Achebe’s Challenge to Conrad

Student Arran Bhatiani examines how Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart challenges the European assumptions about Africa evident in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

‘Conrad is a bloody racist,’ states Achebe in his essay An Image of Africa. And so, boldly and bluntly, Achebe asserts that Conrad, despite the recognition of his literary style as eloquent and masterful, has written a novel that is heavily disrespectful of both Africa and Africans and as such the integrity of the novel is called into question by Achebe, who believes that ‘a novel which celebrates this dehumanisation . . . [of] a portion of the human race’ cannot be called ‘a work of art.’ Consequently, Achebe’s own work, Things Fall Apart, seeks to redress this imbalance caused by Conrad by presenting African society as both complex and just, and resultantly showing Conrad to be erroneous by illustrating how far off Conrad’s European stereotypes of Africa really are.

To European society in the late nineteenth century, however, Conrad’s interpretations of Africa were thought to be accurate, meaning that Africa and the Africans were shown to be both backward and uncivilised in relation to European society, particularly because African society did not place emphasis on recording the history of their culture in writing, rather passing down their history orally. The false assumption made explicit in Heart of Darkness is that the Africans could not speak at all, whereas oral communication is shown to be an essential part of society in Things Fall Apart. Infamously, in Heart of Darkness, an African man delivers the line to Marlow that ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’ which illustrates the view expressed by Conrad that Africans could only speak in rudimentary terms, as shown by the simplicity of only four words, as well as the misspelling of ‘Mistah’ and the omission of the verb to be in the phrase ‘he dead.’ This speech is a rare occurrence in Heart of Darkness, and is highlighted as an insulting representation by Achebe, who in his speech An Image of Africa, states that Conrad in Heart of Darkness more often shows Africans to speak in ‘incomprehensible grunts’ which continues the derogatory description of African speech. By contrast, Achebe in Things Fall Apart shows African people to be highly eloquent through their use of metaphor, such as when Unoka, being heavily in debt, avoids paying off a small debt by delivering the wisdom that: ‘Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before … those who kneel,’ thus eloquently relating how he will not pay this small debt, which is likened to a kneeling man, as opposed to his large debts, which are likened to standing men. Therefore, by use of rhetorical skill, Unoka is able to delay payment because the authority of the elders is not questioned in African society. In comparison, Achebe crushes Conrad’s assumption that Africans have no means of civilised communication because of the way in which not just speech but rhetoric proves to be a desirable and necessary skill, whereas African speech is virtually non-existent in Heart of Darkness, proving the fallibility of this assumption in the presentation of Africans in Conrad’s novel.

As communication is regarded as one of the pillars of a civilised society, a further aspect of society that is deemed to be necessary in order to be civilised was having a system for justice. As part of imperial ideals, the idea of empire building and the invasion of other countries was often justified because imperial rule was said to bring peace and justice to lands that were otherwise lawless, as was assumed by both Marlow and Europe. This lawlessness is portrayed by Conrad in combination with savagery as Marlow describes the cannibals he encounters in the Congo. In this episode, Conrad is incredulous as he speaks with the cannibals, who are perceived to be completely wild because the cannibal did not speak but ‘snapped’ and his facial expression is menacing ‘with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp white teeth.’ Therefore, in addition to the repulsion felt due to the act of cannibalism, Conrad chooses to portray the cannibal in animalistic terms, as the body language of the cannibal is akin to that of an animal hunting, and in addition Conrad only chooses to relate the monosyllabic, physical expressions of excitement as opposed to the emotional reactions, thus showing the cannibal to be subhuman and therefore lawless. The portrayal of the cannibal as being stereotypical of Africans is one that undermines the strong sense of justice that was in fact present in African society, as shown in Things Fall Apart by Achebe. In comparison with the wild cannibal in Heart of Darkness, Achebe indicates there are both laws and justice in African society, as shown in Chapter 2 of Things Fall Apart, where it was decreed that war could justly be declared upon a neighbouring village and this was done so because the ‘its case was clear and just and was accepted by the Oracle,’ since the murder ‘of a daughter of Umuofia’ was reason enough to go to war in the eyes of African society. Consequently, Achebe shows that Africans are in fact just because the reasons for war have been approved by the governing authority of the Ibo tribes, ‘the Oracle’ and by calling the murdered woman ‘a daughter’ Achebe conveys to the reader a sense of community that is important in African society, thus justifying the need for the whole village to go to war because the whole village has been affected. The Ibo are shown to be even more just because of the fact that they issue ‘an ultimatum’ before going to war, which contrasts deeply to the lawless cannibal in Heart of Darkness who seems to be intent on savagery and violence whereas in fact Achebe proves that these Africans see violence as a last resort, thus indicating how Conrad’s European assumption is invalid when examining African society without prejudice.

