Misleading Interpretations of Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Chinua Achebe, a well-known writer, once gave a lecture at the University of Massachusetts about Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, entitled "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Throughout his essay, Achebe notes how Conrad used Africa as a background only, and how he "set Africa up as a foil to Europe,"(Achebe, p.251) while he also "projects the image of Africa as 'the other world,' the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization."(Achebe, p.252) By his own interpretations of the text, Achebe shows that Conrad eliminates "the African as a human factor," thereby "reducing Africa to the role of props."(Achebe, p.257)
In supporting these accusations against Conrad, Achebe cites specific examples from the text, while also, pointing out that there is a lack of certain characteristics among the characters. Achebe then compares the descriptions of the Intended and the native woman. Explaining that the savage "fulfills a structural requirement of the story: a savage counterpart to the refined European woman," and also that the biggest "difference is the one implied in the author's bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other."(Achebe, p.255) This lack of human expression and human characteristics is what Achebe says contributes to the overflowing amount of racism within Conrad's novella. Human expression, is one of few things that make us different from animals, along with such things as communication and reason. This of course, being that without human expression, the native woman is considered more of a "savage...wild-eyed and magnificent," (Achebe quoting Conrad, p. 255), possibly even "bestial."
In an attempt to refute Achebe's proposed difference between the two women, C.P. Sarvan said that Conrad perceived the native woman as a "gorgeous, proud, superb, magnificent, terrific, [and] fierce" person whose "human feelings [were] not denied."(Sarvan, p. 284) In comparing the two views, one must step back and consider that both views are only interpretations on what Conrad may have intended. Since no one can ever really know what his actual meanings were for these two women being so similar (in their movements), and yet so different (in their character), only individual explanation can be brought up. This in particular, is what brings me to question both Achebe and Sarvan's points. By reorganizing Conrad's descriptive words, Sarvan was able to propose that Conrad did not intend for the mistress to be perceived as the "savage counterpart."(Achebe, p. 255) Yet, at the same time, both Sarvan and Achebe each write about what they think to be the right thing. It seems to me that Achebe was looking for racism in this short novel, and that Sarvan was so taken back by Achebe's accusations, that he himself, went and looked for ways to defend Conrad.
However, this particular shortcoming of the native woman, is not the only one...