Few pieces of literature have received as much acclaim and criticism as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In his essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’”, Chinua Achebe attacks Conrad and brands him a racist for his dehumanizing descriptions of Africans. When responding to the argument that it is the protagonist Marlow, rather than Conrad, from which the novel’s racism stems, Achebe argues that Conrad’s failure to provide “an alternative frame of reference by which [to] judge the actions and opinions of his characters” is an indication that Conrad shares the same bigotry as Marlow (Achebe). However, Conrad’s diction, as well as his depiction of Marlow, indicates that much of the blatant racism throughout Marlow’s tale is used to evoke a negative visceral reaction from his readers.
Although Marlow’s narrative of his journey to Africa is littered with dehumanizing depictions of its native inhabitants, Conrad presents this extreme prejudice in order to elicit a negative response from his readers. Perhaps one of the most offensive parts of the novel, and one that Achebe criticizes in particular, is Marlow’s condescending remark regarding the humanity of the native Africans. He tells his fellow sailors aboard the Nellie “what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity -- like yours -- the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly” (Conrad 98). In this quip, it is apparent through the use of the word “thrilled” that Marlow’s expectation regarding the Africans was that they would not be human. As Marlow is relaying this part of the story in the second person to his fellow sailors, out of context it almost seems as if he is directly addressing the reader. His use of t...
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...ho tends to contradicts himself and disrespect women, Conrad vilifies his protagonist. Consequently, the reader is naturally inclined to disagree with Marlow’s outlandish and prejudicial remarks and conclude that racism is inherently wrong. A conclusion that the reader comes to on their own is likely to be stronger than a conclusion force-fed to them by the author.
Achebe is absolutely correct in that Conrad does not provide an alternative point of view to Marlow’s xenophobia. However, Conrad’s failure to provide an alternate point of view to contrast Marlow’s prejudice helps create a stronger argument against racism. Rather than preaching to his reader about the evils of intolerance, Conrad presents Marlow as an unlikable protagonist with an unopposed prejudice. In doing so, Conrad puts the onus on the reader to oppose Marlow’s bigotry and speak out against racism.
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