Once students are familiar with the substance of Heart of Darkness (explored in more detail in the “Classroom Activities” section) and have had the opportunity to analyze it themselves – both for intellectual value and as perhaps (which at this point will be up to them) as sensationalizing colonialism and even a narrative promoting a dominant race – we will explore criticisms of the work as the latter.
Chinua Achebe, the beloved Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart, did not take as kindly or reverently to Heart of Darkness as he imagines the common modern English professor or high school teacher would. He argues that Conrad paints Africa and Africans as “the other.” In his essay, Achebe mentions a student in Yonkers who was enamored with his most famous work Things Fall Apart (1958) and sums up the American othering of Africa succinctly: “The young fellow from Yonkers, perhaps partly on account of his age, but I believe also for much deeper and more serious reasons, is obviously unaware that the life of his own tribesmen in Yonkers, New York, is full of odd customs and superstitions and, like everybody else in his culture, imagines that he needs a trip to Africa to encounter those things.”11 Achebe decides that it is beyond ignorance or youthful naivete; that the Western perception of Africa is based on a desire to hold Africa as a colonial playground, “as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.”12 Achebe goes on to argue that Heart of Darkness fulfills – perhaps even originates in the modern period – that very desire. There are many books that do this, but he argues that Conrad’s work stands out due to its permanent place in world literature and continued high regard, as well as incidence of teaching by academics.
We will explore and analyze Achebe’s essay further in the “Classroom Activities” section below.