Saturday, January 24, 2009

Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart

This week I read two works about Africa. At least, Heart of Darkness takes place in the physical continent of Africa.Heart of Darkness was a reread (from high school of course). I did find it a good read, difficult but not impenetrable. The descriptions of what Marlow sees and hears are great, and vividly portray an Africa under colonialism.

I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe because I saw comments on LibraryThing and in the introduction to my Joseph Conrad book mentioning the book and Achebe's comments about Joseph Conrad. I am glad I did, the book is well written and a great picture of Africa from an African; real people, daily life, and culture clashes.

Things Fall Apart describes a decade in the life of a member of a village on the River Niger. We learn about Okonkwo, his father, his wives and children, his role in the village, and his love of the traditions of his tribe. The first part of the book gives us a picture of what life is like, the rules of the society and the meaning they give to Okonkwo's life. We see things done for tradition's sake that are disagreeable, but accepted. Perhaps they should be questioned, but then arises the difficulty of preserving what is good while allowing debate and change.

In the second and third parts, we see Okonkwo in exile and missionaries (white and black) move in to preach Jesus Christ. There are many clashes, from cultural differences between men willing to listen to each other, to violent clashes between men unwilling to learn about the other side. In the end, Okonkwo cannot bear to see his village destroyed by the change that has come.

In addition to reading his book, to see his portrayal of Africa, I also needed to hunt down his essay. Now, often Achebe's essay is published in the same text as Heart of Darkness, but not so with the version I read. I seem to have found a copy online here. Achebe begins identifying the desire or even need 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." He then uses Heart of Darkness to show that very need.

Further in he mentions that Africa is really just a setting and backdrop for the story, depersonalized and dehumanized. I think the essay covers the topic well, so he isn't just unhappy that Conrad shows Africans as less than humans and then complains that he doesn't show Africans at all. The essay then goes on to demonstrate Conrad's racism from sources other than the plot and characterizations in Heart of Darkness.

The essay is a challenge to me after reading Heart of Darkness. There is always the fear, when reading a critic's take on something, that I am unable to see what they see. It generates this disappointment in my own ability to read something critically and identify the images and motives and meanings. There is, of course, some of that. Even more so, there is the awareness that my interpretation of the novella seems quite satisfactory to me but is perhaps insufficient when faced with Achebe's comments.

I read Heart of Darkness and in Mr. Kurtz I see a portrayal of a man who was good at many things (painting, music, politics, writing) and considered a good man. He took his ideals to Africa, enlightened attitudes of treatment of the natives and bringing them the benefits of civilization. What he found in Africa was the darkness of his own sinful heart. I don't think that Africa turned him bad or wiped away the good of his civilization. I do think that the environment (the greed of the white colonialists who wanted ivory and the vulnerability of the natives) provided the opportunity for his base nature to overpower the veneer of civility. He finds that his goodness is not very deep, his talent is not earned or appreciated, and his ideals do not have enough foundation to withstand the evils that man is capable of. And what I see in Heart of Darkness is all about the white men showing their true colors.

Mr. Achebe challenges me though, as I realize that while I find the natives portrayed sympathetically, abused and wronged by the white man, they are not portrayed honestly. As Marlow travels down the river, I felt he was characterizing our loss of touch with life and the daily immediacy and intimacy with nature and the world as a whole that "civilization" keeps at a distance through business and politeness. An African ceremony is used to get closer to nature and inner emotions, while a European ceremony is much better at keeping emotions and intimacy at a great distance. Achebe sees it all as a cheat of the Africans though. They are producing art and literature and a history at the very time that Conrad is showing them as shadows that appear on the river bank, jump up and down, and then melt back into the jungle.

The other topic I found interesting and hard to understand in Heart of Darkness was Conrad's treatment of women. He find his aunt removed from reality. He finds the Amazon woman at Kurtz's place to be a towering figure of strength with no emotion. He finds the Intended of Kurtz, back in Europe, to be a tragic figure with no real understanding of the man she loved, who must be protected from that darkness. While I understand and agree with the hero/damsel stories and the complementarian roles of men and women, I would have to say that women don't come across with much more characterization of detail in this novella.

I recommend Heart of Darkness for it's exploration of the soul. I definitely recommend Things Fall Apart for a picture of Africa. And check out Achebe's essay for provoking thought.

My summary of Heart of Darkness is here. And my summary of Things Fall Apart is here.


  1. Excellent review. I had to read Heart of Darkness for a lit class and it is an interesting story.

  2. I'm reading 'Heart of Darkness' this week too. I am going to save reading your review until I have finished it but the first book I thought of whilst reading it was 'Things Fall Apart'. I like that 'Things Fall Apart' gives the African perspective. It made me realise how much like an alien invasion Imperialism must have seemed.
    We must be intrigued by the same books ;-)

  3. Hi Laura,
    I love your review, now that I am at liberty to read it.
    Your point about women in the book is well made. I wondered where all the women were until nearer the end. The knitting-in-black ladies were rather cold and emotionless too.


Thank you for your kind comments.