by Mollie (’13)
Polish writer, Joseph Conrad, is most known for his acclaimed novel Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness follows Marlow, a British sailor in search of adventure, while traveling up the Congo River and into the depths of the Congolese rainforest in the late 1800s. While acclaimed for its literary merit and considered to be one of the Western canon’s best contemporary short novels, Heart of Darkness is heavily debated over for its portrayal of Africa. As Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, so eloquently states in his essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” the thoroughgoing racist Conrad dehumanizes, stereotypes, and creates the image of Africa as insubordinate to the Western world. Thus, as Achebe proves, through Conrad’s dehumanization of all Africans, his fixation on Africans’ dark skin, and his “exotification” of African culture, Conrad presents himself as an undeniable racist, and this most acclaimed novel simply perpetuates stereotypes, racism, and an illusory image of Africa and Africans.
As Achebe calls attention to in his essay, Conrad rarely describes “an African who is not just limbs or rolling eyes” (Achebe, 3). Conrad focuses his attention not on the content of the African characters’ character, but their “gruesome” and “helpless” exterior. Marlow describes the Africans he comes across as shapeless shadows, mere smudges of people, “black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom… these moribund shapes were free as air—and nearly as thin” (Conrad, 20). Thus Conrad does nothing to give these “shapes” life, personality, culture, dignity, honor, or respect. To Conrad, all Africans can be described simply as “black bones” (Conrad, 20) with no further identification. Thus by describing Africans as abject objects, Conrad strips all Africans, diverse and varied, of their culture, their persons, their value, and perpetuates the Western stereotype of Africans as helpless, miserable, “things” and Africa as ridden with starvation and disease. This disparity in description of all African characters can be compared to the highly personified jungle Conrad describes. While Conrad observes the Africans as nothing more than “acute angles” thus commenting on their frailty, he writes in great depth about the jungle surrounding Marlow, including details of how “vegetation rioted” and of a “mob of wooded islands” (Conrad, 41). Throughout the book, Conrad attributes more human characteristics to the Congolese rainforest than to the Congolese living within it, effectively dehumanizing all African characters.
Not only does Conrad heed most of his attention on illuminating the disparities of the Africans, but on their dark skin color. While the novel is a so-called critique of the imperial endeavors of Europeans in Africa, and does focus on the harsh manners of the European colonizers, Conrad pays unnecessary attention to skin color throughout the novel. Conrad’s “fixation on blackness” (Achebe, 6) is no more apparent than in Marlow’s observation of a Congolese boy at his side. Conrad writes, “I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me… The man seemed young—almost a boy—but you know with them it’s hard to tell” (Conrad, 20). In this example, Conrad uses “black bones” as the key characteristic by which to identify the young man at his side. No height, eye color, or body size observation makes its way past the skin color of the boy. Just as the jungle is dark, forbidding, and mysterious, so is the African. To add insult to injury, Conrad slanderously states that it is impossible to distinguish one African from another. Both of these aspects of Conrad’s writing: his attention to skin color, and his comment on the “uniformity” of all Africans perpetuate the stereotype we see today of the “universal African”. By promoting the idea that Africans are one people, uniform in their language, culture, physical features, and way of life, by disregarding the diversity in Africa’s people and lumping all Africans into an amorphous blob, and indicating that Africans should be solely categorized by the color of their skin, Conrad promotes staunch racism in his seemingly innocent novel.
Conrad’s description of the Congo is one that highlights Africa as wild, mysterious, and dystopic and its inhabitants primal and savage. This unfair portrayal is emphasized with juxtaposition of the more “civilized”, and “cultured” Europeans. Achebe writes, “Quite simply it is the desire—one might say the need—in Western psychology to set Africa up as foil to Europe, as a place of negations once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will manifest” (Achebe, 1). Conrad exemplifies this need when he writes about Marlow’s experience passing Africans when on a steamboat. “Suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse… of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling… we glided past like phantoms (Achebe, 44). While Conrad “exotifies” African culture here—making it out be to be something foreign, menacing, and primal—those who ride the steamboat, primarily Europeans, are regarded to as “phantoms”, a stark contrast from the demeaning and stereotyped descriptions of the Africans they pass. By illustrating Africans as overly-exotic, Conrad reinforces the stereotype of the uncivilized African and confirms Social Darwinism, the idea that the Western world, more technologically advance, is therefore more fit to survive, and better than the non-Western world.
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, while debated to be one of the best short stories of the twentieth century, should be reprimanded for its racism, perpetuation of stereotypes, and overall neglect of illustrating the diverse cultures and peoples of Africa. While we may appreciate its literary genius, we should use Heart of Darkness only for a snapshot and primary source from the “Scramble for Africa”, Europe’s imperial frenzy in the late 1800s, and as a means to understand racism in the Western canon that touched upon every aspect of our culture. For if refuse to read this novel as a beacon of good writing, we will surely weaken its message of Africans and Africa as unanimous, homogenous, primal, and exotic that has, for so long and so negatively affected the world’s perception of this vast continent.