Chinua Achebe's Response to Conrad

by , 2004

In "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," Chinua Achebe criticizes Joseph Conrad for his racist stereotypes towards the continent and people of Africa. He claims that Conrad propagated the "dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination" rather than portraying the continent in its true form (1793). Africans were portrayed in Conrad's novel as savages with no language other than grunts and with no "other occupations besides merging into the evil forest or materializing out of it simply to plague Marlow" (1792-3). To Conrad, the Africans were not characters in his story, but merely props. Chinua Achebe responded with a novel, Things Fall Apart: an antithesis to Heart of Darkness and similar works by other European writers. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe tells the story of an Ibo man, Okonkwo, and the tragedies which he has to endure. Africans are represented as individuals capable of speech, not just one massive conglomerate of natives. Their customs are not regarded as eccentric or bizarre, but as the norm-functioning no differently than the variety of Western customs do. And the land itself is described as a mix of towns and farms, not a mysterious land which breeds insanity. In almost every respect, Things Fall Apart contradicts the stereotypes set up in Heart of Darkness.

Achebe opens his lecture, "An Image of Africa," with the story of a student who sent him a letter saying how he was "particularly happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African tribe," not realizing that "the life of his own tribesmen in Yonkers, New York, is full of odd customs and superstitions" as well (1784). Western thought perceives African culture and religion as customs and superstitions rather than just an alternative form of culture and religion. Calling them superstitions is not merely using alternative vocabulary, but is a conscious degradation of the practices. In Things Fall Apart, the religious practices of Okonkwo's tribe are taken very seriously and the white man's religion is described as crazy and their god as merely a fetish. However, the villagers do not fail to notice that "the white man's fetish had unbelievable power" when the men who built a church within the evil forest failed to die as they should have (149). Rather than dismissing the European religion because of its difference, the locals noted its power even though they did not understand how it worked. After conflict with the new church, the village "decided to ostracize the Christians" (159). The new converts were pushed outside of the community because they had become involved with the strange, foreign superstitions and customs. Through the tribe's relation with the new church, Achebe reversed the roles that African and European religion had played in previously existing colonial literature: the European religion became mere superstition while African religion remained true religion.

Things Falls Apart tells of the tragedy that takes place when people are out of their place. The first half of the novel contains relatively routine events in the life of Okonkwo. It is not until the second half, when the Europeans arrive, that his life is significantly disrupted. Achebe says that, to Conrad, it is very important that people are in their place. "He might not exactly admire savages clapping their hands and stamping their feet," Achebe writes, "but they have at least the merit of being in their place" (1787). Conrad made it clear in his novel that Africans belonged in Africa and not elsewhere. Achebe makes the same point in Things Fall Apart about Europeans by documenting the problems that they cause with their arrival in Okonkwo's village. Obierka, a friend of Okonkwo's tells the story of the white men's arrival in a neighboring village, Abame: "The elders consulted their Oracle and it told them that the strange man would break their clan and spread destruction among them" (138). The arrival happened as the Oracle said it would. A white messenger was killed and so the colonialists retaliated by massacring the entire village during their market. The arrival of the Christians in Okonkwo's village, Umuofia, was not as devastating, but still dramatic. Their new beliefs clashed with the traditional local beliefs and led to a strict division among the village. Even fathers and sons were separated. Okonkwo's son, Nwoye, joined the church and was almost killed by his father after telling him that he had done so. Only his uncle's begging kept Okonkwo from strangling his son, but as he let go, Nwoye "walked away and never returned" (152). The consequences of the Europeans being out of their place were harsh for both Abame and Umuofia. Achebe uses these situations to show that just as Conrad appreciated Africans being in their place, life would be easier if Europeans would stay in theirs.

Achebe counters Conrad's refusal to give Africans the ability of speech by creating characters who routinely give eloquent speeches and engage in rich conversation. He criticizes Conrad for claiming that "In place of speech they [the Africans] made 'a violent babble of uncouth sounds'" (1788). The grunts and sounds that Conrad describes were actually parts of complex languages, comparable to the English language. African characters speak using complex language throughout the entirety of Things Fall Apart. In addition to near constant dialogue between characters, the novel includes complex metaphors spoken by African characters. The narrator explains, "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten" (7). Interestingly, Achebe here uses a metaphor to explain the frequent use of metaphor-like-proverbs. Proverbs, to the Ibo people, are what makes language enjoyable and more easily used. By giving his Ibo characters the capacity to wield proverbs so capably, Achebe makes the point that Africans do not rely on grunts but instead have complex languages that rival European ones.

In addition, Things Fall Apart contains passages which show that Africans are able to learn and converse in the European languages. There are only two instances in Heart of Darkness, "when Conrad departs somewhat from his practice and confers speech, even English speech, on the savages," and these are used by Conrad, according to Achebe, only to reinforce the savagery of the Africans (1788). By taking away the capability of speech from the Africans, Conrad implied that they were subhuman in their communication skills. In contrast, Achebe tells of interpreters that had learned the white man's language and were able to translate freely between the two languages: "the white man began to speak to them. He spoke through an interpreter who was an Ibo man" (144). This Ibo man's ability to translate between the two languages showed that he was advanced enough to communicate not only in one language, but in two very different ones. Later, Achebe documents instances in which the white missionary, Mr. Kiaga, was conversing with the Umuofia Christian converts in clear English which they had learned quickly. "'Before God,' he said, "there is no slave or free. We are all children of God and we must receive these our brothers'" (156). The converts understood what Mr. Kiaga was saying here, even though he was speaking of abstract thoughts in a foreign language to them. This shows that the Ibo people were proficient enough in their newly acquired English to hold complex conversations. The savages that Conrad described would never have been able to communicate so humanly.

In Conrad's work, the African landscape was degraded to a mere prop necessary for the story of a European man to be told. Achebe, on the other hand, describes the geography as a mixture of villages, forests, and farms all distinctly separate and well-defined. He criticizes Conrad for portraying "Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril" (1790). To counter this robbery of the African landscape's humanity, Things Fall Apart includes several distinctly different African settings. The novel begins with the statement that "Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond" (3). With this first sentence, we learn that the Ibo people have distinct political units-the villages-that communicate with each other and with other, distant communities-the beyond. Later, after Okonkwo is exiled for his crime against the earth goddess, he travels to a distant "village called Mbanta, just beyond the borders of Mbaino" (124). Again, we see evidence of a developed geography comparable to the European landscape of towns and cities. The description of Okonkwo's property provides evidence of developed structures: "He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut" (14). The description of his compound continues and we learn that his property is as developed in its many buildings as an aristocratic European's might be. The endless forests that Conrad describes Africa as are only placed in Things Fall Apart on the edges of developed communities and were not associated with daily life. Instead, "Every clan and village had its 'evil forest.' In it were buried all those who did of the really evil diseases" (148). The forests were a place for burial, not just wild expanses in which the natives roamed aimlessly. By describing uniquely different settings within Iboland, Achebe helps to restore the humanity of the African landscape. Readers of Things Fall Apart can see that the African geography is complex, not just a mass of savage forests.

Chinua Achebe not only criticized colonial works like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but wrote a new story in the emerging postcolonial style that counters many of the degrading stereotypes that colonial literature has placed on Africa. In his lecture, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," Achebe documents the ways that Conrad dehumanizes Africans by reducing their religious practices to superstition, saying that they should remain in their place, taking away their ability of speech, and depreciating their complex geography to just a single mass of jungle. Achebe carefully crafts Things Fall Apart to counter these stereotypes and show that Africa is in fact a rich land full of intelligent people who are, in fact, very human.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1783-1794.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.