by Prof Munawar Ali Malik
The almost universal recognition of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness as a masterpiece in modern fiction suffered a stunning blow in the form of a scathing review by Chinua Achebe, the Nobel Laureate West African novelist, published in 1975 under the title “ An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”
Dubbing it “an offensive and deplorable book”, Achebe bursts out into loud protest saying.
“Why is it today the most commonly prescribed
novel in 20th century literature courses in English Departments of American universities?”
He launches his attack on Heart of Darkness ( rather Conrad) with the broad-based argument that it displays the Western desire to set the African backwardness up as a foil to
Europe’s boasted about spiritual grace.
Achebe holds that Heart of Darkness projects
Africa as the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization. He even finds this sinister purpose at work in Conrad’s description of the two rivers, the Thames of Europe and the river of Congo Africa.
He challenges every adjective used by Conrad to describe
Africa and the Africans, citing FR Leavis’s remark on Conrad’s “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.”
He calls this insistence “under-hand activity” that “raises serious questions of artistic good faith”
Chinua Achebe quotes and analyses the passages about people in Heart of Darkness. He says these are the most interesting and revealing passages in the novel.
Speaking of Conrad’s attitude to the natives of
, he remarks with bitter sarcasm on Conrad’s love to see the Africans in their place. He quotes Marlow’s remark Congo
“Fine fellows----------cannibals------------in their
The word place, he thinks, is used in a derogatory sense on more than one occasions in Heart of Darkness.
Then Achebe lashes out at Marlow’s remark about the humanity of the black natives :
“What thrilled you, was just the thought of their
humanity — the thought of your remote kinship
with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly.”
Achebe insinuates that Conrad was actually concerned about the black man laying the claim on that remote kinship which, to him, was intolerable.
In this way, reading more between the lines than in the lines, Achebe goes on piling up incriminating evidence against Conrad to establish that Conrad was “ a thorough- going racist” and the story is purely a product of colonial bias.
But his own adjectives, ironically, betray an equal, if not more violent, parallel racism. Look at the following judgemental remarks, for instance:
* “even those not blinkered like Conrad with xenophobia--.”
* “Conrad is a dream for psychoanalytic critics.”
While reading this review we repeatedly hold our breath in amazement, if not horror, as Achebe pronounces scathing judgements about the book and the author in every other line of the article. Look at one, for instance:
“the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is : No, it cannot.”
Achebe’s chagrin against the West is not without reason, it is true. But it goes a bit too far when he refuses to concede due recognition to the literary merit of a work of fiction universally acclaimed a masterpiece. He brushes aside every explanation and excuse offered by other critics. For instance he refuses to believe that the implicit colonial bias comes from Marlow, not Conrad. He also spurns the “layers of insulation” placed by Conrad “between himself and the moral universe of his story.”
Similarly he rejects the argument that it is no concern of fiction to please the people about whom it is written, saying that Heart of Darkness is a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question.
As already admitted, Achebe has very good reasons to find fault with Heart of Darkness. Being himself an African, he has a right to condemn every attempt to vilify his people. But isn’t it a bit too hard on Conrad to say that he wrote this novel solely to revile the Africans?
Coming from Achebe ( himself a novelist as great as Conrad ) this review has certainly caused some serious damage to Conrad’s reputation. Achebe ignored the fact that most of the critics as well as readers have always admired Heart of Darkness as an indictment of imperialism. The most prominent among them is the renowned critic and teacher (also a Nobel Laureate), Edward Said recognized as the most powerful voice of this age against imperialism.