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Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” Essay

Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (The Massachusetts Review, 18 (1977) : 782 – 94) expresses a passionate objection to Conrad’s point of view and portrayal of Africa and Africans in his novel Heart of Darkness. Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, can be considered the direct opposition to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and is seen to as a challenge on Conrad’s western views. I shall explore the validity in Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” with regards to language, characterisation, religion and culture. Other opinions from critical readings will also be included and referenced to the two novels ( Things Fall Apart & Heart of Darkness ).Achebe felt that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness “others” Africa and Africans, when he says “others” he means that it represents the Africans as a colonised people who have little “common sense” and no authority.

Furthermore it shows them as a separate race or species to further illustrate how they were treated as animals and savages. The term “common sense” used earlier also illustrates how Achebe took offence to the Western ideologies in that “common sense” is a term invented by Westerners. “Common sense” is the general term one uses for Western beliefs and values but other cultures (especially African cultures) have not been included as a part of this terminology. African cultures are, in fact, criticized by the term “common sense”, which once again Achebe took offence to. Achebe felt that Heart of Darkness was also a way of “writing back to the centre” in that it represented the Western people or Colonists as the dominant and superior force, to Achebe it was an alienation of the Africans and Africa. Heart of Darkness, therefore displaced the Africans in the novel; instead of them seeming good and familiar, they were distanced from the reader. Hence, one can see how Achebe was a strong believer in the “Postcolonial Theory” whereby he mostly challenged but also reflected upon modern European colonisation.

Brantlinger’s paper discusses the different views on colonisation by explaining five differents stances taken. According to Brantlinger the abolitionist stance (despite its good intentions) pitied the Africans and tried to fight for the Africans, but at the same time it did not occur to them that Africans were also intelligent people who could fight their own battles. It was hence seen that the abolitionists too, were treating the Africans as inferior. His discussion of the explorer’s stance illustrates how the explorers exploited Africa and destroyed its people because the explorers saw the Africans as a sub-race of savages who had little to no importance. Brantlinger also shows how scientists saw the Africans as a separate species to humans and that Africans were thought to be animals. Scientists theorised, through Social Darwinism, that the Africans would either have to survive of sucumb. To them the Africans were expendable.

To Brantlinger the missionaries considered the Africans as a race of pagans and heathens who needed to be converted to the “Good Faith”, Christianity, and they did not consider that the Africans may very well have had their own religion and set of beliefs. Furthermore, Brantlinger illustrated how the Western writers portrayed Africans as a sub-race of savages (or as an inferior group of people) who needed pity and a push in the right direction towards their Western ways. His statements, ” The constant association of Africa with the inhuman violence of the slave trade did much to darken its landscape even during the romantic period.” and ” By mid-century, the success of the anti-slavery movement, the impact of the great explorers, and the merger of racist and evolutionary doctrines in the social sciences had combined to give the British public a widely shared view of Africa that demanded imperialisation on moral, religious and scientific grounds.

It is this view that I have called the myth of the Dark Continent” are prime examples of how he see people to have incorrect notions about Africa and Africans. His views are highly suited to Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” in that they show how a white, westernised person sees the same racism eminent in todays literature as Achebe it sees in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, only Brantlinger does not directly attack any one specific book or person. Instead Brantlinger presents his view in a factual and justified manner which further helps support Achebe because he makes it easier to believe and understand him when he uses factual information rather than exclusively his opinions.

Brookes wrote a paper on how certain stereotypes of Africa have been created and how they are perpetuated in newspapers today. Headlines such as, “Why give life-blood to this heart of darkness?” were analysed and according to Brookes this headline and others like it “… result in the foregrounding of Africa as violent, repressive and helpless… They set up opposites where Africa is on the one side and is held up against a standard which it apparently does not meet”. Brookes’ analysis and opinions are highly relevant in that she illustrates how certain stereotypes and ideas on Africa have become second nature and are even printed in chronicles which are supposed to be factual recollections of events.

Brookes does so by discussing certain gramatical, wording and representation trends associated with Africa and this shows that these ideals are wrong and racist, one should not be allowed to perpetuate such incorrect stereotype of Africans. At the same time Brookes’ paper can also discredit Achebe, because it shows that perhaps Conrad’s reason for Heart of Darkness being a racist novel is because certain stereotypes are printed in the press each day and he simply did not know any better.

