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Racism and Imperialism in Heart of Darkness
Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe
Peter Edgerly Firchow. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Heart of Darkness. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2000. xvi + 258 pp.
Firchow sees his approach to Heart of Darkness as a kind of imagology and sets out to represent the Africa that Conrad both saw and imagined. He takes issue with various critics of Heart of Darkness, some of whom have accused Conrad of racist and imperialist attitudes and others who have attempted to reconstruct the Africa Conrad encountered.
Firchow begins by considering the terms "racism" and "imperialism" and comparing their meanings in Conrad's time and in our own. He convincingly concludes that such terms meant something different from what they do now, were inherently unstable in their meaning, or simply did not exist in Conrad's time. Furthermore, Firchow demonstrates that even today definitions of racism and imperialism are far from conclusive. He then focuses his argument on Chinua Achebe (and those who agree with him), suggesting that Conrad constructed an image rather than an accurate portrait of Africa. The resulting image is one that is very much mixed--positive and negative, comic and tragic, real and sham. Firchow also considers Achebe's criticism of Conrad's portrayal of Africans as inferior creatures. Generally disagreeing with Achebe, he argues that the [End Page 1054] primary issue for Conrad in determining humanness is consciousness of one's being and that in this sense Conrad often represents Africans as human.
It was after this point in the book that I began to grow uncertain about the precise connection between the first third of the book, which seemed to be specifically arguing against Achebe's view, and the remaining two thirds, which generally focused on other issues. Perhaps Firchow simply intended to deal with racism in the first part and then imperialism in the rest; regardless, the connection between the two parts did not seem readily apparent.
Leaving behind his response to Achebe, Firchow turns his attention to the character of Kurtz and maintains that Kurtz does not represent any single individual from Conrad's memory but is rather a combination of traits gleaned from various individuals Conrad encountered either personally or in his reading. Firchow continues by arguing that an important issue in Heart of Darkness involves Marlow's wish to distinguish between real and sham in order to reveal the gap between the ideal intentions and real results of Europeans working in the Congo. One of the great shams in Heart of Darkness is Kurtz and his addiction to unspeakable rites, which Firchow investigates and concludes have clear antecedents in history. He also considers such issues as cannibalism, slave trading, ivory and rubber trading, human sacrifice, and genocide, both historically in the Congo and literarily in Heart of Darkness. During the course of these investigations, Firchow seeks to correct what he sees to be earlier misconceptions and misinformation about the Congo Free State and about the creation of Heart of Darkness.
Envisioning Africa is generally a thorough investigation of Heart of Darkness and its historical, cultural, and biographical context. Although much has been written on the general topic of racism and imperialism in Heart of Darkness (particularly since Achebe's famous essay "An Image of Africa"), Firchow's book addresses various significant problems with these views and, in some ways, may be the last word on the subject. He argues persuasively concerning Conrad's views of Africa and Africans and clears up a number of misconceptions concerning Conrad's knowledge and use of historical events in constructing Heart of Darkness. All the while, Firchow presents an informative and engaging discussion of these topics.
All of that said, however, I do have some reservations about this book. Firchow sometimes carries his argument too far--for example, at [End Page 1055] one point devoting several pages to deciphering the meaning of the various grunts expressed by characters in Heart of Darkness. Furthermore, this...