Describing the “Dark Continent”: “The Heart of Darkness” and “Things Fall Apart”

Though Joseph Conrad’s plot and characters in The Heart of Darkness critiques European imperialism in Africa, his prose itself belies an inappropriate view of Africa and its people as mysterious, barbaric, and obscure: Marlow thinks of Africa as “a blank space of delightful mystery” or as “a place of darkness” (Conrad 43).  Fifty years later, Chinua Achebe responded to Conrad’s work in Things Fall Apart by describing Africa and its people as ordinary and relatable.  The two writers’ diction and syntax reveal their different underlying beliefs about ontology and Africa: while Conrad’s abstract, verbose style depicts Africa as unknowable and savage, Achebe’s concise, concrete style defends Africa as empirically knowable and human.

Conrad, a proto-literary impressionist marred by the nineteenth century’s prejudice, questions human ability to understand the world, a belief that emerges in how he depicts Africa. Like the Africa it describes, his prose is elusive and dense. Conrad’s protagonist, Marlow, relates his first sight of Africa:

 “Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you—smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out. This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist” (Conrad 48).

 The first sentence—marked by a being verb (“is), two prepositional phrases (“by the ship” and “about an enigma”), and two gerunds (“watching” and “thinking”)—suggests an inert narrator and subject (Conrad 48). Listing eight adjectives, the passive narrator does not pick more than one: “mute.” The narrator, Marlow, needs more knowledge of Africa to choose more adjectives. But as he records his further observations, Marlow uses four prepositional phrases, two being verbs, three subordinate clauses, and six commas—all in one sentence. By describing Africa with such a dense, complex sentence, Conrad through Marlow reveals his view of Africa as unknowable and obscure. As the reader must struggle to comprehend the sentence, so must Marlow struggle to physically and mentally penetrate Africa.

Conrad’s diction suggests that Marlow’s efforts to know Africa will fail, because there is nothing to know of Africa: the Continent is nothing but a “featureless” and “monotonous” blank on which the European imperialists can draw their own faces and write their own stories (Conrad 48). The two features Conrad allows Africa to have—a jungle and a shoreline—run together like watercolors. The “dark-green” forest is “almost black”; Conrad does not differentiate between the two colors, implying that green and black are the same, and therefore nothing (48). Likewise, the “blue sea” is “blurred” by the “mist” and becomes a blank (Conrad 48). Africa, according to Conrad’s syntax and diction, is a nothingness the European cannot understand.

In contrast, Achebe describes Africa:

“At last the rain came. It was sudden and tremendous. For two or three moons the sun had been gathering strength till it seemed to breathe a breath of fire on the earth. All the grass had long been scorched brown, and the sands felt like live coals to the feet. Evergreen trees wore a dusty coat of brown. The birds were silenced in the forests, and the world lay panting under the live, vibrating, heat. And then came the clap of thunder. It was an angry, metallic and thirsty clap, unlike the deep and liquid rumbling of the rainy season. A mighty wind arose and filled the air with dust. Palm trees swayed as the wind combed their leaves into flying crests like strange and fantastic coiffure” (Achebe 130). 

Achebe delineates Africa with effortless, easy-to-understand sentences. The five-word opening sentence’s simplicity, from its familiar adverb phrase to its short active verb, invites the reader into the paragraph. The entire passage includes only four commas and only two subordinate clauses (“till it seemed…” and “unlike the deep…” ) and features eight strong, ordinary active verbs (“came,” “to breathe,” “felt,” “wore,” “came,” “arose,” “filled,  “swayed”) (Achebe 130). Africa is not “monotonous” and passive (Conrad 48), but animated and interesting. While Conrad uses abstract adjectives such as “creeping” (48), Achebe depicts this vibrant Africa with lively, physical words: “brown,” “evergreen,” “dusty,” and “thirsty” (130). Even the scene’s non-physical elements Achebe renders as concrete—the heat is “a breath of fire” and the thunder is “metallic” or “liquid” (Achebe 130). Achebe anthropomorphizes the land, giving it human life and personality: the “trees wore a dusty coat” and “the wind combed their leaves” (130). The clear, streamlined prose reveals Achebe thinks clearly about Africa and knows it well, unlike Conrad. Because Conrad, an outsider, doubts his ability to understand and describe Africa, he writes abstract language and complex sentences; because Achebe, an insider, confidently knows his homeland, he writes concrete words and simple sentences.

