Envisioning Africa

Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Peter Edgerly Firchow
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Envisioning Africa
    Book Description:

    For one hundred years,Heart of Darknesshas been among the most widely read and taught novels in the English language. Hailed as an incisive indictment of European imperialism in Africa upon its publication in 1899, more recently it has been repeatedly denounced as racist and imperialist. Peter Firchow counters these claims, and his carefully argued response allows the charges of Conrad's alleged bias to be evaluated as objectively as possible. He begins by contrasting the meanings of race, racism, and imperialism in Conrad's day to those of our own time. Firchow then argues thatHeart of Darknessis a novel rather than a sociological treatise; only in relation to its aesthetic significance can real social and intellectual-historical meaning be established.Envisioning Africaresponds in detail to negative interpretations of the novel by revealing what they distort, misconstrue, or fail to take into account. Firchow uses a framework of imagology to examine how national, ethnic, and racial images are portrayed in the text, differentiating the idea of a national stereotype from that of national character. He believes that what Conrad saw personally in Africa should not be confused with the Africa he describes in the novel;Heart of Darknessis instead an envisioning and a revisioning of Conrad's experiences in the medium of fiction.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4975-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Introduction: Race, Ethnicity, Nationality, Empire
    (pp. 1-17)

    “Your proposal delights me,” Joseph Conrad wrote on the last day of 1898 to William Blackwood, the publisher ofBlackwood’s, who had asked Conrad a short time earlier to supply him with a suitable contribution for the one-thousandth issue of his magazine, scheduled to appear the following February. But delighted though he was, Conrad was not altogether sure whether the story he was working on so feverishly at the time was really the right thing for readers of that momentous millennial number ofMaga. Not that he had any doubts about the quality of his workmanship; rather it was the...

  5. 1 Envisioning Africa
    (pp. 18-30)

    Joseph Conrad’s African experience was of relatively short duration. Not counting his somewhat muddled preparations in London and Brussels or the slow sea journey to and from the Congo Free State, it actually lasted a little less than six months, from mid-June to early December 1890.¹ Psychologically and emotionally it must have seemed a great deal longer, what with the disappointment of not being able to assume command of the small steamer that had been promised him by company officials back in Belgium; the increasing discomfort of illness; and the unavoidable necessity of having to associate uninterruptedly, often in a...

  6. 2 A Mere Animal in the Congo
    (pp. 31-61)

    The impact of the African experience on Conrad, both as man and as writer, was, it seems fair to say, out of all proportion to its length. Speaking about it to his oldest and most trusted literary confidant, Edward Garnett, Conrad once said categorically, “[B]efore the Congo I was just a mere animal”¹ (Jean-Aubry,Life1:141). This is almost certainly an exaggeration, but even discounting a little for Conrad’s alleged penchant for “adjectival insistence” (so-called by F.R. Leavis), what he says is pretty direct and unambiguous, made only more urgent by a single monosyllabic modifier. Garnett glosses it, a little...

  7. 3 Envisioning Kurtz
    (pp. 62-80)

    In the “Author’s Note” that he wrote in 1917 on the occasion of the republication ofYouthin the edition of his collected works, Conrad remarks ofHeart of Darknessthat, like “Youth,” it is a story based on “experience too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers” (HD4). In the years since Conrad wrote these words, a great deal of effort has been expended by critics and biographers...

  8. 4 Imperial Sham and Reality in the Congo
    (pp. 81-108)

    ThoughHeart of Darknesshas been and continues to be subjected to the minutest critical examination and cross-examination, so far as I know no critic has ever noted Marlow’s insistence on distinguishing between two Kurtzes, an “original” one and a “sham.” He does this twice. The first instance occurs in the context of defining Kurtz’s origins—hence, evidently, one of the indicated meanings of the wordoriginal. In this passage, Marlow ironically refers first, using the third person singular neuter pronoun, to Kurtz as “the initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere” (the source apparently of the sham Kurtz) that...

  9. 5 Unspeakable Rites and Speakable Rights
    (pp. 109-127)

    With the obvious exception of Kurtz, not a single one of the Congo Belgians in Conrad’s novel is anything more than a stereotype. Even the Accountant at the Outer Station, the only male Belgian character other than Kurtz who can be said to possess any sort of redeeming qualities, is a caricature, an absurd “hairdresser’s dummy” who walks about with oiled hair and a green-lined parasol. For the rest, they consist either of ridiculous “Pilgrims” dressed variously in pink pyjamas, a papier maché Mephistophelean Brickmaker who makes no bricks,¹ and a Manager without entrails who is visited by an Uncle...

  10. 6 E.J. Glave, Captain Rom, and the Making of Heart of Darkness
    (pp. 128-147)

    Recently Edward James Glave has been mentioned by Sven Lindqvist in connection withHeart of Darknessas an “old Congo hand” who was in a position to know what atrocities were being committed during the mid-1890s in the Congo Free State. As evidence, Lindqvist quotes at some length from the last essay Glave wrote for theCentury Magazinenot long before his death of tropical fever in Matadi (Conrad’s Outer Station) on May 12, 1895. Lindqvist’s quotations are meant to show how Glave, even though he supposedly had relatively little contact with Africans, finally came to realize that the Belgian...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. Conclusion: Exterminating All the Brutes
    (pp. 148-165)

    According to Roger Smith, our modern conception of genocide as the most heinous of all imaginable crimes differs fundamentally from the way prior generations viewed it. “While the slaughter of whole groups has occurred throughout history,” he writes, “it is only within the past few centuries that this has produced even a sense of moral horror, much less been thought of as ‘criminal’” (28). He goes on to refer to the grisly but well-documented records of mass extermination that include the Bible (especially the book of Joshua), Greek and Roman epic poetry, contemporaneous accounts of the Crusades and other religiously...

  13. Appendix
    (pp. 166-191)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 192-235)
  15. Works Cited
    (pp. 236-249)
  16. Index
    (pp. 250-258)