Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, demolishes the premise of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, proclaiming that the latter is a “thoroughgoing racist.” (Achebe 1789) In his essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Achebe violently criticizes the European perception of Africa and how it is projected in Heart of Darkness. He presents a detailed critique of Conrad’s text that supports his argument, and claims throughout his essay that the African society is merely depicted as an “antithesis of Europe” (Achebe 1785), one that is adherent to barbarism and uncivilized course of life. Although one might perceive Achebe’s claims as aggressive, his points are greatly supported by excerpts from Heart of Darkness that illustrates the racial conflict in the text.
Achebe argues that the African-European comparison seems to overshadow Conrad’s writing in both conceptual and stylistic form. He describes Conrad as a “purveyor of comforting myths,” (Achebe 1785) addressing a scope of readers in undertone that complies with their psychological mindset and does not incite conflict with their prejudiced view of the African realm. The land of black inhabitants is projected, argues Achebe, as a “place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” (Achebe 1785) The concept is underlined in metaphorical antithesis and is illustrated further in Marlow’s descriptions of the African natives.
Conrad’s narrative is filled with adjectives that empower the hidden dogma of his text, as Achebe proclaims. On his arrival to the African land, Conrad’s character adorns his descriptions of the atmosphere and land with adjectives that tarnish the perception of his readers, or rather add to a prior-existent mindset. The land is described as an “unknown planet” of “accursed inheritance.” The earth is seen as “unearthly,” and the narrator does not fail to recognize its inhabitants as they “howled.. leaped,” with “faces like grotesque masks.” The text also presents two female figures associated with the character Kurtz and, in a way, parallel to each other. As the narrator departs from the African land, he describes Kurtz’ mistress as “savage… like the wilderness itself;” she is viewed in regards to her surroundings as merely an animal that suits the spectacle, while her counterpart, Kurtz’ betrothed, is hailed for her emotional capacity and sincere expression of “fidelity.” The comparison between the two female characters reveals how the text depicts a perspective where Natives are nothing but a dehumanized object in scenery that is wild, instinct-driven and chaotic; where their European counterparts are able to express the fine qualities of human virtues and emotions in a well-established regiment of civilization.
Achebe is not oblivious to the assumption that Conrad had written Heart of Darkness solely through the perspective of his characters and main narrator, Marlow. However, he argues that the text lacks a loophole through which the reader is offered an opportunity to criticize the course of action and the views of the narrator. In other words, Heart of Darkness lacks the objective prompt needed for the reader to question and speculate about the dogmatic inclinations of the characters.
Achebe bases his accusations on the idea that “it would not have been beyond Conrad’s power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary;” (Achebe 1788) meaning that if Conrad had had accumulated a rather different view than his narrator Marlow, he would have considered attributing a new aspect to his text. However, another view could suggest that Conrad, considering his travels in Africa, might have based his main character with the targeted audience on mind. Aside from literary analysis, the author might have intended to depict such a view of the African life in a way that is intriguing to his targeted readers and complies with their mystical conception of the far away land; which is not a foreign concept to literature, especially travel literature.
Achebe denounces the racial and dehumanizing effect that can be deduced from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He suggests that it is only a matter of perspective; as one society usually perceives the other in an ignorant scope of prejudiced mindset that is infused with lack of proper knowledge and insight. The conflict is somehow universal, and the matter discussed is merely a literary reflection of the intellectual turmoil worldwide. Achebe refutes those who confirm with Conrad’s depicted view of the Africans in his novel Things Fall Apart; documenting in literary sense the right to publicly oppose and the liberty to perceive things in a different perspective.
Conrad, Joesph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Konemann, 1999.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa.” Research in African Literatures, Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue on Literary Criticism. Indiana University Press, Spring 1978. 1-15.