Chinua Achebe Essay Heart Darkness Summary

Chinua Achebe's new collection of essays is The Education of a British Protected Child. AFP hide caption

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Chinua Achebe's new collection of essays is The Education of a British Protected Child.


Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe redefined the way readers understood Africa in his first novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, that book told the story of the English coming to Africa — from the perspective of Africans. It stands in stark contrast to Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, which follows an Englishman named Marlow who embarks on a journey up the Congo.

Though Achebe was attracted to Conrad's book as a child, he excoriated it in the 1970s, and he continues to dismiss it today.

"Conrad was a seductive writer. He could pull his reader into the fray. And if it were not for what he said about me and my people, I would probably be thinking only of that seduction," Achebe tells Robert Siegel.

Achebe says that once he reached a certain age, he realized that he was "not on Marlow's ship" but was, instead, one of the unattractive beings Marlow encounters in passing. At one point, Conrad describes an African working on the ship as a "dog wearing trousers."

"The language of description of the people in Heart of Darkness is inappropriate," says Achebe. "I realized how terribly terribly wrong it was to portray my people — any people — from that attitude."

Though Achebe dislikes Conrad's description of Africans, he does not feel that Heart of Darkness should be banned: "Those who want to go on enjoying the presentation of some people in this way — they are welcome to go ahead. The book is there. ... I simply said, 'Read it this way,' and that's all I have done."

Remember my Heart of Darkness post from a few days back? Well in it I mentioned an article, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” by Chinua Achebe (available online) and I just finished reading it. I’m going to reproduce their bibliographic information at the bottom of the page, in case someone decides to use it for scholarship, in which case an online text-only version would be unacceptable. As for the article itself, it’s wonderful, beautifully written (which is really saying something because most scholarship, even good scholarship, is usually a snooze), and quite compelling. In it Achebe makes an argument for Conrad being “a thoroughgoing racist,” who “engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery” which leaves “much more … at stake than stylistic felicity.” Kaboom! Achebe just threw down the gauntlet.

Remember when I said, “Heart of Darkness is a classic, it should be read, absolutely, but there just isn’t any emotional resonance to it, at least not for me.” Well I wrote that three days ago, and I am already calling it into question. That’s what I wanted from my class: to dig into this dense text and unpack it. Achebe does this brilliantly, and the “hypnotic stupor” induced by Conrad’s writing would be a likely source of my ambivalence. The other possible cause that Achebe points out is much more sinister, namely “that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.” I hate to admit that Achebe might be right about that, but in a text about imperialism in the Congo the racism was, indeed, expected. I didn’t enjoy it, but it didn’t leap out to me. I only noted it briefly, as though it was a matter of fact, and Achebe calls into question my lack of questioning.

The other source for this ambivalence, which Achebe argues is constructed by Conrad, comes from the use of the narrator Marlow. Achebe addresses Marlow as a literary device, saying: “Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his history.” Marlow is this “layer of insulation,” but Achebe states that it is not an entirely successful attempt: “But if Conrad’s intention is to draw a cordon sanitaire between himself and the moral and psychological malaise of his narrator his care seems to me totally wasted because he neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters.” Basically Achebe is saying that Conrad had the ability to draw back from the frame narration – which happens for slivers at the beginning and end of the text – and give us a hint that Marlow should not be taken seriously. It appears, however, that Conrad never “thought it necessary” to do so. The only hints of this that may be present is in Marlow’s connection to Kurtz who is “corrupted” by the “darkness” of the Congo and goes mad. If Marlow is a mirror of Kurtz then the same madness is expected to manifest in him and, indeed, it may have already set in by the time he begins narrating his story. However, even if he is insane (though he seems lucid so it would be in its beginning, high functioning stages) his story passes by without comment from the audience that exists within the narrative.

Achebe also writes from an informed position: “Conrad was born in 1857, the very year in which the first Anglican missionaries were arriving among my own people in Nigeria.” My class last semester was on race in the Americas was wonderful, but the voice of anything but white people was conspicuously absent. Not in the reading, mind you, but in the classroom itself. I find that somewhat problematic and no one ever mentioned it – were we, a room full of white people, even qualified to comment on these subjects? When Achebe comes down on Conrad like a hammer you have to respect it, because Conrad is working with Achebe’s home continent. Of course it’s a continent (ie: huge), but even that perspective – one that is only narrowed to Africa the continent – is largely absent from study.

Another element that Achebe addresses, although only briefly, is the women in the text. The native African woman who is presumably Kurtz’ mistress (and whom the narrative zooms in on quite suddenly) and Kurtz’ “Intended,” his white fiancee back home. Achebe does not devote a large amount of space to them and states that it’s not necessary to* (I disagree), but he does conclude, interestingly, that “the most significant difference” between the two women “is the one implied in the author’s bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other.” Can you guess which is which?

Now we return to one of Achebe’s most powerful statements, one which I was guilty of, and which I will not retroactively censor despite the temptation: the assertation that Conrad’s novel is a “classic” that should be read. To this end Achebe states: “Whatever Conrad’s problems were, you might say he is now safely dead. Quite true. Unfortunately his heart of darkness plagues us still. Which is why an offensive and deplorable book can be described by a serious scholar as ‘among the half dozen greatest short novels in the English language.’ And why it is today the most commonly prescribed novel in twentieth-century literature courses in English Departments of American universities.” Ouch. I felt that one. What Achebe’s article did for me, most powerfully, was hold up a mirror to my own uncritical acceptance of the novel. This was something that the classroom is “supposed” to do, incidentally, and what I hope to do in my own classroom. Really I’m thrilled that Achebe’s article gave me the challenge I needed, to examine my own reading, along with the novel itself.

Finally, I want to state that I think one of the most powerful elements of Achebe’s article is its anger. The classroom now is very focused on accentuating the positive, at least in my experience, and while I think that’s wonderful in some ways, anger is entirely appropriate when examining some texts. When Achebe talks about Heart of Darkness, he states: “I am talking about a book which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today. I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question.” That statement should come down on the reader like a hammer.

I will conclude by stating that I do not think it is any more helpful or valid for me to uncritically accept Achebe’s views than it was for me to uncritically maintain the validity of Conrad’s place in the canon. What I love about Achebe’s article though, and why I spent over twice the word count addressing it, is because it made me think.

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, 251-261.

* The exact quote is: “The difference in the attitude of the novelist to these two women is conveyed in too many direct and subfile ways to need elaboration.” Disagree!

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This entry was posted in Books and Literature and tagged Chinua Achebe, discursive summary, graduate school, heart of darkness, joseph conrad, literary criticism, scholarly article on by Brigitte.
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