The Interpreters: A Social Realist Novel

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Several critics of African literature have pointed out that one of the major reasons Chinua Achebe was inspired to become a writer was his desire to counter the demeaning image of Africa that was portrayed in English tradition of the novel. The objective of this paper is to examine quite a number of comparisons of the African image in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God with the image of the continent that is discernible in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. These novels have been chosen to carry out this examination not only because each of them is set in nineteenth-century Africa, but because both of them explore the meaning of the European colonization of the continent. JOSEPH CONRAD AND CHINUA ACHEBE: TWO ANTIPODAL PORTRAITS OF AFRICA Joseph Conrad was deeply appalled during his six-month sojourn in the Congo in 1890 by the brutal and inhuman manner in which the Belgians exploited their African colony and its people. As the narrator in Heart of Darkness states euphemistically, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it much.” (10). Hence, the novel is Conrad’s portrait of the process through which the Europeans have conquered and colonized Africa. Heart of Darkness is indeed Conrad’s effort to portray the pernicious effects of colonialism, not only on the subjugated people but ironically, on the colonial agents as well. Thus, one would have expected an even-handed portrayal of his European and African characters. Regrettably, Conrad was a veritable offspring of nineteenth-century European prejudices about Africa. It is pertinent to point out from the very beginning that the novel is not concerned primarily with Africans. On the contrary, the continent and its people are used merely as a background for this narrative, which is essentially Eurocentric. In this respect, the novelist is like a photographer, he chooses a particular background for his portrait to suit his special objective. It is this objective that determines whether or not the photographer should enhance the depth of field of his camera to such an extent that the details of his background are clearly visible along with the subject of his primary focus or concern. Conrad, like a photographer, deliberately set his novel in Africa because he – as well as his nineteenth-century European audience – believed that the continent epitomized savagery. Furthermore, by widening his depth of field to include vivid images of the African background, Conrad wanted to create – what he must have considered – the appropriate nightmarish atmosphere that could bring out the worst in men. Thus is Heart of Darkness, Africa becomes an environment where irrational behaviour is the norm, hence, even a European such as a Swede hangs himself for no apparent reason. The main theme of the novel is the fear of the Victorian English that if whites were to be isolated from their secure environment and its refinement, they would degenerate into abominable savagery and become beasts of unspeakable lust. Kurtz, the demonic hero of this novel, is the embodiment of the worst fears of the nineteenth-century Europeans. Isolated as he is in the Inner Station from all but occasional contact with other Europeans, Kurtz’s moral fiber snaps and he falls prey to all manner of evil. He loses proper perspective and begins to see everything as belonging to him: his ivory, his station, his river, and his intended. The subtheme of the novel is the inhuman treatment that the Europeans mete out to the colonized Africans. In the novel, the Europeans use the Africans as beasts of burden whose sole value is the physical work they can perform. Consequently, the European taskmasters abandon the African labourers to die by the roadside when they are too frail to toil any more on such back-breaking tasks as railroad construction. The novel portrays Africa as a...
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