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Comparison of Conrad’s and Achebe’s Presentation of Africans

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Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, both take place in the heart of Africa and center around the idea of colonialism held by the European powers in 19th century. The differences between the two novels are ironically as apparent as “black” and “white”. As we begin to think about why Conrad and Achebe have used so different tones on such a similar subject, we feel like we are solving a mystery plot.

While reading Heart of Darkness we feel as if we are led through a never ending, dark, damp, gloomy and stinky corridor and the novel ends in an atmosphere which is darker, gloomier and filled with hostile people or maybe creatures. After reading Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, immediately our minds revert to a nearby region in Africa, to Umuofia, and we begin to think whether Nigeria is on the same continent as Congo, and if these dark creatures staring at the boat from the riverbank, are really related to Obierika, or even to the never smiling Okonkwo, who are in our minds sharing palm-wine and breaking kola seeds.

Conrad’s and Achebe’s different approach to the themes of “voice of Africans”, “presentation of colonizers” and the “effects of colonialism” distinguish the two works from each other. The voice and presence of Africans differ clearly in two works because Conrad is looking through the perspective of the colonizer and Achebe, from that of the colonized. As stated in the introduction, Conrad has been dreaming of seeing the “dark continent” since childhood and has managed to go to Congo with the ambition to explore it.

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Marlow, just like Conrad, has always had the interest in maps and he decides to go to this journey after seeing Congo’s map on a shop window. As Marlow says when he is telling his story, “It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery- a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness,” (p 22) we can realize that the mysterious land he was expecting to see didn’t end up being enjoyable and frightened him. We know that when

Conrad first travelled to Congo, he was actually shocked with what he saw; but although he was surprised and horrified, he thought all the savage acts of white men as a part of reality and a necessity to keep this colony functioning. The way he refers to natives as “black things”, “criminals” or “unhappy savages” with no indication of pain in his feelings shows that, as a “civilized” European who is a stranger to this new land, he convinces himself very easily to the idea that the Africans should be treated as “savages”.

When he sees a young African reclining against a tree with sunken eyes, waiting for his death, it is not his condition that strikes him the most but he is more interested in where he might have found the white thread tied around his neck. Also when he admits to himself that the accountant had “verily accomplished something difficult” (p 37) by teaching a native woman to do the station tasks, we once again understand that he doesn’t see them as of his equal and in some sense regard them as primitive beings with no intellect.

Even if Conrad, as a writer who has become a citizen of Great Britain, one of the leader countries of colonialism, regards all the atrocities in Congo as dark memories, he does not help the African voice to be heard and does not provide any chance for an African to express himself properly, except a native’s words, “Mistah Kurtz, he dead! ” (p 112) On the other hand, Achebe is no stranger to this land. He is in fact one of the dark mysterious figures, watching Marlow's boat, sailing up the river. Naturally he has a very different story to tell.

In Heart of Darkness, we are given a surreal view about the Africans. On the contrary, Achebe's success, is presenting them as human beings, with names, no different in characters and in feelings than other people living in any part of the world. Although their customs might sometimes seem inexplicable to us, such as the oracle ordering Ikemefuna to be killed for no reason and villagers following his order, they still carry the same feelings any person would. After Ikemefuna’s death, Okonkwo who has loved him like his own child, cannot taste anything for two days because of his sorrow.

Similarly, after Okonkwo is exiled from the clan, Okonkwo’s friends destroy Okonkwo’s barn and hut as part of a tradition with no hatred in their hearts. But later on Obierika, Okonkwo’s best friend who was among those people, questions his friend’s punishment. Even though the Africans presented in Things Fall Apart identify themselves with their culture and have to follow the rules set by their ancestors, they always show the reactions expected from any person. These people share the same concerns, affections and flaws as every “human being” whereas Conrad, chooses to present them as primitive creatures or rather dark threats.

As the boat sails on the river in Heart of Darkness, we are reminded of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth where in similar dark surroundings, the scientists encounter extinct creatures whereas in Things Fall Apart, we get a chance to observe the richness of the Ibo culture and look at Africans from an objective point of view. The comparison of how the colonizers are presented in two novels portrays clearly the recurring opposition between “civilization and wilderness”. This time, Conrad, openly displays the sinister intentions of the colonizers, their greed more openly than Achebe.

When the reader is told about how experienced agent Kurtz is in collecting ivory, how cruelly the Africans are used as labor force and are forced to work until they become exhausted, wear out and starve to death, it is seen that the so-called “civilizing” mission of the colonizers is actually destroying the Africans. We understand clearly that the colonizers are after wealth, which in fact does not belong to them. Moreover, in both works, there is the irony about the colonizers, who are supposed to be representing “civilization” but instead acting way more primitively than the colonized Africans who are considered as “savages”.

