Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Responding to *Heart of Darkness*: Imperialism, Ethnocentrism, Racism, the so-called Noble Savage, etc.

Extend the Wednesday discussion in the comment box.
Respond to the novel itself.
Respond to the readings (Achebe, etc.)
Respond to your classmates and teacher.

Due by class time on Monday.


Katina T said...

Katina Tibbetts

Heart of Darkness is about Marlow trying to maintain his work ethic and integrity in a cruel and brutal world. Through Marlow’s eyes, the readers are able to see a harsh world as Marlow describes a gloomy and dark setting. Along with this theme of darkness, Marlow also refers to the Africans in his book as objects, not actual people. It was talked about in class how Marlow compares a character to a dog, or when others are referred to as a piece of machinery. Such dehumanization is what Achebe found racist. The question arises when Heart of Darkness is a critique on the hypocrisy on imperialism, or is it much more than this? Could it be an act of racism? In my opinion, I think that Conrad picks Marlow as a medium between the company and Kurtz, so although some of his descriptions seem racist, I think the whole point of the Heart of Darkness is Marlow trying to keep his integrity, and I personally think the racism is not an honest act. Marlow does not get swept up in neither the company’s judgment of Kurtz, nor does he as extreme as Kurtz. He is the inbetween character that the readers can connect with. Because of his choice to be neither of the extremes, I think this is the reason why he doesn’t die like Kurtz in the end. He lives through his sickness while Kurtz passes away. There is quite a bit of absurdity in this book, that makes it foggy (pun of the theme, ahah), such as the cannibals being civil, while the pilgrims are violent, that makes readers realize the attack on imperialism. It also makes readers realize how there is sanity within madness. The dehumanization of characters, and the theme of darkness focuses on Conrad’s attack on imperialism, but what does this mean for Marlow? Is he some sort of tool with hypocrisy hidden behind him too? Or is he just a medium between the company and Kurtz that makes it easy for readers to identify the extremes. Heart of Darkness is a “foggy” and “dark” book, and because of this, can be perceived, critiqued, and analyzed in many different ways.

Brianna A said...

In our class discussion on Wednesday, Mr. Cook had us explore the questions of, how is the novel affected by imperialism? Is Conrad racist? And what did you experience while reading this novel?
I believe the novel is extremely affected by imperialism. I think all these questions coincide with each other because of that topic. Because Conrad focuses so much on the Europeans and their reactions I don’t believe he’s racist. I think that Africa is just a setting, a powerful but unclear setting for Conrad to critique not only Europeans but imperialism as a whole. Conrad exploits that it is not just about over taking land and doing what you have to, to gain complete power like he showed with the brutality of these European characters. I experienced the questioning of the human condition. Marlow doesn’t see Africa, it’s too foggy. He doesn’t experience the culture of the natives because there is too much close-mindedness going on. Marlow and his companions can’t understand the rhythm of the native’s drums or their wild dance movements. He is too busy comparing them to animals such as dogs. Marlow constantly dehumanizes the natives which lead critics such as Achebe to call Conrad racist. I agree with what Mr. Cook was saying about how Achebe almost had to write this because at the time no one else had openly questioned Conrad’s work. I understand Achebe’s position as a Nigerian and reading how Conrad/Marlow used phrases such as “Ugly” repeatedly to put down Africans. However, I believe this was used to support the fogginess of the Europeans and imperialists. It’s not just about conquering land and resources but it’s about invading a whole culture; a culture that has history and traditions. Imperialism taints the purity of natives, their not savage until compared to the Europeans.

amycarpenter57 said...

