Concerning Chinua Achebe on Heart of Darkness
"A Thoroughgoing Racist"
Chinua Achebe’s principle argument against Heart of Darkness is that its author, Joseph Conrad, is blatantly prejudice against Africans, in his words, “a thoroughgoing racist” (p. 301).
Achebe begins his argument by commenting on the relationship between the Thames River and the Congo River. Conrad gives the two rivers remotely different descriptions. Thames “conquered its darkness” (299), while the Congo is virtually an impenetrably dark void. However, Achebe notes that it is not their differences, but their commonality, that the Thames once resembled the Congo, which Conrad finds more disconcerting. More important to Achebe are the natives of Conrad’s Africa.
Two distinct descriptions insist on his importance of “place”. The elusive Africans that “terrorize” the steamer as it navigates the river are always described as bestial rather than human. The fireman aboard the steamer is characterized as being “an improved specimen” and liken to a “dog in a parody of breeches…” (301). While Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, applauds the natives in the wilderness for staying there, he mocks the man aboard the steamer, who he feels is like the upright dog, a creature out of place.
Conrad is accused of being a “purveyor of comforting myths” (300). His diction carries the pretense of merely interpreting a record of events, concealing his true intention to supply his readers with bigotry they would not dispute. Achebe contends that other criticisms of Heart of Darkness tend to neglect the racist element of the novel because white racism is so embedded in society that it is not questioned, or even noticed.
Conrad in his own life has reinforced this accusation by referring to black people in derogatory terms and obsessing over “blackness”. Achebe notes that looking to other sources would immediately reveal that Africans in Conrad’s time were well beyond the capacities that he displays them as capable of in his story. Achebe galvanizes the argument of Conrad being a flagrant racist by including the historical context in which the novel was written. Circa 1900, many of Europe’s finest artists revered a mask created by a Fang artist just north of the Congo. Conrad’s sordid depiction of Africa seems to stoop lower than his contemporary’s prejudices.
Although Achebe attempts to justify his position by citing the art example, the sentiments of Conrad appear to be consistent with those of his society. Written after the slave trade was criminalized, the aversive racism in Conrad’s novel, nonetheless, proves that those bigoted sentiments were still present. The end of bondage did not assuage racial tension, as it is still pandemic today.
The principle problem Achebe sees is that this novel is celebrated and taught in nearly every school.
Another Hubber's View
- Things Falling Apart at the Heart of Darkness
Fellow Hubber Lisa Spencer's essay on this topic, in which she posits Achebe's novel "Things Fall Apart" is a further indictment of Conrad's novella.
Achebe's Essay (in full)
- Achebe: An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad\'s "Heart of Darkness"
Click here to read the full version of Achebe's scathing essay.
“An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” by Chinua Achebe
From: Worlds of History p.298-303
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