HAVING CONRAD AND ACHEBE FOR DINNER
Books: If not merely nibbled with Sparknotes, their reading swallows hours and demands intense, protracted digestion. Yet paper is hardly known for its sustenance, and computer screens even less so. Why, then, have the greatest of our species—Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hofman—expended the best years of their lives curing experience into text? And why have the least of our species—Surya and peers—labored, albeit lamely, to make something of these texts? Henry James once observed that “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature” (Peed). In examining two works whose perspective and approach seem in opposition, one of many explanations will arise: Literature’s narration embodies and therefore awakens us to the perspective of its authors, their contemporaries, our contemporaries, and hopefully, us.
Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness progresses explicitly through the narration of Marlow, described by an external narrator as “a seaman, but… a wanderer, too” (Conrad 67); however, its singular portrayal of Africa as disturbing and savage, should not be dismissed as a single man’s historical fiction. Early in Heart of Darkness, an observer states that Marlow finds “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine” (68). Conrad thus intimates his work’s larger significance to his time and the times of his readers. When Marlow relays being “accustomed to look upon [an African as] the shackled form of a conquered monster” (105), one can reasonably surmise that Marlow’s fearful racism, while not necessarily shared by Conrad,was at least common then. Indeed, several of Marlow’s fellow Europeans behave far more severely towards Africans than does Marlow. On his voyage to Africa, for example, Marlow tells of “somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere” (78 italics mine). Marlow’s hesitance to use his companion’s decisively connotative word “enemies” here points to perspectives that differed then, and still do today. Into the benighted continent Marlow’s shipmates shoot, but to no avail; their effort proves as “empty” (78) as their cultural understanding. Upon arriving at his post, Marlow describes “A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants” (79), to which the captain of Marlow’s ship only says, “There's your Company's station... I will send your things up. Four boxes did you say? So. Farewell” (81). Farewell indeed, both to any semblance of justice and to even feigned consideration thereof. Even more than the sensually blatant horrors of, say, Roots, this casual reaction’s ability to slip away should devastate modern audiences, to fester overlooked and uncorrected. (Of course, nothing is narrated from the perspective of African natives, who would pick up these slights quite quickly.) Thus, the narration of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness presses a view of Africa as cautionary as it is contrasted.
The narration Chinua Achebe offers in his 1959 novel Things Fall Apart offers a more deliberate diversity of perspective but makes for a similarly significant legacy. For instance, in his crucial opening lines, Achebe writes from the perspective of protagonist Okonkwo and his culture that Oknkwo’s “fame rested on solid personal achievements” (3). Yet later in that first chapter, an omniscient narrator explains that Oknkow’s “whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure of weakness” (13). Achebe further differentiates attitude with an incident wherein Okonkwo insults a fellow villager. Upon an elder’s admonishment, Okonkwo does apologize. But in the subsequent narration Achebe reveals Okonkwo’s actually feelings: “If a man ever deserved success, it was Okonkwo” (27). These subtle shifts in narration reveal a man whose greatest strength will, in the face of a changing world, break him. Achebe likewise narrates these changes from the perspective of their drivers, their beneficiaries, and their victims. To explain the progress of Mr. Brown, Okonkwo’s village’s first preacher, for example, narration points to Mr. Brown’s having “trod softly on his faith” (178). Shortly thereafter, narration shifts back to Okonkwo’s perspective, lamenting that the men of his village “had so unaccountably become soft like women.” And a scant page later, narration advances to the point of view of Mr. Brow’s successor, Mr. Smith, who “was greatly distressed by the ignorance which many of his flock showed” (184). By altering narration so frequently and so thoroughly, Achebe ensures against the frequent misreading of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a flat picture of colonization.
Ultimately, then, readers must consume with enough care to differentiate perspective, or lack thereof. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become” (Holmer). Both Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart have held great prominence in courses (generally of the scholarly type, as opposed to the culinary type) for decades, arousing study and resentment in a world whose resemblance to these works’ conflicts feel all too persistent. But somewhere in all this peers our own perspectives—biased by ideology and experience, no doubt, but shapeable when understood in the context of literature. Maybe that is why we read.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Conrad, Joseph, Albert J. Guerard, and Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness ; The Secret Sharer. New York: Signet Classic, 1983. Print.
Holmer, Paul. C. S. Lewis: The Shape of His Faith and Thought. Harper and Row, 1976. Print.
Peed, Mike. “A Great Deal Of Southern History.” Rev. of The River Wife: A Novel. The New York Sun 29 Aug. 2007. The New York Sun. The New York Sun, 29 Aug. 2007. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. http://www.nysun.com/arts/great-deal-of-southern-history/61512/.
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