Achebe is absolutely right that Heart of Darkness is racist, I don’t believe you can argue the point that it isn’t. Conrad constantly uses phrases such as “ugly” to describe the natives and even when his words for them aren’t blatantly racist he still adopts a superior tone and uses terms that are degrading. The way readers often overlook this part of the novel is by constantly saying that the novel was written at a different time, that ideas were different back then. And that’s true, it’s always important to put things in context but I don’t think that this book really gets a pass on this subject for that reason. The reason I believe that is because I don’t think Heart of Darkness is revolutionary in how Europeans saw Africans. Sometimes when evaluating a work of literature I will come across something that strikes me as wrong but I know would have been extremely forward-thinking for the day and I respect the author a little more for at least moving in the right direction. Conrad doesn’t challenge imperial Europe’s view of African people, he still portrays them as savages. This is not a step forward from the prevailing view of the day.

nFrye said...

Nancy F.

Heart of Darkness was written at a time where racism and imperialism were common ways of identifying and relating to Africa. However, for his time, Conrad wrote a novel that portrayed Africa in a neutral manner. While Achebe feels that Conrad wrote a racist novel, much of what he says is taken out of context. What Marlow sees on his journey is just a small glimpse of what actually exists in Africa. Rather than trying to interpret things that he does not understand, Marlow simply recounts what he sees. Achebe seems to believe that his lack of depth is racist, but an interpretation that was not researched or one that could have been made merely on assumptions or stereotypes would have been far more racist.

Achebe also stated that people believed simply that Africa was barbaric and the people were like animals. While Marlow ventured into a world that contains less technology and different languages and culture, only once did he mention animals. (That is, when he said the black man looked like a dog dressed in human clothing.) The grunts that he hears can be interpretations of another language. (For instance, much German sounds like grunts and vomiting.) To justify anything that Conrad said, one must also look at the environment that Marlow is in. It would be impossible to not be afraid of spear throwing natives playing deep drums and stomping about. And Africa does not have a good reputation for how outsiders (or, sadly, even other natives) are treated. Also, cannibals are hard to see as normal people. Their practices are far from the social norm.

In my opinion, I think that Achebe was oversensitive in his interpretation of Heart of Darkness. Conrad, for his time and for the setting of the novel, was a rather neutral author. The Congo was not truly the point of the novel. Rather, the story explores Kurtz more than anyone, in an indirect manner.

Meredith S said...

The essay by Chinua Achebe suggests that Heart of Darkness is deeply racist and not an accurate depiction of Africa. He provides a convincing argument for this view, but I do not necessarily think that it is as racist as he says it is. Certainly, Conrad (through Marlow) describes the Africans he encounters in some ways that could be considered racist, the reader must remember his point of view. Marlow is in a place that is completely unfamiliar and mysterious, not only to him, but to most of the world. He observes the natives and gives his initial thoughts on them. Perhaps what he is more astounded by is not their appearance, but their lifestyle. As we said in class, Marlow might be fascinated by their lack of technology, which gives him the feeling of "going back in time" when he travels the Congo River. At a time when Europe was trying to obtain and produce as much as possible (consistent with the theme of imperialism in the novel), the Africans lived simply with nothing that Marlow recognized as technology. This being a foreign concept to Marlow, it could easily have reflected on his perception of the African people and influenced his descriptions of them.

Achebe injects his own opinions, values, and modern viewpoint on racism into the book in his essay. I think this weakens the points he makes about racism somewhat because he is responding to the novel outside of the time frame it was written in. He even says that "...Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book." So the ideas that Conrad expresses about Africa were common at that time, and therefore they reflect thoughts that belong to the time in which it was written, not thoughts that belong to today.

Francesco P said...

