Achebe, Chinua

Assigned: Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (1536-46). Also read editors’ introduction (1534-36).

“An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (1975/1977)

1. On 1536-37 (“In the fall of 1974…”), Chinua Achebe recounts two brief encounters in his own life as a professor and novelist. Those encounters taken together, what attitude do the white child and the white adult convey about the state of their understanding with regard to Africa and Africans? What Western psychic “need” (1537 top) does Achebe believe to be demonstrated particularly in his conversation with the white adult, a man his own age and perhaps also a teacher, like Achebe?

2. On 1537-38 (“This need is not new…”), what reason does Achebe give for choosing to discuss Polish/English novelist Joseph Conrad’s imperialism-themed novella Heart of Darkness (1899 serial format in Blackwood’s Magazine/1902 book publication)? What insight emerges for Achebe from Conrad’s comparison of the Congo River and London’s Thames River—aside from the projection of primitivism and the ascription of “bad” qualities to the Congo River, what is it, according to Achebe, that really “worries” (1537) Conrad about his own comparison? How do you interpret Achebe’s criticism that Conrad, far from simply crafting a work of pure art, “chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths” (1538)? What myths is he referencing here?

3. On 1538-41 (“The most interesting and revealing…”), how does Achebe analyze Conrad’s depiction of Africans in Heart of Darkness? What are these fictional Africans like in terms of appearance, speech (or the supposed lack thereof), gesture, and behavior? According to Achebe, what deep anxieties and “fascination” (1539) does Conrad betray in his representations of African people?

4. On 1541-42 (“It might be contended…”), on what grounds does Achebe raise and then dismiss the standard defense of Conrad; namely, that we should not ascribe any racism to the author himself but instead observe the boundaries of fiction and pin the blame on Marlow and perhaps the additional frame narrator? Moreover, how does Achebe interpret narrator Marlow’s imperial-age “liberalism” as typical of European colonial nations and even of European luminaries like the missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer?

5. On 1542-44 (“It is important to note that…”), Achebe makes his most severe criticisms yet of Conrad, unreservedly labeling him “a thoroughgoing racist” (1542) and disavowing his most famous novel’s status as a masterpiece in the Western literary tradition. Why, with regard to the second criticism, does Achebe believe his view is rooted in something weightier than mere squabbles over artistic merit? What real-world harm does he assert has come of the racism he finds in Conrad’s celebrated novella? In addition, why have the criticisms he considers obvious been so insistently “glossed over” (1542) by Western critics for decades? Finally, what insights into Conrad’s supposed views on race and “blackness” does Achebe draw from biographical materials on that author?

6. On 1544-45 (“There are two probable grounds…”), what two arguments against his own criticisms does Achebe say might be made, and how does he deal with them? What sources from European experience and contact with African people and nations does Achebe draw upon in discounting Conrad’s eyewitness testimony as the ground of Marlow’s account in Heart of Darkness? In responding, consider what he writes about the painter Gauguin’s experiences with Tahitian art, and the omission of key facts in explorer Marco Polo’s account of the Far East.

7. On 1545-46 (“As I said earlier…”), Achebe lets readers in on his deliberations regarding how to end his strongly worded denunciation of Heart of Darkness and its author Joseph Conrad. Why did he decide, in the end, that no “easy optimism” was possible (1546)? What is it about the West’s way of manifesting its strange and unwholesome view of Africa that dashes Achebe’s initial hope for a positive ending to his essay? Nonetheless, on what note does he conclude the piece?

8. General question: Chinua Achebe’s severe criticism of Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness in his essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” has sparked much debate. At base, Achebe is arguing that one cannot dismiss racism in literature on purely aesthetic grounds, as if we would insist that “the book is skillfully written, and that’s all that matters” or “the painting is beautiful, so we shouldn’t care how wicked the painter was, or how destructive the moral and real-world effects of his or her art.” (This line of argument goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks’ melding of beauty and goodness in the word kalos; its modern formis most powerfully stated by Immanuel Kant in his “Analytic of the Beautiful” from Critique of Judgment; in particular, see Leitch 431-32) What is your view of this debate? Would you condemn Conrad and his book in much the same way as Achebe does? Why or why not?

9. General question: See the previous general question regarding Chinua Achebe’s robust condemnation of Joseph Conrad in “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Here is another scenario to determine whether a pro-Achebe opinion holds in all cases. What if a dreadfully immoral artist creates a brilliant work of art that seems in no way tainted by his or her moral failings? Would the creator’s wickedness affect your view of the work? Why or why not? Would you give the same answer for every immoral artist, or might your response depend on the bad behavior in question? (Unlikely but useful example: shortly before his execution, a serial killer publishes a lovely book of poems about puppy dogs, rainbows, and butterflies; or, while serving ten consecutive life sentences for his unspeakable crimes, he learns to paint sunsets that rival those of J. M. W. Turner.) How do you, personally, sort out the question of art’s status in relation to ideology, morality, and civic ideals?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake