The purpose of every activity and assignment in a unit is to help students better understand a text. While reading literary criticism certainly achieves that goal, it also provides a model for how professional academics create persuasive arguments. What is most important for students to recognize, however, is that every novel or play is open to interpretation, and no argument is ever the final word on the meaning of a text. What is interesting about the study of literature is that there is an ongoing and never-ending conversation between academics that often have competing claims. The ultimate goal for students is to develop the necessary knowledge and skills to one day add their own insights and observations to the discussion.
When anyone writes about literature—whether in a student essay or in a published piece—the goal is to make the reader think more deeply or differently about a text. One of the most noteworthy examples of an essay that has had a profound impact on our understanding of a literary work is Chinua Achebe's "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" (1975). Achebe claims in his essay that Conrad depicts Africa as the "the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization." More problematic for Achebe is Conrad's "dehumanization of Africa and Africans" and what "this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world." Achebe's searing indictment comes to this conclusion:
The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a bloody racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.
As one can imagine, Achebe's essay caused an uproar when it was published in 1975. Up until that point, Conrad's novella was seen as critical of European imperialism and the colonial mindset that denigrated and subjugated native people around the world. Achebe's essay delves deeper into the psychology behind Conrad's criticism, however, and produces an argument that forces the reader to reconsider Conrad's masterpiece. Regardless of whether one agrees with Achebe's assertions, his essay makes us think differently and more deeply about the work; thus, it achieves its goal.
After reading Achebe's essay, it seems unimaginable to teach Heart of Darkness without also reading Achebe's critique. When incorporating literary criticism into our units, we usually edit the original essays so they are not too overwhelming for our students. In general, we create excerpts that are no more than two pages long. For our unit on Heart of Darkness, we pair Achebe's essay with a rebuttal from Cedric Watts, with each excerpt reduced to a single page:
We use Achebe's and Watts' essays as the basis of a formal debate after reading Part II of Conrad's novella, which contains the passages that Achebe finds most racist and disturbing. Because the subject matter is sensitive and controversial, we structure the activity as a "Switch-Side Debate," meaning students have to prepare to argue both sides of the argument. Through the debate, we are able to discuss—in hopefully an intellectual, objective, and non-personal way—the concept of racism and its impact on our society. Before we do that, however, we provide the dictionary definition of the term:
Rather than talk about our personal opinions about racism—which might be appropriate in another context—we discuss the concept only in terms of Conrad's novella and, more specifically, his depiction of native Africans within it. Is Achebe's assessment convincing, or has he misread Conrad's text and the author's intent? Does Conrad believe in European superiority over native Africans, or does his novella subvert that ideology? Finally, is it even fair to equate Conrad with the character of Marlow who narrates the story?
Regardless of the outcome of the debate, Achebe's essay cannot help but make us look at Conrad's novella from a new perspective. Moreover, it is difficult to read Conrad's novella without also reading Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, which provides an account of European colonization from the perspective of native Africans. Achebe spends the first part of his novel making it clear that a sophisticated civilization existed in Africa before European arrival, but he does not depict Europeans as evil imperialists. Instead, he shows Christian missionaries as not only having positive intentions, but also providing hope and relief for people like Nwoye, Okonkwo's son. Furthermore, Achebe suggests that the primary reason Igbo society falls apart is because the new religion exposed fissures that were already present in its rigid, patriarchal system.
Despite his harsh criticism of Conrad's novella, Achebe claimed in a 1997 interview that he did not want to eliminate Heart of Darkness from the literary canon. Instead, he hoped that African novels, like Things Fall Apart, would be read in conjunction with Conrad's novella to provide a fuller, more accurate portrayal of African civilization before and after European conquest:
"It's not in my nature to talk about banning books. I am saying, read it—with the kind of understanding and with the knowledge I talk about. And read it beside African works."
- Chinua Achebe
What Achebe's essay warns us about is looking at any situation through a single, subjective lens—literary or otherwise. This idea is discussed further in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story."
For Adichie, there is not only danger in Conrad's novella being the "single story" read about the colonization of Africa, but also in Achebe's novel being the only story about the impact that colonization has had on Africa. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, begins with an obvious allusion to Things Fall Apart in its opening sentence:
"Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère" (3).
While Achebe's novel centers on the conflict between Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye, who has accepted the teachings of Christianity because it offers refuge from traditional Igbo culture as practiced by his father, Adichie's novel suggests that Nigerians who were drawn to Christianity just traded one oppressive patriarchal system for another. Her novel imagines that someone like Nwoye could end up like Eugene, the devout father in Purple Hibiscus, whose version of Catholicism is as oppressive to his wife and children as Okonkwo's is to his family.
In other words, Adiche suggests that Achebe's story is incomplete and requires her story to create a more accurate portrayal of the impact that colonization has had on generations of Nigerians—male and female—ever since. Of course, the point is that no story of a culture is ever complete and that the process of updating and revising our stories repeats itself indefinitely. The purpose of literary criticism is to help us understand not just the individual book that we are reading, but how it interacts with other texts before it. In our unit on Purple Hibiscus, we use an excerpt from Cheryl Stobie's essay that helps us understand the pivotal scene where Kambili, the first-person narrator, sees a vision of the Virgin Mary during a pilgrimage to Aokpe:
When looking for thought-provoking essays that inspire discussion, it is helpful to have access to a digital library of academic journals, such as JSTOR. If your school does not currently subscribe to one of these academic services, we encourage you to ask your librarian or administrator to purchase a subscription. When students read an essay, we ask them to identify three types of ideas: ones they agree with, ones they find interesting (but do not necessarily agree with), and ones they definitely disagree with.
As with every activity or assignment in a unit, it is important to keep the AP Literary Argument prompt in mind. For Purple Hibiscus, we use the 2005 AP prompt so students focus on Kambili's internal transformation over the course of the novel:
In Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), protagonist Edna Pontellier is said to possess "that outward existence which conforms, the inward life that questions." In a novel or play that you have studied, identify a character who conforms outwardly while questioning inwardly. Then write an essay in which you analyze how this tension between outward conformity and inward questioning contributes to the meaning of the work.
We chose Stobie's essay because it helps students understand that seeing the vision of the Virgin Mary is a pivotal moment in Kambili's internal life. The scene also reflects Adichie's overall theme of rejecting all patriarchal orthodoxies—whether in traditional Catholicism or in native Nigerian culture. Even though Kambili never outwardly challenges these orthodoxies, we see her gaining inner strength and independence over the course of the novel. Through the help of Stobie's essay, we imagine that Kambili, as a representation of the next generation, will create a new, more egalitarian society by embracing the strengths of each belief system to empower both men and women alike.