The notion that the factors of racism in Heart of Darkness were never acknowledged prior to Achebe’s essay, does indeed heavily insinuate that the culture which absorbed the novel’s imperialistic concepts, and surrealistic inscrutability of the wilderness, is blind to it’s own supercilious perspective. I was reminded of the concept of distortion, the technique we observed in As I Lay Dying, that ought to reveal intrinsic truths underneath the surface perspective. In a manner of speaking, Conrad did, and did not distort the face of Africa. He distorted its image through the blatantly fallacious conceptualization as Africans as sub-human, as the continent being ‘inscrutable’ or incomprehensible for his consciousness, and therefore a remnant of his primordial humanity. Since we, as humans living in 2010, have developed a more enlightened conception on race, we, therefore, experience Marlows excursion and perspective as a more ‘distinctive’ distortion. The intricacy lies in the presence of the reader’s awareness of this distortion. Earlier on, before Achebe affirms the novel as a “story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question”, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was not a distortion of perspective at all, at least not one acknowledged by the public. To us, reading in modern day, this reveals the double truth of the time. The truth that the racist notions of Africans were so prevalent and culturally sub-conscious, that they were not perceived as distortions, but rather as normality. It also affirms that distortions need not be conscious to productively induce a revealing verity, especially when considering distortions that are faithful to the perspective of a culture, and are therefore easily missed.

B Shay said...

One thing that really stuck out to me in Achebe’s argument was him saying the racism was a “haze of distortions and cheap mystifications". This got me thinking of the motif fog used in the book quite often. The fog is generally used to explain the distortions that Marlow and his crew come across. Such as they mystery of what is in the jungle and not knowing exactly where their boat is headed. When I heard Achebe talk about a “haze of distortions” all I could think about was the fog in the book. It’s possible that its second meaning of the fog is the distortion of the white mans view of the natives.
Achebe seems pretty adamant that Conrad/ Marlow was a racist, and that’s true. He is as well as most the whites that traveled to Africa in that time period. I like to think that Conrad is aware of the humanity of the “savages”. Writing a book having all the characters view the natives as human would be un-chronological because of the time period. Maybe he added all the fog in to represent this distortion that the whites seemed to exhibit. It smogged their view on the Africans, confusing them to the point where the crew wasn’t sure if the natives were human or not.
Though this idea is probably not the case, I still thought it was interesting how Achebe used the words “haze of distortions”. Haze and fog are nearly the same thing, so maybe he was trying to link them.

ter said...

Terri M.

Imperialism, in the way that I define it is, believing that one’s nation is superior to another’s and trying to spread one’s customs. Racism is believing that one’s race is superior to another’s race because of customs or other factors that in reality are insignificant, such as technology. We talked about all three of these topics last week and as a class I believe we came to a conclusion that Conrad is not racist, he was writing about a man (Marlow), who is surrounded by imperialistic people.
Perhaps Conrad was beginning to see that the people of Europe were looking at people from foreign lands in a ‘foggy” fashion. There is no way to understand a culture unless one immerses himself in it, and even then it is not easy. A few people told Marlow that he would not return from the unknown, but in fact he did. All the fog, confusion, and mystery could serve as the ways the Europeans did not and could not understand the Africans, not ways they were racist against them. I found the cannibals strange myself, I do not understand their lifestyle, but they were on the same boat as Marlow, and they restrained themselves from eating him, which impressed me as a reader. Achebe also criticizes Conrad saying that the speech of the Africans sounded screeches and not a language. Hearing someone of another race has always fascinated and me, and when you look at other languages written it is mind blowing to realize that to someone of that race the words are the way they communicate. (That is part of the reason I am interested in languages and want to minor in one… I think it is really cool that there are multiple ways to communicate.) Conrad could have been showing his readers that some people were judging foreigners because of cloud that hangs before the entire unknown and this may come across as racist.
Achebe states things that probably other people thought, but I do not think he understood the point of the book. Conrad was trying to show the way that people who do not understand a culture can misjudge it, and how even when we venture out into the unknown it is still difficult to grasp that other people have a system of living that is working for them even if it seems like a animal wearing humans clothes.

Sabrina said...

