Many critics, including Chinua Achebe in his essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness", have made the claim that Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, despite the insights which it offers into the human condition, ought to be removed from the canon of Western literature. This claim is based on the supposition that the novel is racist, more so than other novels of its time. While it can be read in this way, it is possible to look under the surface and create an interpretation of Conrad's novel that does not require the supposition of extreme racism on the part of Conrad. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that Conrad was a product of a rather racist period in history, and it seems unfair to penalize him for not being able to transcend his contemporaries in this respect.
This novel, it seems, must be read in a symbolic manner. Objects and characters are not so simple as they seem. Achebe tells us: "Quite simply it is the desire... in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest" (251-252). If Africa is a foil to Europe, as stated here, then perhaps Conrad only uses the continent of Africa symbolically, without regard to its people - as Achebe himself states, descriptions of Africans as anything more than vague limbs in the darkness are few and far between in the novel. The opposition between light and darkness in the novel, far from being Conrad's own, is traditional in Western literature. Conrad simply uses the most familiar of symbols for the dichotomy between good and evil to enhance his novel's psycho...
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.... One might also argue that while Marlow is racist, Conrad is not - something like the scenario in another famous river novel, Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, I reject this claim - Marlow does the vast majority of the speaking in this novel, and so the reader identifies him as the novel's narrative voice even though there is, strictly speaking, a frame story outside of this.
Finally, even if Conrad was more racist than other authors of his time, why is this so significant? The novel is still valuable as an object of art, for the psychological insights it offers both into the human condition at large and into the motivations of European imperialism and colonization. A novel such as this should not be removed from the canon on the simple basis of its offensive potential. All great literature must have at least the potential to offend.
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