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Heart of Darkness has long been considered a triumph of 20th century English-language literature and its exploration of the darkness inside man has long provoked analysis by critics. But renowned Nigerian author and preeminent scholar on African culture, Chinua Achebe, has a markedly different view. In a 1975 lecture, he denounced Heart of Darkness as an example of pervasive racism, dismissal of African culture, and European arrogance and ignorance. He argued that if it was to be taught, it should be used only as an example of the horrifically backwards views of Joseph Conrad and of the period it was written in. His lecture and subsequent essay sparked a scholarly uproar with many strongly denouncing Achebe’s views and arguing that while racist, Heart of Darkness was far ahead of its time and indeed sought to highlight European abuses of power in Africa. Hunt Hawkins is among these scholars and his counter-argument to Achebe represents the far more relativist view of many critics and seeks to place Conrad’s novel and its views in the context of its era and its author’s life.
Achebe’s critique focuses on the depiction of Africans in Conrad’s novel. Their depiction is effectively that of sub-humans. As he points out, no African character is given a name and only one is described in any detail. They are viewed as beyond savage, beyond primitive and as not entirely human. Achebe emphasizes Conrad’s use of racial slurs, his belaboring of the darkness of the Africans, and their seeming lack of humanity. This is important, Achebe argues, because this is often the only depiction of Africans that students will experience before college and thus is key to shaping their early opinions on the subject. Achebe holds this book and the image it perpetuates as responsible for the view that Africa has no culture worth studying. He readily admits that Conrad is “one of the great stylists of modern fiction,” but Achebe asserts that this only adds to its danger. Heart of Darkness’s permanence and writing-quality is what makes it among the most ubiquitous novels of high school curricula and this gives it a platform from which to disseminate its view of Africa as “the other world.” In Achebe’s view, Conrad does not present Africa or the Congo as a nation or a people, nor does he present its inhabitants as fully human—they are merely a nameless and faceless backdrop for the Europeans in the story. This is not merely a representation of the prevailing views of the time in Achebe’s mind, but a reflection of Conrad’s own views and his own deep animosity and ignorance towards the people of Africa.
Hunt Hawkins presents a radically different view in his own counter=point to Achebe’s essay. He concedes that Heart of Darkness is in itself racist and does not attempt to deny that Africans are dehumanized in the story. But Hawkins argues first and foremost that the tribes being described by Conrad are not the well-established and relatively stable Ibo of Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, but are chaotic, warring tribes torn apart by European diseases, slave-trading and occupation. Unlike the Ibo in Things Fall Apart, these are a people devastated by colonialism, not encountering its first hints. Thus, Hawkins argues that Conrad may have gathered a far darker picture of African society from his experiences in the Congo than he would have had he stayed in another part of Africa far from the brutal occupation and exploitation of the Belgian colonizers. Perhaps, Hawkins concludes, Conrad may have been actually describing truthfully the things he saw them on his visit.
But Hawkins primary point is that Conrad, however racist he many have been, was ahead of his time. He notes that Conrad was an intense opponent of imperialism in all forms and particularly criticized the hypocrisy of its “civilizing mission” which Heart of Darkness presents as morally corrupt and deluded. The Europeans in this story are hardly superior. In fact, they are generally abusive towards the natives, violent, condescending and corrupt. They are clearly using the Congo and its people purely for profit and justifying this through the flimsy rationale of the White Man’s Burden and social Darwinism. At one point both Achebe and Hawkins agree that Africans are a mere backdrop in the story while the Europeans and their demons are the dominant storyline. But Achebe interprets this as a negative while Hawkins seems to think it a positive. He argues that them being a backdrop is relevant in that Conrad does not intend to portray them as negative characters because he does not intend to portray them as characters at all while Achebe would argue that that is precisely the problem. Africans are indeed a backdrop to the story. But in Achebe’s mind this is a message to students about what Africa is. It is a message that Africa is not worth a named character, that it is merely a backdrop for the Europeans without a distinct identity of its own.
Edward Said seems to take the most moderate position. He views Conrad as beholden to the European morals of his time and unable to see any alternative to the evils of imperialism. Yet he does point out these evils and does recognize the hypocrisy and brutality of colonization, even if he sees no end in sight and does not wish for one. He concludes that Conrad is surely racist, but he cannot be viewed in a truly negative light since he was nonetheless far beyond his time in his criticism of the ideals and practice of imperialism. Conrad’s point is to introduce a grey area between the civilized and uncivilized—noting that even though the Africans may be uncivilized, the Europeans are as well. Said seems unsure whether Conrad wishes Africa to be free (even if he could not imagine what that would look like) or whether he truly believes in the ideals of imperialism.
Heart of Darkness is a classic novel, ubiquitous in high school and college curricula, and its author is a great craftsman of fiction and prose – yet it is unarguably racist. It was written in a time of imperialism, colonialism, racism and the self-justifying rationale of the white man’s burden. Chinua Achebe, the acclaimed author of the first great work of modern African fiction, argues that this is enough to cease teaching the book purely as literature. Instead he proposes that the book be taught only in the context of its racism and only as an example of the attitudes of the time. But other writers of the time, including Hunt Hawkins, argue that Conrad cannot be judged too harshly for his views. They are a reflection of the time and in the context of this time period Conrad was a revolutionary. His books may present Africans as savages, but it presents imperialism as equally so. Imperialism in Conrad is hubris—a failed idea filled with high-minded European ideals that collapse under the weight of human nature. Conrad’s weakness was that he was a man of his time and thus could not imagine another path. He could not imagine a world without imperialism despite its evils. But even if we recognize that Conrad was beholden to the ideals of his time, racism is racism. To teach Heart of Darkness without focusing on this element of it is to ignore the most dominant theme in the novel and the lasting impact it has had on generations of readers.
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