Comparison of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Things Fall Apart By Chinua Achebe

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

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Much literary criticism find similarities between two books, merely because they have similar settings or address superficially similar issues. Such is the case with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Although these two books do have much in common, and focus on similar topics, they still have fundamentally different purposes. Things Fall Apart tries to show that African culture was valuable, not primitive, while Heart of Darkness, strives to ridicule European activity in africa, not because it was bad for the Africans, but because in many ways it was bad for the Europeans. These differences can be found by examining the various themes that the two books propose, and also are particularly clear after a discussion of the two books’ treatment of race. I will address the two books separately before comparing them side-by-side.

Things Fall Apart tries to show that African culture, despite its weaknesses, was worthwhile. The strongest evidence of this is mere numbers – over three quarters of the book is dedicated to character development, plot, and description of village life, before the white men even enter the story. When the narrator refers to the Europeans as “strange men,” it is clear that he does so from the point of view of an African. But the rub is in the narrator’s treatment of the Africans. The entire book is filled with s such as “among these people, a man is judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father,” which serve to tell about the Umuofia people. Certainly the village is not a safe place to live, as is shown by Ezeudu’s son’s death. Still, Okwonkwo’s resulting exile allows Achebe to describe another African village, as well as the principle of “Mother is supreme.” In this way is Okwonkwo’s exile consistent with the purpose of the book – to show that Umuofian, and, by extension, African, culture was worthwhile. Another, similar, facet is the fashion in which justice is dispatched in the village. The textit{egwugwu} do more than just dispatch justice; they serve as the spiritual guides for the village. It is possible that some of the villagers recognize that although the worldly manifestations of the textit{egwugwu} are people, their godly representations is necessary to spiritual and civil maintainance of the village. This is expressed by Achebe himself when he writes begin{ } Okwonkwo’s wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed the second textit{egwugwu} had the springy walk of Okwonkwo. And they might have noticed that Okwonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat behind the row of textit{egwugwu}. But if they thought these things they kept them within themselves. – p. 89-90footnote{All Things Fall Apart page references are in the Anchor Books Edition, published by Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036. ISBN #0-385-47454-7. The total number of pages is 209, and the text starts on page 3.} end{ } This except gives us great insight into the Umuofian culture. Regardless of what it is, the mere fact that it gives us this insight is important, because it shows the true purpose of the book. The textit{egwugwu} give us great insight into the richness of Umuofian culture, because that is the purpose of the book.

Despite all the wonderful descriptions of Umuofian culture, Achebe describes its weaknesses as well. Of note is the way Nwoye feels that his spiritual needs are not being met, and so joins the Christians. Achebe writes begin{ } There was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye … It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul. – p. 147 end{ } This also reveals much about Umuofia.

In particular, it includes the good with the bad; it shows that despite being a rich and varied spiritual culture, Umuofia also has its deficiencies. Achebe recognizes this, and tells about it alongside descriptions of what is great. More examples can be found in the many cases of spousal and child abuse, and in the way that twins are discarded. Although it is not the goal of this book to give a historically accurate account of the culture, these descriptions of the bad along with the good strengthen the true purpose, because Umuofia’s weaknesses make the strong points seem even stronger. purpose of Heart of Darkness. On the contrary, Heart of Darkness condemns colonialism, not because of the effect it had on Africa, but because of its effect on Europe and Europeans. This is an important contrast, because it is key to so many other analyses that one might do on Heart of Darkness. There are many, varied ways that Conrad comes down upon colonialism. Most prominent is the effect that the thirst for ivory has on the europeans. This is a common subject in the book, starting from the company’s doctor measuring Conrad’s head, “He produced a thing like calipers and got the dimensions back and front and every other way, taking notes carefully.”

Later in the discussion, the doctor comments that “The changes take place inside, you know.” The doctor clearly knows how the Congo changes a man. Marlow sees this himself, in his description of the people at the inner station: begin{ } The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion. – p. 20 end Marlow’s treatment of the people at the inner station is startling. His narration shows that they have lost something – they are actually less fulfilled than when they arrived. This relates to Marlow’s repeated use of the image of hollowness with respect to people. There are many hollow people in the book; The theme here is that when the pressures and checks of living in “civilized” society are no longer present, we must make use of “our inborn strength.

