Things Fall Apart Dehumanization by Matthew Register
Achebe throughout the past has expressed his beliefs on what works of art should do if they should be considered great works, and heart of darkness fails his test by “dehumanized” and “depersonalized” Africa and its people, how Things fall apart properly describes and depicts Africans and how damaging heart of darkness truly was.
Achebe has stated in the past that “the question of whether a novel which celebrates… dehumanization, which depersonalized a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: no, it cannot” (Achebe 344). By Achebe stating this, it is clear that he believes that works that celebrate all of humanity or at least works that do not “dehumanize” or insult portions of humanity qualify as the potential to be considered great works, and since Achebe believes that Heart of darkness by Joseph Conrad fails at this in some way or another.
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Throughout the heart of darkness, you follow a man named Marlow on his journey into Africa specifically up the Congo river to meet a man named Kurtz. Though out the journey there is the constant portrayal of the Africans being less than human. Through Conrad, never giving any of the Africans any names throughout the duration of the novel, but refers to the Africans on the ship as “Fine fellows—cannibals… And after all, they did not eat each other before my face” (Conrad 84). This quote furthers the idea that these African people are not normal and act more as animals without morals. The novel even has Marlow directly compare the Africans to monsters by stating how “We are accustomed to looking upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – the suspicion of their not being inhuman. … They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces” (Conrad 85). Marlow clearly states how he sees these people as monsters, how he is used to seeing them caged up, and how he states that the worst of it was “the suspicion of their not being inhuman”. Meaning that he views them as animals or monsters and the worst part of his thought process was that he has some doubt that they might not be animals. This clearly shows how Conrad has failed Achebe’s test, due to how the Africans in this work have been “dehumanized” by being referred to and depicted as monsters. As stated earlier none of the Africans are ever given a name, the closest we are ever given a name is the group of Africans working onboard the ship called the “Cannibals” (Conrad 84). It seems like in every instance of this novel Africa and its people are pushed farther and farther, in a way that has them seem less and less of actual humans by referring to the “monsters” (Achebe 44). The novel also portrays “depersonalization” towards the Africans when
“Early after Marlow’s arrival in the Congo, the narrator describes the chained slaves, referring to them as savages. In this case, however, and like many instances throughout the novella, this travesty is only casually mentioned. Conrad inserts details but quickly continues on to the storyline of Marlow and his struggles throughout the novella. Directly following the word ‘savages,’ Conrad immediately draws his attention away from the Congolese people and begins to describe the military men running the work area (23). Conrad offers no real reaction or opposition to the state of the slaves aside from a simple description of their condition. By doing so, he weakens the shock factor to his readers and therefore undermines the power of his performance” (Lim 66).
This is important because the Africans are pushed even farther from being treated as people and “depersonalizes” them as well by referring to them as “savages” in replacement of their names or even Africans.
While it’s now clear to see how Conrad’s novel shouldn’t be viewed as a masterpiece or celebrated, Things fall apart by Achebe is a proper example of what a novel should do. In the novel we follow a man named Okonkwo, the reader is told how rich he is, his accomplishments, his relationships, and his past. We learn that Okonkwo has a son that he feels ashamed of named Nwoye, a wife, and a pseudo son named Ikemefuna. Throughout this novel, Achebe properly portrays the main characters in a way that seemed accurate and fair. Throughout the first portion of the novel, while we are following primarily Okonkwo, we are shown his personality through which the novel describes him a “a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father” (Achebe 773). Just from this sentence alone, we gain more insight into Okonkwo and the Africans in Things fall apart than the entirety of Conrad’s Heart of darkness. The reader knows that Okonkwo does have personality, family, and a culture that has experienced war within Okonkwo’s life span. The novel even describes what Okonkwo fears stating “his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness… It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father (Achebe 774). These lines add even more character to Okonkwo and “humanizes” him to the point where the reader can relate to him and begin to understand that Africans are not as different as they have been made out to be. The novel describes throughout of “gods” and “goddesses”, of supernatural beings and “spirits”, “good” and “evil”. They also mention traditions that they would undergo and these rituals are very important to the village to the point where if you do not follow them you may be banished for a period of time, one of their practices were where “twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest” (Achebe 794). The reason why this was done was to make sure that the balance between the physical realm and the spirit realm remain in balance and that the tribesmen feared that twins destroyed it” (Jackson). Okonkwo is not completely good either. Once a year the village undergoes a “week of peace” and it is a time of celebration with the cavoite that during this time there is no violence allowed. One year though
“Okonkwo was provoked to justifiable anger by his youngest wife, who went to plait her hair at her friend’s house and did not return early enough to cook the afternoon meal. Okonkwo did not know at first that she was not at home. After waiting in vain for her dish he went to her hut to see what she was doing. There was nobody in the hut and the fireplace was cold … He walked back to his obi to await Ojiugo’s return. And when she returned, he beat her very heavily. In his anger, he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody halfway through, not even for fear of a goddess” (Achebe 780- 781).
