a far more nuanced reading of Conrad's narrative."—Avrom Fleishman, Johns Hopkins University

"Firchow’s research is exact and interesting. . . . Offers a cautionary note against reductive readings by demonstrating the interplay of contexts operative in all such acts of criticism."—Canadian Review of Comparative Literature

"Successfully calls into question what many interpretations of Conrad’s attitudes toward racism and imperialism distort, misconstrue, or fail to take into account."—English Literature in Transition

"A thorough investigation of Heart of Darkness and its historical, cultural, and biographical context."—Modern Fiction Studies

"A work of impressive scholarship."—Research in African Literatures

"Will be essential for Conrad scholars and a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in literary polemics and/or late 19th-century European colonial activities in central Africa."—Virginia Quarterly Review

"An energetic and expansive attempt to reassess Conrad’s attitudes toward race and imperialism."—Year’s Work in English Studies

"Firchow’s magisterial study should be required reading for everybody embroiled in the post-Achebe and heated postcolonial critical debate of the last two decades."—Yearbook of English Studies

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Imperialism, Africa in literature, Colonialism, Postcolonialism


Literature in English, British Isles

Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
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