Self and Other in Heart of Darkness

According to Chinua Achebe, there has been a “desire … in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations … remote and vaguely familiar”. This can be seen largely in Heart of Darkness, where the natives are seen as “Black shapes” or “black shadows”, whose ways are incomprehensible to Marlow. The natives are posited as wild and exotic, such as in the glimpse Marlow has of “a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping…”. It is quite unlike the city Marlow goes to meet his employers, which is like a “whited sepulchre”, a phrase that suggests silence and solemnity.


However, while Achebe argues that the comparison with the tranquil river Thames and wild river Congo illustrates this desire, I felt that the “common ancestry” does not reveal the anxiety on Conrad’s part about the “lurking hint of kinship”, but rather situated the British in the position of the Africans, as they too had once been seen as savages” living in a land of “Sandbanks, marshes, forests… precious little to eat fit for a civilised man”. Indeed, Kurtz’s “exalted and incredible degradation” seems to be the emergence of a darkness within himself. As Marlow noted, Kurtz’s soul had “looked within itself, and… it had gone mad”. The “heart of darkness” is as much Congo as the darkness within Kurtz’s heart. However, at the same time, it was “Being in the wilderness” that brought out the darkness within him. In that sense then, Africa is still posited as this wild, primitive place that allows the “savage” within, usually bond in by the trappings of civilization, to come free.

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