In 1975 the Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe gave a lecture that sent shock-waves through the literary community. In this lecture, he suggested that the depiction of Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) was more than sufficient to label not only the text but also its author as racist. While Achebe would later soften his position by suggesting that his interpretation was only one of many and that his reading in no way invalidated all of the laudatory readings cooked up by admirers of the work, the damage was done. Over thirty years later the spectre of racism still hangs over Heart of Darkness, provoking the feeling that however glorious the novella might be, it may well be a reflection of a by-gone age with values not quite the same as ours but which we are willing to put up with for the sake of what is good in the work. In fact, introductions to contemporary editions of the work bend over backwards to stress Conrad’s anti-colonialist credentials.
However, Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” actually addresses this issue by discussing Conrad’s layered approach to narration. Conrad gives the story not one but two narrators; Marlow who recounts his curious experiences in the Congo and a shadowy figure who is telling us about Marlow telling the story. By insulating himself so carefully, Conrad seems to be insulating himself against the language and the opinions of the story. It is not Conrad who speaks of ‘buck niggers’ but Marlowe and his chronicler. However, Achebe’s critique stretches much deeper than merely cataloguing all the uses of racist language and stereotypical depictions of Black people. In fact, his piece is at its most powerful when it is talking in the abstract about the technique that Conrad uses to project fears onto an entire population. This is a technique that is still in use today and it is just as problematic as can be seen in films such as William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002).