Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "The Story Behind Achebe's Claims" by Akhil A. (Spring 2014)

"The Story Behind Achebe's Claims" by Akhil A. (Spring 2014)

Since 1975 when Chinua Achebe accused Conrad of racism, calling him “A bloody racist” and later leading to “a thoroughgoing racist,” this debate has been going on for many years and is still not settled. Achebe’s “An Image of Africa” is a revolutionary essay, which portrays the novel Heart Of Darkness as a racist imperialist work of literature. Since this incident of Achebe’s claims, many critics have joined the debate and have been arguing against Conrad with the fact that he brings about the stereotype of Africa that the westerners believe to be true, none of these critics look behind all the racism and actually understand the story and the aesthetic literarily value of Conrad’s novel. Critics like Regina Loureiro and Peter Firchow acknowledge the genuineness of Achebe’s argue that Conrad is a genius and his novel should not be broken apart because of the racism. Cedric Watts, in “A Bloody Racist”, summarizes the views of Achebe on Conrad and analyses himself if Achebe’s claims hold valid. To study the Heart Of Darkness, Wilson Harris’s, “The Frontier on Which Heart of Darkness Stands”, analyses the imagery and characters to bring out Conrad’s literarily gift. I believe in the given time of Conrad writing the Heart Of Darkness, racism and forms of sexism was a common norm, not implying that it is morally sound but one should not penalize the whole book years later and not take into account the novel’s value itself.

A number of literarily scholars disagree with Achebe’s claim on the role of racism in Heart Of Darkness; they acknowledge Achebe’s claims to be genuine but believe the novel to be a smart interpretation of Africa’s culture and people. One should look at the Heart Of Darkness as a novel and not a sociological treatise; Regina and Firchow argue that one should observe the reality in the book and that should open up a whole new angle to the story. “Subjective reality in Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness” by Regina gives us a new angle to look at the situation.

“We know what dreams are like…we enter them. We witness episodes. We wake up knowing full well that what we have just seen is unreal, fictitious… The dream like mood of Heart of Darkness, Conrad suggests that we view its realm of reality as we do a dream...look at each episode of the misty tale, not just the storyteller’s interpretation. We should withhold our judgment till we wake up because dreams are mockingly real, and they can mislead as well as enlighten”

Regina smartly pulls out an important idea that everyone misses. This is a novel, a dream that Conrad has put all his readers in. What Conrad saw personally in Africa should not be confused with the Africa he describes in the novel says Peter (Envisioning Africa). In the end of the da, it’s a novel. Its meant to leave an impacting feeling after one reads the book and Conrad achieves that checkpoint by bringing is conflicting and morally questionable images. Peter and Regina realize the genuine concern that Achebe has for the inexcusable racism in the story but argue that Heart of Darkness should not be mislead to be a sociological treatise. “In reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, then, we are not seeking to determine what the “real” Africa was like…instead we want to know how Conrad envisioned Africa as he did, and what that vision meant to him and to his readers” shows us clearly that Achebe’s argument about Conrad exposing a different version of Africa and its people to the world. Achebe starts out by saying “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as "the other world," the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality”, He forgets that its Conrad’s story and we read his book to explore his “image” and “interpretation” of the place he visited that is Africa.

Cedric Watts and Wilson Harris, another analyst on the subject, forges a more nuanced approach when evaluating Achebe’s claim. Wilson Harris introduces the word frontier novel, which describes the imaginary line of separation that the book creates with the people who read it. One side admires the genius of Conrad and the other side argues against the racism like Achebe. Cedric Watts, like Harris, is one of the few critics who give equal importance to both sides of the debate. He takes Achebe seriously enough to explore his argument and summarize it while supporting Conrad. In the end he chooses the side he believes to be right. He shows the readers in the end that the claims made about the racism are not worth the aesthetic value of Conrad’s writing. For example,

“The very opening of the tale makes this clear when the primary narrator offers resonant and apparently authoritative tribute to the Thames …to be dramatically undercut by the entry of Marlow…‘And this also…has been one of the darkest places of the earth’- which completes perhaps the most brilliant false start in literature”,

shows us the throne that Conrad sits on in Watts’s head. Watts brings out an important and strong point in that quote. He wants to show that Conrad’s writing is never what it appears to be, there is always something behind the curtain and he wants his readers to fall into his “dream” and figure it out. Achebe just got pulled in too far and could not exactly find the gold. Watts also brings out the inconsistencies in the claims made by Achebe. Achebe strongly argues that Conrad celebrates the dehumanization of the blacks; “yet it is precisely against such dehumanization that the tale amply protests” says Watts. Watts tries to back his argument by drawing images from the Heart of Darkness. He shows us that Conrad describes many people in his book, black and white. Of all the people he physically and mentally describe, the black people seen paddling their canoe though the surf of the coast seem to be by far the happiest, healthiest and most vital living beings. Another interesting theory coming from a renowned critic, Wilson Harris, talks about Heart of Darkness as a frontier novel.

