In “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Chinua Achebe says that “it is the desire¬—one might indeed say the need—in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe” (337). Indeed it is wise for Achebe to make this claim while discussing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a short novel that presents the relationship between Europe and Africa as an entirely one-sided narrative which denies the African people their right to personage. For a majority of the novel, Marlow’s narration of a story goes so above and beyond telling one narrative, that it works toward preventing the African people from developing a voice of their own. Edward Said, in Culture and Imperialism, provides perhaps the most efficient explanation as to how the narrative that Marlow tells in the novel works against the African people:
As one critic has suggested, nations themselves are narrations. The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them. (xiii)
Marlow possesses the power to narrate, and therefore the power to block the African people from possessing their own voice. Achebe is right in saying that Marlow’s depiction of Africa “projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization” (338). However, beyond preventing a narrative from happen through the telling his own, Marlow performs a narrative that works toward creating a separation between “us”, the Europeans, and “them”, the Africans (xiii). His narrative, for the benefit of European identity, denies the African people any voice at all in the affairs between the two continents. Therefore, Marlow’s narrative shows the relationship between Europe and Africa to be one-sided “exploitation” (284) as Raymond William prescribes it. Marlow furthers the European identity, but at the price of drastically undermining the humanity of the African people.
The first instance where Marlow’s narrative works to deny the African people from possessing their own is the parallel between the River Thames and the River Congo. Although Achebe is correct in saying that the River Congo is “the very antithesis of the River Thames” (338) in the novel, early on Marlow tells of a time before the Thames “conquered its darkness” (338), which suggests that the rivers are meant to in this instance parallel one another. In the story of a Roman trader Marlow depicts what England must have been like for the Roman trader who was man “enough to face the darkness” (6) of the Thames:
Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery. The utter savagery had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible which is also detestable. And...