AP English Literature
November 14, 2017
After the Long Night Must be Twilight?: An Analysis on Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa”
Heart of Darkness is advanced in the introspection of the evil of European colonists, while unapologetic in its blatant display of racist imageries. In his “An Image of Africa”, Chinua Achebe accuses it for its slanderous rendering of African people, and reveals its connection with modern racism which put the dignity of many African people in peril. Achebe’s analysis is valid to a large degree, but the intense criticism on Heart of Darkness, nevertheless, can be mitigated through a deeper look into the complex, symbolic nature of the novel which is sometimes controversial and self-contradicting. And, this dubious nature serves an important purpose—to reveal the futility of the very idea of “civilization” disguising the human nature that links both cultures.
Africa isn’t set to be merely as a background, but the essence of Conrad’s idea. On the surface, it seems that Africa is just another stage for European’s own struggles. As Achebe reveals, “Quite simply it is the desire…in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest. (IoA)” Indeed, most Africans in Heart of Darkness only serve marginal roles. But the novel wouldn’t have been called “Heart” of Darkness had Conrad intended to do so. The dark air above Gravesend isn’t just a vestigial organ from the prehistorical England; rather, Conrad takes “darkness” into the core of the novel. Though the “darkness” is only vaguely portrayed as a mysterious force, and seemingly opposite to Europeans’ “brightness”, it is not necessarily inferior or bad, but simply incomprehensible. Force is the antithesis of foil; and it resides in every individual’s heart, “We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. (HoD:2.7)” This quality is articulated through the vivid character Okonkwo and his struggles in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: he has his unfortunate inheritance from his shameful father, his unhelping chi, his years of working on his reputations. His domination through fear is reminiscent of the character of Mr. Kurtz who is a conduit of the mysterious force of “darkness.” Achebe articulates what he called the “beastiality”, which Conrad sees as mysterious force, into a vivid and lively figure as Okonkwo. Both descriptions reinforce with each other to render the quality of “darkness”—the toil and sick determination, which is an inherent part of human beings and defies all the moral principles.
Heart of Darkness is a sarcastic judgement upon the idea of “civilization” itself. The novel is indeed guilty of its extremely racist view on African culture, as Achebe reveals, “I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question. (IoA)” Conrad, nevertheless, also questions the very foundations of his own culture—the Darwinian interpretation of civilization as a course of evolution. Although Marlow’s monologue about the prehistorical River Thames in the beginning of the book seems to reinforce the evolutionary view, a symbolic image in Heart of Darkness implies the futility of that view, “Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber—almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister. (HoD:1.57)” The torchlight symbolizes enlightenment; in this case, the European colonization in Africa. But, ironically, the woman is blindfolded, meaning she is out of touch with reality, and her mission is only what she imagines in her mind. The light from the light torch casting a sinister shadow on her face implies that the light is a wrong kind of light; it only reveals the evil coming from her inside—the heart of darkness. The heart of darkness resides inside the ones who call themselves civilized. Conrad also implies elsewhere that reality is way more complex for European civilization to handle, “Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over. (HoD:1.28)” “but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff—with his own inborn strength. Principles? Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. (HoD:2.8)” Here, Marlow contrast the moral principles with the inborn strength possessed by African people, and states that European moral principles is barely decorations compared to force to see the truth itself.