Achebe’s article, “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, shows that Achebe feels that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is racist and it perpetuates a certain incorrect view on Africans. He is offended by Conrad’s racism and insensitivity towards Africans. ” Heart of Darkness pojects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” Here Achebe shows exactly how he feels about Heart of Darkness. Achebe sees Marlowe and Conrad as the same person and hence because Marlowe, the narrator in Heart of Darkness, is ignorant and racist… Achebe immediatly assumes that Conrad holds the same views. Achebe feels that Conrad represents the colonists as superior somewhat god-like and that the Africans in Heart of Drakness are shown as savages, heathens and infidels and they are seen to be inferior.

Not only is this perception of Africans conveyed but Africa is also seen as a dark and mystical place which threatens everything that is foreign. Furthermore Achebe feels that Heart of Darkness creates the impression that Africa infects the Western people and drives them mad, as happened to Kurtz : “Consequently Africa is something to be avoided just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man’s jeopardous integrity. Keep away from Africa or else! Mr Kurtz of Heart of Darkness should have heeded that warning … But he foolishly exposed himself to the wild irresistable allure of the jungle and lo! the darkness found him out.” Achebe also feels that Conrad is also trying to convert people to his racist ways and infect them with his “xenophobia” (fear of foreigners). Achebe not only sees Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and is offended by it but he is also offended by the fact that nobody has challenged Heart of Darkness and its racism, but they praise and study this book instead.

C.P. Sarvan also wrote a critique on Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s article. He was, however, far less extreme than Achebe. Furthermore, he looks at the story from both sides and he weighs up both the Authors’ strengths and weaknesses. Sarvan discusses how in Heart of Darkness the colonists are actually corrupt and rotten to the core and instead of Africa being shown as an entirely bad and deep dark continent, Sarvan sees some type of of set used to highlight how the colonists were deranged and not at all pure, as the African people were. Sarvan quotes a critic who said, “Africa per per se is not the theme of Heart of Darkness, but it is used as a locale symbol for the very core of an ‘accursed inheritance”.

This quote along with Sarvan’s opinion that “the story may be seen as an allegory, the journey ending with the sombre realisation of the darkness of man’s heart.” show how in Heart of Darkness Conrad does not simply want to discredit Africa and show to be a dark black hole which is to be feared, rather that it actually illustrates how the colonists could learn goodness and purity from the Africans. In contrast to Achebe, Sarvan also sees Marlowe and Conrad as totally separate people and he thinks that Marlowe’s views are not necessarily the same as Conrad’s. Sarvan considers all the evidence and he concludes that in some parts of Heart of Darkness Conrad does tend to project racist view points, but by the same token Conrad also criticises the Colonists, their way of life and their lack of morals and ethics.

In both Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness there is certain language and diction which is used, the language used conveys a certain opinion and attitude toward what is being said. If one is to look at Brooke’s paper it can be seen that certain words are used to convey certain images of Africa, and at times even a certain gramatical structure is associated with Africa. If one looks at the language used in Heart of Darkness certain words can be picked out and seen as racist but also there are words which are not racist towards the Africans and rather they discredit the colonists. For example: “The Man seemed young – almost a boy – but you know with them it’s hard to tell.”( Heart of Darkness, Penguin Classics 2000, pg35, line 21). Here one can consider this to be a racist comment as it creates a distance between the Africans and the colonists, but it can also be seen as a perfectly innocent and ignorant comment because it’s natural to have trouble understanding that which you do not know.

A very similar comment is made in the same novel, however it is made with regard to the white men, it’s as follows “… white men being so much alike at a distance that he could not tell who I might be.” (Heart of Darkness, Penguin Classics 2000, pg 33, line 27) In Things Fall Apart there are also times when it can be criticised for the language used – Achebe describes the white missionaries as “four eyes” and here it is further illustrated that the Africans are now finding that which they are not familiar with troublesome and hard to understand. So when one weighs the two different descriptions from Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness up it can be seen that certain language can be seen as racist even if that is not the intent.

Furthermore when Conrad writes, “Fine fellows – cannibals – in their place.” (Heart of Darkness, Penguin Classics 2000, pg 61, line 6) you can both criticise and praise this quote. Although it does distance the Africans when he says “their place” and it could be seen as insulting to call the Africans “cannibals”, Conrad also presents the Africans in a friendly manner and he shows some kind of kinship with them when he says “Fine fellows”. Finally, there are many times when Conrad uses insulting language with regards to the Africans but he also uses language which praises them, so Achebe is not entirely correct when he says that Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness “parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults…”

In Things Fall Apart one is able to learn about the African religion and at the same time the Western religion is presented to the reader, neither is said to be right nor wrong. The advantages and disadvantages of both religions are expressed to the reader and prejudice is not shown towards either religion. In Heart of Darkness however, only the Western religion is shown and it is not even considered that the African Savages may possibly have a perfectly good set of morals and a decent religion. One is exposed to the Western religion and it is seen as the be all and end all.

