In the essay “An image of Africa” based on the novella Heart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe argues that Conrad does not treat its African characters as fully human. Achebe’s main criticisms revolve around Conrad’s degrading and dehumanization of African Americans. Achebe refers to Conrad as “a bloody racist” as the Africans are either denied speech, or are granted speech only to condemn themselves out of their own mouths. After reading both Heart of Darkness and “An image of Africa”, Achebe’s assessment of Conrad being a “bloody racist” seem invalid and unfair, as he did not account for accurate past periodical feelings towards Africa, which makes the story a great work of literature today; the evil in imperialism on African culture. The main argument that Achebe brings forth is that Conrad dehumanized the African people by depriving them of language, culture and basic human characteristics. The presence of African characters throughout the story is very small because they are ultimately just filler characters, used to create a background and environment for the story. Achebe doesn’t take this dismissal of African culture lightly, and therefore deems Heart of Darkness racist.
“Certainly, Conrad had a problem with niggers…Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting as when he gives us this brief description: A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms” (Achebe 113). The quote on the minor detail of “black” hardly seems like enough evidence to build an argument against Conrad. From the texts of Heart of Darkness, Conrad does not assign any characteristics to members of African groups and it’s not uncommon to not give characteristics when describing a group. Also, there is no real need for Conrad to personalize the characters of African people as they serve no real purpose to further the plot. Achebe also claims that Conrad gives the natives dialog for the purpose of condemning themselves. “Catch ‘im,’ he snapped, with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp teeth-‘catch ‘im. Give ‘im to us.’ ‘To you, eh?’ I asked; ‘what would you do with them?’ ‘Eat ‘im!’ he said” (Conrad 66). The fact is, during the era of imperialism when Africans are seen as savages, it’s almost impossible for Conrad to put dialog into the natives without being blamed, especially if Conrad couldn’t properly understand and translate the native language of the Africans.
Achebe is so concerned with the lack of representation for African people within Heart of Darkness that he fails to notice that Africa is only the background setting for the story. The biggest down fall for Achebe’s assessment of Heart of Darkness is that he failed to factor in the time period in which the story was written. The story was written in 1899 during the era of imperialism for the eyes of white people and colonialists. It’s not impossible to believe that Conrad was writing against the abuse of imperialism on the African natives at the time, depicted through the use of Marlow. Marlow was able to show sympathy and disgust towards imperialism in Africa when he sees a young slave, hollow, dying of hunger and then seemed to have experienced an instantaneous moment of humanity as he “found nothing else to do but offer him one of my good Swede’s ship’s biscuits I had in my pocket” (Conrad 48). In another instance, Marlow approaches his aunt in hopes of obtaining captaincy and found her bitter and hateful attitude quite uncomfortable.
“She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit” (Conrad 44) Achebe’s final statement about Heart of Darkness was that “the point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely, that Conrad was a bloody racist… Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness…A Conrad student told me in Scotland last year that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz…I would not call that man an artist” (Achebe 112-113). If Achebe used one student’s view and opinion to formulate his conclusion then how accurate is that conclusion? Not to mention a view and opinion not even of that race.
It seems as though Achebe came to a conclusion without sufficient evidence. Achebe is so concerned with the way the natives were represented that he forgets that Africa is merely the background of the story. In conclusion, Heart of Darkness is both challenging and very confusing to understand because it is difficult to tell where Conrad truly stands. After analyzing the text, it seems that Conrad was writing against the abuse and evil of imperialism, told through an unnamed narrator and Marlow. However, the story hides Conrad’s true intentions. Conrad seems to have wanted to denounce the abusiveness of imperialism in Africa without offending his target audience which were white people and colonists. Achebe was very unfair when he wrote his essay on Heart of Darkness as he did not account for either the time period, or the audience.