Does "Great"=Good?

In my Literature class, I am reading this book:

It is a book that takes place in Africa, a place that has changed my life for the better and I love deeply. The book begins with an apparent disapproval of imperialism and colonizing by European powers in Africa in the 1800's. This makes the incredibly racist notes in the beginning seem like attitudes which will be shown to be faulty by the end.

To be fair, I was expecting a very different story. The blatant offensive descriptions of the Africans in the book were supposed to lead to a moment of epiphany, a realization for the narrator that his dehumanizing of the African people was wrong. As it turns out, "Heart of Darkness" is a story about something very different, and merely uses Africa and her people as a backdrop and mechanism by which civilized Europeans are sucked into moral and mental depravity.

I am glad, therefore, that my professor assigned, as a companion to this book, an article by Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian professor and novelist. In his essay, "An Image of Africa," Achebe asserts that "Heart of Darkness" cannot be argued to be an ironic condemnation of racism since it provides no alternative to the attitudes of the characters. All throughout the book, Africans are described in animalistic terms, and in one of the few passages that suggests they are "not inhuman" the possibility is expressed as negative.

Achebe also points out that very few critics are willing to even approach the issue of racism in this book, and says that the implication is that attitudes that write off Africa as little more than a savage counterpoint to western civilization are so ingrained in western culture that it doesn't occur to critics of the book that a demeaning picture of Africa is being presented. I noticed as I looked to commentary on the book that the issue of racism is seldom addressed, and if so, dismissively.

While I agree with Achebe, the fact remains that "Heart of Darkness" is highly regarded in the world of literature, and taught in all sorts of schools, and is very well written and compelling.

So, should an extremely racist piece of literature be regarded as great? Should it be taught to students? Or should literature that presents a demeaning picture of certain people be relegated to the pile of outdated and hateful ideologies, along with Mein Kampf?*

*Not really, I just couldn't think of a more relevant example, at the moment.


  1. Grasshopper: "I noticed as I looked to commentary on the book that the issue of racism is seldom addressed, and if so, dismissively."

    To some great extent, that concerns me more than the larger question of whether the book is worthwhile given its racism. To ignore or dismiss the issue rather than deal with it is simply corrupt.

  2. I was disturbed by the vast majority of students in my class who, when questioned, were not concerned with any apparent racist elements in the book. To be fair, though, when Chinua Achebe wrote his essay on Heart of Darkness, he introduced the idea of discussing the racism of the story. So, at least now we talk about it, whereas apparently it was even less of an issue.

  3. Anonymous15.2.11

    Really? They weren't concerned? What class is it?
    I stopped reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because he was so racist. But then I realized almost all literature from that time/place is sexist, racist, and classist.

    I think that some literature is worth reading, bigotedness aside. As long as the bigoted aspects are addressed.
    I agree with Paul, ignoring those aspects is more dangerous than the fact that blatant racism existed.

  4. The general feeling was that yes, it was racist, but as a product of it's time, you couldn't expect it to be anything else. Which is true on some level. What I'd like to know is why, having an altered view of things, we would look back at these ignorant, bigoted writings (that nevertheless have some redeeming quality) and consider them great works of literature? I think it's good that, at least, the kids could recognize the racism when they saw it, but being white middle classers, it didn't have quite the same effect as you'd hope.