As it has been established that Africans within African society clearly do not match the assumptions made by Conrad, one might assume that Conrad’s portrayal of the country itself may be closer to the facts. Conrad’s description of Africa befits the European assumption of Africa as a place full of mystery due to the lack of knowledge that most Europeans had of Africa because the continent remained unseen to all but very few Europeans. Conrad impresses upon his readers in Heart of Darkness the extreme differences between civilised Europe and uncivilised Europe in his eyes as he describes Africa as a ‘prehistoric earth’ and an ‘accursed inheritance’ on a physical level and at a mental level Conrad describes Africa as being ‘impenetrable to human thought.’ As such, Conrad leads readers to believe Africa to be uninhabitable due to its lack of advancement as shown by the adjectives ‘prehistoric’ and ‘impenetrable’ whereas Africa in Achebe’s eyes holds so much more for those who do live in Africa. In Things Fall Apart, the land is fertile for all those who desire to make a living there, with the Ibo people being able to plant all manner of vegetables from the ‘yam, the king of the crops’ to ‘maize, melons and beans.’ Therefore, Achebe differs in his presentation of Africa to Conrad because of the way he shows that Africa can be used to the advantage of those who are living there as long as the ways of those who live there are followed. Moreover, Achebe seeks to point out that who do not intend to exploit or spoil Africa either through war, as shown by the failed implementation of Western artillery in the early twentieth century comic Tintin in the Congo by Hergé, or through trade, which is hinted at by Conrad in Heart of Darkness through the ongoing quest for ‘ivory’ that occurs throughout the novel. Therefore, Achebe, through images of Africa in its natural state reinforces the idea that Africa is useful to those who work the land whereas all that Conrad sees in Africa is a place that simply is not like Europe and to his discredit dismisses Africa immediately and does not seek to find the natural reward in Africa that Achebe does.

In conclusion, it can be seen that for every example of the primitive, un-European nature of Africa that Conrad puts forward, Achebe is able to counter these insults through research conducted into African society that provide a more realistic insight into the inner workings of Africa and the Africans. Yet Achebe recognises in his letter Named for Victoria, Queen of England that there has been, as a result of the colonialism, the creation of a ‘cultural crossroads.’ European civilisation has become entwined with African culture to produce a hybrid culture that involves both African and European culture. This idea, however, is rejected in different ways by both Conrad and Achebe. In Heart of Darkness there is a refusal of white, European men to integrate with their African counterparts, as it is shown that Conrad believes that ‘the thought of their humanity’ being ‘like yours’ was ‘ugly.’ In this way Conrad directly relates the thought of Africans as humans as being repulsive and as such the Africans are placed permanently below the Europeans because they cannot be considered as humans, with striking emphasis created by the noun ‘ugly’ giving no cause to believe that there was any leniency in this view of Conrad. Achebe, by comparison, indicates that the opposite is also possible through the character Okonkwo, who is typified by the phrase ‘he ruled his house with a heavy hand’. This reflects his stubborn and angry manner which in turn means that he is unable to accept the influence of Europeans in his village because of his stubborn nature which ultimately brings his downfall. In a way this is similar to the death of Mr. Kurtz, who sets himself up as God wishes to exert control over his subjects and eventually ‘exterminate all the brutes,’ and thus does not accept Africans for who they but what he wants them to be. Therefore, an outright rejection of others, it is suggested, can only lead to one’s downfall, a point of agreement between Achebe and Conrad, despite the many differences between their portrayals of Africa and the Africans.


Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
An Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe
Named for Victoria, Queen of England, a letter written by Chinua Achebe
Tintin in the Congo by Hergé