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Secret Racist : A Criticism of Viewing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as Writings of a Racist



A short criticism of Chinua Achebe’s view that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness perpetuates racism of the African people and that his work should not be considered great literature.
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JULY 24, 2014
ABSTRACT: A short cricism of Chinua Achebe’s view that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
perpetuates racism of the African people and that his work should not be considered great
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Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is among the greatest short novels in the English
language, a belief of serious academics. Post-colonial criques of the novel have called into
queson whether the novel reproduces the racist assumpons about Africa and Africans that
underlie and empower the imperialism Conrad’s novel aempts to call into queson. Some
have cricized the novel and its author of being racist and perpetuang the idea of Africa
being the foil of European countries. Others have defended the novel for being an eecve
cricism of colonizaon and of imperialisc behavior during the period. Either way, the
author’s perspecve and intent may shed light on the debated subject.
Chinua Achebe, a professor and novelist who wrote “An Image of Africa: Racism in
Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” as a crique of Conrad’s short novel, believes that Conrad is “a
thoroughgoing racist” (5). He believes that even though Conrad had the ulmate purpose of
denouncing the European imperial exploitaons of its colonies, Conrad used "Africa as seng
and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical
baleeld devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at
his peril" (5). Achebe states that Conrad had “set Africa up as a foil to Europe” and as “the
other world” or “the anthesis of Europe and therefore of civilizaon, a place where man's
vaunted intelligence and renement are nally mocked by triumphant beasality” (1-2). Many
writers and supporters of Achebe’s stance believe that Conrad may have been a great stylists
of modern con who "saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitaon but was strangely
unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth" (9). In fact, Conrad’s use of
destrucve stereotypical language toward the African people may have undermined his
aempt to condemn imperialism. Achebe feels that Conrad’s novel should not be exalted as a
work of great literature because it perpetuates the negaon of African people.
Then, there are writers and crics who have disagreed with the negave perspecve of
Conrad’s novel and hold that it is one of the greatest short novels in the English language.
“Those crics who disagree with Achebe…(and it may be noted that among their number are
many African writers) recognize the value that Achebe’s perspecve brings to analysis of the
text; the book is in important ways about imperialism and racism” (Goonelleke, 18).
Defenders of the novel also cite that Conrad had an an-colonial purpose and his aempt “to
examine what happens when Europeans come into contact with this parcular form of
economic and social exploitaon” (Phillips, 61). They also state that the perspecve in Heart of
Darkness “is not Conrad's but that of his conal narrator, Marlow” (Achebe, 4) who is merely
retelling a story and that “Africa is ‘merely a seng for the disintegraon of the mind of Mr
Kurtz’” (Achebe, 5). The novel does reect “the dominant image of Africa in the Western
imaginaon” (Phillips, 63) and Conrad only used language and images that were the norm at
the me (Conrad cannot be blamed for originang these negave images of Africa and its
people). Frances B. Singh, a writer and professor from India, states that Heart of Darkness
“was progressive in its saric account of the colonialists” and “the story should remain in ‘the
canon of works indicng colonialism’” (The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, 55).
There is a perspecve that can be taken that may shed beer light on the debated
subject. Ficon can never be fully conal. When an author writes a story or when an arst
creates a great work of art, he somemes draws from his own experiences, even if these
experiences are from his ight of imaginaon. If what the author\arst creates is pure
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imaginaon, he sll must draw from the world around him to make the audience experience
his imaginaon in a tacle form. This makes it important to analyze great works of art from the
author's perspecve and his original intent.
