Achebe, Conrad, and Language

25 Jan

I was really struck by Chinua Achebe’s observation that Joseph Conrad attributes little or no language to the African natives in Heart of Darkness. Rather, Achebe asserts, “Language is too grand for these chaps; let’s give them dialects!” It is true that the few lines uttered by African characters are heavy with dialect; however, I don’t necessarily agree with Achebe that this denotes some sort of inherent racism in Conrad. To me, this lack of language (or this imposed silence) represents another aspect of imperialism: those colonized were not given a voice and were not, therefore, considered to be human.

Achebe makes a great argument in attempting to prove the underlying racism of Conrad’s novel; all of his examples and observations enhance his point. But I again go back to this issue of language, which comes at the very end of Achebe’s essay, and I can’t help but wonder what Conrad meant by this lack of dialogue for the African characters. Is it purely a stylistic choice? Is it saying something about the lack of voice given to the people of the usurped countries? Or is it, as Achebe asserts, pure racism? I can’t see it as any of those things, but also don’t see this ambiguity as a partner in the bigotry Achebe sees in Heart of Darkness. Conrad is a product of the time he lived in, so his views and opinions would stem from the views and opinions of his lifetime. Maybe Conrad’s lean on dialect – and his lack of any other types of dialogue – is his way of characterizing imperialism, as well as his own ignorance.

The writer Roxane Gay recently wrote a blog post about writing difference. It’s really insightful, and I also think it’s something that pairs nicely with our readings for today. Take a look:

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