Coloring the Congo: Heart of Darkness: racist bigotry or social commentary?

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is one of the most controversial yet influential works of literature on the colonization of Africa. It’s jarring imagery, word choices, and characterizations confuse readers on what Joseph Conrad’s argument really is- leaving room for harsh criticism of Conrad’s seemingly racist message. In Chinua Achebe’s famous critique, “An Image of Africa”, Achebe denounces Conrad’s novel as racist propaganda, deeming it unfit to be viewed as a great work of literary merit; one of the examples that Achebe uses to further his argument is the way in which the river Thames- which essentially represents Europe- and the Congo river- which represents Africa- are portrayed. Achebe furiously assaults Conrad for depicting the Thames in a light and “good” manner, while portraying Africa as dark and “bad”. However, in all of Achebe’s fervor, he fails to analyze Conrad’s piece as a whole, instead condemning snippets and pieces. Achebe’s point fails to address the moments in which the Congo is depicted with immense brightness and the Thames with dark gloom. Though his anger at Conrad’s offensive descriptions and depictions of Africa is understandable, it is unwarranted. For a closer examination of the novel shows multiple moments that completely contradict the “Joseph Conrad is a thoroughgoing racist” argument that Achebe so fervently believes. To deem Conrad to be a racist is a comfortable cop-out. To overlook the dual nature of both good and bad in which Europe and the Congo are both portrayed in is irresponsible. Conrad’s work is more complicated than Achebe’s critique simplifies it to be; however, Achebe’s palpable rage and Conrad’s seemingly racist motifs do warrant further investigation as to whether or not Heart of Darkness is in fact this landmine of racist bigotry that Chinua Achebe makes it out to be.

In Chinua Achebe’s critique of The Heart of Darkness, he claims that Conrad’s portrayal of Africa as, “the other world” is inherently racist and shouldn’t be taught/read due to its detrimental brainwashing affect it could hold on society. One of the essential examples Achebe uses to justify his claim is the juxtaposition between the river Thames and Congo river. Achebe points out that the Thames is presented as “tranquil”,“resting” and light, whereas the Congo river is described as wild and dark: one river representing “good” and the other “bad”. However Achebe’s main issue with the juxtaposition between the two river doesn’t lie in the fact that symbolizes good and the other bad, but the fact that the river Thames and Congo share a certain “kinship”. This kinship creates an unbreakable relationship between these two rivers, a relationship which goes beyond the simple opposition of good and bad, a relationship that glorifies the Themes for it too used to be one of those “dark places of the earth” before it evolved into light and civilization. To prove his point, Achebe points to the image of Romans conquering and civilizing the Themes as an analogy for the British attempt to civilize and refine the Congo.

Though Achebe’s anger that propels his argument is understandable, he doesn’t address one crucial point: the darkness and fog in which the Themes is immersed in, and the brightness and light that the Congo radiates. The narrator begins the novel by describing the Themes as dark: “A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and further back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and greatest, town on earth.” In fact, the narrator also ends the novel by describing the darkening nature of the Themes: “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky- seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” By vividly showing the dark fog that is growing from the Thames and is surrounding London, Conrad is attempting to show that the so called civilization and enlightenment that Europeans revere is actually leading Europe to its own demise. Furthermore, Achebe fails to acknowledge that a possible reason that Africa has fallen into this darkness is because Europe has tried to impose its so called “light” and “civilization” onto it via colonization: “It [Africa] used to be a blank space of delightful mystery- a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.” If Conrad’s voice is really speaking through Marlow, as Achebe argues, then Achebe should have also acknowledge the fact that Marlow used to view Africa as a place of light and wonder before Europe began colonizing it. It is also worth mentioning that Conrad doesn’t always stick with the light is good and dark is bad equation as flawlessly as Achebe makes him out to. Even while describing the light of the Thames, the light isn’t necessarily depicted as welcoming, cheerful or any characteristics that can be associated with good: “The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mudflat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.” Achebe argument collapses for it fails to recognize any of the neucances in which light and dark are both presented as in the novel.

Achebe’s displeasure with Conrad’s depiction of Africa is certainly understandable but not necessarily justified. Though it is true that Europe is in fact often painted with “light”, whereas, Africa is painted as “dark”, it is unfair to say that Conrad strictly adheres to these two depictions of these continents. To say that this light and dark formula is constant throughout the whole novel is a gross overreach and simplification of the work. Heart of Darkness is certainly more nuanced and thought out than the racist rantings of a hurtful white man, which Achebe tries to paint the work as. Knowing the literary merit and educational background that Achebe comes from makes it even more shocking to believe that an intellect such as himself could simplify such a nuanced and layered work. (Not to mention that through his simplification, Achebe carries out his own greatest critique of Conrad.) In all honesty, it is natural to root for Achebe’s argument. Some of the language Conrad utilizes is undeniably derogatory and racist. It is natural for our pathos to align itself with Achebe- a passionate man standing up for his race- rather than support Conrad- a dead man who definitely said disturbingly racist things throughout his work; as a human being, Achebe’s passion and zeal is undeniably moving; but as an intellectual, his lack of support, evidence and constant simplification of Conrad’s work is off-putting. As an audience, it is our job to analyze not bits and pieces of the novel, as Achebe does, but to absorb the work as a whole; The Heart of Darkness is too intricate in its use of color and imagery that to demean it by simplifying Conrad to a mere racist is treacherous.

Art is supposed to make people feel something. But this something doesn’t necessarily need to be appreciation, love, or happiness. It can be anger, displeasure or discomfort. Heart of Darkness is an indisputable work of art. It causes its audience to question what it believes and what Conrad believes. It creates conversation. Nobody can read this novel and have no opinions on it; it is a work rooted in controversy. Chinua Achebe creates an ardent and angry argument as to why he believes Heart of Darkness is a white supremacist piece of trash. However, his anger blinds his minds and renders his argument unenforceable. Conrad’s work is a conundrum. To call it solely a social commentary on the evils of European imperialism isn’t quite right, but neither is painting it as a racist manifesto that perpetuates toxic stereotypes. Heart of Darkness is a perfect example of an oxymoron: a literary jumbo-shrimp. By ways of its racist commentary, Conrad condemns Europe to a heart of darkness. In Conrad’s novel, one cannot exist without the other; his social commentary relies on his racist imagery to lull the audience into a receptive state. So yes, in a way Achebe is right: The Heart of Darkness is racist. Now I guess the question we all need to ask ourselves is, is racism tolerable if it serves a higher cause?


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