Heart of Darkness Racism

Category: Literature
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Words:  2483
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Heart of Darkness was one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read so I found that class discussions and focusing on specific passages were both super helpful in better understanding what was going on. Since the novel is pretty dense, it was sometimes hard to interpret everything going on, but after reading for homework and discussing in class, it became less of a challenge. For example, when we had class on September 11th, going over the comparisons to other novels, helped pose some questions that got me thinking. Like the question: Is Marlow enlightened?

In addition, when we went over the passage on page 22 of the “unhappy savages” it got me thinking about the contrast between Europeans and Africans, and what Conrad was trying to bring across by this. By picking apart specific passages, I was able to further strengthen my grasp of the book and that helped guide me along the thinking process. In that sense, I feel like I had applied instruction effectively, I’ve taken the questions posed in class and applied them to my writing and along with that, have paid careful attention to specific details of the text.

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The feedback I’ve been given has been really contributive as well. When we did peer review and my partner suggested I take out unnecessary language like “slams that across” and “really”, while also suggesting I move something to the beginning of the analysis, I was able to refine my essay and clear things up.

With that, I’ve taken feedback and been able to go off of that to improve my writing. I have also taken notes every day in class which has been a very valuable piece in simplifying my writing. I’ve been able to refer back to moments in the book with ease because I had written important quotes in my journal. On September 10th, I wrote in my journal the quote from page 62: “It’s really easier to face bereavement…this kind of prolonged hunger” and took note that this meant the Europeans had no restraint for the hunger of ivory. To find a passage to analyze, I looked back in my notes and since I was particularly interested in expanding on the idea of the hunger for ivory, I was able to easily know what direction I wanted to go in for my analysis.

In class discussions, I’ve put in effort to really engage in class, making contributions and paying careful attention to other people’s insights which often brought new things to mind. Additionally, class discussions often answered any questions I would’ve had on plot points and where we were in the novel each time. Again, I feel as though I’ve done a good job at being as immersed in the novel as I could be. The only thing I wish I would have done differently is maybe made more comments in class and gone deeper into the theme of civilization versus wilderness. Otherwise, I had a really good time in dissecting this book.

Critical analysis of essential passage

“Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear—or some kind of primitive honour? No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of one’s soul—than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true. And these chaps, too, had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple. Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield.” (62)

In the passage above, Marlow depicts his feelings towards the company and how the hunger for ivory has consumed the men making the desire for power almost impossible to fight. He believes that the company possesses such a hunger for ivory that it has brought out the worst in man: “no fear can stand up to hunger…what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze”. Conrad is no stranger to powerful images and by portraying “principles” as “less than chaff in a breeze,” he’s emphasizing that the hunger for ivory has caused them to do brutal things to acquire it.

At the same time, Marlow highlights that this “lingering” hunger, has overpowered any kind of moral aptitude or principle of the men in the company. Marlow has even said that the Africans that he has referred to as “savages” are more composed and moral than the men in the company. Conrad uses this irony to bring across his message that even as the Africans are made to be seen as savages, the true savages, in the end, are the men who believe themselves to be superior. The imagery of these Africans in chains and being portrayed as animals in previous pages brings this contrast across. With this, Conrad is arguing that the Europeans have a kind of darkness at heart that makes them the real animals. Even saying that it would be easier to face hell, then fight the hunger for power: “It’s really easier to face…the perdition of one’s soul”. Through this, Conrad exclaims that “perdition” which is damnation for unrepentant souls, a sort of final spiritual ruin, is the kind of fate men are bound to because they can not face this “lingering starvation”.

At this point, it’s clear that Conrad believes that the real savages are the Europeans, not the Africans. By continuing to use powerful imagery, Conrads illustrates how little restraint the men have: “I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield”. With this, there’s this clearly a big conflict between hunger and restraint because as Marlow sees it, the men of the company have lost restraint at the hands of hunger for ivory. To juxtapose these men which are supposed to be superior and god-like to a hyena in a battlefield, and still say that the men are less composed, it works to set this kind of dark yet powerful theme of saying that men are dark at heart and that it would take a tremendous amount of strength to fight off the darkness. The question I would have after reading this passage is how this idea of the desire for power corrupting morals relates to Kurtz. Also, does Kurtz stand as a symbol of Europeans in general?

Characterization of Kurtz

In the novel Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is a character who ends up being power-hungry and ruthless, Conrad uses this character development to symbolize how the desire for power brings out the worst in man and how furthermore, Kurtz represents a dark portrayal of the impulses of men everywhere. Kurtz is an ivory trader sent to Africa. While there, he had turned himself into a demigod of all the tribes and had gathered a large amount of ivory at his station. As a result, he had become very respected in the Company. Based on what others have said in the novel, it’s easy to get the impression that Kurtz is a very determined and honorable person. In a lot of ways Kurtz was respected, many saw him as ambitious, caring and someone capable of greatness. His goals are another example of this determination, as he desires to act as a god to the people of Africa and guide them towards a developed civilization. In a lot of ways Kurtz had created a purpose for himself by making himself a demigod of the Africans and acting as a ruler over the “primitive people”.