The divide between Conrad and Achebe’s prose extends also to their depictions of Africa’s people. Marlow describes Kurtz’s mistress, an African woman, with prose that might be poetry:

“She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow…She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress.” (Conrad 106).

These sentences—though presented in prose—are written in metric feet, like poetry. Switching between iambic and trochaic, the meter does not create a unifying order; rather, the unpredictable meter imbues the text with chaos. The first line is in iambic trimeter: “She walked with measured steps” (Conrad 106). But the second and third lines are in trochaic feet: “Draped in striped and fringed cloths / Treading the earth proudly” (Conrad 106). The last line returns to an altered form of iambic meter: “With a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments” (Conrad 106). The muddled meter, while clearly present, is difficult to define; likewise, the woman described by the poetic lines is hard to understand. She is obscured by Conrad’s style.

Conrad’s wording also depicts her as a mysterious and barbaric Other with whom no European can indentify. Conrad uses abstract adjectives (“savage and superb,” “ominous and stately”), not to describe her person, but to elicit the reader’s fear and wonder at a bizarre, incomprehensible sight (106). Conrad’s diction emphasizes the woman’s exotic qualities— though an author might comically call Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Kent as “ominous and stately,” one would never describe her as “savage and superb,” even in a moment of great hilarity (Conrad 106). To emphasize further the African woman’s otherness, Conrad describes her jewelry as one would Roman armor: her hair looks like a “helmet”; she wears “brass leggings” like a Roman soldier’s metal leg guards and grieves, and “brass wire gauntlets” like a Roman soldier’s battle gloves (106). By explicitly connecting her with an ancient culture’s most savage element, Conrad stigmatizes her as exotic. Her “armor,” as Conrad labels her ornaments, implies psychological formidability—only other Africans can penetrate her mind and heart. Only Africa, Conrad writes, can “look at her,” since in doing so the Continent looks “into the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul” (106). The European eye cannot know her or her land.

In a strikingly different paragraph, Achebe describes an African girl named Akueke from her suitor and his family’s perspective:

 “She gave the dish to her father’s eldest brother and then shook hands, very shyly, with her suitor and his relatives. She was about sixteen and just ripe for marriage…She wore a coiffure which was done up into a crest in the middle of the head. Cam wood was rubbed lightly into her skin, and all over her body were black patterns drawn with uli. She wore a black necklace which hung down in three coils just above her full, succulent breasts. On her arms were red and yellow bangles, and on her waist four or five rows of jigida, or waist beads” (Achebe 71).

Achebe’s simple sentences, with their plain subject-verb construction interrupted only by two appositive phrases (“very shyly” and “or waist beads”), give the reader confidence that he or she can know and relate to Akueke (71). Moreover, Achebe’s diction and choice of details gives the reader insight into Akueke’s culture and character that Conrad’s description of Kurtz’s mistress does not provide. Achebe, instead of mentioning how Akueke’s skin shines dark red against her bright beads, furnishes his reader with the local names for Akueke’s adornments: “cam wood” dye, “uli,” and “jigida” (71). The three authentic details persuade the reader to trust Achebe’s narrative—including its foundational assumption that one can empirically understand Africa. Moreover, Achebe uses details to emphasize Akeuke’s personhood—for instance, she acts “shyly,” is “about sixteen” years old, and wears a “necklace” and “coiffure” (71). The word “coiffure” suggests an elegant, elaborate headdress worn by a Victorian noblewoman. Despite its apparent inappropriateness, Achebe calls Akueke’s headdress a “coiffure” to establish the African girl as a noble figure (71). If he had called it a “headdress,” Akueke would seem an exotic being; if he had called it a “helmet,” as Conrad does, Akeuke would appear a barbaric beast. The details Achebe assigns to Akueke thus depict her as a stylish and demure young woman.

 The reader can know Akueke and her homeland through Achebe’s clear and concise prose as one cannot through Conrad’s dense and abstract prose. Conrad and Achebe’s writing styles, far from revealing only their aesthetic preferences, also disclose their views concerning how humans know about the world. Conrad’s complex syntax and conceptual diction depicts Africa as a barbaric blank that Europeans cannot know or describe—a problematic portrayal in today’s multicultural society. Rendering Africa with simple syntax and physical details, Achebe rescues Africa from Conrad’s obscure presentation and presents the “Dark Continent” as vibrant, knowable, and human.


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