Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

Achebe wrote his first and most famous novel partly in response to two works by European writers whom he had found wanting in their view of Africa: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson (1951). To quote his own famous essay on Conrad, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," the European sets "Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest." Africa's "triumphant bestiality" mocks European "intelligence and refinement"; it is projected as "the other world." Metaphors of silence and frenzy characterize Africa as a whole, and the people are treated as subhuman creatures lacking any real speech (they have only "a violent babble of uncouth sounds"). Conrad is "a purveyor of comforting myths," and only F. R. Leavis was astute enough to complain about "Conrad's adjectival insistence on inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery." The falsification reaches its nadir in his caricatures of Africans as dancing dogs; Achebe notes especially the fire stoker on the boat. Achebe admits that it is the narrator, Marlowe, and a secondary narrator, who tell the story, but lacking an alternative frame of reference, he finds Conrad very close to Marlowe. That Conrad's racism was not picked up by white critics, argues Achebe, is owing to the ingrained nature of racism in our culture. Although Conrad saw the evils of imperialism, his view was flawed because he did not connect it with racism. Although some critics have accused Achebe of being Conrad in reverse, his negative views of the British (often communicated through characters) are invariably qualified and balanced by his inclusion of many flawed African characters, and at least a sprinkling of wise British ones.

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The case of Cary's Mr. Johnson (which Achebe considers "appalling") is different and regarded by some critics as a step in the right direction that falls short of the mark. The novel centers on the building of a road — a task justified as an incentive to commerce but one that finally makes unanticipated inroads into the African culture threatening it with dissolution. The breakup, however, is callously witnessed through the eyes of chief characters who are British. Achebe, as Christopher Wren has pointed out, shares the central proposition that colonialism destroyed African culture and does not posit anything in its place, and that events set in motion by colonialism have unpredictable results. Yet Achebe's vision of Africa, as evidenced by his fictional place Umuofia (opposed to Cary's Fada), is one of a complex culture, and consequently the reader's view of it is more fully experienced. Achebe's novel has the advantage of the inside African view, and a more modern view, and a generous artistic vision that make it in many ways the larger and more important work.

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