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The Subject of Race in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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The Subject of Race in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

In 1899 Joseph Conrad published a short work of fiction called Heart of Darkness. This novella is often read, discussed, criticized in literature programs throughout the world. It is a work that allows us to tackle a variety of topics, and is therefore responded to in a variety of ways. The work itself as one critic puts it “might most usefully be considered hyper-canonized” (Padmini “Why” 104). The work is taught beyond the realm of a normal work in the literature program. Many forms of criticism have taken on the subject matter within the book. Feminism, psycho-analytic, Marxism have all had things to say about the novella. They’ve discussed things such as imperialism, the psychology of Marlow and Kurtz, the role of women in the novella (both literally and symbolically), all these issues are important topics in the novella. For a long time, however one crucial issue in the work was not addressed, that of race.

It was not until 1975 when Chinua Achebe gave his famous lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that the issue of race was tackled head on in Conrad’s work. It is this lecture that has become the cornerstone of writing and criticism of Heart of Darkness. It would be hard to find an essay since then that doesn’t in some way discuss or acknowledge Achebe’s essay. Even critic’s who do not use take into account historical or auto-biographical details of a work, such as Miller, have written responses to Achebe. In Miller’s essay “Should we read Heart of Darkness” he discusses, in his own way, the essence of Achebe’s argument that the novella should not be read because of it’s racist undertones. On critic has even gone on to say that Achebe’s essay has become a work included in the literature canon.

The lecture given at the University of Massachusetts in early 1975 was published as an essay in The Massachusetts Review, and later republished in The Norton Critical Edition Heart of Darkness. Achebe’s main theme within the essay is “the need—in Western psychology to set up Africa as a foil to Europe” (“Image” 252). Within the context of this theme he goes on to criticize what he considers a work of “permanent literature”, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
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