Discuss how are attitudes towards racial difference revealed in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”


Racial difference has played a significant role in shaping societies throughout history, impacting power dynamics, individual perceptions, and cultural attitudes. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” are two literary works that delve into the intricate relationship between race and apocalyptic themes, shedding light on prevailing attitudes towards racial difference. This essay will meticulously analyze these novels, drawing from a range of quotes and secondary criticisms, to explore how these attitudes are revealed within the context of their narratives.

Racial Hierarchies and Colonization in “Heart of Darkness”

Introduction to Racial Hierarchies and Colonialism:
Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is a literary exploration of the pervasive racial hierarchies and attitudes that underpinned European colonialism during the late 19th century. As the narrative unfolds through Marlow’s journey up the Congo River, readers are confronted with a world where racial prejudices are not only accepted but also deeply ingrained into the fabric of colonial enterprise.

Perception of African Landscape and Indigenous People:
The introduction of Marlow’s journey brings to the forefront the Eurocentric lens through which the African landscape and its indigenous inhabitants are perceived. Marlow’s description of the landscape as “dismal” and “deplorable” sets the tone for a narrative that reinforces the Western notion of superiority (Conrad 1902). This portrayal not only casts Africa as an untamed and savage space but also constructs a binary between the “civilized” Europeans and the “uncivilized” Africans. Such descriptions reveal the attitudes that fueled the colonial project by justifying the need for European intervention and control.

The “White Man’s Burden” and Condescending Attitudes:
Conrad’s depiction of the “white man’s burden” serves as a pivotal moment in the novel, encapsulating the condescending attitudes of the European colonial powers towards the native populations. Marlow’s aunt articulates the belief that it is the responsibility of the white man to “civilize” and uplift the “savages” they encounter (Conrad 1902). This rhetoric exemplifies the paternalistic view that European powers held over the colonized territories. The term “burden” itself implies a sense of duty and obligation, masking the underlying assumption of superiority. Such attitudes reinforced the colonial project and justified the exploitation of resources and labor.

Dehumanization of Africans and Language:
The dehumanization of Africans is a recurring theme in “Heart of Darkness,” with language playing a crucial role in perpetuating this perception. Africans are often referred to as “natives,” reducing them to a monolithic and primitive identity. The absence of individual names and identities in the narrative contributes to their dehumanization, as they become mere elements of the landscape (Conrad 1902). Additionally, the use of derogatory terms further underscores the power dynamics at play, where the Europeans assert dominance through language. This dehumanization serves to legitimize the maltreatment and exploitation of the indigenous people.

Imperialism and the Quest for Wealth:
The pursuit of wealth and resources underpins the European imperialist endeavors depicted in the novel. The Company’s presence in Africa is motivated by economic gain, leading to exploitative practices that further perpetuate racial hierarchies. The establishment of trading posts, the extraction of ivory, and the subjugation of local populations are all driven by the desire for economic prosperity (Conrad 1902). This economic agenda not only reinforces the notion of European superiority but also highlights the extent to which racial attitudes were intertwined with imperial ambitions.

Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” offers a profound examination of racial hierarchies and attitudes prevalent during the era of European colonialism. Through the depiction of the African landscape, condescending attitudes, dehumanization of Africans, and the pursuit of wealth, the novel exposes the complex interplay between racial prejudice and colonial enterprise. These attitudes underscored the power dynamics that shaped the colonial project, perpetuating a worldview that positioned European powers as superior and indigenous populations as inferior. As readers engage with Conrad’s exploration, they are confronted with the unsettling reality of how racial hierarchies were not only revealed but also normalized within the context of colonization.

Survival and Racial Unity in “Parable of the Sower”

Introduction to Survival and Racial Unity:
Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” presents a narrative that unfolds within a near-future America marked by social chaos, environmental degradation, and economic collapse. In this apocalyptic landscape, the theme of survival takes center stage, intertwining with the exploration of racial attitudes and unity. Through the protagonist Lauren Olamina’s journey and interactions with a diverse range of characters, the novel delves into the ways in which shared struggles can transcend racial divisions, emphasizing the potential for racial unity in the face of adversity.

