Is Conrad a Racist?

How far do you agree with Achebe’s theory that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is racist?

Achebe’s focus lies heavily on the recollection of African traditions, effects of Christian influences and the clash of values during and after the colonial era. Therefore once studying Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” he immediately underlined the significance of its themes and meanings referring to the apparent pejorative descriptions of Africa and its people as uncivilised and “savage” beings. However Achebe also notified Conrad’s ability acknowledging his talent for writing stating “Conrad…is undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good storyteller into the bargain”. However it is here that in opposition to Conrad’s derogatory descriptions that he neglects to comprehend the implicit intent of the text. Therefore his erroneous judgments become rather nugatory in the analysis of Conrad’s text and background. For example in Achebe’s textual critique of “Heart of Darkness” he identifies a supposed antithesis of the Thames and the river Congo. This analysis runs parallel to the description of Africa as “the other world” and the civilised west where the savagery of primitive beings has been conquered. However Achebe’s authoritive tone reveals his folly in false judgment:

“Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point.”

The most powerful dramaturgical tool of “Heart of Darkness’s” impressionistic investigation into the human psyche is the bitter irony of each descriptive portrayal of absurd colony. Achebe therefore undermines his own influential potency by ignoring Conrad’s satiricism of colonial ideals. London is presented in a pleasant backdrop but there is an undeniable tone of foreboding mystery surrounding its “brooding gloom” as it is described by the narrator:

“Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.”

The anger and sombre flavours of the text can be identified as the clash between nature and the human condition. Immediately the “gloom” of the west can signify the radiating human presence subtly forcing its mark upon the natural world. This metaphor is reflected by the “sea and sky…welded together without a joint” representing the west’s dogmatic influence on nature as the “welded” quality has connotations of warping and tampering. The west is personified with the effective use of the simile to augment the figurative concept. Essentially this arguably pitches Conrad as a cynic of colonial culture in a position to readily accept its direct opposite: the naturist culture of Africans of the Congo.

The same irony describing western culture prior to Marlow’s voyage to the Congo is delineated in the unnamed city. Marlow’s expressive nature notifies the greed and undeniable corruption of the western empires and their tendencies that are evocative of rapacity. He treats the population and surroundings of an unnamed city with distaste, illustrating the diverse, opulent infrastructure referencing to it’s richness with a bitter undertone of irony:

“A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with Venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting between the stones…”

This depiction holds an intense gothic tone as the “deep shadow” and “dead silence” suggest an infernal hell mirroring prior illustrations of London’s “mournful gloom”. Marlow continues to use his imagistic complex sentences to delineate the scene revealing further images of vapidity (“as arid as the desert”). His use of similes exaggerates the theme of desolation to underline the loss of morality and religion in this unnamed city. The large and complex sentence differs from the simple and compound structures preceding it. This interchange signals Conrad’s influence on the narrative voice with his distanced viewpoint and characteristic use of irony. The discourse on first appearances mentions the atmosphere of the city, but the continued expression focusing on gothic ideas references his scorn of western morals. Importantly Conrad does not mention the name of the city to leave an ambivalent but suggestive paradigm of all western societies: morality distorted by greed and corruption. The lack of awareness of good and evil in western society elicits derision from Conrad as he experienced it during his lifetime. Only until the twentieth century did people regard Imperialism as a predominantly sordid saga of imposition and exploitation. Conrad witnessed the irreparable nefarious acts of greed and colony explaining their reflection on his texts. This then supports Conrad as a non-racist and revolutionist, disgusted by the human condition and treatment of the world. His delineation of the west follows a corrupt and iniquitous paradigm that follows greed expressed through Conrad’s distanced narrative technique through Marlow. Here the west believes it “bears the torch” as “messengers of the might within the land”. However the “torch” representing freedom contrasts with the enslaved blacks of the Congo. Therefore moral surface Western ideals are corrupted when uncharted. This contrasts with Conrad’s depiction of Africans, arguing that he is not a racist.

In opposition to Achebe’s idea of Conrad’s racism, the Africans of “Heart of Darkness” are presented with a natural quality but from a quasi-colonial aspect through the narrator Marlow. This distorted narrative technique allows Conrad to project his own opinion upon the reader as moments of realisation. By this technique he reveals the brutality of Imperialism upon the natives of the Congo. However to keep a psychological realism to Marlow’s character the foreign appearance of the Africans are displayed from a western perspective. This does not directly reflect Conrad’s negative view of their culture. This is understandable when one considers the darkness and “incomprehensible frenzy” depicted throughout the journey as an insight into Marlow’s spiritual solitary confinement. The darkness appears to be a recurring motif present in London, Brussels and the jungle. Therefore the darkness appears explicitly as a foreboding veil constantly shrouding his human psyche. The confusion of seemingly “ugly” faces, “bursts of yells…and heavy foliage” then become a barrage of the unfamiliar upon an isolated soul. However in isolation Marlow does not fail to mention the Africans as human:

“…but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement that was as natural and hue as the surf along their coast”      

His intense imagery becomes a distinct analysis of the beauty of nature and its creations. Opposing to Achebe’s antithesis of the civilised river Thames and the wild river Congo, Conrad’s significant contrast is instead of nature and its vitality in opposition to colony and the rapacious desire for wealth and resource: a concept that eludes Achebe. It is clear that the implicit racism of Marlow reflects the psychological analysis of a foreign culture. The true narrative of Conrad’s beliefs occurs only subtly through ironic mockery and very occasional moments of realisation:

“…the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.”

The idea of “truth” remains within Conrad’s description referring to nature: the meaning is indistinct. This is how Conrad intends his novella to be. The novella is then open to interpretation contributing to the genius of Conrad’s style

However the nebulous quality as to how to interpret “Heart of Darkness” can be countered by his notes concerning other novellas. For example he comments upon “An Outpost of Progress” and “Heart of Darkness” as stories referring to the well known fact that “curious men go prying into all sorts of places (where they have no business) and come out of them with all kinds of spoil”. “An Outpost of Progress” is also a tale of irony who’s name also points to the absurdity of colony; progress isn’t. However Conrad also states he too, had no business there bringing only his two novellas as “spoil” from the centre of Africa. Therefore his “spoil” is only the revelation of colonial abuse upon supposedly uncivilised nations. The fact that he has witnessed the evil within the people in the trading posts gives an aphoristic quality to his narrative technique and a supportive reality to his ironic descriptions of western culture.

Achebe also confronts the witness of truth within Marlow by the statements (“they were dying slowly – it was very clear”, “They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now…”). He then underlines that Conrad’s approach towards the truth “always managed to sidestep the ultimate question of equality between white people and black people. One may interpret Achebe’s comment as an example of idiocy as Conrad clearly focuses on the hypocrisy and absurdity of Imperialism, madness and the resulting evil of each. Racism does not appear as a theme through his novel. Instead the concept that people should not be where they have no business therefore targetting the west’s immoral nature and therefore the human corruption and madness due to greed. Achebe is therefore not a racist. His history underlines his ability at moving through language to language and home to home. However he never had a true identifiable home from birth due to war and power struggle in the east. This would explain Conrad’s choice of travel and therefore a great understanding and knowledge of culture and variety. Conrad would therefore not likely be racist after being victimised by powers during his youth as the Africans are victimised by the colonial powers.

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