Chinua Achebe, a well-known writer, once gave a lecture at the University of Massachusetts about Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, entitled "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Throughout his essay, Achebe notes how Conrad used Africa as a background only, and how he "set Africa up as a foil to Europe,"(Achebe, p.251) while he also "projects the image of Africa as 'the other world,' the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization."(Achebe, p.252) By his own interpretations of the text, Achebe shows that Conrad eliminates "the African as a human factor," thereby "reducing Africa to the role of props."(Achebe, p.257)
In supporting these accusations against Conrad, Achebe cites specific examples from the text, while also, pointing out that there is a lack of certain characteristics among the characters. Achebe then compares the descriptions of the Intended and the native woman. Explaining that the savage "fulfills a structural requirement of the story: a savage counterpart to the refined European woman," and also that the biggest "difference is the one implied in the author's bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other."(Achebe, p.255) This lack of human expression and human characteristics is what Achebe says contributes to the overflowing amount of racism within Conrad's novella. Human expression, is one of few things that make us different from animals, along with such things as communication and reason. This of course, being that without human expression, the native woman is considered more of a "savage...wild-eyed and magnificent," (Achebe quoting Conrad, p. 255), possibly even "bestial."
In an attempt to refute Achebe's proposed difference between the two women, C.P. Sarvan said that Conrad perceived the native woman as a "gorgeous, proud, superb, magnificent, terrific, [and] fierce" person whose "human feelings [were] not denied."(Sarvan, p. 284) In comparing the two views, one must step back and consider that both views are only interpretations on what Conrad may have intended. Since no one can ever really know what his actual meanings were for these two women being so similar (in their movements), and yet so different (in their character), only individual explanation can be brought up. This in particular, is what brings me to question both Achebe and Sarvan's points. By reorganizing Conrad's descriptive words, Sarvan was able to propose that Conrad did not intend for the mistress to be perceived as the "savage counterpart."(Achebe, p. 255) Yet, at the same time, both Sarvan and Achebe each write about what they think to be the right thing. It seems to me that Achebe was looking for racism in this short novel, and that Sarvan was so taken back by Achebe's accusations, that he himself, went and looked for ways to defend Conrad.
However, this particular shortcoming of the native woman, is not the only one that Achebe finds. As stated earlier, communication is very important in our society and to "civilization" (as known by the Europeans of the time). While reading Heart of Darkness, I noticed a significant difference in the levels of communication that were allotted between the Europeans and the Africans. This drastic difference in speech was at the core of Achebe's argument that Conrad deprived the Africans of human qualities. Achebe pointed out that "in place of speech they made 'a violent babble of uncouth sounds,'" also saying that "it is clearly not of Conrad's purpose to confer language on the 'rudimentary souls' of Africa." (Achebe, p. 255) Here lies the problem that I have with Achebe's article. Assuming that the lack of speech (in Conrad's eyes) is a racist factor--which is a valid assumption--Achebe still did not support his comment that "Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist."(Achebe, p. 257) Without outside knowledge (beyond the book), Achebe had no basis to charge Conrad with this rather harsh comment.
By completely agreeing with either writer, I would be denying myself the right to find my own opinion regarding racism in Heart of Darkness. So, I stand now and say that depending on one's interpretation of Joseph Conrad's writing, there will be plenty of racism found (if looked for). What I do believe is that during the time that this novella was written, Conrad lived in a society where African people were not considered equal, to man, they were even considered sub-human. Not to excuse Conrad, but racism was everywhere and what came from it was people who wrote about it naturally and who did not think of a "politically correct" way to put things. If this novella had been written today, it might have been said that the Africans spoke "in a language that was unknown to me, and the sounds that came from their mouths sounded quite different than what I have ever heard," or something like that. It is my opinion, that Chinua Achebe searched for things that he felt could be considered racist, and when they were found, he'd call the author some harsh names and accuse him of slander. Of course, that is only my opinion, and I point this out, because Achebe did not--he only wrote what he felt.
Belief that Conrad was a racist is not hard to come by, especially after reading Achebe's convincing essay. However, interpretation is the key word. Personally, I agree that Conrad did have quite a few racist passages in his story, yet I also believe that Achebe does not open his mind completely, in his analysis of the work. "Travelers with closed minds can tell us little except about themselves"(Achebe, p. 260) is what Achebe points to in explaining Conrad's journey and how it turned into the novella. I use this particular excerpt in describing Achebe himself. It seems that Achebe was closed-minded in his essay regarding racism. He did not propose any other possibilities regarding the novella, only to say that a conceivable reason for this is that "it is the desire...in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe."(Achebe, p. 251) Achebe only set forth his views and did not take into account other interpretations of the same passage, as did Sarvan.
If every person accepted what one man said to be the truth, our world would be completely turned upside down (and if you believe what I say to be the truth, then you are lost). The individual must decide for himself and only himself. Both Chinua Achebe and C.P. Sarvan did just that. Each read something that he did not like and wrote about what he thought to be true. When Achebe found Conrad to be a racist, he said so. When Sarvan found Achebe to be misleading, he said so. I found both to be misleading to the reader, and I said so.
Achebe, Chinua, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," in Robert Kimbrough, ed., Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text-Backgrounds and Sources of Criticism, 3rd Edition, Norton & Co. (New York:1988), pp. 251-262.
Sarvan, C.P., "Racism and the Heart of Darkness," in Robert Kimbrough, ed., Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text-Backgrounds and Sources of Criticism, 3rd Edition, Norton & Co. (New York: 1988), pp. 280-285.