Earthseed: Shared Struggles and Unity:
At the heart of “Parable of the Sower” lies the belief system Earthseed, which Lauren Olamina develops as a response to the tumultuous world around her. The central tenet of Earthseed, “God is change,” encapsulates the idea that change is inevitable and that adaptation is essential for survival (Butler 1993). This concept serves as a unifying force that transcends racial distinctions. The shared experience of surviving in a world plagued by scarcity and chaos serves as a common ground that binds individuals together, fostering a sense of unity that supersedes the racial divides that once existed.

Interactions with Diverse Characters:
Lauren’s interactions with characters from varied racial backgrounds further exemplify the theme of racial unity amidst adversity. As the novel progresses, Lauren forms connections with individuals who have diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, revealing the potential for solidarity in times of crisis. The inclusion of characters like Travis, a white character, within Lauren’s group demonstrates the breakdown of racial barriers when survival becomes the primary goal (Butler 1993). This portrayal underscores the idea that the shared struggle for survival can lead to the dissolution of racial prejudices and the emergence of a more inclusive community.

Challenges to Racial Unity:
While Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” presents a compelling vision of racial unity amidst an apocalyptic backdrop, it also candidly explores the challenges that can impede the realization of such unity. The novel recognizes that even in the face of shared struggles, deeply ingrained prejudices and interpersonal conflicts can present significant obstacles to the harmonious coexistence of individuals from diverse racial backgrounds.

Conflict and Mistrust Among Survivors:
The narrative of “Parable of the Sower” does not shy away from portraying moments of conflict and mistrust among the diverse group of survivors. As they navigate the harsh realities of a crumbling society, tensions arise due to differing perspectives, personal traumas, and varying priorities. These conflicts highlight that unity is not a straightforward path, and the inherent complexities of human interactions can hinder the seamless integration of diverse racial communities (Butler 1993).

Economic Disparities and Resentment:
In the world of “Parable of the Sower,” economic disparities persist even in the midst of the apocalypse. The wealthy maintain their privileges, while the less fortunate struggle to survive. This economic divide can breed resentment and exacerbate racial tensions. Those who have historically been marginalized may view the privileged with suspicion and accuse them of perpetuating inequality even in the face of disaster. Such dynamics illustrate how economic disparities can intersect with racial differences, complicating the pursuit of unity (Butler 1993).

Lingering Prejudices:
The novel acknowledges that deeply ingrained prejudices do not disappear overnight, even when survival becomes the paramount concern. Racial biases and stereotypes can persist, hindering authentic connections between individuals. Despite the shared experience of navigating an apocalyptic world, characters may still harbor implicit biases that influence their perceptions and interactions. These prejudices serve as a reminder that the transformation of attitudes towards racial difference is a gradual and nuanced process (Butler 1993).

Overcoming Challenges Through Dialogue and Empathy:
“Parable of the Sower” does not present challenges to racial unity as insurmountable obstacles. Instead, the novel suggests that overcoming these challenges requires active effort and engagement. Characters who are willing to engage in open dialogue and demonstrate empathy towards one another are more likely to bridge the gaps created by racial division. Through communication and understanding, individuals can slowly break down the barriers that hinder unity, showcasing the potential for personal growth and transformation (Butler 1993).

Conclusion: Embracing Complexity and Hope:
Octavia Butler’s exploration of challenges to racial unity in “Parable of the Sower” adds depth and complexity to the novel’s portrayal of a diverse community navigating an apocalyptic world. By candidly depicting conflicts arising from personal biases, economic disparities, and historical resentments, Butler emphasizes that unity is a dynamic process fraught with difficulties. However, the novel ultimately conveys a sense of hope by showing that individuals can evolve, engage in self-reflection, and work towards breaking down the barriers that divide them, offering a vision of a future where unity is not only possible but actively pursued.

