Chinua Achebe’s novels are deeply informed and influence by previous works of fiction which attempted representations of the African continent and its culture. Of these previous sources, the one that Achebe criticizes most openly is certainly Joseph Conrad’s famous novella, Heart of Darkness.
Achebe’s novel is an overt attack on the previous colonial epics which wrongfully stereotyped the African culture and the African people as primitive, simple, and inarticulate. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness represents the African culture from the outside, as a dark, unfathomable and savage culture, based solely on the instinctive and the primitive impulses. Achebe drafts his narrative as a response to this view of Africa as a dark and obscure land, still slumbering in primitiveness and unenlightened by civilization.
His intention is to reveal through his story the true nature of the Nigerian culture, in all its complexity and to unmask the Europeans’ stereotypes and their deprecatory view of the African world. Chinua Achebe’s main achievement in the novel is that of accurately rendering a complex picture of the African cultural tradition and identity from the inside the tradition itself, that is, by telling a story of the African people which speaks for itself and which sees life from the perspective of the Nigerian people and not from the outside.
Thus, Achebe’s narrative looks back on Conrad’s novella, through open allusions to darkness and obscurity. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad depicts Africa as an unmapped, uncivilized territory, in which life is savage and ritualistic.
The almost mad Kurtz who has become almost a part of the tribe is the token of this influence of darkness that resists civilization. Darkness has a double function in the novel, being on the one hand the representation of Africa as an uncivilized world and on the other, a hint to the dark skin of its inhabitants.
The racism manifested by Conrad’s work is evident, although it is also obvious that his main interest as a writer in the fascination exerted by primitiveness on the mind of the civilized man. Kurtz is obviously his study of what he saw as the effect of the deep and unfathomed mystery of Africa on the white colonist. The central metaphor of the novel, that of Africa as a “heart of darkness” indicates the fatal attraction exercised by these primitive forces that emanate from the African continent.
Although Marlow observes that England itself was once a dark place, this obviously does not make his opinions less racist: “And this also […] has been one of the dark places of the earth.”(Conrad 48) Any place that is not touched by civilization is unenlightened and suffused in promiscuity and mystery.
Conrad therefore approaches the idea of darkness as a dominant, irresistible force that can fatally engulf the civilized man who dares to confront it. Marlow’s experience in the heart of Africa has the resemblance of a dream, it is only half-conscious.
Conrad’s interest lies with this terrible contrast between the civilized man, who is highly dependent on the routine of modern life and on the accessories that accompany civilization, and the primitive state. The primitiveness of Africa as seen by Conrad is mystifying and engulfing since it is not governed by any law. The heart of darkness will enclose the civilized self in its grasp and the latter will not be able to escape:
“Think of a decent young citizen in a toga-perhaps too much dice, you know--coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him,--all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries.”(Conrad 50)
According to Conrad, this primitive state is at once fascinating and detestable for its resistant and incomprehensible mystery: “He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him.
The fascination of the abomination-you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”(Conrad 50) The author hints that such a state would take hold completely of the man that dares to enter it. This crossing of borders from the civilized to the uncivilized world is an initiating experience, a confrontation with the unknown and an instance of daring: “They were men enough to face the darkness.”(Conrad 49) Conrad notably speaks of the Western colonizers as vigorous masculine figures who proved enough courage to challenge this nucleus of darkness, explore it and endeavor to transform it.
All these ideas expressed in Conrad’s novella are disputed by Achebe in his No Longer at Ease, as they had been disputed in previous novels, including his previous Things Fall Apart.
No Longer at Ease focuses on Obi Okonkwo, a Nigerian who had recently come back from his studies in London. Through this main character, Achebe portrays the turbulences that spread through the whole of the African society. The communities are confronted with the conflict between the influences and the precepts of their own tradition and the influences of the Western civilization.
Notably, Achebe openly discusses Conrad’s novel in a short passage of his book, unmasking thus his intention of deconstructing the meanings and representations offered by Conrad:” With a flash of insight Obi remembered his Conrad which he had read for his degree. 'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.'
That was Mr Kurtz before the heart of darkness got him. Afterwards he had written: 'Exterminate all the brutes.' It was not a close analogy, of course. Kurtz had succumbed to the darkness…” (Conrad 107) Thus, Achebe translates the whole purpose of his novel as an attempt to respond to the previous narrative.
