Achebe vs. Conrad

Achebe’s essay left a great impression on me because it was such a charged reading (against the grain) of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I do agree with many of the points she made but there were some that I was not so sure about. Firstly, Achebe highlights how the Amazon woman (Kurtz’s African mistress) only serves as a tool, a ‘savage conterpoint to the refined, European woman who will step forth to end the story’ (341). I’d concur that the Amazon woman is exoticized and aestheticized to some extent. Conrad aligns her with the ‘colossal’ and ‘fecund’ body of the wilderness (therefore, like the land, she is a colonized figure) and spends a large amount of narrative time describing parts (but not the whole) of her. Yet, she is heavily adorned with the spoils of colonialism: ‘she must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her’. This puts her in a slightly more ambiguous position, especially when compared to Kurtz’s fiance.

The African mistress has no voice (or given none in the novel), and I’d like to think that this means she cannot be read/ interpreted as easily as the other characters. Conrad suggests she is powerful and threatening, for she seems able to  control the elements of nature when she opened her bare arms. On the other hand, Kurtz’s fiance is fragile- Truth must be kept away from her. She is lied to, fed with notions of romance that is far from what the novel is really about. To be honest, in my rereadings HOD, I’ve always felt that Conrad paints the European fiance in an almost laughable light. Is Conrad sexist as well?

Maybe the one problem I have with Achebe is that he doesn’t complement his reading of HOD with the lens of Modernism. Especially with regards to the issue of language (its inadequacies, the inaccessible native language) in the novel. More food for thought?

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