Synecdoche in “Heart of Darkness”

25 Jan

Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” speaks to a certain mode of description I have noticed Conrad using a number of places in the text in regards to the Africans. Rather than describing them as whole people, Conrad has a tendency to rely heavily on synecdoche, using parts of them (or elements that have to do with them) to represent either individual Africans or groups of them. Though he does this frequently, a number of instances are particularly exemplary of its effects. One that is used fairly often, but for the first time on page 17, is that of drums – he writes that “perhaps on some quiet night the tremor of far-off drums, sinking swelling, a tremor vast, faint: a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild […]” would break the silence of their journey. In this way he uses this sound to represent the wildness and mysteriousness of a people present but not acknowledged. He uses synecdoche again when describing the African men that hide in the bushes as they traverse the river: “I had judged the jungle of both banks quite impenetrable – and yet eyes were in it, eyes that had seen us” (Conrad 39). By using eyes and only eyes to represent the African’s in the fog, Conrad both disembodies them as people and conflates them with potentially anything else that could have eyes – any wild, dangerous, inhuman animal laying in wait on the banks. Finally, Conrad uses this device in an extraordinary literal sense when Marlow approaches Kurtz’s tent and sees it to be surrounded by heads on poles (53). In this case, the heads represent a dual sort of savagery – on the one hand of the disembodied humans they belonged to (evident in the way Marlow describes their faces, leering and inhuman), and on the other of the disembodied (at least at this point) man who put them there.

Though synecdoche is certainly not the only device Conrad uses to cast “Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity,” it is an extraordinarily powerful one (Achebe 5). By recognizing the “natives” simply by their parts rather than their whole, Conrad literally disassembles their humanity. They are drums, they are eyes, they are literally disembodied heads – but rarely are they people, even when Marlow is being ostensibly sympathetic. Certainly in this way, Achebe’s thoughts are reinforced, as this device serves to “[dehumanize] […], depersonalize a portion of the human race” by disallowing them the bodies that might make them human (Achebe 5). Though I don’t feel that this is necessarily the only way to read Heart of Darkness, it definitely is striking when considering the overriding presence of this particular device throughout the novel. 

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