I have been given the topic African post-colonial literature for my dissertation. I will be writing on three texts:
1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
2. J. M Coetzee, Disgrace
3. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
What are key things that I could include that will be linked to all three texts??
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As the question notes, all three specified texts – Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – involve, to varying degrees, the effects of colonialism on Africa. That, in itself, is a link among the three novels. Each novel, however, approaches the issue of colonialism from a different perspective, and only Coetzee’s directly addresses the issue of post-colonialism. Indeed, the protagonists and antagonists in Disgrace are intended to illuminate the disparities and transformations within a particular African society resulting from the history of European imperialism. Coetzee’s novel, more than the other two, emphasizes the fundamental transformations that are reflected in a post-colonial South Africa – a nation distinctly different from the other sub-Saharan regions depicted in Achebe’s and Conrad’s stories – and nowhere, perhaps, are those transformations more glaring than in the novel’s two rape scenes. Early in Disgrace, increasingly morally ambivalent college professor, David Lurie, sort-of rapes Melanie, his student, in her room. Coetzee’s narrative emphasizes the moral ambiguity of the situation (“she does not resist; all she does is avert herself”), but it is clear that she was not a willing party to the act. Lurie, the white professor, a position of authority over young students, has taken it upon himself to consummate a relationship with a student without the latter’s real consent. Contrast this with the later, brutal gang-rape of Lurie’s daughter on her farm at the hands of the three black home invaders, all of whom, it will emerge, are connected to the black neighbor, Petrus, who covets the land on which Lucy’s farm sits. Coetzee is illuminating the transition of South Africa’s whites from their previous position of dominance during the era of Apartheid to their now subordinate position under majority black rule. South Africa’s whites may have been there for over a hundred years, but their presence remains a daily reminder of the European invasion that colonized southern Africa for all those years.
In sharp contrast to Coetzee’s depiction of the post-colonial dynamics of South Africa, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart depicts pre-colonial and colonial Africa in a manner that takes the reader through the unwelcome transitions to which sub-Sahara is subjected upon arrival of the Europeans. The pernicious effect of European imperialism on Africa is embodied primarily in two main characters, the missionary Reverend James Smith, and the District Commissioner, both of whom exhibit arrogant, condescending attitudes towards their subjects. While Smith’s predecessor, Reverend Brown, represented the more munificent if condescending approach to Africa prevalent among many Christian missionaries, Smith represents the more derogatory manifestation of cultural imperialism. As Achebe’s narrator notes upon Smith’s introduction:
“. . .he [Reverend Smith] was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr. Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. . .Mr. Smith was greatly distressed by the ignorance which many of his flock showed even in such things as the Trinity and the Sacraments.”
Mr. Smith, it will be shown, represents the worst impulses of alien intruders intent on imposing their own version of reality on others. That this personification of English enlightenment should project such arrogance and disregard to alternative cultures and beliefs is the ultimate indictment of the evils of imperialism itself. It was certainly no accident that Achebe employs the phrase “black and white,” and that, to Smith, “black was evil.” To a zealous Christian missionary, the rituals associated with indigenous cultures bespoke the work of the devil and Smith was there to correct the situation.
While Smith has come to “save” these black people from their pagan beliefs and rituals, the District Commissioner has come to impose order. The white men, as Achebe writes, “had built a court where the District Commissioner judged cases in ignorance.” This all-powerful representative of the imperialist invaders rules over an expansive system dedicated to the proposition that all white men are created equal, and all others need to be taught the meaning of “civilization.” Achebe’s description of the Commissioner’s mandate displays that disregard for native culture and tradition:
“They [the enforcers of the Commissioner’s mandates] guarded the prison, which was full of men who had offended the white man’s law. . .They were beaten in the prison and made to work every morning . . .Some of these prisoners were men of title who should be above such mean occupation. They were grieved by the indignity and mourned for their neglected farms.”
Achebe’s narrative does not shy away from the inhumanity that characterized some native rituals, but the imposition of alien laws and culture is the far greater crime against humanity, and that is a theme shared by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s story, of course, takes place right in the middle of the colonial era, when there was yet no question of Europe’s rightful domain over its colonies. His depiction of the effects of European imperialism on indigenous tribes is as brutal and graphic as one could expect from an author born of British culture. There is also an interesting passage in which Conrad’s narrator, describing a conversation with Marlowe, quotes the latter reflecting on earlier occasions of European colonialism and on the true nature of imperial endeavors:
“They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force -- nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind -- as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to...''
Heart of Darkness, of course, takes place against the backdrop of the European trade in ivory. The moral cloak thrown over the more spiritual aspects of imperialism as reflected in Achebe’s discussion of Reverend Smith in Things Fall Apart is now stripped bare, as British interests in the highly lucrative trade in ivory takes precedence over all other considerations.
What links these three novels is the pernicious effects of imperialism on both those conquered and on the conquered themselves. Conrad’s depiction of the physical and emotional ravages associated with imperialism – Kurtz represents the ultimate manifestation of colonialism, with his destructive techniques and mental and moral decline – compares nicely with Coetzee’s depiction of the moral decline of South Africa’s educated and presumably refined vestiges of the colonial past. All three stories depict the moral degradation associated with colonialism. It is Coetzee’s novel, however, that addresses post-colonialism most directly. Conrad and Achebe’s stories open the door to the future moral ramifications of imperialism by showing the here-and-now.
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