Reading the Achebe reading, I couldn’t help but feel that he was taking a lot of Conrad’s racism too personally. Then, in the course of reading up for my presentation, I came across a reading by Nina Pelikan Straus, “The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness””. Straus talks about how women have been excluded both in and out of the text—how the women in the text are silenced and ‘protected’ from the ‘truth’.
One of the most interesting question Straus asks is whether the female reader can really ‘rely’ on her reading of the text, or if she would be stuck at questioning her responses to it as being coloured by the ‘trauma’ of male suppression in and out of the text.
For me, what was significant about reading these two readings in relation to each other was the fact that Straus seems much more self-aware about a reader’s ‘baggage’ in reading any text. Although I’m personally more pro-colonised, and less pro-feminist, I really felt that the Straus article gave me more insight into the text, and my position as a reader, than the Achebe reading. Although it seems like a self-evident point that every reader comes with his/her own baggage, what the Straus reading highlighted to me was that this shouldn’t just a fact to be taken for granted, but one to be questioned and considered as well. What kind of position am I as a reader taking, and how was that position shaped? Should I try to read from another position, or is it pointless to try, because even that is in itself shaped by other, more dominant trends?
In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I was most struck by his allusion to the concept of a “voice”, a kind of tool for empowerment. To Conrad, the ability to speak and more importantly, to be understood is affirmation of one’s place and power. This is why Marlow describes his impression of Kurtz as being primarily one of “voice… of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression” (107). Kurtz is most powerful to Marlow as far as he is able (and certainly at this point in the novel merely imagined) to communicate. By contrast, Conrad reduces the native to a series of grunts, and in his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Achebe makes this point most strongly: “It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa.” (341)
If the means to communicate is of such importance in according status to characters in Conrad’s novel, then by extension the inability to communicate (as portrayed in the “savages”) is ultimately demeaning to their position in relation to the Western “adventurers”. Conrad then does not merely participate in effectively silencing the native voice since only speakers of English receive any measure of merit in the plot, he is an active promulgator of such a message. The native is thus a victim of the silencing of his own voice since he is unable to communicate in a way that Conrad believes is necessary for any measure of status to be accorded to him. He will always be inferior to the Western narrator because he is excluded from being heard.