19/20 February 2018
Formalistic/ New Critical -Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad’s” Heart of darkness” is considered one of the great works of English literature. The early responses to the novella praised the novella and called it one of the vents of the year. However, in 1977 Chinua Achebe criticized the novella for being racist. “This influenced the views on “Heart of darkness” and not in a positive way. In this essay, I will discuss how each critique is highly influenced by the time-period in which it was written.
However, Before getting into the critiques, I would like to start of by giving a brief summary. Heart of Darkness deals with Marlow’s expedition on board a steamboat into the African jungle in search of an ivory-trader named Mr. Kurtz. His mission is to find and bring him back to civilization. However, Mr. Kurtz does not want to leave and actually orders an attack on the steamboat when they get close to his station. Mr. Kurtz is worshipped by the Africans and he exploits this. Marlow does however manage to bring Mr. Kurtz aboard the steamboat. On the way back to England, Mr Kurtz dies, his last words are “the horror, the horror” (Conrad 69) and Marlow returns to England without him. In England, Marlow visits Mr. Kurtz’ intended and gives her Kurtz old letters. She remembers what a great man Mr. Kurtz was and how much she loved him. She also wants to know what his last words were, to which Marlow replies “your name” (ibid. 77).
A vast number of critics have entered the debate concerning Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Some of the more notable critics include Albert Guerard, Chinua Achebe, Ian Watt, Hunt Hawkins, Peter Brooks, Patrick Brantlinger, Marianna Torgovnick, Jeremy Hawthorn, Wilson Harris, Edward W. Said and J. Hiller Millis. First im going to discuss the early reception of the novella. Then I will look at the critic who spiraled the debate about the book out of control. Finally, I will look at the response to Achebe’s criticism in Edward Said’s “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness”.
As mentioned previously, the early critics called the novella “An literary event of the year” .(Armstrong 307-308) One critic called the novella a destructive experience and mentions that people must not suppose that Conrad’s novella is against colonization, expansion or Imperialism. Another critic commented on Kurtz’s Intended and her belief in the villain’s heroism (ibid. 310). In another review the critic commented on the fact that Conrad have moved past the two classes in fiction. Heart of Darkness does more than just deal with movement and adventure or offer characterization of the human mind. Conrad has both motives, adventure and a philosophic presentation, of the human character (ibid. 311). One critic mentions that there is no prejudice in the novella (ibid. 308).
In his famous critique, “An Image of Africa”, Chinua Achebe takes a strong stand against Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He claims that Conrad was a racist and that a novella which so depersonalizes a portion of the human race should not be considered a great work of art(Achebe 176). The following quote from Achebe is a good demonstration of his opinion “The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a thorough going racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked (Achebe 176).” According to Achebe, Conrad has an obsession with skin color: he describes a man as being black, having long black legs and long black arms. Achebe mentions a scene in the novella where after Kurtz’ death, the manager’s boy is described as putting his “insolent black head in the doorway” (Conrad 69). He further rejects the idea that Conrad is not racist because he is merely describing what Marlow thinks and sees; this idea is absurd because there is no alternative reference and the readers have to take what the characters say as the truth since no one is disputing them.
Furthermore, Said’s analysis was published in 1993 and is in many ways a response to Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa”. Said begins his critique “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness” by stating that we must not blame the Europeans for the misfortunes of the present. We should instead look at the events of imperialism “as a network of interdependent histories that would be inaccurate and senseless to repress, useful and interesting to understand.” (Said 19). We live in a global environment and racial hatred can lead to destruction (ibid.19-20).
Now I do believe that everyone can see that it is thoroughly racist but that does not keep it from being an important time-document, technically ground breaking and a masterpiece in its genre. One should not completely disregard the early critics who praised the novella’s writing and prose. The beautiful language is without question an important reason why it is considered such a masterpiece today and why it was so praised when it was originally published.