Achebe left these parts of the story in for a reason, it was due to how he wanted to show “Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications but quite simply as a continent of people not angels, nor rudimentary souls either” (Achebe 348). He wanted to depict the Africans as what they are, as people, with the good and bad hand in hand just like every other human on earth.
Heart of Darkness has proven that it is not a fair view of Africa or its culture and should not be praised for it and during the modern era this tends to be the case, but the main problem comes down to when this was released and the harm of a “single story”. Humans are very impressionable especially when we are young, a woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about how as the norm was,
“living domestic help that come from nearby remote villages, … we got a new house boy his name was Fide the only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor, …when I didn’t finish my dinner my mother would say finish your food, don’t you know people like Fide’s family have nothing, so I enormous pity for Fide’s family. Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit and his mother showed us a beautiful pattern basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled it had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. The only thing I heard was how poor they were, so it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them” (Adichie).
This shows the harm of what a “single story” can do, especially what the heart of darkness did. Heart of darkness was released in the year 1899, and during this time there was not much knowledge about Africa that was available to the general public but when the heart of darkness came out that changed. Once this novel came out people now we’re able to “learn” about the mysterious land of Africa. They learned about the “cannibals” (Conrad 84) of Africa, they learned about how “They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces” (Conrad 85). In today’s modern age there would be a slew of other examples and stories to perform cross-reference to decide whether this story could be considered credible or not. The problem was back then there were no other stories, and because of that the people reading this had no other idea of what Africa is truly like, their mind now defaults to Conrad’s Africa every time the topic is brought up.
The reason why this novel was held in such high regard in the past is that everybody (or most) has had a biased view and opinion on Africa. In the not-so-recent past, we have been bombarded with media telling us that Africa is a land full of luscious jungles and primitive people living in tribes, whether it be in books, movies, or the news it has been engraved into our minds to think of Africa in this light. While it is easy to develop a bias, it may not be as easy to remove it, since biases are engraved into us at an early age once we get older it just becomes second nature and you do not even think about it anymore. This bias began once Africa was discovered, stories like Heart of darkness helped reinforce the idea of Africa that has been told before. While it may be difficult to remove that bias Achebe states that there may be some “advantages the west might derive from Africa once it rid its mind of old prejudices and began to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications but quite simply as a continent of people, not angels, nor rudimentary souls either”(Achebe 348). From this quote Achebe is clearly stating how we should remove the bias we have and look at Africa as what it should be, a land full of people, not “angels” or “rudimentary souls”, just people.
After viewing Heart of darkness through Achebe’s eyes it is clear to see how damaging this novel is to Africa and its people. From the way, it “depersonalizes” by never giving any names to the Africans, to its “dehumanization” through the comparisons of monsters. This work has been extremely damaging due to the power of a “single story” which helped foster a bias towards Africans and the story that properly celebrates “all aspects of humanity” is Achebe’s own work Things fall apart, due to how it “humanizes” the characters by giving them flaws, goals and their own beliefs.