A novel proposal

Jonathan Jones refutes the charges against Heart of Darkness, but I’ve never really been convinced there’s a case to answer at all. In paragraph 38 of the original essay by Chinua Achebe lies the oft-quoted (by Jones too) complaint of:

the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind

which I don’t see as particularly valid, unless you’re criticising a textbook on comparative sociology. One of the primary functions of the novel—indeed, the only area I can think of where it excels above other forms of writing—is that it is able to explore the psychologies of individuals, rather than half-heartedly discussing elements external to the individual’s character and mind; psychology, if you like, although that term is probably more loaded in literary criticism than anywhere else.

I don’t see wholesale dismissal To Kill A Mockingbird because it doesn’t discuss the vagaries of US law sufficiently; nor are people howling that Chocolat be withdrawn from the shelves before it contains a more complete discussion of the boiling points and blooming characteristics of every type of confection known to Belgium. Isn’t it off-topic to ask of Joseph Conrad that in place of penetrating fiction he write the accompanying text to a GCSE geography lesson?

If novels help strengthen one’s innate empathy, enabling the isolated individual to comprehend and appreciate the manifest importance of the inner minds of others, then I wonder how many of them Achebe has read.

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