Contrasting Joseph Conrad’s depiction on Africa from “Heart of Darkness” with Chinua Achebe’s depiction of Umuofian society in “Things Fall Apart”
Heart of Darkness is a novel written by a European about Africa. In that novel, the narration is through the eyes and views of Marlow the main character in the story, but there is also the voice of the Author as narrator. It can be said that is actually Conrad’s depiction of Africa, however it is almost impossible and very complicated issue to say that people have written entire books on the subject. Marlow is a sailor who is going up to Congo River. As he travels deeper and further along the river, he describes what he sees. He depicts going on that river as returning to the beginning of the world. Africa is described as a blank place, pre civilized, pre historic, unearthly, violent, inactive, incomprehensible, and a place where the silence is without peace. From the very beginning Marlow describes Africa as a place without habitants, but later as he goes along the river he describes the people as savages, cannibals, dogs, and as something that is hard to understand. What is interesting about the end of the second passage is that those people, which are described above as everything but not humans, are useful for work.
The second novel Things Fall Apart is written by a man who actually comes from Africa, and belongs to the Ibo culture. Achebe wrote this novel in order to show how Africa looks like seen from the people who belong to that society not depict by someone who is a stranger as Marlow. In this novel actually the author depicts how one society functions and what is the truth about Africa which is completely different then the depiction in Heart of Darkness. In Things Fall Apart, the place is not described as unearthly, dark and prehistoric, but is described as a place where people live for many years, have their religion and are not savages. The society is not made up of violent people are rather generous and hospitable. What is important for that society is that people give great value on to self achievement and they solve problems in a peaceful way.
In the two passages from Heart of Darkness there are lot of examples how Conrad depicts Africa. An example that Africa was a blank space is the following sentence “But there was one yet,-the biggest, the most blank, so to speak-that I had a hankering.” (1894) Another example that Conrad depicts Africa as a blank space and a place of darkness is “True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It has ceased to be a blank space of delighted mystery -a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.”(1895) From these lines it is obvious that even though he says that this place is not a blank anymore, it is blank because there is nothing else except names of rivers and lakes, names given by Europeans.
There are not mentioned any people nor towns. On the other hand, we have Achebe’s depiction that people have been living in that place called Umoufia for years. Not just that place, but there have been 9 villages that were in that region and all 9 societies diverse from one another. Perfect example that people had been living in that place which is not dark and blank is the usage of names; all that description of customs, conversations between the characters and the most important is the coming of white people and how that affects their society.
Conrad also depicts the place as the beginning of the world which is said in the following sentence “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest begging of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”(1914) This sentence is also an example of a description that the place is violent and without inhabitants. What means going back in the beginning of the earth is that the place is prehistoric and pre civilized. “We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that is more the aspect of an unknown planet” (1916) which of course is not true because it is not another planet and it is not prehistoric the time and date are present and real as everywhere on the earth. How he describes the place can be seen also from this sentence “It looks at you with a vengeful aspect” which again gives a hint that this place is violent. On the other hand the depiction of Africa in Achebe’s novel is completely different.
People from Umuofia are generous, hospitable and try to solve disputes in a peaceful way which contrasts with Conrad’s depiction. Example of this statement is the following sentence “Unoka went into an inner room and soon returned with a small wooden disc containing a kola nut, some alligator pepper and lump of white chalk”(2625) which shows how hospitable were those people with their guests. In chapter ten is described how people resolve problems there and how 9 people from each village are gathered to decide about the problem. This again shows that this people are not violent at all. “That was why Okonkwo had been chosen by the nine villages to carry a message of war to their enemies unless they agreed to give up a young man and a virgin to atone for the murder of Udo’s wife.” From these lines it is obvious that those people negotiate in order to escape the war, which tells us again that they are not violent.
In Heart of Darkness from these lines “The air was thick, heavy and sluggish” (1914) is described the inaction that exists in that place is described that things are going slowly and nothing is happening. Another sentence that depicts inaction is “On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side” (1914) which again is that hippos and alligators are not doing anything but lie on the banks. Unlike Conrad’s depiction, the people from Umoufia are very active with planting the yams and working on their land. Also the festivals they organize and the wrestling matches are again proof that lot of thing are happening in the society.
As was said in the introduction that Marlow goes up the river and the people he sees are described in a strange way. From an inhabited place now there are inhabitants. “But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse or rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage.” (1916) From this description it is evident that they do not look like people.
Marlow describes parts of the body not the people as a whole. Those people do everything but not behave as they should behave or as Europeans behave. What is interesting as a description is the following sentence “He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.” The person he is describing is someone who belongs to the society that is along the river Congo and Marlow describes this person not even as a human but rather as a dog. What is strange is that dog is walking on his hind legs which somehow reminds one as circus dogs where they are trained to do that and they are dressed in clothes.
Even though the description of those people is that they don’t behave as humans, on the end of the second passage Marlow says that they are useful because they are instructed to do that work. On the other hand in Things Fall Apart we have the description how Umuofian’s sees the white people. “It is like the story of white man, who they say, are white like this piece of chalk,” said Obrieka he held up a piece of chalk, which every man kept in his obi and with which his guests drew lines on the floor before they ate kola nuts. “And these white man, they say have no toes.” (2655) from these lines it is obvious that people from Umoufia have never before seen white people. Also they have never seen a bicycle so they call it an iron horse.
The point is that we have two different view and two different cultures and societies, European view and African view. Also what can be said is the usage of language. Umoufians use the language that is indirect and ornate. It is obvious that it is not to be expected Marlow and Umoufians to behave and think the same, because of their culture and values. The contrast is in Conrad’s depiction of Umoufians from a European point of view and Achebe’s depiction of the white people from Umoufians point of view.
“The prehistoric man was cursing, us praying to us, welcoming to us – who could tell” (1916) from these lines all the picture about the place and the people comes to an end that all that is just because Marlow did not understand these people. He does not know what they are doing, and they are not prehistoric. Those people that he sees are real and live there as long as the humans exist. While Conrad depicts Africa as incomprehensible, Achebe depicts Umoufinas as people with great comprehension which can be concluded from the following sentence “we cannot leave the matter in his hands because he does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his.” (2702) Contrasting this two point of view it is shown that people have different understanding for the unknown things.
In conclusion, even though both novels are about Africa, they are different. Heart of Darkness is written from a European point of view and Things Fall Apart is written from African point of view. Even though Things Fall Apart is written about a particular society it clearly depicts how people live in that place which is Africa. Conrad depicts Africa as a blank and dark continent, but also as violent and unearthly. On the other hand Achebe depicts African society by depicting Umuofia and the people who lives there. This depiction is completely different from Conrad’s. The society is hospitable, people have their own culture and own beliefs, they are not savages as described in Heart of Darkness.