In his essay, “An Image of Africa”, Chinua Achebe, famous Nigerian novelist and author of Things Fall Apart, gives a respectable argument critical of certain aspects in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Through the isolation and destructive over-analysis of single sentences and sections, Achebe clearly and effectively asserts his prospect of Conrad as a racist. However, in choosing from the many themes of which to concentrate, Achebe seems particularly attached to the subject of African mores. The negligence of the remaining themes in the text allows for Achebe’s personal gaffe in the interpretation of Conrad’s piece.
“Herein lies the meaning of Heart of Darkness and the fascination it holds over the Western mind: ‘What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity —like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly’” (Achebe 5). This excerpt from Achebe’s essay shows his focus on only the words of Conrad’s description of the Africans and their culture as having a negative connotation. If the description is dug more deeply into though, it can just as easily be deciphered as Conrad promoting himself and his humanity as equivalent to that of the Africans. Achebe argues against Conrad in his saying that Africa is “the other world” and the “antithesis of Europe”. But, then he cuts his own feet out from under himself: “It is not the differences that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry,” (Achebe 3). Again, Achebe twists, like a young child trying to tie shoelaces, the true intent of Conrad’s carefully chosen words. Conrad is merely showing the differences between Europeans and Africans and connecting them in alikeness. Throughout the entirety of the essay, Chinua Achebe uses similar portions of Heart of Darkness to brand Conrad as a racist. Conrad’s work, nonetheless, offers many means of retaliation through several examples where the narrator expresses disapproval of the dehumanization of Africans, such as the instance that Marlow offers the enslaved Native a biscuit while sympathizing his poor conditions.
Achebe makes valid points that could lead one to believe that Conrad was indeed disregarding the humanity of Africans. Conrad allows for this several times like when Marlow questions himself in thinking of the Africans as being “inhuman” and when he pints the deterioration of Kurtz as being a resultant of being within the African environment. But, Joseph Conrad’s detailed and adjective-filled depictions of the Natives counter-attack this idea. “She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent… She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose,” (Conrad Part 3, Page 5). Throughout Heart of Darkness Conrad mirrors the humanity, ideas, and behaviors of Africa and Europe. In one instance Marlow refers to Africans as “hollow men”, but when he goes back to Europe, he describes the denizens as “ignorant, sheep like people in the streets”.
Achebe cleverly selects from Conrad’s piece to explicitly fight a legitimate case, but Joseph Conrad is simply too brilliant in his paralleling Europe and Africa. The congruence of the inhabitants and their ways within the two diverse environments are brought forth clearly in comparison in Conrad’s mirror. Conrad’s pessimistic portrayals may be an easy target for Achebe’s allegation; however, Conrad logically illustrates the influence of culture, significance of the age of colonialism, and equivalence among human beings.
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.
Conrad, Joesph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Konemann, 1999.