Piecing Cultural Identity Back Together
The texts Heart of Darkness (Conrad 1899) and Things Fall Apart (Achebe 1958) explore constructions of primitivism in contrasting degrees of light. Whilst Joseph Conrad’s text explores notions of primitivism as humanity’s undisciplined and dangerous past, through the vicarious accounts of one man’s journey into a dark jungle, Chinua Achebe examines Conrad’s dark ‘other’, in a more informed and developed representation of African culture. Contrary to Conrad’s text, Achebe suggests the ‘civilized’ white culture as a source of human regression. As this essay makes its own journey into the heart of the aforesaid texts it endeavours to uncover examples of the converse approaches each author has taken concerning constructs of primitivism in their text and also how one text’s engagement with primitive culture undermines the authority of the other.
Conrad takes an indirect approach to creating a narrative for his novella Heart of Darkness. His framed narrative is a useful literary construction that communicates the dark themes the text explores in several ways. The first-person narrative relays a second-hand story (raising serious questions as to the narrator’s reliability), which not only lends the narrative a licence for incontestable rhetoric, it also allows the text a dreamlike quality, which in turn sustains the many ambiguous depictions the text generates concerning race, gender and colonization. It also seems relevant to note that framing the narrative constructs a past tense and disorientates reader’s notions of time and space. In Heart of Darkness primitivism is represented by conceiving an acculturate line between a civilized society and a primordial past which is crossed when the protagonist takes a nebulous journey by boat, through the jungle along the Congo River. Humanities ‘primordial past’ is personified by the black race living in the jungle (to whom the text often refers to as ‘savages’) and by the jungle itself. The dense plant life could be considered overgrown only by a ‘civilised’ mind. Other texts by Conrad, such as The Secret Sharer, utilise ‘doubling’ as a technique to expand theme and character. In the case of Heart of Darkness, the juxtaposed protagonists (being Marlowe and Kurtz and the ideologies they represent) construct a ‘mental sharing or exchange […] one possesses knowledge, feeling, and experience in common with the other […] so that his self becomes confounded, or the foreign self is substituted for his own’ (Cooppan 2009:72). Heart of Darkness probes the complexity of human existence and creates a link between what has come before; what civilisation segregates because of the fear of regression. Marlowe and Kurtz can be identified as representing the troublesome exchange between textual doubles, a blurred line that separates the boundaries that mark where one thing begins and another ends or, in the case of Conrad’s text, where primitivism ended and civilisation began.
Contrary to Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart is a text that focuses on the cultural values of society pre colonization and refers to Western culture as a ‘savage’ creation.
A key difference between the texts is emphasised in their narrative forms. Chinua Achebe’s text is concordant with the oral culture it represents because it echoes the characteristics of an oral society. Unlike Conrad’s text, Achebe’s novel spends more time unveiling background material and less time reinforcing a central plot; as is the case with a large portion of ‘classic’ European realist fiction, whose exploration into primitive cultures was ‘closely linked to the development of Ethnology’ (Sanchez 2011:22). The aforesaid ‘background material’ serves to associate a reader with the cultural practices and the rationale behind the protagonists eventual suicide which could be considered a form of cultural instruction for a ‘western’ reader, to whom certain themes and narrative progressions may be otherwise lost in a haze of ‘civilized’ ignorance. In short, Achebe’s narrative culturally informs a reader whilst Conrad’s adopts a secondary perspective to blur cultural awareness and create a primitive other, an uncanny presence to alienate his ‘civilized’ reader. Furthermore, Achebe’s text acknowledges the intricacies and affluence of an African society in such detail that comparatively Conrad’s portrayal of the ‘primitive savage’ does nothing to educate a culturally disenchanted reader. Indeed, Achebe promotes a powerful emphasis on Westernized ignorance when he introduces the voice of a colonial administrator who undermines the protagonist’s chronicles, claiming them to be ‘the pacification of the primitive tribes of the Lower Niger’ (Achebe 2001:151). This final passage in Things Fall Apart makes a comment as to how the novel may ultimately be perceived by students of Western imperialism rather than how an unprejudiced audience should interpret the story. Whereas Conrad’s narrative makes frequents reference to ‘The Savage’, the African society depicted in Achebe’s text only suffer such indignity under the opinion of Western society. Things Fall Apart reveals ‘a complexity and richness in African tribal society completely missed [in the writings of] Conrad’ (Myrsiades, K 1995, p.313) and in doing so places an indirect emphasis on the racist conceptions present in Heart of Darkness and its ‘primitive savage’. Achebe’s novel proposes a realistic representation of Africa in answer to the racial romances of colonialist texts.
Things Fall Apart engages primitive cultures in a way that challenges the canonised authority of Heart of Darkness. Achebe’s text offers its African characters realistic names as opposed to Conrad’s ‘savages’ or ‘cannibals’, thus allowing them a deeper personification and individual identity when compared to Conrad treating his African characters to a European mythologised identity. Another example of Achebe’s literary rebuttal can be deduced from his multifarious representations and significances of the snake. The death of the royal python in Achebe’s text symbolises the destructive force of Christianity and the ‘white’ disregard for African culture. The snake in Achebe’s text is central to the plot and is utilized as a symbolic representation of respect, unlike the western association, being one of fear. This notion of fear is present in Conrad’s likening the river to ‘an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land […] the snake had charmed me’ (Conrad 1995:22). This passage communicates Marlow’s impression of Africa; unknown, dark and dangerous yet able to cast an alluring spell. Like the Congo, the African women in Heart of Darkness represent a perceived dark side of nature. In accordance with the novella’s theme, of converging primitivism in a civilized world, Conrad creates in his African female an association with something dangerous. This relationship can be identified in the character of the Mistress and her representation of the primitive African queen, a literary temptress by the pen of a colonialist writer, empowered with mythical influence. Marlow responds to her in the cumulative voice of his literary epoch, identifying her as a feminine extension of the unpredictable evil of the jungle and implies that she has supernatural powers.
The way in which primitivism is explored in the texts Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart makes a definite comment about the changing representations of culture through the evolution of modernist literature. Achebe’s pre-colonial Africa is a text that can be read as a faithful representation of cultural identity in response to Conrad’s barbarian-like account of African people. The varied approach to narrative, symbolism and character identity in Achebe’s novel show that during a divide of 50 years literature has defused centuries of cultural ignorance. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart sheds light on dated Western ideologies and fictional tendencies to mythologise non-European culture and present it in a primitive darkness.
Conrad, J 1995, Heart of Darkness, Penguin, Victoria.
Achebe, C 2001, Things Fall Apart, Penguin Classics, New Zealand.
Cooppan, V 2009, Worlds Within: National Narratives and Global Connections in Postcolonial Writing, Stanford University Press, California.
Sanchez, R, N 2011, Challenging Realities: Magic Realism in Contemporary American Woman’s Fiction. Universitat de Valencia, Valencia, Spain.
Myrsiades, K 1995, Order and Partialities: Theory, Pedagogy, and the “Postcolonial”, Suny Press, New York.