Now, one can examine the art only and analyze it. This is similar to what James Joyce
menons in Portrait of the Arst as a Young Man. He states that truly the highest form of art is
the dramac form in which “the form wherein [the arst] presents his image in immediate
relaon to others” (NAEL v.2, 2446). This form is where the arst’s emoon/experience passes
into the narraon completely [impersonal] and the arst is invisible to others. This is where
characters are fully realized and detailed. Joyce writes that "the arst, like the God of creaon,
remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, rened out of existence,
indierent, paring his ngernails" (NAEL v.2, 2447). In this case, some believe that great art
can stand and be examined alone. One can appreciate the art itself without even considering
the arsts. But over me, what was once the appreciaon of the art by itself may become the
hatred of it. One generaon may praise the art while the next might nd it oensive.
For instance, the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, was wrien by Harriet
Beecher Stowe, who was an abolionist. When the novel came out, it received praise from
abolionists while it received protest from defenders of slavery because it depicted the reality
of slavery in the south. Now about 100 years later, in 1960's and 1970's, the African American
movements aacked the book for its negave stereotypes (Rothstein). If the work is
considered alone, then by today's standards, the novel would be highly oensive and the
author a racists. But if we examine the author's perspecve and her original intent, then we
gain a layer of understanding that it was wrien before the Civil War where negave
stereotypes were common and that the author's intent was to inform others of the destrucve
reality of slavery.
Another example can be examined to explore this concept. I am an immigrant from
India who has become an American Cizen. When reading about Brish Imperialism during
the 19th century and reading the documents and leers that circulated at the me regarding
Britain’s colonizaon of India, I could be easily oended with the language and crude words
used to describe Indians and their culture. Apparently, we were savages and uneducated
masses, where our religion, culture, and way of life were wild and primive in comparison to
that of the common Englishman’s. Examining their leers and documents alone, I could
assume that all writers at the me were racists. Instead, I understand that what may seem to
be racism may in fact be a natural comfortability with their own countrymen as well as
an aempt to explain our dierences the best way they could. I also understand the me
period and that the technologies at the me were bringing a large world closer. I understand
that the leer and the documents must be examined under the light of the author's
perspecve and his original intent. This is also true when examining the Bible. Many churches
and followers have been misled or have misinterpreted scripture because of failing to
understand the original intent and perspecve of some of the writers in the Bible. Trying to
understand art in the absence of the arst is trying to understand the Bible in the absence of
God and its writers. It can be done, but you lose some of the many rich layers. Great works of
art and literature can only be understood in layers; rst the art itself, then in the context of the
arst's perspecve and intent.
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In examining Heart of Darkness, one must consider Conrad's perspecve and his original
intent. His intent was not to stereotype the African people but to reveal the exploitaon of the
colonies. His aim was not at Africa but at Brish imperialism. Should he have soened the blow
and not address the African people in such a way that was common during that me? I believe
that would have made the imperialists seem a bit kinder and gentler than they actually were.
When we look at the work alone, we can be misled with what the author was trying to
accomplish. We can look at the work or art alone and come up with our own interpretaon, but
it may be in direct conict with the author's intent. When we examine the author's perspecve
and his original intent, then we gain a far richer layer of understanding. Conrad was an arst
trying to explain and understand his own experience in the Congo. He was a writer who did not
want to hide the ugly truth of what he witnessed. The racism in the novel, no maer how ugly,
helped with creang a realisc picture of the extent of the destrucon of imperialisc thinking.
Varghese, Secret Racist - 4
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Works Cited
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2: The Romanc Period Through the
Tweneth Century. Edited by Stephen Greenbla. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's ‘Heart of Darkness’”. Massachuses
Review. Massachuses, 1977. Reprinted in An Image of Africa/The Trouble With
Nigeria. Penguin Books, 2010.
Goonelleke, D.C.R.A. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Canada & New York: Routledge,
Phillips, Caryl. “Was Joseph Conrad Really a Racist?”. Philosophia Africana. Volume 10, Number
1. March 2007. pp. 59-66(8).
The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Edited by J. H. Stape. Cambridge, UK: The Press
Syndicate of The University of Cambridge, 1996.
Rothstein, Edward. "Digging Through the Literary Anthropology of Stowe's Uncle Tom", The
New York Times, October 23, 2006.
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