Obi was symbolically sent and sponsored by the Union of Umuofia in London, so as to be educated in the heart of Europe and of the Western world. He himself feels that he had come back with the sense of spreading culture and emancipation in the “heart of darkness” which is his homeland: “He must have come originally with an ideal---to bring light to the heart of darkness, to tribal head-hunters performing weird ceremonies and unspeakable rites. But when he arrived, Africa played him false.
Where was his beloved bush full of human sacrifice?”(Achebe 107) The ‘ideal’ that Obi had proposed for himself remains unfulfilled, because Africa has lost some of its primitive ingenuity being now on the boundary between innocence and corruption.
The main plot of the novel, Obi’s trial for taking bribes and his failed relationship with Clara, a Nigerian girl who is also an outcast in society, also emphasizes the troubled and hybrid state in which the country finds itself after the influences exerted by the white culture on the land.
Obi is first revolted by the idea of taking bribe, but after the traumatizing experiences with the conflict and then death of his mother and the separation from Clara, he begins taking the bribes unawares. This is an instance of corruption which would be unknown in a primitive state. Moreover, the pressure of the Nigerian traditions obviously comes into conflict with the modern views.
Obi’s relationship to Clara is destroyed because he feels compelled to listen to his mother who asks him, while on her deathbed, not to marry the girl. Their engagement is further destabilized by Clara’s abortion, which is almost imposed by Obi’s will.
The current state in which the country finds itself in is a mixture of the old and the new traditions, of influences coming from the inside of their culture and influences acting from the outside. The merger of influences causes the balance of the world to become precarious.
Ultimately, Achebe’s narrative unveils the negative, pernicious core of the European influence on Africa. If Africa is no longer the “heart of darkness” it is hardly a balanced and orderly world. According to Obi, England is a place of absolute light, in which there is no trace of darkness.
However, the statement is ironic, as it points to the faults of civilization as it hints at the artificial permanent light of the modern world, that has replaced the obscurity and mystery of the primitive state with the corruption specific to the civilized state: “'There is no darkness there,' he told his admiring listeners, 'because at night the electric shines like the sun, and people are always walking about, that is, those who want to walk.
If you don't want to walk you only have to wave your hand and a pleasure car stops for you.'”(Achebe 15) The coming of civilized world to Africa has certainly not left the country in an ideal state.
Still other allusions in Achebe’s narrative point to the way in which he reuses Conrad’s symbols of light and darkness to demonstrate a very different purpose. In a rhyme for instance, Achebe alludes to the African people as the “people which sat in darkness” and which were suddenly enlightened: “The people which sat in darkness / Saw a great light,/And to them which sat in the region and shadow of death / To them did light spring up.'”(Achebe 9)
It is precisely this view of civilization Achebe wants to demystify. According to him, civilization is not necessarily a beneficial influence that can bring the world to a superior state. Nigeria is now torn by conflicting influences that cannot converge to a single point. The African culture and the African society have to suffer therefore on account of this conflict.
Africa as represented in Achebe’s narrative still displays a potent core of traditional beliefs. The meetings of the Union to discuss Obi’s case are filled with specific proverbs and imagery, expressing the very essence of the African thought: “The men of Umuofia were prepared to fight to the last.
They had no illusions about Obi. He was, without doubt, a very foolish and self- willed young man. But this was not the time to go into that. The fox must be chased away first; after that the hen might be warned against wandering into the bush.”(Achebe 5)
The African world as we glimpse it in Achebe’s book, is actually rich in tradition and sophisticated, although, indeed, very different from the European because it is dominated by the metaphorical and poetical modes of thinking rather than by the reductionist modes belonging to the white people.
People still use proverbs and traditional lore to express their believes and give their opinion: “He told the proverb of the house rat who went swimming with his friend the lizard and died from cold, for while the lizard's scales kept him dry the rat's hairy body remained wet.”(Achebe 6) However, the African culture is severely severed inside. This is caused by its inevitable conflict with the Western civilization. The rupture is also noticeable in Obi’s own family.
Overall, Nigeria and its culture are “no longer at ease”, signifying the tensions that have erupted at its very core, because of the mixed new and old influences that come together. The two cultures cannot benefit from this clash, because the mixture of old and new brings about a total lack of balance.
The confrontation leads to confusion and social disorder, as exemplified by Obi’s case. Obi is overpowered by his own confusion and by his inability to follow strictly either the modern, new principles or the old precepts. Achebe therefore rewrites the essential meanings of Heart of Darkness, attacking the synonymy between light and civilization, as Conrad had proposed it.
Achebe, Chinua. No Longer at Ease. Oxford: Heinemann, 1963.
Conrad, Joseph. Youth. Heart of Darkness. The End of the Tether. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1949.