Heart of Darkness & Things Fall Apart

Authors write to tell stories to the reader, but they also write to communicate personal opinions and ideas to show the reader. Readers are able to be bias with their own personal beliefs that they have in common with the novel, usually with their own race or religion. Throughout the novel, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad expresses his opinions through the main characters Marlow and Mr. Kurtz with their attitudes and actions. By the same way, Chinua Achebe displays his own opinions through the character Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart. Both authors, whether purposely or by accident, illustrate their own opinions on the interactions between European colonists in the Victorian era and Native Africans.

Marlow, Conrad’s main character, narrates most of the novel throughout the Heart of Darkness. Conrad describes Marlow as a goodhearted person; he is also stunned with the cruel things he witnesses, throughout his journey, to the native people. Even though Marlow is shown as generous and caring, he displays the obliviousness and racism of Conrad and truthfully the majority of white people in his time, in a subtler way. Marlow uses specific words to call the blacks that, nonetheless normally known in his time, were insulting and offensive. He recalls that some of the first natives he saw in the Congo looked at him “with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages” (80; part 1). Marlow casually refers to the Africans with the most offensive of language: “Strings of dusty niggers arrived and departed…” (83; part 1). To Marlow, and thus to Conrad, the Africans are savages, dogs, devils, and criminals. Even the stories that Conrad creates for Marlow to narrate are twisted and false. The natives that Marlow deals with in the book are described as cannibals, and they are even given dialogue that affirms their eating habits:

Their headman, a young, broad-chested black, severely draped in dark-blue fringed clothes, with fierce nostrils and his hair all done up artfully in oily ringlets, stood near me. ‘Aha!’ I said, just for good fellowship’s sake. ‘Catch ‘im,’ he snapped, with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp teeth – ‘catch ‘im. Give ‘im to us.’ ‘To you, eh?’ I asked; ‘What would you do with them?’ ‘Eat ‘im!’ he said curtly… (111; part 2)

Marlow makes vast assumptions about the mental ability and stability of the natives. They are wild and less than human to him: unpredictable, untamable, and dangerous. There are a few examples of Africans who, in the book, rise above the station of basic labor slave, but to Marlow these natives seem even more inferior. “And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs,” (106; part 2). Marlow’s careless racism brings light to the true feelings and prejudices of Joseph Conrad.

The more evident racism in Heart of Darkness is shown through Conrad’s secondary character Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz is a man who has fallen fully into the depths of darkness and inhumanity. His actions characterize the blackest parts of society. It is this prejudice and exploitation of the weak that Joseph Conrad most likely meant to expose. Kurtz commits acts of unspeakable depravity in order to achieve wealth and power. Though the specific details of what he does in the deep African jungle are not clear, it is apparent that he has used the Natives, somehow convincing them that he is a powerful being. He backs up that claim by killing some of them and displaying their heads on posts as a show of his power. “…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 showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling….” (132; part 3). Kurtz exemplifies the darker side of white society, and it is obvious that Conrad wished to bring these traits to light. However, looked at more closely, Heart of Darkness reveals a more deeply-rooted prejudice within white society. Oppositely, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart shows the feelings that many modern African descendants have about Conrad’s work, and the general opinions of white people in his time.

Chinua Achebe was grossly offended by Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness and admits that his indignation at that and other examples of ignorance were his biggest motivation for his book Things Fall Apart. His main character Okonkwo is angry and violent, a man that solves his problems with his fists. This reflects how Achebe feels about the injustices the Africans suffered at the hands of the white missionaries and colonists. The book describes how missionaries caused the natives to lose their customs and change their ancient ways of life. They are exploited and used for the white men’s personal benefit. Okonkwo wishes to exterminate the problem of the missionaries through war, blaming other villages’ downfall, such as Abame’s, on their lack of action. “…Abame people were weak and foolish. Why did they not fight back? Had they no guns and machetes? We would be cowards to compare ourselves with the men of Abame… We must fight these men and drive them from the land,” (175-176; ch. 20). The growing indignation Achebe felt in his life by encountering so many people ignorant of Africa’s history seems to match the growing frustration, fury, and violence of Okonkwo in the story. Okonkwo’s village of Umuofia seems to be giving up their ancient ways without any sort of fight, which pains Okonkwo deeply; “Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women,” (183; ch. 21). Achebe seems to be communicating the hopelessness of the Africans’ situation by ending the book with Okonkwo’s suicide. Okonkwo, a great and proud warrior, would only be driven to such an act by suffering the most bitter and horrible injustices. The novel ends with a looming feeling of worse things to come. Achebe’s novel is, though fictitious, quite historically accurate. He manages to not only tell the story of what happened to Africans during European colonization, but also inject his anger and frustration. His novel is a battle against the prejudiced and biased assumptions that Heart of Darkness perpetuates.

Written in different times, and through different perspectives, Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart present entirely opposing views of the Victorian Era colonization. Marlow and Kurtz display the racism of white Europeans through both ignorance and cruelty. Okonkwo exemplifies the anger and sorrow that Africans felt at having their homes and customs destroyed. Both authors had personal bias and specific motives when writing their works; though the novels can be independently educational, it is only through the study of both these and other perspectives that clear conclusions can be drawn.

Works Cited

  1. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. First Anchor Books Edition. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1959. Print.
  2. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1910. Print.
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