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Ryan Westhoff ENG 390 Dr.

Gary Eddy December 5th, 2013 Response to Achebes An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrads Heart of Darkness Chinua Achebe is one of the most celebrated and acclaimed African writers of the 20th century. His novel Things Fall Apart is one of the most celebrated and acclaimed works of African literature in the Western world. Achebe has also gotten a lot of attention as an critic and literary scholar in his career as a writer and academic. In 1975, he first published one of his most notable essays, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness in which he heavily criticized Joseph Conrad and his famous novella, Heart of Darkness. In summary, Achebe criticizes the novella for a false and offensive representation of Africa and the dehumanization African people. He also criticizes Conrad for his own racism and ignorance and he claims that the similarities between Conrads life and the life that Marlow leads in the novella provides a vessel for Conrad (consciously or unconsciously) to insert his own racist and offensive views of Africa. Im not going to deny at all that many of the criticisms in Achebes essay arent true. Conrad/Marlows depiction, attitude, and treatment of Africa and the people of Africa is offensive and should be criticized. However, there are two main things that Achebe discusses in his essay that I believe need to be addressed. These two points are shown in these two quotes below: 1. 1. Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human

factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. 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? (Achebe). 2. 2. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization,

which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot (Achebe). My main argument against the first quote is that using a racist representation of Africa is important for the novella because it provides the audience in the early 20th century with a familiar setting that fits their cultures understanding of Africa and African people. However, Conrad adds a twist though by having the heart of darkness not solely in the Congo, but mainly within the Europeans themselves. For the second quote, I believe that questioning the artistic merit of Heart of Darkness is a shocking view point since there are many things to the novella that go far beyond the negative and offensive portrayal of Africa and their people. Before going deeper into these arguments, lets look at a few general important components to Heart of Darkness through a formalist lens. The novella takes place late at night on a ship called the Nellie with a small group of sailors listening to Charles Marlow tell a tale of his adventures into Africa. The story that Marlow tells is the main story throughout the novella; however, an anonymous listener retells Marlows story to the reader. The novella uses a framing device from an anonymous sailor telling the reader about a time when he listened to another sailor, Marlow, tell him about his adventures in the Congo. So just based off of this, it is fair to assume that there is a large amount of unreliable narration in this story, even to the point where the whole thing could be made up. Honestly, sailors seem like the perfect group of people who would tell all sorts of crazy stories about their adventures into the unknown, the terrifying, into the heart of darkness. The anonymous narrator even addresses how Marlow is completely covered in shadow and there are only his words in the darkness. This emphasizes even more the unreliability of Marlow since there is no facial

expression, body movements, anything else to go off of; just a voice. Conrad clearly set this story up to have the reliability of the story into serious question and the reader should be skeptical of what is being told to us and question whether or not or accurate or exaggerated the story is. Interestingly enough, Achebe uses this logic to argue against the reliability of Conrads personal journeys as a sailor. Achebe writes, Conrad . . . can be astonishingly blind, (Achebe) in reference to Conrads journals about his experience sailing in the Congo and Haiti. Achebes point is quite clear: Why should we trust a blind man to recount the reality of Africa? However, Achebe makes this argument while exclusively addressing Conrad blindness and he doesnt acknowledge Marlows own blindness and ignorance within the context of the story. Should this be excused? No. However, it should an important focus when discussing the reliability and the intentions of Marlow telling this story. This brings me to my first quotation: Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. 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? (Achebe). Reading this forces me to look back again at the situation that this story is taking place in: a bunch of sailors sitting around late at night, listening to an older sailor tell a tale of his adventures into the unknown world of early 1900s Europe. It is fair to assume that Marlow is describing the heart of darkness as dangerous and shocking to simply entertain his listeners (or the readers of the novella in the early 20th century). Marlow is telling them what they would expect to hear based off of their stereotypes of what Africa would be like, but he provides a twist in his adventures; the twist being that the Europeans really have the heart of darkness. Not only is the heart of darkness in the Congo, but it is also in Europe and it is much darker in Europe because of the awful

way that they have abused and treated the savages. Marlow shows us this through his explanation through the deterioration of Mr. Kurtzs well being and through imagery of watching the African people of being slaves. Conrad is providing this false representation of Africa to provide the readers in the early 20th century a familiar setting that fits into what their culture says about Africa. However, Conrads twist when he flips it around on the Europeans, making them the real savages, is something that would have been unexpected and it provided readers of that time period with a new insight about who they are and what their culture really says about Africa. Achebe brings up the argument about Conrad criticizing Europeans rather than Africa in his essay: Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe's civilizing mission in Africa (Achebe). He doesnt explicitly disagree with the argument, but he ignores it and instead talks about the false image of Africa being a background for the story. The fact that he dismisses this idea so quickly and doesnt explore it is bizarre since it seems to be the most widely accepted premise of the novella and arguably the whole purpose of the book. Achebe chooses to dismiss this though and instead focus solely on the false and offensive representation of Africa and Conrad/Marlows racism. In fact, he focuses so much on this that it brings him to question the artistic merit of the novella, which brings me to my second quote I wanted to address: And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot (Achebe). Based off of this, Achebe is saying that if a text is racist and/or offensive to a group of people that it shouldnt be considered a work of art. I completely disagree with this, but before looking at Heart of Darkness, an examination