“It is in this respect that…Heart of Darkness as a frontier novel. By that I mean it stands upon a threshold of capacity to which Conrad pointed though never attained that capacity himself…It was a stroke of genius on his part to visualize an original necessity for distortions in the stasis of appearance that seem sacred and that cultures take for granted as models of timeless dignity”

He says this, as he believes that Heart Of Darkness could have been a much bigger novel that could have made a bigger impact in society, it had so much potential but Conrad could not reach that peak. The instances of racism and imperialism stopped his novel from reaching out and touching everyone who read it. Harris brings out few of these imageries to bring out the genius in Conrad. This is a very interesting theory source as he regards Conrad as a genius but not at what he could have become with this novel. He shows us the few things that Conrad could have or should have done in order to give his novel that extra push to reach that threshold. 

The story of Heart of Darkness is a beautiful art of literarily work, it should not be overlooked because of few cases of racism which was common at that point in time. The sources I have brought to your attention today have all showed us one main theme, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is novel and not a sociological event and therefore Conrad should not be held accountable for the images he portrays in the story as its his imagination. Secondly the story’s aesthetic value far surpasses the few immaterial arguments Achebe puts forward. Heart of Darkness is instead an envisioning and a revisioning of Conrad’s experiences in the medium of fiction so lets explore the story behind all the drama.





Watts, Cedric. "'A Bloody Racist': About Achebe's View of Conrad." The Yearbook of English Studies. Vol. 13, 1983. London: Modern Humanities Research Association, n.d. 196-209. The Yearbook of English Studies. Modern Humanities Research Association. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/view/3508121>.


This source talks about of Achebe’s views on Conrad. I use this as my background source as what Achebe thinks about Conrad is very important because of all the claims he makes about the Heart of Darkness being racist and imperialist. The source contains the reasons of why Achebe is deeply offended by the book and gives us a useful insight pertaining to the thinking of Achebe. He gives us examples of this, “Conrad, in the offensive and totally deplorable Heart of Darkness, has won the acclaim of white readers by pandering to their prejudices”. Watts gives us many insights like “Conrad dramatizes Africa as a place of negations … in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” which tell us what exactly are the reasons Achebe acts like he does.



 Loureiro, Regina, "Subjective reality in Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness" (1992). Master's Theses. Paper 402. 


This source examines subjectivity as an integral part of perception and judgment. It demonstrates that personal and social values not only taint judgment with partiality, but they also highlight the petty discriminations founded on external differences, which are exemplified in the Heart of Darkness and exercised in our society. I will use this as an Exhibit source to understand the story and extrapolate the actual reality from the story. 



1. Firchow, Peter E. "Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Google Books. The University Press of Kentucky, 25 Apr. 2008. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=nPfqhqv5k2oC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=Racism+in+the+Heart+of+darkness&ots=ddj22-wgjj&sig=P_9azq1UaR0x0_03Mudy7RWlVsw#v=onepage&q=Racism%20in%20the%20Heart%20of%20darkness&f=false>.


This source talks about the racist claims made about the heart of darkness and the implications of it. The heart of darkness hailed as an indictment of European imperialism in Africa as it first came out, it has become more recently been denounced as racist and imperialist. This source counters these claims and argues that one should allow the charges of Conrad’s alleged bias to be evaluated as objectively as possible. He begins by contrasting the meanings of race, racism and imperialism in Conrad’s day to those of our generation, which gives us a useful insight to the changes in the meaning of the words. Firchow argues that Heart of Darkness is a novel rather than a sociological treatise. He believes that what Conrad saw personally in Africa should not be confused with the Africa he describes in the novel. Heart of Darkness is instead an envisioning and a revisioning of Conrad’s experiences in the medium of fiction.


2.Chinua, Achebe. "Achebe: An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart OfDarkness"" Achebe: An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart OfDarkness" University of Massachusetts Amherst, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. <http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html>.


 Achebe brought about a revolutionary critical essay, which portrays the novel Heart of Darkness as a racist work. Achebe believes that the novel brings about the stereotype of Africa that the westerners believe in. He talks about the people of the world being exposed to this version of Africa instead of the way it really is. He believes Conrad gives many wrong impressions about the continent and everything in it as a whole. He argues that the racism in the book is hidden by the use of his language, which is the reason why no one has argued against it. This source gives me evidence against my claim and I will use this to strengthen my claim.



The Frontier on Which "Heart of Darkness" Stands

Wilson Harris

Research in African Literatures, Vol. 12, No. 1, Special Issue on Chinua Achebe (Spring, 1981), pp. 86-93

Published by: Indiana University Press

Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3818554


Wilson Harris in this article criticizes Achebe’s “An Image of Africa”. He explains that Achebe has not properly analyzed Conrad’s position. As opposed to a racially charged reading of the text, Harris talks about a different meaning of the heart of darkness. Instead of looking at it as a racist novel about “the dehumanization of Africa,” Harris believes it to be a “Frontier novel” that is “conditioned…to promote a governing principle that would sustain all parties, all characterizations, in endeavoring to identify natural justice, natural conscience behind the activity of a culture” (335). Harris is convinced that Conrad is a genius and pulls out the distortion of imagery, therefore, of character in the novel as witnessing to prejudice on Conrad’s part in his vision of Africa and the people there.