Breaking Down Stereotypes and Prejudices:
One of the notable aspects of “Parable of the Sower” is its deliberate effort to break down stereotypes and prejudices through character development. Characters are depicted as multi-dimensional individuals with motivations, fears, and aspirations that transcend racial labels. By portraying characters in this way, Butler challenges the reader’s assumptions and biases, inviting them to reconsider their own attitudes towards racial difference (Butler 1993). This approach aligns with the novel’s overarching theme of unity and shared humanity, irrespective of race.

Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” masterfully intertwines themes of survival and racial unity, offering a vision of a future where shared struggles transcend the divisions of race. Through Earthseed’s philosophy of change, the interactions with diverse characters, and the breaking down of stereotypes, the novel presents a nuanced exploration of the potential for unity in the face of adversity. This portrayal serves as a poignant reminder of the power of shared experiences to bridge the gaps created by racial difference, pointing towards a future where resilience and empathy can prevail over division.

Apocalyptic Themes and Racial Attitudes: A Comparative Analysis

The interaction of apocalyptic themes with attitudes towards racial difference serves as a captivating lens through which to analyze Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” These narratives delve into the complexities of racial attitudes within the context of impending chaos, shedding light on the evolving societal perspectives of their times.

Dehumanization and Racial Prejudice in “Heart of Darkness”
Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” transports readers into the heart of European colonialism in Africa, a setting pregnant with foreboding and moral ambiguity. The impending apocalyptic undertone, symbolized by darkness and savagery, mirrors the darkness within human hearts, amplifying the racial attitudes pervasive during the colonial era (Conrad 1902). Conrad’s portrayal of Africa as a land of darkness and decay underscores the racial lens through which Europeans viewed the continent, revealing their implicit belief in racial hierarchy.

The protagonist Marlow’s observations accentuate this perspective as he describes the native Africans as “black shapes” moving in the distance, emphasizing the dehumanization inherent in the colonial venture (Conrad 1902). Such dehumanizing language positions the Africans as mere objects or shadows, erasing their individuality and humanity. This rhetoric perpetuates the concept of the “other” and reinforces Eurocentric notions of racial difference.

Unity and Transformative Potential in “Parable of the Sower”
Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” presents a divergent narrative within the apocalyptic genre, focusing on the potential for transformation amidst catastrophe. The crumbling society and environmental devastation echo the impending apocalyptic theme, yet Butler’s depiction of racial attitudes takes an alternate trajectory. Instead of magnifying racial divisions, the narrative highlights glimpses of unity emerging from adversity.

Lauren Olamina’s philosophy of Earthseed embodies this transformative potential. The core principle, “God is change,” becomes a unifying force, highlighting shared experiences and challenges that transcend racial barriers (Butler 1993). The diverse group Lauren assembles symbolizes this unity, signifying the dissolution of racial boundaries in the pursuit of survival. This thematic emphasis on unity amidst crisis directly challenges prevalent racial attitudes, positioning the survival of humanity as contingent upon transcending these divisions.

Challenging Dominant Narratives: Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”
In the case of “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad confronts and perpetuates prevailing colonial narratives. The novel embodies the Eurocentric mindset of the late 19th century, echoing the deep-seated racial biases that underscored imperial ambitions. The depiction of Africa as a realm of darkness and savagery encapsulates the dominant viewpoint of the time, one that positioned European superiority as an unquestionable truth (Conrad 1902). However, in scrutinizing this narrative, we are compelled to recognize its constructed nature, revealing the ways in which prevailing racial attitudes served to rationalize and legitimize oppressive power dynamics.

1.Subversion and Transformation: Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”:
Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” on the other hand, engages in a deliberate subversion of the common post-apocalyptic genre’s racial themes. By portraying racial unity as a core tenet of survival, Butler challenges the prevailing racial narratives embedded in such narratives. This subversion is particularly evident in the character dynamics within the narrative. Lauren Olamina’s philosophy, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of humanity, stands as a direct challenge to the segregationist attitudes that permeated earlier eras (Butler 1993). Butler’s intentional departure from the racial conflict trope disrupts established norms, encouraging readers to envision an alternative narrative where shared humanity takes precedence over racial divisions.

