When Great Britain grew into a empire, it was under the reign of Queen Victoria. One of the projects that the queen endorsed was imperialism, the spreading of Britain’s cultural customs around the globe. This had been going on long before, with institutions such as slavery being used to set up English trade in different countries and continents. But in the nineteenth century, technology sped the process considerably. Great Britain, along with other nations such as France and Belgium, now had more power than ever over foreign nations, power used to exploit many for personal gain. One of the central continents over the imperialism debate was Africa. Some supported the notion that imperialists would introduce strong European values and customs to Africa, improving the lives of many Africans. Others took a much more skeptical approach; imperialism was a way for greedy Europeans to abuse Africans for economic advantage. The force that Europeans employed was unnecessary and led to more harm than good. Two of my favorite books, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart both explore not only the issue of imperialism but also more universal themes to the human condition.
When I first read Conrad’s novella, I despised it. The story’s English language (very impressive for a man naturally Polish) was far too deep for my lazy brain. I joked with my teacher that the story was meant to be confusing, that’s why Conrad used such deep language. But this isn’t the case, really. After rereading the story twice, I came to love it.
Marlow, a sailor, decides to tell a story to a group of men on a yacht drifting through the Thames River. He tells them of how he went to the Congo in Africa to work for a trading company specializing in ivory. Upon his arrival, he meets some men keeping Africans as virtual slaves. Marlow sees a group of blacks chained to one another by the neck and admits to his listeners that “they weren’t the enemy” meaning that they were innocent men being exploited to further the interests of a small group of people. Yet on the other hand, he doesn’t always seem trustful of his black workers, even comparing one to a “dog in a pair of breeches.” Chinua Achebe published an essay entitled “An Image of Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” in which he argues that Conrad is a racist due to the demeaning language he uses for blacks. It seems that Marlow’s feelings for blacks are quite mixed, for sure.
Marlow also ponders the “heart of darkness,” the way that the Congo jungle seems to be impenetrably dark. What does it ultimately mean to him? He also wonders of a man named Kurtz, a trader much praised among the imperialists; they claim Kurtz to be the greatest man among all of them. Marlow, intrigued by what he has heard, desires to meet the man for himself. He sails up the rushing Congo River with a group of workers. When they reach Kurtz’s home, they are attacked by an African tribe. Some of Marlow’s men die, but they manage to win the fight with their guns. When Marlow finds Kurtz, he discovers a frail, sick man on the brink of death. It becomes imperative to try and get Kurtz some medical help.
But before Marlow leaves, he discovers Kurtz making his way to the deep jungle. Marlow finds him, horrified to see Kurtz trying to join in an African ritual dance. Marlow manages to bring Kurtz back to his post, then leaving with him on the steamboat the next day. Marlow ponders for hours on why a man with Kurtz’s reputation could ever think to embrace African culture, which Europeans view as downright sinful and pagan. Yet Kurtz holds a fascinating allure on his mind yet. But his fondness of Kurtz won’t save the dying man. Kurtz breathes his last words “The Horror! The Horror!” and dies on the scene.
Marlow returns to London. Overall, he is demoralized by his experience, likening imperialists to white-washed hypocrites who cause more needless harm than good. He goes to the house of Kurtz’s wife, his “Intended.” She asks him about what the man’s last words were before he died, even as Marlow feels an oppressive darkness covering the house. The horror of what effect Kurtz’s words will have on his wife brings him to lie about them: “The last thing he said was-your name.” Marlow ends his narrative, watching a deep darkness engulfing the Thames River.
There are many topics in discussing Conrad’s work. One is what fascinates Marlow about Kurtz. Is it because he is a staunch European? Marlow finds a work written by Kurtz highlighting the attitude most Belgians had about the “savage brutes” that needed to be “exterminated.” This kind of violent rhetoric is supposed to represent the passionate zeal imperialists had for changing African’s ways of life. But why would Marlow support such a view since he clearly does not trust the imperialists themselves? In this case, what makes Kurtz fascinating may be more the fact that Kurtz embraces the Africans rather than distrusting them. It horrifies Marlow for a moment, since the idea goes against his moral values, but makes him admire Kurtz even more; Kutrz apparently believes in a tolerance of greater worth than imperialistic moralism. In this way, there appears to be a conflict between traditional and new ways of seeing Africans.
