Chinua Achebe believes that Joseph Conrads Heart Of Darkness is racist based on Conrads descriptions of Africa and its people. Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, stresses Conrads depiction of Africa as the antithesis of Europe and civilization, and the animal imagery present throughout the novella.
Heart of Darkness, written in 1899 during the period of British Imperialism, concerns a British trading company and their expedition into the Congo for ivory. The African natives are treated brutally by the Europeans, and despite Conrads casual condescension towards the Africans, one cannot help feeling resentment at the unnecessary cruelty they must endure. The novella stands as a document against the imperialist practices — Conrad was quite liberal for the time.
The natives are referred to as savages several times throughout the story, but Conrad is not using any particularly strong words for the time. The European audiences who would be reading would not find anything racist about it. By todays more sensitive standards, such deference is more serious, but turn-of-the-century England was sure to expect far harsher. Educated people reading Conrad’s novel should understand the differences between the past and the present, and be forgiving of his language.
The deeper the expedition progressed into the center of the continent, the more isolation was felt by the crew. In a sense, Central Africa IS the antithesis of Western Europe — it lacks not only the hectic urban structures but also the Social Darwinist attitudes of the time. It is in this remote environment that man must face his true self without any illusions, and the darkness of the human soul is apparent. The uncivilized environment may mock western civilizations refinement, but this is not derogatory towards the jungle, but rather an eye-opener to the European audience.
By exhibiting the deeds of the Europeans, their portrayal becomes so negative that they become the savages. Conrad clearly is sympathetic to the plight of the Africans, and any racial epithets, if not accepted by progressives of the time, are not meant as attacks directed at the natives. It should be obvious that Conrad is on their side — or is this “undermined by the mindlessness of its context and the pretty explicit animal imagery surrounding it”?I think not. Conrad’s animal imagery is used as a metaphor for the human spiritual being, not as a comparison to the natives.
Heart of Darkness is not intended to be a portrait of the African people at all. It is a story of what was inflicted upon them. It is a story of mans introspective into himself when there is nowhere else to turn. It is a story of an obsessed man named Kurtz and what he did for his own gain. It is a strikingly accurate account of a historical period past, and it should not be regarded today as a hateful spew of racism.