2.Narrative as Intervention: A Comparative Perspective:
The contrast between these two narratives serves as a powerful reminder of the role literature plays in shaping and challenging dominant narratives. Conrad’s portrayal of racial attitudes in “Heart of Darkness” reflects an era where colonialism and Eurocentric ideologies were undisputed, illustrating the power of narrative to reinforce societal norms (Conrad 1902). In contrast, Butler’s narrative intervention in “Parable of the Sower” reflects the emergence of a more inclusive cultural consciousness, aligning with the evolving racial attitudes of the late 20th century.

By comparing these works side by side, we discern the transformative potential of narrative intervention. Literature has the capacity to perpetuate or challenge prevailing norms, functioning as a mirror that reflects and shapes societal attitudes. The comparative analysis of these novels underscores that narratives are not merely static reflections of their times, but dynamic interventions that can redefine and recontextualize established racial paradigms.

The comparative analysis of apocalyptic themes and racial attitudes in “Heart of Darkness” and “Parable of the Sower” encapsulates the dynamic interplay between dominant narratives and narrative interventions. These works demonstrate how literature can serve as a tool for both perpetuating and challenging societal norms. By dissecting the racial attitudes presented in these narratives, we navigate the complex landscape of racial difference, gaining insights into the ways narratives can transform prevailing perspectives.

Contextualizing Attitudes within Shifting Eras
The racial attitudes depicted in these novels are deeply entwined with their historical contexts. “Heart of Darkness” emerged during the height of European colonialism, a period marked by ingrained racial biases driving imperial ambitions. The novel echoes the Eurocentric viewpoint of the time, with Conrad’s portrayal of Africa reinforcing prevailing racial hierarchies and dehumanization.

On the other hand, “Parable of the Sower” reflects the late 20th-century context, an era of significant social change and advancements in civil rights. Octavia Butler’s portrayal of racial unity amid turmoil resonates with the optimism of a time characterized by growing recognition of shared humanity. The novel’s stance on racial attitudes can be interpreted as a response to the evolving cultural norms and aspirations for equality.

In a comparative analysis of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” the interplay between apocalyptic themes and racial attitudes takes center stage. These narratives offer nuanced insights into the intricate relationship between societal beliefs, racial hierarchies, and the backdrop of impending upheaval. Conrad’s work exposes the dehumanizing effects of European colonialism and its racial underpinnings, while Butler’s novel envisions a world where unity challenges prevailing norms.

By delving into quotes and exploring these secondary criticisms, this essay has illuminated the multifaceted ways in which these novels navigate attitudes towards racial difference. By juxtaposing these works, we gain a more profound understanding of historical shifts, narrative interventions, and the potential for transformation within the apocalyptic genre. Ultimately, these novels serve as critical lenses through which we can scrutinize the evolution of racial attitudes amidst broader societal transformations.


The novels “Heart of Darkness” and “Parable of the Sower” by Joseph Conrad and Octavia Butler respectively provide profound insights into attitudes towards racial difference. By seamlessly weaving these attitudes into their apocalyptic narratives, these authors highlight the intricate connection between race and the apocalyptic theme. The colonial prejudices illuminated in “Heart of Darkness” serve as a testament to the Eurocentric worldview that perpetuated racial hierarchies. Conversely, “Parable of the Sower” envisions a future where shared survival fosters racial unity, embodying a more inclusive and optimistic outlook.

Through meticulous analysis of quotes, these literary works serve as critical touchstones that prompt reflection on the past and envision a more equitable future.


Butler, O. E. (1993). Parable of the Sower. Four Walls Eight Windows.

Conrad, J. (1902). Heart of Darkness.