The Impressionist art style criticizes his own aesthetics, which is connected to his use of symbolism. Conrad could have switched symbolic meaning of the color of black and white instead but he chooses to set the symbolism that way because of what Achebe describes as a “fixation on blackness (IoA)”. In Conrad’s aesthetics, the color black and white have distinct meanings that are not only symbolic but also visceral, “I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving. It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand and menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glistering bronze. (HoD:3.4)” There’s a ghostlike aspect in Kurtz’s form which is also apparent in Kurtz’s intended, “She came forward, all in black, with a pale head, floating towards me in the dusk…this fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me. (HoD:3.20)” She may appear refined and beautiful, but inside she is gullible and superficial. The white color here feels alike a flimsy shroud for their heart of darkness. The darkness, on the other hand, conveys the quality of vitality, essence, and mystery, “They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks…but they have bones, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement that was as natural and hue as their surf along the coast. (HoD:1.8)”, “She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent…She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose. (HoD:3.5)” Since Conrad describes refinement and principles as “rags that would fly off at the first good shake,” he doesn’t prefer one way or another; he simply views the wild and inscrutable outlook as a unique beauty in the eyes of a European. Conrad connects the aesthetic aspect with the symbolic meaning of each color. Though much of Conrad’s description is in the style of Impressionism, giving only the contour of his experience and the “mysterious force,” it serves the purpose of revealing his psychological perspective throughout the journey. It serves as an example how Marlow’s irrational aesthetics brings permanent scar to his mind, as if after being used to the life in Africa, going back to England feels almost like going back to darkness all over again, “It would have been too dark, too dark altogether… (HoD:3.18)” The darkness here means what it would have been like if the lie be torn apart by the truth; she would have lost her sanity, meaning all her refinements and fidelity is essentially delusion in the name of truth. Therefore, Marlow’s act of withholding the truth is a criticism towards himself of his irrational aesthetics.
The Impressionist description is consistent with Achebe’s descriptions. For example, the African woman in Heart of Darkness has a similar feel to Ekwefi in Things Fall Apart. Both has the expression of having a secret struggle and dignity, “Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve. (HoD:3.5)” “Ekwefi was the only person in the happy company who went about with a cloud on her brow…Ekwefi’s bitterness did not flow outwards to others but inwards into her own soul. (TFA:9)” The image of African from Conrad is complimentary to the more vivid and detailed description from Achebe.
It is true that there a sense of condescension pervading the entire novel. As, Achebe describes it, racism as a visceral feeling is more vicious than from a system, “It may well be that what is happening at this stage is more akin to reflex action than calculated malice. Which does not make the situation more but less hopeful.” (IoA) Conrad implies repeated with emphasis on the importance of people being “in their place,” and is concerned when they cross the boundary, “And the intimate profundity of that look ha gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory—like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment. (HoD:2)” As Achebe points out, Conrad’s concern of the lying of the claim is signifying inequality, “The black man lays a claim on the white man which is well-nigh intolerable. It is the laying of this claim which frightens and at the same time fascinates Conrad… (IoA)” But this fascination—and perhaps concern—with “people leaving their place” is common to all cultures. For example, in Things Fall Apart, when Okonkwo finds out his son, Nwoye, leaves his place to become a Christion, he becomes particularly concerned, “[Okonkwo to Nwoye after he converts to Christianity]: “Where have you been?” he stammered. Nwoye struggled to free himself from the choking grip. “Answer me,” roared Okonkwo, “before I kill you!” He seized a heavy stick that lay on the dwarf wall and hit him two or three savage blows. “Answer me!” he roared again. Nwoye stood looking at him and did not say a word. The women were screaming outside, afraid to go in. (TFA:17.16-19)” Here Okonkwo is a figure standing his ground to the African traditions, but in the story, there are many more people who eventually convert into Christianity; the concern from Conrad is not absolute, either, and is mixed with fascination, seeing a contradiction to his cultural prejudice, from his perspective. Still, Conrad’s novel is not free of prejudice and visceral condescension, but communication cannot be void of prejudice if there’s not enough information.
As Achebe has pointed out, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is plagued with his fixation on blackness, racism, and inequality. And, the racist language toward African people is so clear, that it was taken as a justification for modern racism. Though being obscured by the lens of racism, Conrad aims to see through the hypocrisy of Western civilization, and finds the truth, the link, the foundation, that is stripped of all the superficiality such as pride and the idea of “civilization.” Heart of Darkness can be easily misunderstood as a praise of western civilization, but there’s more to it in the novel. But the controversy and complexity signify the futility of viewing the world as simply black and white. Conrad’s candid record of his racist thoughts, and his introspection and self-criticism are a proof of the novel’s worth, and a warning for people who might attempt the thought of racial superiority. His unapologetic revealing of his own irrational racist thought, is, in a way, his condescending apology.
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