Achebe’s Inability To Understand Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness

3029 words - 12 pages

Achebe’s Inability to Understand Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

A fierce Achebe radically condemns Conrad as "a thoroughgoing racist" in his article, arguing that Heart of Darkness is not a piece of great literature, but "an offensive and deplorable book" (Achebe 1791). He structures his argument around a few central ideas, such as the grotesque perception of the Africans by the protagonist, the antinomy between the Thames and Congo River, the lack of historical fact, and the parallel between the African and the European women, among others.

Achebe misinterprets Conrad's work, and exhibits opacity to the narrative's message. He seems to purport, as any reader, a subjective interpretative reading of Conrad's book, with the peculiarity of continuously taking fragments out of their contexts, and creating an entire ideology behind them.

His main argument is that the European Conrad presents 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" (Achebe 1785). He misreads, and disregards the fact that many other readers see Conrad's Africa as a place where the white man brings and meets his own darkness and bestiality. Having no real emotional availability of exploring this continent whatsoever, Conrad's European responds to it either by exploiting what he can (as the manager, the Company, and its representatives do), destroying what he cannot (e.g. killing the locals and blowing up hills unnecessarily), or displaying occasional prejudice, indifference and confusion (as Marlow does). Everything the reader knows about Africa is through Marlow's subjective perception of what he sees or does not see, of what he hears or does not hear, and, ultimately, of what he self-ironically understands or fails to understand. The reader has another type of anxiety than the one mentioned by Achebe: s/he anxiously waits to see if any truly significant contact with Africa, its people, or its culture occurs throughout the book. Instead, the phrase "Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression," is emblematic, and indicative that this contact does not, and probably will not happen (Conrad 19).

Conrad assumes no task of presenting a good, objective or factual image of Africa, as Achebe would prefer; instead he critically exposes a refraction of this image in the European white middle class tainted perception. Indeed, many "normal readers," whom Achebe credits to be "well armed to detect and resist" underhand activity from the part of a writer, read into the novel its universal psychological implications that override Africanness or Europeanness. Marlow remains insulated from any real contact with the local culture; his stuck-to-the-river journey serves to preserve a confused and contemplative attitude in him, rather than an involved state of mind. His African experience comprises very little fact, proves...

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