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Critical analysis of the Heart of Darkness

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In Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, the protagonist, Marlow, experiences a life-altering journey in the African Congo. The story considers the historical period of colonialism in Africa to illustrate Marlow’s struggles. He, like other Europeans of 1899, is brought up to believe certain things about colonialism, but his views and ideas change as he experiences colonialism himself. Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart and An image of Africa views English imperialization as destructive and a perversion of culture and human rights.

Achebe also views the novella as blatantly racist and claims the English author writes without any validity. Both men view imperialism in Africa as something England shouldn’t have done/do, but both have drastically different reasons for the why. The story of “the heart of Darkness” is both misleading and ignorant because of the way Conrad illustrates Africans/Africa as well as the story’s misconception that the imperialist are the victims. Imperialism, a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force.”the struggle against imperialism”.

Historical: rule by an emperor. The Industrial Revolution in Britain modernized farming, the processing of raw materials and manufacturing of goods. Industrialisation influenced political change. It also created a huge demand for raw materials and led to the colonization of Africa and Asia for these resources. the occupation, division, and colonization of African territory by European powers during the period of New Imperialism ranged between 1881 and 1914.

In 1870, only 10 percent of Africa was under European control; by 1914 it had increased to almost 90 percent of the continent, with only Ethiopia, the Dervish state and Liberia still being independent. British merchants and traders developed close ties with the rulers of the different nations on the West Coast of Africa, such as the rulers of Benin, Dahomey, and Asante. These nations provided Britain with gold, luxury foods, and many other goods. The British wanted to control South Africa because it was one of the trade routes to India.

However, when gold and diamonds were discovered in the 1860s-1880s their interest in the region increased. By the 1880s West Africa was dominated by Britain. Local chieftains ruled their own peoples using their own customs. However, they paid taxes to Britain. Industrialisation and technological progress boosted European confidence, and national pride. But The Africans experienced hardships and submission. They weren’t treated as people, and their culture was more than often disregarded or even taken by the English. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Marlow, the main character symbolizes the positiveness of Imperialism.

When Marlow states, “I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you,” he expresses his good intentions to help the Africans progress and advance. Marlow says that a conquest is unpardonable. “What can, however, excuse such a conquest is the idea at the back of it: not a sentimental pretense but an idea, and an unselfish belief in the idea. ” Meaning Conquest can be excused only if the conquest performs some constructive work in the “backward” country which they have conquest. The white man truly has a “duty to the savages whom he subdues”.

The test of the white man’s intentions can be proven only by how he performs this duty. If he fails in this duty, his government of the backward countries cannot be justified. In Marlow’s point of view the Africans are a lower level of life, and only if the English act as good and strict “parents, can they justify taking control. This is, of course, meaning that Marlow believes the African need the forced help of the Europeans. Aside from the overall belief in the helplessness of all Africans, the terms used to describe the native people is very demeaning.

“Near the same tree, two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner, his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all of the others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre of a pestilence”(Part 1). The true consequences of imperialism, mistreated and overworked slaves who are left to die on their own. They are without food, care, or medicine, and are left to die outdoors.

But notice how Marlow calls them “bundles,” “creatures,” and “phantoms”? They’re treated so inhumanely that Marlow can’t even see them as fully human. Even Mr. Kurtz, who has begun to identify himself with the savages, has done nothing for the uplift of the natives. Instead of improving their mode of life, he has himself become a savage in their company. He has miserably failed to have any self-restraint and begun to satisfy his various lusts without any limit. And of course, this change in character is supposed to be blamed on Africa.

Kutz was consumed by “the heart of Darkness” and him being an example to ideal imperialism, symbolizes the victimization imperialist face in the Congo. Conrad believed the country of Africa was too wild for English Gentlemen to withstand, for their own sanity, they must refrain. In his famous critique essay, “An Image of Africa”, Chinua Achebe takes a strong stand against Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Achebe claims that Conrad was a racist and that his novella was “depersonalizes a portion of the human race” should not be considered a great work of art.

“The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked” Achebe further analyses The Heart of Darkness; Africans are described as savages with wild eyes using an unrefined language consisting of grunts and short phrases sounding like a violent babble.

Africa is shown as the other world with bestiality contrasting the intelligence and refinement of Europe. Another example of Conrad believing that the Africans were inferior instead of realizing they are just different. The Africans are sometimes referred to as specimens, Marlow comments on how one African is an improved specimen because he can fire up a vertical boiler. Instead of giving praise to a person who’s learned to adapt to technology quickly, that comment reflects any praise towards the man, and more towards the evolution of science.

Achebe wants to move past this situation and create a strong African identity. The description of Africa includes it being a prehistoric earth with prehistoric men acting in a “black and incomprehensible frenzy” (ibid. 35). The Africans are howling and leaping and are described as not inhuman, meaning he did find them inhuman at one point. It is probably at this point Marlow realizes that the tribesmen are in fact human, even if he still consider them as brute savages. He mentions how they have faces like grotesque masks, strong muscles, energy and a wild vitality.

According to Achebe, this is Conrad describing things in their place (Achebe 172-173). What Achebe seems to miss is the fact that he just like Conrad is highly influenced by the political influences, social and cultural norms of his time. Marlow’s journey may be very reminiscent of Conrad’s journey to Africa, but as an outsider looking in, Conrad’s understanding of such a vast and diverse country and people was limited. Achebe, an African Literature Professor, was part of the Pan-Africanism movement which aim was to unify native Africans and eliminate colonialism.

Achebe, of course, would have a perspective Conrad was not granted, allowing Achebe to give a more accurate African experience of Imperialism. Both men understood that the Partition of Africa was unethical and unjustified for Europe to do. But Marlow, said that imperialism could be justified, if properly executed, Conrad also spent less time seeing the Africans as PEOPLE mistreated, but the English as endangered of moral impairment. Because of this, The Novella The Heart of Darkness comes off as ignorant and misleading to its readers.

Conrad, J. and Murfin, R. (n.d.). Heart of darkness. 1st ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Diva-portal.org. (2018). Cite a Website – Cite This For Me. [online] Available at: http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:356589/fulltext01.pdf [Accessed 26 Jan. 2018].

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