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Ignorance and racism in joseph conrads heart of darkness

W Norton and Co.

  • There go I but for the grace of God;
  • His book has all the themes that make the book an adventure story- mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, an unexpected attack;
  • As I said earlier Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book;
  • Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?

It was a fine autumn morning such as encouraged friendliness to passing strangers. Brisk youngsters were hurrying in all directions, many of them obviously freshmen in their first flush of enthusiasm. An older man going the same way as I turned and remarked to me how very young they came these days. Then he asked me if I was a student too. I said no, I was a teacher.

What did I teach? Now that was funny, he said, because he knew a fellow who taught the same thing, or perhaps it was African history, in a certain Community College not far from here. It always surprised him, he went on to say, because he never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff, you know.

By this time I was walking much faster. One of them was particularly happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African tribe. I propose to draw from these rather trivial encounters rather heavy conclusions which at first sight might seem somewhat out of proportion to them. But only, I hope, at first sight. The young fellow from Yonkers, perhaps partly on account of his age but I believe also for much deeper and more serious reasons, is obviously unaware that the life of his own tribesmen in Yonkers, New York, is full of odd customs and superstitions and, like everybody else in his culture, imagines that he needs a trip to Africa to encounter those things.

The other person being fully my own age could not be excused on the grounds of his years. Ignorance might be a more likely reason; but here again I believe that something more willful than a mere lack of information was at work. If there is something in these utterances more than youthful inexperience, more than a lack of factual knowledge, what is it?

A literary analysis of ignorance and racism in heart of darkness by joseph conrad

Quite simply it is the desire -- one might indeed say the 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.

This need is not new; which should relieve us ignorance and racism in joseph conrads heart of darkness of considerable responsibility and perhaps make us even willing to look at this phenomenon dispassionately. I have neither the wish nor the competence to embark on the exercise with the tools of the social and biological sciences but more simply in the manner of a novelist responding to one famous book of European fiction: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darknesswhich better than any other work that I know displays that Western desire and need which I have just referred to.

Of course there are whole libraries of books devoted to the same purpose but most of them are so obvious and so crude that few people worry about them today.

Conrad, on the other hand, is undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good storyteller into the bargain. His contribution therefore falls automatically into a different class -- permanent literature -- read and taught and constantly evaluated by serious academics. Heart of Darkness is indeed so secure today that a leading Conrad scholar has numbered it "among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language.

Heart of Darkness 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 beastiality.

The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully "at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that "Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world. Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry.

For the Thames too "has been one of the dark places of the earth. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings.

These suggestive echoes comprise Conrad's famed evocation of the African atmosphere in Heart of Darkness. In the ignorance and racism in joseph conrads heart of darkness consideration his method amounts to no more than a steady, ponderous, fake-ritualistic repetition of two antithetical sentences, one about silence and the other about frenzy.

We can inspect samples of this on pages 36 and 37 of the present edition: Of course there is a judicious change of adjective from time to time, so that instead of inscrutable, for example, you might have unspeakable, even plain mysterious, etc. The eagle-eyed English critic F. Leavis drew attention long ago to Conrad's "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.

When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity. Generally normal readers are well armed to detect and resist such under-hand activity. But Conrad chose his subject well -- one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with the psychological predisposition of his readers or raise the need for him to contend with their resistance.

He chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths. The most interesting and revealing passages in Heart of Darkness are, however, about people. We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil.

But suddenly as we struggled round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us -- who could tell?

We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign -- and no memories. The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there -- there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.

It was unearthly and the men were. No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it -- this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you, was just the thought of their humanity -- like yours -- the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.

Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest ignorance and racism in joseph conrads heart of darkness of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you -- you so remote from the night of first ages -- could comprehend.

Herein lies the meaning of Heart of Darkness and the fascination it holds over the Western mind: And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs.

A few months of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity -- and he had filed his teeth too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks.

He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. As everybody knows, Conrad is a romantic on the side. He might not exactly admire savages clapping their hands and stamping their feet but they have at least the merit of being in their place, unlike this dog in a parody of breeches.

For Conrad things being in their place is of the utmost importance. Tragedy begins when things leave their accustomed place, like Europe leaving its safe stronghold between the policeman and the baker to like a peep into the heart of darkness. Before the story likes us into the Congo basin proper we are given this nice little vignette as an example of things in their place: Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows.

Exploring the themes of ignorance and racism in joseph conrads heart of darkness

You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks -- these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement that was as natural and hue as the surf along their coast.

They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at. Towards the end of the story Conrad lavishes a whole page quite unexpectedly on an African woman who has obviously been some kind of mistress to Mr.

Kurtz and now presides if I may be permitted a little liberty like a formidable mystery over the inexorable imminence of his departure: She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent. She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.

Ignorance And Racism In Heart Of Darkness

This Amazon is drawn in considerable detail, albeit of a predictable nature, for two reasons. First, she is in her place and so can win Conrad's special brand of approval and second, she fulfills a structural requirement of the story: She came forward all in black with a pale head, floating toward me in the dusk. She was in mourning. She took both my hands in hers and murmured, "I had heard you were coming. She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.

A literary analysis of ignorance and racism in heart of darkness by joseph conrad

The difference in the attitude of the novelist to these two women is conveyed in too many direct and subfile ways to need elaboration. But perhaps the most significant difference is the one implied in the author's bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other. It is clearly not part of Conrad's purpose to confer language on the "rudimentary souls" of Africa. In place of speech they made "a violent babble of uncouth sounds.

But most of the time they were too busy with their frenzy. There are two occasions in the book, however, when Conrad departs somewhat from his practice and confers speech, even English speech, on the savages.

The first occurs when cannibalism gets the better of them: Give 'im to us. The other occasion was the famous announcement: In reality they constitute some of his best assaults. In the case of the cannibals the incomprehensible grunts that had thus far served them for speech suddenly proved inadequate for Conrad's purpose of letting the European glimpse the unspeakable craving in their hearts.