The Subject of Race in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
In 1899 Joseph Conrad published a short work of fiction called Heart of Darkness. This novella is often read, discussed, criticized in literature programs throughout the world. It is a work that allows us to tackle a variety of topics, and is therefore responded to in a variety of ways. The work itself as one critic puts it “might most usefully be considered hyper-canonized” (Padmini “Why” 104). The work is taught beyond the realm of a normal work in the literature program. Many forms of criticism have taken on the subject matter within the book. Feminism, psycho-analytic, Marxism have all had things to say about the ...view middle of the document...
Achebe’s main theme within the essay is “the need—in Western psychology to set up Africa as a foil to Europe” (“Image” 252). Within the context of this theme he goes on to criticize what he considers a work of “permanent literature”, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He discusses how within the context of the work we can see that Conrad was nothing more then a racist. The entire argument of the essay, both the ignorance of Western literature and Conrad’s racism, can be summed up in the following passage:
Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as a human factor… Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered an continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization… can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No it cannot (“Image” 257). It is interesting how most critics focus on the first two sentences of the beginning of this passage, the idea of Africa as the setting. Few it seems what to take on the charge that Heart of Darkness is not a great work of art.
Achebe’s criticism of Conrad is not limited to this essay, he is in a fact a well read novelist. He has won several awards for his numerous books, including an award for a book of children’s poetry. He has published five novels Anthills of Savannah, Arrow of God, Girls at War and Other Stories, A Man of the People, No Longer at Ease, and Things Fall Apart. It is within the context of the last two works, No Longer at Ease and Things Fall Apart, that we can see Achebe challenging some of the ideas in Conrad’s work.
Things Fall Apart is the story of a classic tragic hero who’s great strengths are inevitably his great flaws. The setting is a rural village in Nigeria, the people of the village belong to the tribe of Ibo. The main character, Okonkwo, “ruled his household with a heavy hand” and his family “lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper” (Achebe “Fall” 13). He was also a great warrior, wrestler and farmer. All of these thing culminate in the end when he is confronted with the encroaching colonialism and simply reacts by killing one of the magistrates. In the end he also makes a bold statement defiling himself by hanging himself on a tree.
No Longer at Ease is set in the same area and is concerned with the same tribe and family a generation later. Now colonialism has taken strong hold of Africa and the main character, Obi, has just returned from his studies in England. He is the first of the tribe and family to study abroad. He has returned with the hopes of changing the corruption within his city and country. Achebe sets the tone of this piece with a speech given by one of the elders of the tribes, “Today greatness has changed its...