One of Joseph Conrad’s most famous novels has always been a reason for debate. This is due to the borderline racist nature underlying the course of the story, following Charles Marlow as he starts his controversial tale. Conrad has seemed to earn the backlash of Chinua Achebe, author of An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, through a set of racial bigotries that include the portrayal of Africa as a land void of any organized civilization. Perhaps this was done in pursuit of popular opinions at the time, which would have gotten him sales. But, that does not excuse how the Africans were made to act like mindless animals. Although a legendary novel worthy praise in many other respects, Heart of Darkness is undoubtedly racist and acts upon social stigmas to get the author’s points across.
To begin with, the novel “projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” (252) This is all very reminiscent of an old episode of Tom and Jerry, in which the main characters find themselves in the heart of Africa. The atmosphere is isolative and strange throughout the episode. The inhabitants appear in groups and are emotionless as coal black faces emerge from the wilderness, attempting to eat the newcomers. A very similar atmosphere is given off by Conrad’s words while approaching Kurtz’s station. As Achebe puts it, Africa is seen “as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the European enters at his peril.” (257) As a teacher of African Literature, he has every right to be offended by these portrayals.
Be that as it may, maybe this racist attitude can be traced to a deeper reason. Achebe could be applauding Conrad for how he “chose his subject well – one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with the psychological pre-disposition of his readers.” (253) In other words, he chose to stick to ideas that popular opinion could admire and read about. He incorporated his own love for adventure to produce a thrilling series of events with some meaning behind them, but chose to act on stereotypes and myths to bring his story to life. These attacks on the Africans were not brought to light right away, but as one starts to stray from the story to specifics, the racism is evident throughout the novel.
Equally appalling, Conrad did not focus on giving any of the Africans minds. The tribesmen are described as “prehistoric” (253) As Marlow and company pass through them, he makes it a point to describe themselves “as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.” (253) The natives are all referred to as savages, demoting them to a sub-human category in the mind of the reader. One could even argue that this lack of value or recognition of the African mind stems from his father and Russian politics, which are notorious for being virtually void of Black men. President Obama’s visit to Russia was met with the refusal by Russian politicians to shake hands with the man. Whatever the reason, Conrad does not even bother to give these “savages” a language. The manager’s servant announces “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” with a confounded disregard for grammar, adding to the growing number of stereotypes used.
Conclusively, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness does bring about quite a racist attitude. Where the book is a renowned piece of literature, the modern world of integration and political correctness looks down upon such brashness. Along with critical acclaim for the storyline itself, it is now subjected to criticism over these issues. Even Bernard C. Meyer, Conrad’s biographer, agrees that the famed author was “notoriously inaccurate in the rendering of his own history.” (259)