In Heart of Darkness, as we talked about in class, imperialism and racism are questionable topics of matter. Achebe tries to prove in his essay that Marlow is racist. I, on the other hand, disagree. Someone who is racist would in my opinion use many more references about his racism while journaling about his journey through Africa. Although Marlow does use a few choice words at parts of the novel, over all, he has a reason for what he is doing. When Marlow meets Kurtz, he decides that he is insane. Also, when Marlow sees the black heads that are posted on the fence, he does not find this pleasurable to see that they have been killed. While Marlow is a European many years ago, this does not prove that he is racist. Imperialism though, is prominent. Kurtz is trying to gain power of the land. Because of this Achebe thinks that they are racist. Just because land and culture are at stake, should not lead to a question about racism. A few questionable spots where Achebe can “prove” that Marlow is racist, is when he calls them ugly, or dogs, or animals. In my opinion, I think he does this to bring the theme of darkness together. If Marlow starts saying that they are equal, and beautiful, what would make one think that the African jungles is a heart of darkness. The fog, darkness, eyes; all these scary symbols would not go along with Marlow making positive references to the Africans. Achebe is trying to prove something that I disagree with. I understand the argument, but I think that Marlow is just more interested in Kurtz than he is with the what really is going on with the Africans; that is until he sees the madness that Kurtz is creating.

Nick B said...

Race is often a difficult issue to discuss, and racism a difficult accusation to dispute from a majority background. In class Mr. Cook said that there are basically three viewpoints towards racism in Heart of Darkness: Conrad is racist, he isn’t racist, or it doesn’t matter whether he is or not. Though I don’t believe that he was racist, I think the best argument there is that it doesn’t matter. Literature is just fuel for the imagination, a thought provoking devil’s advocate. Whether Conrad was personally racist or not, the questions he poses about race are the same. He questions European imperialism, African savagery, and the relationship between whites and blacks, or majorities and minorities. He portrays some characters as racist, some not, depending on what role that fictional person has to fill. Conrad is Marlow, their views are interchangeable, and Marlow’s clear disdain for Africans isn’t telling of Conrad’s own feelings. In the world that the book is set in, Marlow’s feelings are the norm, and whether that’s racist by our standards is irrelevant because it was simply culture back then. The same goes, on a lesser scale, for Conrad and his time. Whether he seems racist by our standards doesn’t prove whether he is or not, we have to look at his views in comparison with his society’s views to see if he was simply a follower, or really a vindictive, zealous racist. I said that the race issue is a difficult one to discuss, however, because it’s easy for a minority to dispute any opinion I have on the basis that I haven’t experienced racism. Now my lack of minority status very well may affect my position on the matter, but regardless, I hold that position. Though it is usually a heated and tumultuous argument over the idea of racism, like it is with Joseph Conrad, in my opinion he definitely was not a racist, and even if he was, his personal feelings are not what this work is all about.

Molly A said...

Heart of Darkness is a novel written to spread a message, whether it is inspired by the author’s point of view or not, Conrad writes emotion, opinions, ideas, etc. through the eyes of characters in his novel. Heart of Darkness is not a biographical reflection based on Conrad’s feeling towards race. He provides a story that makes readers ask questions and make assumptions and connections. While doing this, he invents characters that have opinions on these matters. I do not believe Conrad was racist; I think he had a mentality that allowed him to see racism, or lack of, through a variety of perspectives. However, similar to what Nick stated, I found a particular interest in the discussion that his opinion on the matter simply does not play an important role and can therefore be ignored. It in no way plays a part in the delivery of Heart of Darkness’ message. A good writer should be able to attack an issue, make a statement and be able to counteract it; to see an issue from every perspective it can be seen from. And through this, they develop characters. If, as some people say, Marlow is a representation of Conrad and how he views life, then I can see how it is assumed that he is racist. Marlow, while in my opinion is a more moderate definition of such, is racist. However, I do not believe that a realistically developed character should necessarily be assumed a fictional version of its writer. Conrad, very obviously, has the ability to see situations through a racist point of view, yet its also possible, and likely, that he can view them in a non-racist way the same. I do not think he is racist, I believe he is a great author, and among many others who will someday be accused of having certain beliefs. Regardless, Conrad’s message is sent flawlessly, the way Heart of Darkness is written, with incorporated racism and racist characters, and that plays a key role the significance of the novel.