Principles won’t do.” This “inborn strength” is restraint – The restraint that the natives on the steamboat possessed, that Kurtz and the pilgrims lacked. There are many other characters that also meet the “hollow” description; too many to enumerate. When the constraints of society are removed, one must rely on internal restraint to maintain one’s ethics. Without this restraint, varying amounts of disaster ensue, with Kurtz as one extreme example. Does this sound good for Europe? No. This theme clearly shows that exploring the jungle was bad for Europe. One can also discount many other potential purposes for the book, because of the many racial attitudes Marlow takes.

Although it can be argued that Marlow is not Conrad in every way, this is still worth investigating. It’s not that Marlow makes racist remarks, but conrad depicts Marlow as not caring about black individuals, or treating them as “savages”. The first clear example of this is the prisoners. When Marlow states that the prisoners “passed [him] with that complete, death-like indifference of unhappy savages,” it is in fact Marlow being indifferent and savage. This is ironic, but does not discount the severity of the situation – again and again Marlow discounts the “black fellows” as savages who are not worth worrying about. He doesn’t actually take any action against them, he merely avoids helping them. This seems to not make sense, especially since he calls some of the “black fellows” “a great comfort to look at.” But when one considers that the Africans are irrelevant to the purpose of the book, this becomes perfectly clear.

Another way that Conrad condemns colonialism is with his treatment of Europe’s past. On several occasions, Marlow refers to europe as having been a “dark place.”, most notably when he say “And this also … has been one of the dark places of the earth.” (p. 3) To bring up the roman conquest of England seems rather cryptic, but the reason can be found when one considers what happened to the conquerors – England is a far more powerful country than the remnants of the Roman Empire. The same truth holds for the US, which is presently far more powerful than England. This is another negative effect of colonialism that Marlow points out – that the conquerors don’t stay conquerors forever. Thus, the purposes of the two books have been enumerated. Still, it is necessary to discuss the two books side-by-side.

One forum in which to do this is racial imagery. Heart of Darkness uses lightness and darkness, but lightness actually refers to blacks and darkness refers to whites. Achebe, on the other hand, uses race only as a physical descriptor, as one might describe an individual’s height. Both authors use race in a way that is consistent with their goal. In Heart of Darkness, the europeans are the ones tainted by “darkness.” Is it any wonder then that they get the “dark” imagery? Conrad is trying to say that Africa is bad for Europeans. The blacks, who live in Africa, are associated with light, because for them, the jungle is the only way. Things fall apart takes an entirely different attitude; Achebe hardly uses race at all.

Achebe describes generalizations made on both sides, such as when Mr. Smith is described as seeing things “as black and white. And black [is] bad.” (p. 184) Still, these are merely the racial feelings of particular characters. They do not carry over to the book as a whole. The reason that Achebe does not address race much in Things Fall Apart is that the book’s purpose – to show that African culture was valuable – is irrelevant to race. Conversely, the reason that Conrad uses racial imagery so much in Heart of Darkness is that the book’s purpose relates to colonialism, which is in turn directly tied to race. Race is important, but equally important is the ending. The endings of the two novels probably bear the most in common than anything else. This commonality is superficial at best, however. They also both end with ignorant individuals carrying on the same as before – the Intended in Heart of Darkness, and the District Commissioner in Things Fall Apart.

One contrast, however, is that no one tries to tell the Intended what happened, except Marlow, and he decides not to because “it would be too dark, too dark altogether,” (p. 72) while the District Commissioner is blind to all that he sees. Both endings are ironic, in a way, as well. Certainly the Commissioner’s closing about how he might be able to write a whole paragraph on Okwonkwo is ironic, because we have just experienced 200 pages of character development. To reduce Okwonkwo to a paragraph is as ironic as the Intended’s eagerness to accept Marlow’s falsehood.

Still, these ironies point out differences in the books’ purposes. In the end, the district commissioner represents those who don’t think African culture is valuable, possibly out of having not read the book. The intended’s irony represents a final falsehood given to the Europeans, because they can’t handle the truth. The implication is that the truth, and, by extension, the actual events, would be bad for Europe. So the books’ purposes are different. The two books’ endings are different. Their treatment of race is different. This is obvious. Fundamentally, the two books are different. What is not obvious is that they serve fundamentally different purposes. It is my hope that this essay has helped to make this idea clear – that the two books, while they address similar topics, are, in fact, dissimilar.

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