Blog Post

Incomplete thoughts on "trope," part 1

I have been rereading Chinua Achebe’s angry response to a wholehearted academic embrace of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

I tend to feel guilty when I read this essay, because despite the fact that I am a teacher of postcolonial literatures, I have also drunk the Heart of Darkness Kool-Aid, require it in most of my upper-division courses, and think it’s a phenomenal story. Many of my colleagues have suggested that Achebe’s work misreads the story, but Achebe adds, tellingly, that

Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe's civilizing mission in Africa. A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz.

Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?

While on the one hand I do not read the story as concerned with “the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness,” I do agree with Achebe’s assessment that Conrad uses “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity,” which Achebe explains, partly his point. For Achebe, the problem, in this case, is that Conrad’s use of (what I would call) trope deprives the Africans of Heart of Darkness their humanity.

As a sometimes postcolonialist, I sympathize with Achebe’s point: why must “Africa,” “Africans,” always be portrayed as “trope?” But as a literary critic, I do wonder to what degree any symbolic work of art, written in an arbitrary, symbolic system of language, is really removed from trope? Achebe is right to call attention to the overuse of certain figures as trope – Africa and Africans, though he might just as easily have chosen women, Jews, the poor, the homosexual, etc. – and his own beautiful writing (not devoid of trope, to my way of thinking) functions as a much-needed corrective to this still-prevalent oversight.

And yet I find it interesting that as I read it, Achebe’s attack is not so much against Conrad as one of many writers who use Africa and Africans as trope, but rather against trope as a form of craft that is inherently dehumanizing.

In this context, I find the idea of “trope” to have somehow achieved a rather poor rap, lately. Contrary to what T. S. Eliot might say in the introduction to it, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood , critics claim, is based in “mere trope.” Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s early writings are evidence for some critics that his women are “mere trope.” Indeed, it is often the case that the words “mere” and “trope” seem to go hand-in-hand. For when we appreciate “trope,” we call it instead “allegory,” “metaphor,” or point to an author’s “craft.” And so what critics mean by assessing something as “trope” is that a figure’s service as metaphor is more visible than its service as a fully developed character, that it is simple to the point of obviousness. In other words, the problem with “trope” (mere or otherwise) is that it deprives characters of their of humanity. By which I mean the authorial illusion of a figure that is not human but is made to assume certain qualities that make it appear human.

Perhaps we can assert that the relationship between trope and humanization is on a sliding scale. At the one end of the scale, we have allegorical figures like “Everyman,” which are stand-ins for ideas, and, as their name suggests, do not pretend to be anything more. Then at the other end, we might have personal narratives, where the illusion is created that the narrator and author are the same person, and the narrator is designed to foreground humanity. But most literature that concerns literary critics reflects figures that function in between these extremes. In fact, short of, perhaps, a personal diary or blog, isn’t virtually all great literature based on “trope?” And if it were not, would it be applicable to our cultural sense of identity – in other words, could it be great? In other words, I might suggest that the best literature, and I include Achebe’s own here, finds a balance that somehow humanizes the trope.

Such a claim does not preclude the existence of minor characters, which – by their nature – cannot be drawn with the same detail that major ones are. In this case, Achebe is right to observe that in characterizing “Africa” or “Africans,” Conrad reduces these figures to derogatory stereotype, at least as they are seen through the eyes of his primary narrator, Marlow. But even in Achebe’s work, there are major and minor characters, and while Achebe is remarkably careful in these characterizations, they are less humanized than his main character, Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart for example. Even though it would be a misreading to do so, Achebe’s own work might be taken to endorse traditional ways of life that reflect Ekwefi’s acceptance of polygamy or Obierika’s conditioned passivity in the face of traditions he questions. And so the only way to defend the use of such offensive stereotypes in a work like Conrad’s is to explain them not as Conrad’s descriptions, but as reflective of the characterization (and humanization) of his narrator Marlow. The problem with Achebe’s reading, as I see it in this case, is that Achebe sees Marlow (or the sailor who describes his stories) and judges them, for having merely “human” flaws of racism, (which does not make them justifiable!). For Achebe, then, the story is about one lone European’s loss of mind when he comes into contact with “Africa” or “Africans.” I think that what he fails to see in Conrad’s writing is that Marlow, and his transparent shipmate, like the "Africans" Conrad describes, also function as trope.

Bonnie Roos's picture
Bonnie Roos is an Assistant Professor of English at West Texas A & M University, with particular interests in Modernism and Postcolonialism.