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"Good wombs have borne bad sons" -William Shakespeare
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Q and A
In Chinua Achebe’s essay, “An image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,”Achebe believes that Conrad dehumanizes Africa and Africans. Achebe provides textual evidence, such as when Conrad describes the natives’ languages as “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” and “exchanged short grunting phrases.” Conrad also occasionally compared the natives to animals. For example, when describing some of the first natives he sees Marlow says, “black rags were wound round their loins and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails” (15).
Although Achebe accuses Conrad of dehumanizing the natives, isn’t Achebe guilty of dehumanizing by focusing on a character who has a disconnect from human emotions and willing to kill to show strength in his book Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo, the main character, believes that showing any emotion is showing weakness. He beats his wives without showing any emotions, except anger. Okonkwo also kills Ikemefuna, whom he considers his own son, in order to prove that he is strong enough to do so. By creating a character with no emotions and willing to kill to prove himself, is Achebe also guilty of dehumanization?
In Things Fall Apart, Ekwefi tells a poignant proverb of a turtle who cunningly misleads the birds into allowing him to attend their feast and then tricks them out of their meal. Usually, such deceitful behavior would be punishable by death, such treason would surely yield horrible punishments in Europe. Yet, in this “savage” society the turtle does not die, rather he carries a mark for his actions, his jagged shell. This reminds me of the way that Hester, from The Scarlet Letter, was treated. She defied the very principles that the Puritan society was founded upon: purity and fidelity, and even though she was outcasted her life was spared. Therefore, I’m just curious to what you guys think of these two questions.
In your opinion, is it more civilized to kill a person for their wrongdoings or to allow them to live but to distinguish them from the rest of the general population? What does this say about the two different societies?
In both Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart, there is the the motif of comparing African natives to animals. Many people believe that Conrad’s perception of the natives as, ants, savages and crouching creatures, is extremely racist; Conrad’s way of dehumanizing an entire race. But within the first paragraph ofThings Fall Apartthe same comparison is being made yet the tone is praising the strength and agility of a cat, as a way to compliment a human. Amalinze the Cat, a fierce competitor, remained unbeaten for seven years was given the nickname “the Cat” because his back never touched the ground (3). The cat is renowned for its agility and speed, all favorable qualities, that can only be intended as a compliment for Amalinze. Even though both authors compare Africans to animals, their intentions could not be more opposite.
“…the sound of her low voice seemed to have the accompaniment of all the other sounds full of mystery, desolation, and sorrow I had ever heard - the ripple of the river, the soughing of the trees swayed by the wind, the murmurs of the crowds, the faint ring of incomprehensible words cried from afar, the whisper of a voice speaking from beyond the threshold of an eternal darkness” (75) - Kurtz’s fiance.
Throughout Marlow’s journey, he constantly envisioned Kurtz as a voice personified. In the last few pages of the novel, he travels one year later to visit Kurtz’s Intended to deliver remaining belongings of Kurtz. While he is listening to her reminisce and praise her deceased fiance, he comes to the realization that Kurtz and his fiance were polar opposites who came to balance each other out with their perception of life. In this quote, Marlow listens to her as she speaks of her fallen loved one and her voice reminds him of his journey through the Congo and even of Kurtz, speaking from beyond the eternal darkness of death. This observation only enforces Marlow’s belief and faith in Kurtz, even though he had already been consumed by the darkness of the Congo and his colonizing mission. The words “mystery”, “desolation”, and “sorrow” all emphasize and embody Marlow’s perception of Kurtz. Both Kurtz and his fiance spoke to Marlow with voices that embodied more than themselves, which further influenced Marlow’s understanding that he himself must continue his journey down the river of life.
“If she offered to come aboard I really think I would have tried to shoot her” said the man of patches nervously. “ I had been risking my life every day for the last fortnight to keep her out of the house”
-Russian disciple of Kurtz
The powerful woman that we met while in the Heart of Darkness really intrigued me. Throughout Heart of Darkness, we have seen few female characters, and up until this point, none that are in the least bit powerful. But all of a sudden we are introduced to this fearless female character and the overall feeling towards her is fear. We haven’t quite figured out the whole story behind this woman, but we know that she has power, she is fearless to the “authority” of Kurtz and that the people stationed in the heart of darkness don’t receive her well. Another thing to keep in mind is that although this woman stands out as significant in Marlow’s story, she is nonetheless nameless. Why do you think the Russian insists upon keeping this woman out of the house? What is the significance of this one powerful woman thriving and fearless in the middle of the heart of darkness?
“Droll thing life is–that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself–that comes too late–a crop of undistinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.” (Conrad, 69-70)
I found this passage from our most recent reading particularly striking as it sheds light on Marlow’s, and consequently Joseph Conrad’s view on life, death, and the impalpable moment in between. On the purpose of life Marlow presents a notably cynical viewpoint. I suspect this cynicism comes naturally as a result of Marlow’s experiences in the Congo. He encounters numerous instances in which people are overcome by a greed so intense it results in their complete disregard for the value of human life. Also, in his observation of the moments before Kurtz’s death, Kurtz appeared to have realized both his own faults and those of the world around him. Kurtz thus provides an example for how one realizes his own mistakes when it is far too late to do anything to change oneself. If it takes an entire lifetime to realize ones own regrets then Marlow is saying we cannot truly understand ourselves until the moment before our deaths. Even so, Marlow points out this sort of understanding is only something one can hope for, it’s not guaranteed. Since it’s not guaranteed, there must be plethora of people who die blind of themselves and the surrounding universe. The ivory-lusting men in the Congo provide an example of such people and lead one to wonder whether they too will be able to see their wrong in the moments preceding their death. Calling the purpose of life “futile,” a paradox in itself, Marlow speaks to how purposeless life seems if there is some ultimate knowledge that comes to one only before death. This sort of purposeless of life reminded me of the philosophy of absurdism, which deals with the notion that it’s impossible to find a meaning in life due to the ever-present unknown, thus life is essentially pointless. Although this philosophy developed post-WWII it seemed to embody what Marlow seems to be saying about life as being purposeless impossible to understand entirely until those mysterious moments before death.
To the workers of the Central Station, ivory is their reason to function. They live, breathe, eat and sleep ivory. Yes, ivory represents wealth and economic prosperity but it also highlights Dante’s inferno. Ivory is lusted over by the majority of Europeans, and their greed has turned them into nothing more than a corpse (for example, the prosperous ivory trader, Kurtz, is nothing more than an apparition of his former self). But at this point, ivory is no longer connotated as a physical elephant tusk, rather it percieved as an object of worship. It’s interesting that Marlow brings up a “corpse” in this quote because the entire practice of extracting precious ivory is centered around the death of an elephat. Ivory is supposedly a pure substance but how can purity come out of violently murdering an innocent animal? The lust, greed, and cruelty centered around the ivory trade only further emphasize some key concepts related to the heart of darkness.