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An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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In his "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," Chinua Achebe makes the argument that Conrad portrays Africans in a racist manner within his novel, Heart of Darkness. Drawing on passages for support, he ultimately concludes that the novel serves to attack African and pity Europeans for their shared, "ugly" humanity with the former. Achebe, however, misinterprets many of the novel's descriptions of Africa and its inhabitants and ignores the negative portrayals of the aggrandizing mission behind the supposed morality of European imperialism. His conclusions on the novel are too critical and fail to capture the true meaning behind entering the "heart of darkness": a subconscious journey to discover man's true nature.

Achebe makes clear his opinion of Conrad and his work. According to him, "[Conrad] is now safely dead...Unfortunately his heart of darkness plagues us still." His obvious dislike for the novel stems from his interpretations of passages as racist. The following was one such passage:

The earth seemed unearthly...and the men were...not inhuman...They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you was the thought of their humanity--like yours...there was in you...a response...a dim suspicion of there being meaning in it...from the night of first ages...

Achebe's immediate analysis focuses on the negative connotations of words such as "howling" and "horrid faces." He, like Marlow and his crew, share the initial, and superficial, impression of the natives as barbaric. Yet, Achebe does not make the same, ultimate realizations Marlow does. Marlow senses his connection with the natives; this connection is startling to him because of the conceptions formed by his initial observations. He uses the word "ugly" to describe their connection, but he goes on to state there was "a meaning in it...from the night of first ages." Marlow experiences development in this passage that Achebe fails to pick up. Marlow was blinded by his repulsion towards the natives' foreign behavior, but manages to look beyond the haze and discover a meaning connecting Europeans back to their past. Although it is hard for him to take and impossible for the rest of the steamer's passengers to realize, Marlow comes to accept that Europeans and Africans are connected in origin. This instance is the uncovering of man's origins--the ultimate truth--a boon as opposed to an attack as Achebe makes it out to be. Conrad emphasizes the sameness they share, supporting the importance of this idea by identifying between the "fool" and the "man." Only "the fool" ignores this truth, choosing instead to "gape and shudder" at the natives he or she deems savage and different (54).

Throughout his criticism of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Achebe never correctly interprets

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