One must not overlook that Chinua Achebe, at the very beginning of An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, makes a point of telling the reader how he hurriedly walked away from the fellow ignorant of African literature and history. He did not stand, as an authority on the subject, to speak to him. He summarizes his two tales of "ignorance" with precisely the sort of inattention and generalization for which he later condemns Conrad, while from behind hearing "I guess I have to take your course to find out" (251). The reader must take this as a warning. The anecdotal beginning of the essay is a clear indicator of aggressive subjectivity. He is already not listening. Achebe’s argument, though entirely valid as a personally held point-of-view, is irresponsibly constructed, unconvincingly conducted, and representative of a potentially useful tool of literary criticism willfully, perhaps dangerously mishandled.
The bulk of his essay is dedicated to ignoring or treating too offhandedly the larger issues of the book in order to create his admittedly related and important argument. He erases the frame narrative of Conrad to Shadowy Narrator to Marlow until halfway though, simply and directly attributing Marlow’s thoughts and words to Conrad, dismissing the "cordon sanitaire" as a waste. He "gives no alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters" (256). But Conrad "hides" for a reason. The alternative frame of reference exists within the reader, solely within the reader, it is on his or her conscience to judge. Conrad gives to his readers a great gift and responsibility. Achebe seems not to want this in the novel, wants to be told or have it intimated that the author knows what is "right." To denigrate the novel or the author for not doing so is entirely misguided; it borders on intellectual laziness on one side, or a stringent desire for polarization on the other—to have things in black-and-white, Conrad’s own untrustworthy color scheme.
Achebe is, of course, well within his rights to take issue, as he does, with Conrad’s use of Africa as a backdrop against which to investigate the "break-up of one petty European mind" (257). It speaks to the larger, undoubtedly legitimate issue of Western attitudes towards Africa. But Heart of Darkness is not specifically about those attitudes; "Africa" is not the central issue. It is not one petty European mind. Kurtz is all of Europe. Achebe wants the novel to be about Africa. It is not. It only takes place there, a crucial difference. Conrad’s treatment of the African languages, the "Amazon" woman, the overall "dehumanization" (257) of black people (I cannot forgive him the direct quotation from the book, "No they were not inhuman" he includes in his own essay) would certainly be call for alarm out of the context of the novel. Within it, however, they are stylistic devices devoted to the greater theme, which if nothing else makes clear that it is the white European male who is capable of unspeakable atrocities and barbarism, gross acts of inhumanity, the creation of an unforgettable horror. Achebe barely acknowledges this, preferring instead to criticize Conrad for not establishing and investigating his theme by different means, or not addressing the correct theme at all. He has committed one of the greatest crimes of which a reader or critic is capable: railed against a book for not being a different book.
Conrad’s theme took him up perfectly. Chinua Achebe went into the heart of darkness, like Marlow, like Kurtz, like the reader, and did not find the answers he wanted, did not find any answer at all. His essay is not so much an analysis of Heart of Darkness as it is of Achebe himself. He found only what he brought with him.
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