In Heart of Darkness, Mr. Kurtz who is admired and even worshipped by the Europeans, is collecting the heads of the natives and performing very brutal actions to acquire his ivory. Company Doctor’s comment stating that any change the men undergo in Congo is internal (p 27), is a foreshadowing to the transition Kurtz goes through in the jungle. “Wilderness” has changed him; he is no longer a member of a civilized society having lived together with the natives in wilderness. Also, when the Manager claims that Kurtz’s “methods are unsound” (p 101), we start questioning the accuracy of the Manager’s own methods.

The company responsible for extracting ivory is operating under a hierarchy, with many business principles so since Kurtz is a part of this chain, it can be argued that the methods of the colonizers are also as “unsound” as Kurtz’s. When Marlow agrees with the Manager and says that he sees no method at all in Kurtz’s actions, we can understand how Kurtz, as a colonizer has separated himself from civilized methods. Therefore, there is the contrast in between his reputation as a remarkable agent among colonizers, and his denial to play the game by the rules of a civilized society.

On the other hand, the colonizers in Achebe's Things Fall Apart, are given a more humane approach. They, like the natives are described as ordinary people whom you can meet on the street, in your everyday life. Their most apparent feature are their arrogance and in fact their lack of knowledge and understanding. Achebe also emphasizes the irony about Africans turning out to be more civilized than the colonizers in many ways.

When there is a confrontation between missionaries and Africans caused by Mr. Smith, the new intolerant leader of the church, Ajofia’s words, “We cannot leave the matter in his hands because he does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his," (p191) show that in fact the villagers are wiser, more mature and more “civilized” in way of thinking than the colonizers. Africans can accept to be wrong in certain points, whereas the colonizers disregard anything outside their own agenda.

Even if Heart of Darkness gives us a better opinion about the cruel and uncivilized characters of the colonizers, Achebe also portrays the destruction of African villages so dramatically that in general, we can say that both works demonstrate the corrupted souls of the colonizers effectively. The destructive effects of colonialism are presented both by Achebe and Conrad, but Conrad does not bring up the criticism of colonizing a country, whereas Achebe underlines its tragic results clearly.

At the time Heart of Darkness was published, there were many people in the world who thought that there was nothing wrong with colonialism and in fact it was the right move to take for a powerful country. It was believed by many that the natives were nothing but savages. Therefore, what Conrad says about colonialism, is well ahead of his time, but still the argument of whether he had to go along with the idea of seeing natives as “dark savages” , is of course questionable. From the beginning of the novel, Conrad shows the suffering caused by colonization through Marlow’s observations.

We see natives each having an iron collar on their neck, all connected together by chains, empty paths that were used to belong to villages in which the population had cleared out. All these unpleasant images show the devastating results of colonialism but since Marlow, who experiences these brutalities with his own eyes, does not reach to the conclusion that all these are a result of human greed, it is not possible to say that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a direct critique of colonialism.

However Achebe, having lived in a colonized country, knows what it feels like to have lived under the command of others. He intentionally emphasizes the presence of a government, besides the church and shows that the white man, does not only want to convert the natives to Christianity or take away their ivory and gold but also wants to rule them. Achebe does not hesitate to show how Okonkwo’s own people, although they might not be from his own clan, have joined the colonizers and are serving them as their messengers.

When the messengers tell the villagers that they should pay a fine of two hundred and fifty cowries to release the several arrested men from the clan including Okonkwo, they plan to keep the fifty cowries for themselves and give the rest to the district commissioner who had initially decided on the fine as two hundred cowries. As it is seen, colonialism has not only caused the suffering of many Africans but also it created such a corruption that the people of the same land ended up betraying and fighting against each other.

Even if both writers have based their story on the terrible outcomes of colonization, Achebe, as a representative of the African voice emphasizes the moral tragedy that leads to the formation of a chain of never-ending treasons between Africans. Colonization may work for the benefits of the colonizers, but for those who are being colonized, it gives only suffering, death, loss of identities, in short destruction and humiliation. The general attitude displayed by the colonizers, in justifying their actions, is their claims of bringing civilization to savages, faith and order to cannibals, technology or health care to the poor or ignorant.

The fact that Heart of Darkness, begins on the river Thames, right in the heart of London, the river described as calm and beautiful, and moves into Congo river, its waters rough, full of dangers, dark, threatening, offering nothing but unexpected and unknown menaces, shows us the exact mentality of the colonizers, as they view Europe and Africa. It is a clear account of how they believe that, their civilization is superior, giving them the right to expand their interests to wherever they see fit. A boat trip on the Congo River, according to them, is a measuring device which will reveal how primitive the Africans are.

The further you travel, the degree of primitivism rises. Just as Thames River is the antithesis of Congo River or Africa, with Conrad, Achebe's characters show that the Africans are not subhuman or part of a different species, but are members of the human race with their flaws and virtues. Achebe's last words in Things Fall Apart are "The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger", the name of the commissioner’s book, is the very cliche colonial powers live by. It is in fact the most tragic ending to these sad stories of shattered lives, erased cultures and a whole continent torn apart, by colonialism.

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