The characters in Heart of Darkness are also portrayed to only believe in one certain religion and that religion (christianity) is the “saviour” of the primitive, savage Africans. For example this can be seen when Conrad writes, ” Something like an emissary of light, somethng like a lower sort of apostle… ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’…”(Heart of Darkness, Penguin Classics 2000, pg 28, line 17). Brantlingers paper further illustrates this as well as shows that this was a Victorian ideal. Hence, with regard to religion the only religion really shown in Heart of Darkness is christianity and it is not questioned or compared to an African religion, as the two religions in Things Fall Apart are.

Culture in both Achebe and Conrad’s novels is explored on two fronts : an African front and a Western front. In Things Fall Apart the more dominant culture is of course the African culture. One is introduced to the African Umuofia tribe and thereafter they are presented with the many different cultures and beliefs of that tribe and well some of the other African tribes. In Things Fall Apart, one is also shown a brief view of how the Africans saw and came to be part of Western culture, but one is also shown how the African culture actually contains alot of sense, morals and ethics. It can be seen that African culture it is not simply a group of people shouting out foreign screeches on shore as they are shown in Heart Of Darkness.

Furthermore, in Heart of Darkness the Western culture is the dominant one, and in contrast to Things Fall Apart not only is there very little understanding of the other culture (African Culture) but also there seems to be no effort from the characters in Heart of Darkness to even begin to understand or grasp the African culture : “In the empty immensity of the earth , sky, and water, there she was (the French man-of-war) incomprehensible firing into a continent.” (Heart of Darkness, Penguin Classics 2000, pg 30, line 33) This quote can also be used to illustrate how the colonists were seen as deranged and their culture fickle.

The characterisation in the two novels is very different when speaking about either the Africans of the Westerners. In Things Fall Apart the African is characterised as an intelligent being who has a sense of right and wrong and they contain the makings of Westerner’s human thread; maternal instinct towards one’s child, the drive to succeed, the knowledge of right and wrong, punishment for those who commit crimes, respect for elders etc. Furthermore, in Things Fall Apart the Westerners are portrayed in a fair light, despite their exloitation of the Umuofia tribe and their ideas are taken into consideration and the benifits are thaught about… this shows the Umuofia to be logical and fair people. Whereas in Heart of Darkness the Westerners are the only ones who are considered to be intelligent, despite them also being shown as impure and unfair : “hairdresser’s dummy” (Heart of Darkness, Penguin Classics 2000, pg 36, line31) and “I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.”

The Africans in Heart Of Darkness are not portrayed as humans, rather they’re seen as animals, but at the same time they can also be seen as more human than the imhumane colonists because they are compassionate and they aren’t empty inside (refer to “I let him run on…” above). The Africans are also seen as the underdogs being destroyed by the white men who only care for money. Overall in Things Fall Apart, the portrayal of the Africans in is that they’re humans with morals and a good steady culture and the portrayal of the Westerners is that they’re also human with morals and their own culture. In Heart of Drakness, the Africans are weak, primitive savages victimised by the strong, impure White man with no moral fibre.

The links between the books Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness can be seen as a trend throughout Booke’s and Brantlinger’s Papers. Both find that in our societies there are certain ideas associated with Africa; namely darkness, mystery, savagery, unenlightenment, lack of intelligence and resourses as well as good solid religion and moral fibre, and finally the idea that Africa infects the rest of the world with all its dark and dangerous qualities. Each day these ideas are passed through our brains and drummed into our heads, to such a degree that the majority of us no longer question their being right or wrong. Achebe found that in Heart of Darkness, Conrad discussed and displayed these racist ideals in extreme amounts and Achebe felt the racism Conrad openly showed was unacceptable. Surely society played a role in this uneducated assumption made about Africa and its people when it allowed for such racist ideals to be printed in the everyday press.

In Conclusion it can be asid that Achebe did have reason for his opposition to Heart of Drakness and its portrayal of Africa and Africans. It must be considered, however, that perhaps Conrad’s unintentional racism was simply the product of ignorance. He was incorrect in conveying the Africans as savages, but at the time the book was written Conrad was probably blinded by his society and its stereotypes. Furthermore, his true intention in Heart of Darkness was to show the Westerners lack of moral fibre by contrasting them against the Africans and showing how the Westerners exploited the Africans. Achebe’s description of Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” in “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” was not entirely true. Conrad did include some racism in Heart of Drakness but it was not intentional and it was certainly not extreme enough to call him a “thoroughgoing racist”.

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