Suzanne Fields

"Heart of Darkness" was once assigned reading for schoolchildren in the United States and Great Britain, and is included in the Norton Anthology of English Literature. But just as truth is stranger than fiction, so fiction is sometimes an unbearable truth. Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian poet, novelist, critic and Nobel medalist, denounced the novel as 'bloody racist" and its author as a "thoroughgoing racist." The novel disappeared from classrooms.

Certain passages describe racist episodes, true enough, but Conrad presents them in their authentic era and invites readers to judge for themselves the evil that men do. Accurate news accounts of what Robert Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe could be described as "racist," too, but Conrad explores racism from different angles, as only a novelist is free to do.

The Belgian colonizers saw the native Africans as "savages" and ruthlessly exploited them for commercial gain. The descriptions in "Heart of Darkness" are grotesque and powerful, and impossible to read without feeling outrage rising like bile in the throat. So, too, the outrage on reading the news accounts from Zimbabwe. Conrad makes it clear that "there was a touch of insanity" to the colonial enterprise in the Congo. There's more than a "touch of insanity" in the criminal Robert Mugabe, too.

Literature at its best describes social changes and emotions through specific plots, characters and settings and invites the reader to look more deeply into the heart of man. Joseph Conrad is no more the creator or condoner of evil than the journalist who observes and describes the evil of Mugabe and his thugs. The novelist captures complexity to expose the gradations of good and evil lurking in the human heart.

At the end of the novel, Kurtz, doomed to live in the heart of darkness created by his own hand, sees and understands what he has wrought, exclaiming: "The horror! The horror!" Robert Mugabe lives in a similar bubble of barbarity, but has yet to understand the evil he has created. The people he betrayed feel it all too well.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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