Arguments Against Racism in Heart of Darkness

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In his essay entitled An image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Chinua Achebe makes the claim that Joseph Conrad was a ‘thoroughgoing racist’ giving specific examples from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This essay will attempt to show that while Heart of Darkness may contain certain racist elements Joseph Conrad was not a racist and that Heart of Darkness is not a racist text.

One of the first claims for racism in Heart of Darkness that Achebe makes is that ‘Africa is presented as the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilisation’ (Achebe33). Achebe discusses the opening scene in which The Nellie is at rest on the river Thames which is calm and tranquil. Achebe states that Conrad is worried by the similarities that the river Thames shares with the river Congo; England too was once one of the dark places long ago before it was conquered by the ‘civilised’ Romans. Conrad seems to say though that the darkness never truly leaves a place; Marlow states “it is like a running blaze in a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!” In this passage it seems as though Marlow is saying that there has been darkness in this place and that darkness shall return to this place and that the present time is the flicker of light in the darkness. This darkness resides in the hearts of people, and with some careful prodding it can be set loose. Having been to the Congo and having seen the atrocities that Europeans are capable of Marlow has had firsthand experience of the darkness. It is not that Africa is a place that makes men wicked, there are most definitely wicked men living in Europe, however Africa happens to be a place where the wicked men of Europe do not encounter the checks and balances that keep their wickedness curbed. , and in fact Conrad states “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” Conrad tells us that Europe made Kurtz what he was; Africa merely gave him the opportunity to embrace who he truly was.

Another case that Achebe makes for racism in Heart of Darkness is the passage dealing with the fireman, which is a rare example of a specific description of an African. The fireman is an African who has been trained to operate the boat's vertical boiler. Marlow says that through instruction he's an "improved specimen," but he doesn't really understand the machine- he thinks there's an evil spirit inside who gets angry if you don't give him enough water. Marlow gives a not particularly flattering description of the fireman likening him to a dog dressed as a person. However Marlow also states that the fireman “ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. Despite the less than flattering likening of the fireman to a dog dressed as a human, it seems as though Marlow sympathises with the fireman. Marlow feels as though the fireman would be better off engaged in the tribal activity of his kinsmen, instead he has been separated from his family and forced to work for the Europeans who in return are providing him with ‘improving knowledge’. Perhaps Marlow is being ironic in his use of the words ‘improving knowledge’ realising that the knowledge gained from this man’s work for the Europeans will do very little to improve his way of life. Marlow is likely sincere in his statement that the fireman should be out clapping his hands and stomping his feet, taking part in the day to day life of and African tribesman.

Achebe discusses the fact that, “for Conrad, things being in their place is of the utmost importance” (Achebe 340). Achebe states that “Tragedy begins when things leave their accustomed place, like Europe leaving its safe stronghold between the policeman and the baker to take a peek into the heart of darkness” (Achebe 340). It is true that all of the events and tragedies discussed in Heart of...
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