Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

‘Heart of Darkness’ as written by Joseph Conrad had been analyzed to be a complicated and a suggestive book that led to many other authors raising criticism against it. Chinua Achebe’s article gave some strong insights regarding the theme of racism as portrayed throughout the book. In his ‘An Image of Africa,’ Achebe proposes that Conrad’s book is full of stereotyped ideas against the continent of Africa as well as its people. Even though Achebe began by admitting that Conrad was a gifted, prolific writer who had profound abilities in writing and narration, he continued to express his disappointment by Conrad’s cunning nature of using his abilities to mislead people by narrating his story in such a way that only a few people would be able o identify his hidden themes. He further pointed out that Conrad described Africans as mere savages whose primary language is majorly grunts (Achebe, 2016). Based on the critics given by Achebe and a number of other arguable authors, Conrad is an extremist and a racist whose writing was aimed at portraying a negative image regarding Africa and her occupants.

While some authors support Achebe in his criticism against Conrad’s writing, others have also taken a different perspective and they have decided to defend Conrad by arguing that Achebe must have made a wrong interpretation of Conrad’s text thereby giving an incorrect definition of the same. Even though Achebe stresses that Conrad had a significant aim of dehumanizing African Americans in his book and continued to highlight various instances that prove Conrad to be a racist, both Caryl Phillips and Hunt Hawkins give various evidence that counters Achebe’s argument. In his critique, Achebe suggested that any work of art that discriminates some groups of people based on such factors as skin color should never be considered to be great (Achebe, 2016). Achebe gives a variety of evidence to emphasize on the racist nature of the novella, and which is used by the opponents to counter the suggestions of Achebe and to defend Conrad’s text.

To start with, there is different evidence throughout Conrad’s text that identify him to be a racist. ‘An Image of Africa,’ a critique by Achebe, highlights the various instances that prove Conrad as a racist. Some of the insights given by Achebe include the fact that in his novel, Conrad does not identify Africans with their names. Instead, the novel uses such terms as savage to address and refer to African characters while the European and other white characters are identified by their personal names (Achebe, 2016). It is hypocritical for an established author whose ability to interpret literature is highly enhanced to skip such little details as names of characters unless such action had a deeper meaning and interpretation. By collectively failing to address the African characters by their names, Achebe gives an insight that there must have been a deeper reason behind that and any informed audience can easily interpret the racism depicted in such context.

Conrad labels African characters in his novel and further continued to pair them with animal imagery in various parts. Rather than portraying Africans as real people, Conrad used them as symbols and he used negative terms such as savages to refer to them ((Seshagiri, 2010), 2016). However, he also used his ability to weave the words throughout the novel so that such aspects as racism are not greatly pronounced and also to bring in confusion thereby making the readers get a fake identity and yet a negative picture of such characters. For instance, by stating that the African woman character was ‘savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent,’ Conrad uses some positive words as superb to blur the intensity of such negative words as savage and wild-eyed (Achebe, 2016). However, Conrad does not make any efforts to hide his racist nature when describing African men and he directly uses negative words to refer to them. ‘The Heart of Darkness’ describes African men as ‘faces like grotesque masks’ which lumps them in with various ugly and distasteful things.

Moreover, both Achebe and Seshagiri agree that the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were highly characterized by pronounced racism, where the black community was identified to be weaker, inferior and less informed as compared to the white community. Seshagiri recognized racism as a formative element of American modernism even though its role was less understood in England. Most of the critiques that have examined the issue of race use the postcolonial perspective. In her text ‘Race and the Modernist Imagination,’ Seshagiri identifies that race as an independent matter from imperialism served as the driving force behind the creation of many literary forms including Conrad’s (Seshagiri, 2010). Similarly, Achebe argues that considering that both British and European cultures were highly and virulently racists than they are in the present day, it would be almost impossible for a white writer who had been raised in such settings to fail to uphold some form of racial bias in their writing. He further asks the question about whether it could be possible for a book to portray racism through the eyes of a racist character without the nature of such a book being racist by itself (Seshagiri & Achebe). However, Seshagiri depicts the race as an unstable element and she shifted the entire argument in a different direction based on the modernist theories.

However, a number of authors also came to the defense of Conrad especially following Achebe’s critique and portrayal of Conrad as a racist and an extremist. Both Hunt Hawkins and Caryl Phillips agree that Conrad was not a thoroughgoing racist and that his article cannot be described to be a racist even though various arguments as proposed by Achebe may try to prove it as a racist (Hawkins, 2006). Hawkins acknowledges that some parts of Conrad’s text are racists, but the book by itself cannot be described as a racist, just as Phillips presents (Phillips & Chinua, 2007). Both Hawkins and Phillips stand with the argument that considering the racist era during which Conrad wrote his text, it is not worth enough to make the various racist parts in his text to make him a thoroughgoing racist, as suggested by Achebe.

In addition, both Hawkins and Phillips comment that the fact that Conrad was against European imperialism gives him standing against racism. Both authors highlight various instances that confirm Conrad’s opposition to imperialism as a confirmation that he could not be an extremist nor a racist. They both agree that ‘Heart of Darkness’ proposes a powerful indictment of imperialism, citing examples of King Leopold as well as implicitly for the rest of other European powers (Hawkins, 2006). They comment that the fact that Conrad raised critiques against the hypocrisy of the civilizing mission makes him free from being accountable for racist themes as found in his text. While Hawkins agrees that Conrad was only a racist to some extent, he refutes Achebe’s critique arguing that Achebe took it too far and he exaggerated the theme of racism in Conrad’s text beyond its composition.

In their attempts to defend Conrad, both Hawkins and Phillips try to suggest in their texts that Conrad’s main focus when writing his novel was to portray the Europeans and their way of acting when after encountering a less civilized world. However, they refuse any propositions that Conrad exhibited racism as showed by the Europeans neither did he support any imperialistic exploitations. Instead, both writers try to convince the audience that Conrad’s text was a great illustration and it helped to prepare people for the new world where the modern man would have to endure both psychic and physical pain of being displaced as it happened later. Both writers try to understand and argue that the main reason that could have made Achebe greatly offended was he was an African and that simple fact made it impossible for him to identify that Conrad had really and undeniably managed to overcome the stereotypes about Africa as he had been served within his immediate environment throughout his life.

In conclusion, Conrad’s novel ‘In the Heart of Darkness’ led to the rise of many works of literature, especially following Achebe’s critique against the text where he emphasized that Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist who sought to portray Africa and her occupants as uncivilized. In his text, Achebe comments that Conrad’s work does not deserve to be recognized as great work of art since it sets aside a part of the human population and it is characterized by racial bias. Even though both Achebe, Seshagiri, Hawkins and Phillips agree that the text contains various elements of racism, they discuss different perspectives on the same. However, just as Achebe confirms, a great writer is always able to rise above their environment and considering that they are supposed to express the issues as faced by the members of the society wisely and without any discrimination, Conrad was unable to uphold such standards in his text. Consequently, various parts in his novel portray negative images of racial discrimination and bias thus doing his entire work as well as himself, to be best described as racists.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” The Massachusetts Review 57.1 (2016): 14-27.

Hawkins, Hunt. “Heart of Darkness and Racism.” Heart of Darkness (2006): 365-75.

Phillips, Caryl, and Chinua Achebe. “Was Joseph Conrad a racist?.” Philosophia Africana 10.1 (2007): 59-66.

Seshagiri, Urmila. Race and the Modernist Imagination. Cornell University Press, 2010.