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Study of conrads heart of darkness

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1688 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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More than a century after its publication, it is still unclear whether Conrad’s Heart of Darkness serves to perpetuate or dismantle racism. Considered one of the writer to have had the most influence during the 20th century, he is viewed by many as racist mainly due to this novel. One of his greatest critics is Chinua Achebe who explains in “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of darkness” how Joseph Conrad supported racism and colonization. To reinforce his arguments, Achebe stated that while he is indeed “one of the greatest stylists of modern fiction and a good storyteller”, Heart of darkness should not be considered a work of art. But not everyone has the same opinion and it can also be demonstrated that this text is, on the other hand, not racist and that it actually criticizes western views. By using a narrative frame Conrad distinguishes himself from the racist characters in his novel. One must also remember that Heart of Darkness was written at a time where racism was very common. We must analyze this text within the correct period of time. Finally

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When reading for the first time Heart of Darkness it can be obvious that it is indeed a racist novel and since the story of Marlow seems similar to Conrad’s story, one could think that the author is racist as well. Instead Conrad uses the frame story to express his opinion, and views on imperialism. With moments of revelation he is able to show the impact of colonization on natives “I’ve seen the devils of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire: but, by all stars! these were strong, lusty, redeyed devils, that swayed and drove men-men, I tell you.” (Part 1, Page 13). But to keep a realistic setting he creates the character Marlow that is in favor of imperialism, and throughout the story, Africans are described by Marlow himself from a western point of view “I had then, as you remember, just returned to London … after a lot of Indian Ocean, Pacific, China Seas – a regular dose of the East – six years or so, and I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you.” (P.6). Even though it may not be clear, Conrad uses the narrative frame to, at the same time differentiate himself from other racist characters in the story, and to express his opinions. This is probably what confuses many readers

“They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

Criticism of imperialism

When reading Heart of Darkness one might be chocked or even offended, like Achebe, by the repetition of the word ” nigger” throughout the novel. Many Images of Africa can be considered racist, but Heart of Darkness was written at a time where the use of the word “nigger” was very common and didn’t have a negative connotation. One must interpret this novel from a point of view that corresponds to the time period, not from a modern perspective. Making Marlow seem racist and ignorant about African civilization and their culture is actually a way to ridiculise the west and his society. It shows mocks westernizers during the 20th century.

Due to the controversy generated by postcolonial discourse, and the resultant wealth of material on Heart of Darkness it is necessary to narrow down the topic as much as possible, nevertheless that same controversy demands an overview in other to represent the plurality of critical voices, within which mould I shall situate my point and finally examine the question of the author’s racism or lack of it.

The critical postcolonial approach to Heart of Darkness as a racist text was first pointed out by the Nigerian Writer, Chinua Achebe in a lecture at the university of Massachusetts in 1975. According to Achebe, “…Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation ” (2). He began with a passing comment on the average westerner’s stereotyping of African culture and the informed ignorance of the supposedly enlightened, making an example of the British professor of History, Hugh Trevor-roper, who insisted that Africa had no history and took a swipe at the careful binary pairings in Heart of Darkness. The setting of the primordial Congo basin against a tranquil Thames river – the former supposedly bad and the latter good, the evoked African atmosphere of myth and mystery – and thus of the ritualistic and evil, against an enlightened Christian Europe, the ‘antithetical’ choice of diction and sentences, […] “steady, ponderous, fake-ritualistic […], one about silence and the other about frenzy […] ” (3); he quoted from pages 103 and 105 of the American Library edition of Heart of Darkness to prove his point thus: “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” [and] “The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy”

Achebe maintained that the “most interesting and revealing passages in Heart of Darkness are about people” (3), that is, about characterisation. Although the passage he quoted about Marlow’s account of the journey down the Congo river is not explicit on characterisation – which is exactly the point!, I would like to reproduce it in full to examine his implications:

We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of the black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us welcoming us – who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign – and no memories.

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The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces, but what trilled you was the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend (52).

It is easy to see characterisation in none characterisation in this passage; that is the implicit nature of the kind of characterisation that is carried out here. The African characters are present as a kind of absence. They do not think, speak, do not behave like normal human beings but nevertheless have the physical features of the species – and that is “the fascination it (Heart of Darkness) holds over the European mind” (4) that is what troubles Conrad according to Achebe, that is the thrill – this ‘ugly’ kinship to the human being (there are also passages where Conrad compares them to apes – a popular past-time of imperial Victorian Europe), which is the “horror, the horror” for his early European readers, for whom he confirmed and consolidated the wildest fantasies and myths about Africans. He could be certain of non-contradiction therefore from those readers. And this was why, according to Achebe, the racist nature of the novel was never questioned until he drew attention to it. Further more, if the above passage were to be deconstructed, if we were to ‘wayward’ the text, it breaks down into subtle binary oppositions and could read something like this: ‘we were [modern] wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet [as opposed to our civilised world] […] As we round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs [as opposed to our sophisticated Victorian architecture]’ et cetera (52). There are also those echoes of meaning which negates the humanity of the Africans in the passage. The Africans were the ‘first men’ – something baser than human, primordial; a sort of extinct human dinosaur, without a cultural space of their own, re-discovered, categorised and put in their place for their own good; a gelatinous mass of monstrous and senseless limbs, contorted bodies and rolling eyes living partly on trees ( in the foliage) and partly in crude lean-tos, which it was fair game to take port-shots at by the colonising imperial power in order to instil a random discipline of hot lead when necessary.


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