of other racist but acclaimed works of art would be helpful to understand the artistic merit of Heart of Darkness. The Birth of a Nation is a 1915 silent film directed by DW Griffith that is notoriously infamous for glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and portraying African Americans very negatively. The film is also linked to inspiring the second revival of the KKK. However, despite the very infamous plot and themes of the film, film critics and scholars praise the movie for being a landmark film in film making and directing. The film also inspired future films to expand upon and explore the medium of film as an art. According to film historian Kevin Brownlow, [the film was] astounding in its time . . . [and initiated] . . . so many advances in filmmaking technique that it was rendered obsolete within a few years" (Brownlow). Roger Ebert, one of the most celebrated film critics of all time, said in regards to the film: Griffith demonstrated to every filmmaker and moviegoer who followed him what a movie was, and what a movie could be, and Garry Wills observes . . . . . . If art should serve beauty and truth, how can great art be in the thrall of hateful ideologies? The crucial assumption here is that art should serve beauty and truth. I would like to think it should, but there is art that serves neither, and yet provides an insight into human nature, helping us understand good and evil (Ebert). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel written by Mark Twain that came out in the US in 1885. The novel is widely considered to be Twains best work and one of the greatest American novels ever to be published. Huckleberry Finn features a young boy, Huck, who ran away from home with a slave named Jim. Throughout their adventure Huck gives us an imaginative depiction of life floating down the Mississippi and the various people that he meets along the Mississippi River. The novel is known for its impressive and believable first person narration of a young southern boy, Hucks character development, and social satire. However, the book is also one of the most challenged books in US schools and

has been strongly criticized for using the word nigger 219 times in the course of the novel. Hucks character development has also been challenged because by the end of the book he still believes he is going to go to Hell for befriending, rescuing, and caring for a black man, Jim. Achebe would most likely disagree on the artistic merit of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Birth of a Nation, however, it is hard say that someone cant learn or experience things from these works as both an artist (a writer or director) and an audience member (the reader or viewer). As Roger Ebert pointed out, art . . . provides an insight into human nature, helping us understand good and evil (Ebert). If something is racist, sexist, or offensive in any other way, there is still opportunities for artistic merit in the work and being so dismissive about anything that offends someone isnt being open minded to the possibilities of art. Heart of Darkness is still different then both Huckleberry Finn and the Birth of a Nation, though, because Heart of Darkness doesnt really focus on the racism like Huckleberry Finn and the Birth of a Nation. Instead, Heart of Darkness uses its racism as the setting. However, the same philosophy is still applicable. Whether Conrad was conscious of this or not, he was using a racist and false representation of Africa to provide his audience with a setting that fit into their cultures perception of what Africa was like, but then he went against societies expectations to show that the Europeans also have the heart of darkness and show that the darkness isnt just in the Congo, but in Europe as well. Not only that but Conrads brilliant use of a framing device and long detailed paragraphs of meaningful imagery and description help to keep the reader wanting to study and examine Marlows tale, but theres themes and lessons about human nature and authority that are essential to the story. Even Achebe himself admitted that Conrad had great talents as a writer, but despite all this, Achebe still believes that the novella shouldnt be considered a great work of art?

Chinua Achebes essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness heavily criticizes Joseph Conrads novella Heart of Darkness for giving a false representation of Afirca and African people. Achebe is also heavily critical of Conrads own personal beliefs and the novella provides a vessel for Conrad to insert his own racist beliefs and offensive views of Africa. However, there are two key parts of the essay that I believe are heavily flawed: 1. 1. Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human

factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. 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? (Achebe) 2. 2. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization,

which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot (Achebe). Using a racist representation of Africa provides the audience reading the novella with a setting that is familiar to their cultures understanding of Africa and African people and then it makes the twist of having the heart of darkness not solely in the Congo, but mainly within the Europeans themselves. The questioning of the artistic merit of Heart of Darkness is a close-minded reading of the novella when the book has much more to offer both the audience and fellow artists then just a racist portrayal of Africa. Art that is offensive shouldnt be diminished since the potential for the art to explore both the good and evil of humanity is much more powerful when dealing with controversial opinions or subjects. While I do agree with Achebe that it is wrong that our society still has these offensive perceptions of Africa and that the racism in Heart of Darkness and in Conrads own life is

wrong, the artistic merit and importance of Heart of Darkness is still important and shouldnt be dismissed by students and or academia.

Works Cited Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261

Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade's Gone By.... University of California Press. p. 78. Ebert, Roger. "The Birth of a Nation." Rogerebert.com. Chicago Sun Times, n.d. Web.