With all this, it seemed like he had a lot going for him. He was known by so many people as so many different things: a musician, politician, humanitarian. But he ends up with a corrupt persona at the end, far from his original self. The most memorable moment that ties to Kurtz and this corruption is when Marlow sees these heads on sticks: “ …and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips….They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him (86-87)”. The heads are those of which had defied Kurtz’s authority, illustrating a dark image of how Kurtz has lost himself. This moment really contradicts the impression of Kurtz at the beginning where he is a sort of “humanitarian”.

The symbol of impaled heads is also a capturing symbol relating to Kurtz while even though he’s still alive, he’s far from thoughtful or sane. At the very end, when Kurtz is actually dying, Marlow describes Kurtz as someone who had been “kicked…loose of the earth” and “beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations (100)”. With the use of powerful language like “beguiled”, “permitted aspirations” and “loose of the earth”, there’s a large emphasis on the emptiness and corruption of Kurtz’s soul. All along, his true self was rotting away as he built himself up to be a god. His infamous last words of “The horror! The horror! (105)” was him realizing how depraved human nature is and the same darkness that prevented him from self-control is the same in every human heart. His true self was shown in the end and the truth about the world was as shown in the end as a “horror”.

Furthermore, Conrad is saying that Kurtz exists deep in everyone. During this time of imperialism, there were intense desires of the world and Kurtz was just an example of how the search for power impacts people. The idea of absolutism was very present during this time and power had a big hold over people. It allowed for so much corruption during this time and so many violent actions. The question that broadens this theme out is whether or not Conrad would believe that the idea of humanity being dark at heart holds true today. Most likely, he would believe this and it may be partially true. Naturally, people desire power and it has the ability to fog someone’s morale and sense of reason. My question would be whether or not Conrad is exaggerating the impact of power over people or if he truly believes it completely corrupts any good left in people.

Analysis of Achebe essay in relation to HOD

The novel Heart of Darkness written by Joseph Conrad portrays the darkness behind European imperialism, particularly in Africa. The novel was written in the 1890s a time of which imperialism was at its prime and nations were in constant search of expansion. Achebe had a lot to say about the novel, in his piece of writing titled: An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Achebe’s critique of Conrad’s novel is valid in its claim that the novel can be racist, however, the racism that dehumanizes the Africans is often used to show a contrast between the Europeans and the Africans made out to be “savages”; at the same time, by being overly critical of a piece written almost a hundred years ago, Achebe fails to acknowledge the purpose of literature and why political correctness is a faulted analysis. Achebe calls to many interesting moments in the novel to support his point.

With this, he makes a very persuasive argument. In one particular moment, he referenced Conrad’s special attention to “blackness”: “his fixation on blackness is equally interesting as when he gives us this brief description: ‘A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms..’(6)”. Achebe makes a convincing point here. This quote from the book reminded me of how someone might observe an animal in a zoo. However, it’s hard to see something as racist when everything Conrad does is to support his story plot. The primary purpose of the novel was to in all ways, exemplify the darkness that the Europeans are subject to. One of the most compelling parts of the novel are the mental images it gives and to many (unlike Achebe) moments of insight to times that we otherwise would have no insight into. To give the reader mental images of these people made out to be savages versus these Europeans who were the ones truly acting like savages, it’s a contrast that supports and expertly illustrates his point. I would also highly doubt that a novel which continuously portrays Europeans as missionaries of satan, would have the main purpose of dehumanizing Africans as Achebe claims.

Throughout the novel, Marlow has a changed attitude as well. In specific, Marlow seems to be the most progressive of his time. When the African helmsman died, Marlow started to miss him and even said that he was an “improved specimen”. He was also killed by Kurtz’s follower which is not a coincidence. Funny how Achebe doesn’t mention any of this. Instead, he chose to read the novel in some crazy, dramatic search of any hint of racism with some critical modern lenses, blocking out any other messages or concepts to learn from such a masterpiece.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that the novel has some racist moments and it may be difficult for society today to not have a politically correct microscope while reading. However, as persuasive of an argument Achebe makes, Heart of Darkness was a work of literary art. It sits up with Huck Finn and the Great Gatsby, both novels that have racist undertones. If these novels were kicked to the side by political correctness, we would be hiding the kind of insight one could get from books we have the privilege of reading from over a hundred years ago. These are times of which, these writers were often social outcasts for even questioning the social norms of their days.

If we would listen to Achebe’s advice, we would be left with books that appeal to one-sided thinking and honestly we would be censoring part of history. Achebe himself said that a novel cannot be a work of art for having “unwholesome surroundings”, there’s no possible way to agree with this statement and be a good reader, if he cannot overlook some of the racist undertones of the novel, he’s far from someone we should be listening to. I argue that literature that is censored and constricted wouldn’t be literature any more.

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Heart of Darkness Racism. (2021, Jan 15). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/heart-of-darkness-racism/

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