Collision in Conrad’s and Achebe’s Novels

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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In Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart, Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe employ characters caught between colliding cultures which can be seen through the use of literary techniques such as symbolism and imagery, ultimately revealing the theme of culture and traditions. The authors Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe have main characters that live in different continents, but experience similar cultural collisions. Although Marlow and Okonkwo have different lifestyles, they are led to question their identities and make decisions that will determine their future.

The main difference between Marlow and Okonkwo is their cultural backgrounds. This is shown through symbolism. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad uses symbolism by stating, “To my question he said Mr. Kurtz had painted this – in this very station more than a year ago…” (Conrad 437). Kurtz’s painting at the Central Station includes a woman who is blindfolded, which is to portray the Europeans that have come to civilize the natives. The blindfolded woman cannot physically see the negative effects that their customs have on the natives. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe incorporates symbolism by stating, “He who brings kola brings life” (Achebe 29). The kola symbolizes hospitality and resCollision in Conrad’s and Achebe’s Novels pect. This idea contradicts the stereotypes created by the Europeans. Adding on, breaking of the kola nut is a spiritual process in Okonkwo’s culture. Since Marlow has no family, his shipmates are there to provide companionship. Although he goes through his physical journey to the Inner Station by himself, he meets important figures along his journey. On the other hand, Okonkwo has a large family with multiple wives and children, as well as an entire village that are familiar with each other.

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Adding on, Marlow and Okonkwo both have contrasting customs and traditions. Marlow comes from a society that label whites as a superior race, and blacks as inferior, uncivilized people. Okonkwo, who comes from a Nigerian Village, had an interaction with the white ethnicity which he called “an albino” (Achebe 1406). Though Marlow and Okonkwo come from distinct cultures, both experience cultural clashes along their journeys. They both have different approaches towards these clashes. For example, Marlow sets out on a journey to a continent that is foreign to him. He travels farther into the Inner Station and “the heart of darkness” where he challenges the beliefs of his people while also getting lured into the world of wealth and power. On the other hand, Okonkwo is exiled and transports his family to a different village. He learns to adapt to their ways and is stripped of the authority and status he once had in his home clan. Okonkwo and his family found it difficult to adjust to the environment they were exposed to.

According to the novel, “Okonkwo and his family worked very hard to plant a new farm. But it was like… learning to become left-handed in old age” (Achebe 1329). While in Mbanta, he learns of white missionaries invading the land. He is then faced with a whole new cultural collision, both religious and societal. Marlow and Okonkwo struggle with an inner conflict and a battle between everything they have ever known and the new culture threatening to invalidate all of their important values. They are faced with an identity crisis and question who they truly are. They become skeptical of their purpose and their response to their emotional and mental battles will impact their lives. Although both men are seen as strong and brave, they become weak and struggle to find a solution to their problems. The characters have different ways of responding to their inner conflicts. Okonkwo holds stubbornly to his principles and traditions, while Marlow begins to question the behaviors of his native ethnicity. Marlow begins to understand the cruelty of the whites and even calls them devils: “I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed…but, by all the stars! These were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men-men, I tell you” (Conrad 263). Okonkwo and Marlow respond differently to their personal conflicts and their future depends on the decisions they make.

As a result of their decisions, Okonkwo and Marlow’s futures come to different ends. Marlow escapes the heart of darkness, and although he loses Kurtz along the journey, he emerges with the knowledge of what really went on in the African ivory trade. Marlow knew what European imperialism really was and described it as, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”(Conrad 83). He exposes the cruel things he witnessed by telling his story to his companions. On the other hand, Okonkwo found that his burden was too tough to bear. The weight of his violent acts crashed upon him and his tough exterior turned into a weak man who could not find a reason to continue his life. Instead of persevering and finding a way to adapt to cultural change, Okonkwo gave into his skepticism and fear. He ultimately gives up on his family and tribe by escaping his problems. Marlow and Okonkwo committed tremendous crimes against their beliefs and customs. Even though Marlow escaped the heart of darkness, he goes on to lie to Kurtz’s beloved. As he stated at the beginning of the book, “You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie…because it appalls me” (Conrad 474).

Although Marlow speaks of lies with disgust and horror, the story ends with him lying to Kurtz’s fiancée. Marlow physically escapes from his inner struggle without getting injured, but his values and emotional state have been tainted. Similar to Marlow, Okonkwo dishonors his morals. Okonkwo commits suicide to flee from his problems, while dishonoring his family and entire clan. Unfortunately, the aggressive hero of the tribe met his death by committing one of the greatest crimes against his people. Although Marlow and Okonkwo come from different worlds, they both experience the same journey. They encounter cultural clashes, identity crises, and inner conflicts, even through imperialism. Marlow and Okonkwo both respond to these problems in their own ways. Marlow physically escapes, but Okonkwo does not. Both men end their story with a betrayal to their values and ways of life.

Though Okonkwo and Marlow lived on different continents, they experienced similar physical and emotional voyages. To conclude further, Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness both have similarities when it comes to how the author uses imperialism and cultural collision to reveal the core meaning of the literary work itself. Through the use of symbolism, mainly, cultures and traditions shine through these novels.

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Collision in Conrad's and Achebe's Novels. (2021, Jun 05). Retrieved from