Victoria Moffatt: Representations of the African Other in Selected Works of Joseph Conrad

In many colonial as well as post-colonial writings, it has often been demonstrated how the African or Africa itself is constituted as an other to the European/West. Very often this conception of the African other is enhanced through the discourse of economic/political control or through the dynamics of racial superiority over that other. However, this conception raises certain probing questions: Is the African othered only to the European/Western self or are there other selves, probably including another African self, that serve as the selving standard against which this other is pitted? What other colonial others are represented in these writings and how do the representations of these others compare with the representation of the African other? Why does Conrad choose the Congo to portray his African other, and what informs/influences his geographical choice of other others?


To explore these issues and attempt to resolve them in Conrad’s works, I begin from the premise that Otherness is not necessarily strangeness. It has, however, been used to describe the othered subject as different, definitely different from the Self. This difference could be interpreted in terms of religion, biological sexual identity/orientation, ethnicity, and, ultimately, power relations. While in postcolonial theorisation the other can be conceptualised in different terms such as the oriental other (Said), the racial other (Fanon), and even the sexual other (feminist discourse), most of these different others are often cast in what can generally be referred to as the colonial other. Thus, I will engage in a preliminary analysis aimed at demonstrating how the others I will elicit from the selection of Conrad’s works constitute, in diverse ways, a colonial other.


This initial analysis will be based on The Heart of Darkness, An Outcast of the Islands, and The Nigger of the Narcissus. I plan to begin my preliminary study with this selection because the major characters in those texts are described in terms that allow them to be readily and, perhaps, undoubtedly identified as others. Once I establish the otherness of these characters, I will extend my analysis beyond these texts to examine a few others of Conrad’s writings, in the hope of discerning any distinctive features that may differentiate and compare the forms of otherness borne by the identified othered characters. My final analysis will be to determine the nature of the African other in Conrad’s writings and to show how this other may compare to the other others in his works.


While it may seem that some research might have been conducted on the African other in Conrad’s work, little has been done by way of demonstrating how or in what terms that other may compare to other others. In tracing the discourse of othering through an analysis and a comparison of depictions, representations and metaphors of othering, I propose to educe, from a selection of works by Joseph Conrad, the construct of the African Other, comparing this other to other others. While my study will not ride on any assumptions of what notions are created of the African, I hope to work out how the portrayal of Africans conforms to or departs from the production of an African/colonial/othered stereotype. I also hope to discover what new questions this portrayal opens up for conversations about otherness, (post)colonialism, Conrad; and how it fits into the larger frame of pro-colonial/imperial literary writing and its concomitant reactions or what it means for the reading of modern and postcolonial literature. To this end, I hope that my research will contribute to turning the lens on connections between different colonial/postcolonial concepts and constructs by interrogating intra-colonial relations/encounters rather than focusing on colonial/metropolitan relations. Such efforts have been made in recent works like Elleke Boehmer’s Empire, the National and the Postcolonial, 1890-1920 (2002) which examines the inter-relationship between different anti-colonial agents within different colonial sites and explores how the mutual influences and interdiscursivity of these agents may have affected, in any significant way, the political and even cultural postcolonial re-shaping of these colonial regions. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ book Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (2008) also makes the case for this kind of research. A more recent example of such new trends in postcolonial studies is an ongoing book project, Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation and Other (Edinburgh, 2011), aimed at exploring how the language of otherness changes with trans-national and trans-cultural contact through a comparative re-reading of Levinas’ works alongside parallel theories of alterity. Although my research is, in some ways, similar to this latter, it differs from it in that I plan to reflect on the specificity of the different others represented in Conrad’s works, examining how the representation of these others may differ with respect to the geographical setting, social context and, possibly, historical background of his narratives. Thus, the works cited will serve only as an initial corpus to help me model my own research.