An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness – Reader Response

This paper is in response to the paper by Chinua Achebe “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” (1977). It seeks to provide a supportive argument to his work by incorporating a new perspective that can be utilized in discerning whether the “The heart of darkness” should still be part of the British canon of literature, and indeed, it shouldn’t. Three main points will be discussed in the context of this paper, these will be; the dehumanization of the African man, the inclination to a racist point of view that Conrad presents through this work and the effect that this work still has today on its readers. These points will all be in reference to Achebe’s work.

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Throughout the novel “Heart of darkness” the reader is presented with a choice of diction that serves to dehumanize the African man to the point of declaring him to have been left behind by evolution. Conrad’s projection of Africa is that of another world, so different, so backward, so forgotten and lost in its frenzied madness. According to Achebe, this projection is noted when he refers to the men he finds in the Congo as pre-historic, incomprehensible, appalling, unearthly and to their language as noise.  He gallantly questions their humanity, suspects them of being inhuman and when he does grant them the privilege of being human he regards this humanity as “ugly” as compared to that of the white man. He likens the African woman to the wilderness contrasting the “inscrutable” reason for her brooding with that of the white woman whom he describes as having “a mature capacity” for grief and suffering. He did not tell her the truth about what he saw in the Congo, he wanted to spare her the feeling of grief but one can also see that Marlow also disregarded the actions of Kurtz in the Congo as having been informed by the darkness that had taken control of him. The fact that both these women have lost someone that they loved should inform Marlow/Conrad that they must be grieving for similar reasons, but no, he does not believe the African is human enough to feel these complex, civilized emotions such as grief and loss, her savage ways do not permit her to do so, all she can do is brood for no discernable reason.

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Conrad may not have been considered a racist during his time due to the racial ignorance that existed at that time, but he is, and gallantly so. He constantly lays emphasis on the color “black” when describing the African man. One would have thought that this emphasis was to show the striking differences in the color of the different body parts of the African man. To paraphrase Achebe, it is as though he would have expected a black man to have white limbs or something of the sort. According to Achebe, some scholars may argue that Conrad is a narrator behind a narrator, but despite this effort to distance himself from the opinion of Marlow, he does not act as a sanitizing authority to the prejudice expressed by this character, he lets these feelings run wild in the novel, fill the hearts of his readers and completely inform their judgment of an entire race in humanity. We must also remember that Conrad visited Africa himself, it is quite easy to see how these could very well be his perceptions. The extent of his prejudice knows no bounds, even at the time of his death, the African still manages to disquiet Marlow/Conrad. His look, which could very well be the look of a dying man, seems to claim a kinship similar to the white man to Marlow, and this completely agitates him.

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According to Achebe’s Heart of Darkness paper, Conrad may be dead and gone by now, but the point of literature is to leave a lasting impression in the world to shape the perceptions of future generations, to inform the, to educate them on their history and to prevent the repeat of events that arise out of ignorance. Why do we react in such fury to racist words that are said today but are gone with the wind tomorrow but do not react in the same amount of displeasure to works such as Conrad’s that render an entire race in humanity ugly, appalling, displeasing and insipid? Why do we allow these works to have the capacity to shape the opinion of our children and transform the world in to an unsafe place for the African man? That he receives constant stereotyping, disrespect and disregard even from an observer who is expected to remain unbiased.

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