The ‘heart of darkness” may also be a symbol. Conrad once stated that art could serve a symbolic purpose. Like the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the reader interprets what Marlow’s experience means. There are several ways I interpret this work. One, is that it is about the inevitability of death. When Kurtz dies, he exclaims “The Horror! The Horror!” right at the time of his death. One could imagine the experience of death to be horrible, indeed, in that it makes one’s accomplishments seem meaningless in the long run and the fact that it is painful and inescapable. When Marlow feels a darkness rushing on him in Kurtz’s wife’s house, a darkness from which “I could not even protect myself,” I conjecture that the reader is getting a neat first person perspective on how exactly Kurtz must have felt when he died, a neat way to look into the mind of someone other than the narrator.
The heart of darkness could also represent sin. William Golding, in his novel, Lord of the Flies, which centers on the evil of mankind’s heart, was inspired by Conrad. This idea of the darkness representing sin would be like Hawthorne also, for Hawthorne often spoke of sin in symbolic ways. Achebe argues that since Conrad saw the Congo as a breeding center for sin, then he was most certainly being racist. Yet interestingly, this same darkness stretches over the British Thames River at the very end of the novel. Is Conrad implying that sin dwells in Britain just as much as it does in the primitive Africa? This could point to a biblical concept of universal sin or total spiritual depravity. It could also represent the imperialistic hypocrisy of Europe in the nineteenth century: the darkness has blinded Great Britain to the evils of their ways.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is another interesting African story that I finished over a year ago. The realism in the novel astounded me, and because it heightened my already growing interest in Africa, I loved it all the more. This one takes place in Nigeria and not the Congo.
Okonkwo, a prideful man who does not take failure lightly, lives in a pre-colonial Igbo tribe. Achebe describes the many cultural customs of the tribe such as their family duties and religious beliefs. Okonkwo adopts a boy named Ikmefuna, whom he got after a negotiation of peace between the Igbo and others. Yet later, the Oracle, a being whom the Igbo worship, calls for Ikmefuna to be killed, revealing a deeply troubled Okonkwo exposed to his own emotions. Okonkwo returns to his pride, however, and carries on with his life.
In time, though, he will be severely tested. White Christian missionaries arrive in the village, preaching the doctrines of their faith. Many Igbo reject their messages, but some accept, such as Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, who sees Christianity as a way to make sense of Ikmefuna’s death. Okonkwo becomes furious at the Christians, believing them to be corrupting Igbo culture. But the Igbo go ahead and allow a Christian church to be erected in a land thought to be cursed.
Conflicts between the church and the Igbo seem to lessen, until a church zealot harms one of the Igbo witch doctors, sparking a new feud. The Igbo have the church burned to the ground. Okonkwo wants to settle matters more peacefully and meet with the imperialists responsible for sending the Christian missionaries. Yet when Okonkwo and his friends meet with the whites, they are brutally imprisoned for a few days.
Okonkwo now appeals to his friends to violently rebel against the whites, urging them to remember the courage of their forefathers. But the Igbo have given in to the inevitable sway of the new white culture. In despair of their cowardice, Okonkwo hangs himself. The white Commissioner thinks to himself how he should be careful that people don’t get the true story of what happened in Nigeria.
Okonkwo commits suicide in despair, for he now lives in a culture that is changing for the worst. The Igbo are no longer faithful to their people but traitors. All his life he wanted to avoid his father’s unfaithful shadow, adhering to the Igbo way of manhood: resourcefulness, courage, and pride. Yet he sees that these ideals are fading, nothing is stable for him anymore. “Things Fall Apart, the centre cannot hold, anarchy is loosed upon the world,” says a poem by twentieth century poet W.B. Yeats. This theme of things changing for the worse was popular in Achebe’s day and before, the idea that what used to give life meaning is now fading. T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land,” speaks of this demoralization as well, about how life is like “stony rubbish.” The impact that both world wars had on the world was more negative than positive for many people in the twentieth century. They both taught just how debased humans could be toward one another.
The deeper reason this novel impresses me is simply the fact that it shows a sad truth about our world: people fail to find ways to live peacefully together. We all have our own views that sometimes we unlawfully impose on others either for ourselves or for good intentions. This story shows that this will never work, no matter what the case. It can only lead to despair. Either people truly tolerate one another or violence may be the only true means of communication. From Achebe’s eyes, the white imperialists are sinister indeed, while others may argue, politically incorrect or no, that the Igbo culture had its own flaws, something Nwoye saw in Ikmefuna’s death. For me, it isn’t about picking sides so much as seeing the frailty of mankind. That’s what impresses me most about this work. It is a timeless theme.
I want to read more from Achebe and Conrad in the future, when I get the chance. Their works are important to me, serving my interest in Africa. I highly recommend both of these classic works.