World Literature Sample Essay: Orientalism and Heart of Darkness

world literature

Every contradiction between some states or civilizations uses the same oppositional model: “we” versus “they”. “We” means high and enlightened society with “right” customs and traditions. “They” are traditionally the “barbarians”, “savages” from whom “we” have to protect “our” heritage. Samuel Huntington, for example, claims that such model of relationships exists since the first appearance of conflict situations between different prehistorical human tribes. Furthermore, it exists even today – “in this new world, local politics is the politics of ethnicity; global politics is the politics of civilizations” (Huntington, 1996). One of the most important goals of today’s humanity is to find some common features of different civilizations in order to eliminate aggression and confrontation between them. To understand the ways of “non-western” civilizations demonization, it is important to search such chauvinistic features in the western art. One of the forms of so-called “orientalism” is the leitmotif of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which describes Africans as evil and obscure barbarians.

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The term “orientalism” is the title of Edward W. Said’s book, which describes the specific chauvinistic features of the Western culture. According to Said, orientalism is a tendency in Western European art, which means the depiction of the Eastern people (Orientals) as those who “in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race” (Said, 1978). The European fiction creates an artificial image of the East and describes it as an objective reality. Those Europeans who had never been in any Eastern society believe that such image is true; in such a way, the prejudices concerning the East as the lands of barbarians become more and more widespread and accepted by people. Orientalism, by the way, is very useful to justify the colonial policy of the European states, because through the orientalist prism and conquests, the colonists saved savages from their obscurity and introduced them to the true culture instead of their barbarian one.

The novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad shares the orientalist point of view. It tells about the sailor who visited Africa and saw how its people and land can transform Europeans. One of the novel’s characters, Kurtz, was a humanist when he lived in Europe; however, after he became a part of the “heart of darkness” of Africa, he became a rude barbarian whom Africans worshiped as a god (Conrad, 1988). Patric Brantlinger discusses the orientalist essence of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. On the one hand, Conrad describes Africa as the evil place which transforms people into monsters. On the other hand, his Kurtz, even transformed, is a European; that is why, some researchers quoted by Brantlinger consider that the novel understands the culture and morality in a relativist way. Besides, the most persuasive argument is the fact that “evil, in short, is African in Conrad’s story; if it is also European, that is because some white men in the heart of darkness behave like Africans” (Brantlinger, 1988). Certainly, Conrad judges those Europeans who cannot preserve themselves from the damaging influences, but it is clear that morality and humanism for him is the specific feature of the European Culture. In fact, there is no other culture except the European one for Conrad. Kurtz transforms into barbarian not because there is no control over him, but because he becomes an integral part of the African barbarian society.

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Conrad’s Heart of Darkness provides traditional for the Western Europe point of view, which diminishes all cultures except for the European one and constructs an artificial image of Africans. Certainly, Joseph Conrad wrote his novel not because of some social pressure that required from him a justification of colonialism. The most important problem of the European chauvinism is that Conrad and many other writers believed that their orientalist image of East is true.

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