Critical Thoughts

Chinua-Achebe-EFMM

The collection of essays and critiques at the back of the critical edition of Things Fall Apart is riveting. Available are a plethora of essays about Achebe, Things Fall Apart, the colonial novel Heart of Darkness and its author Joseph Conrad, and the Igbo-African background. In his essay “Chi in Igbo Cosmology,” Chinua Achebe establishes, “There is truth and there is truth” (160). This is of particular importance, especially within the Igbo culture, as they believe in the strength of a man’s chi to provide this truth. The lack of truth, according to Achebe, can cause a rewriting of languages, cultures, or traditions; something that is obviously problematic.

In Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’”, Achebe establishes his concern over Conrad’s portrayal of Africans, specifically when he does not refer to them as humans, but typically as limbs or rolling eyes. Achebe states, “He [Conrad] chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths” (171). What Achebe meant was that Conrad was simply defining and writing about Africans based on the debasing societal stereotypes, hence making him a purveyor of myth. Achebe gives examples from Heart of Darkness as to how Conrad and his chosen language debases Africans and depicts them as outright savages.

Achebe notes that Conrad, although attempting through the filter of two narrators (Marlow and then a “shadowy second”), is closely linked to his writings of the novel. His ultimate driving argument in this critical essay is that Joseph Conrad is a “thoroughgoing racist.” He notes that this is “glossed over” in criticisms of Heart of Darkness (which is apparent by reading some of the other critiques in the back of the Norton critical edition). This is also apparent when it is taught (and it is typically taught in any high school English class). Many students miss the mark, believing that Africa is merely the setting for the breakdown of Mr. Kurtz’ mind, which is problematic to Achebe because by reducing Africa to a setting and backdrop, it is eliminating “the African as a human factor.” Thus, Achebe argues that this text, a text that debases Africans and dehumanizes them beyond belief and even to this day (as it is still celebrated and read and taught..) cannot be called “a great work of art.”

Chinua Achebe’s essay “Africa’s Tarnished Image” discusses imperialism in Africa and its debasing effects. This is yet another essay where Achebe discusses the harms of colonization and imperialism on Africa. He explains how Europeans tarnished the image of Africa, but how this tarnishing has led to great works of African literature. Achebe shares, “The vast arsenal of derogatory images of Africa amassed to defend the slave trade, and later colonization, gave the world not only a literary tradition but also a particular way of looking at Africa and Africans” (210). This statement by Achebe reflects upon the Africans who found literary strength in a time of colonial/imperial domination. This literary strength is what has given us stories such as Things Fall Apart. 

In his critical essay “Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Literature”, Simon Gikandi establishes that Chinua Achebe did not ‘create’ African literature, nor was he the first to write African literature; however, Gikandi believes that Achebe did something so eloquent that made his writing stand out from the rest. Achebe’s work spoke to individuals in ways other literature could not. Gikandi explains that Achebe’s works “captured the anxieties of many African readers in the 1950s” (297). For example, in Things Fall Apart, Okoknwo’s story represents the colonization and eventually decolonization of Africa. According to Gikandi, Achebe “helped society regain belief in itself…” (299). Gikandi continues on by delving into the life of Achebe, who, unbeknownst to many, was raised in a European manner. Achebe’s upbringing was privileged in this aspect. It was not until later in life that Achebe was touched by the content of Heart of Darkness; this inspired him to write African literature that was not debasing to Africa and representative cultures. Achebe sought out to write a different story. This desire to write a different story for African literature led to the belief to many that Achebe was the ‘father’ of African literature. Gikandi’s argument supports this in a way, acknowledging the difference of Achebe’s writings, noting that Achebe wanted to “represent the African experience in a narrative that sought, self-consciously, to be different from the colonial novel” (302). Achebe achieved this, according to Gikandi, which allows him the title of ‘inventor of African literature.’

In the critical debate “Was Joseph Conrad Really a Racist?”, Caryl Phillips and Chinua Achebe discuss Joseph Conrad and the inherent racism he authored in Heart of Darkness. Achebe notes that Conrad “has an admiration of the white skin” and that “it is the whiteness that he likes.” While Phillips establishes that she does not view Conrad in the same light, she acknowledges Achebe’s status and holds him in high esteem, deciding to partake in the conversation. She shares, “Achebe sees Conrad mocking both the African landscape and the African people.” Even more problematic to Achebe is Conrad’s treatment of African humanity. Despite his beliefs that Conrad is a racist, Achebe acknowledges that Heart of Darkness attempts to examine colonization and what happens when Europeans come in contact with exploitation. Thus, his main issue is not with the novel itself, but with the author, Joseph Conrad. All the while, Phillips struggles with the question if Conrad was really a racist, noting that at the time, Conrad was writing of the ‘evidence’ of the African world. Today, however, Phillips believes he is held in such high contempt by some because the readers are not part of a decolonized society; she believes this is where Achebe falls. Achebe defends himself by dismantling a belief that Conrad is “on his side,” nothing that to be on his side, he would have had to regard Africans as people. Achebe’s most important driving point is that Conrad is offensive because he comprises African humanity just to illustrate European problems.

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One thought on “Critical Thoughts

  1. Laura,
    Thank you for the informative piece. Reading through your analysis of Achebe’s “Africa’s Tarnished Image,” helped remind me of all the reasons its important not to be comfortable or inattentive with my ideas or way of reading literature, especially as an English teacher. Interestingly, just this past summer I randomly decided to read “Heart of Darkness” just for kicks since it had been so long. And despite my cultural background, and my perceived open-mindedness I just didn’t pick up on Conrad’s usage of terms for Africans such as “small,” “rudimentary,” or “tainted” souls. When I regard this phenomenon I get kind of freaked out. I haven’t yet taught “Heart of Darkness” but I’ve taught enough other pieces of literature about various peoples to know that somewhere during my career I’m sure I’ve allowed my own values to be the interpretation I impose on my students.

    Liked by 2 people

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