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And it’s similar to the most positive type of portrayal that the male African characters receive; they’re presented as part of a beautiful, savage landscape that’s being despoiled: They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks— these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. (Conrad 78) However, Conrad description of the African men’s “faces like grotesque masks” lumps them in with all the other distasteful, ugly things Marlow sees in the Congo.And that thread of inhuman grotesquery carries through in the other superficially sympathetic portrayals of African men: Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path.
Nothing in that passage would lead a reader to believe that the Africans Marlow has encountered are essentially human.
In the following sentences, Marlow experiences a fit of basic decency and gives the dying young man a biscuit to eat (again, as he might feed a starving dog back on familiar European streets).
That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked. Lovecraft, whose work is more frequently criticized as racist) often assert that he and his book were products of their time and thus shouldn’t be judged in the unforgiving light of modern racial morality.
(Achebe 1789) Many critics reacted strongly to Achebe’s condemnation and rose to Conrad’s defense. British and European culture was undoubtedly far more virulently racist than it is today, and to expect a white writer educated in that culture to fail to hold some type of racial bias is no more plausible than to expect a writer living and working next to an oil refinery to not smell a bit like petroleum.
That question concerns me as a writer; I’ve watched enough other white writers attempt to handle race and handle it badly to know that it’s a subject I need to explore and remain mindful of.
So I started reading looking for signs that the novel is (or is not) inherently racist.We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.(Conrad 121)She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress.Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes.(Conrad 74) It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are.The 1899 novel, rooted in Conrad’s own experiences as a merchant sailor on the Congo, vividly portrays the horrors of Belgian colonial rule over and exploitation of Africa.Many aspects of the book are nothing short of brilliant.(Conrad 80) They were dying slowly— it was very clear.They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, — nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly.And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.(Conrad 137) The passage above seems entirely positive at first glance with descriptors like “magnificent” and “superb”, but it’s objectification nonetheless.