Turning the Classroom into a Debate Hall: Arguing about Racism in Heart of Darkness

Conrad, Oral communication skills, Seminar teaching, Victorian literature

Picture 001Author

Stella Bolaki
English Literature, University of Edinburgh


Second-year English literature students were invited to debate the question of racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the light of Chinua Achebe’s well-known denunciation of Conrad in his “An Image of Africa” (1975). The debate took the form of a trial with each side gathering evidence, arguing its case, and responding to the other side’s objections. It was attended by people (not necessarily familiar with Conrad criticism) who functioned as a jury, voting for one or other side at the end. This case study describes the various stages in and outcomes of the debate and suggests ways in which debates can be used, in teaching Modernism courses, and in other areas of English studies.

Background / Context

I teach English Literature 2 at the University of Edinburgh. This course for second-year students takes “Writing and Revolution” and “Revolution in Writing” as a thematic focus and deals with texts from two key periods in literary and cultural history: 1760-1830 (“Romanticism”) and 1890-1939 (“Modernism”). Lectures and tutorials encourage students to approach literature in its social and historical context and to develop their understanding of various theoretical approaches. The tutorials aim to bring theory, text, and context together, clarifying and exploring aspects of the lectures by grounding discussion in the examination of specific texts and by stimulating debate.

Chinua Achebe’s “Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (1975) denounces Heart of Darkness for its dehumanising representation of Africa and Africans, questioning “whether a novel which … depersonalises a portion of the human race can be called a great work of art” (p.1790). Beginning with Conrad’s inherent racism, Achebe moves to broader theoretical issues concerning the political or ethical value of literature and literary criticism and the extent to which these shape distinct understandings of the canon. Thus, the goals of the debate were not merely to stimulate discussion of Heart of Darkness and to reflect upon concepts such as “imperialism”, “colonialism”, and “civilizing mission”, but also to open up the discussion to the consideration of the role of cultural interpretation in Modernism and the scrutiny of the ahistorical notion of “a great work of art”.

The exercise tied in well with the overall design of my Modernism seminars. In survey courses on Modernism, students often learn that the distinguishing feature of Modernist writing is the various innovations in the style and structure of writing (a movement away from authorial omniscience; stream of consciousness technique; a break with linearity to embrace psychological time and discontinuity). This is partly reflected in the shift from “Writing and Revolution” to “Revolution in Writing” in the title of the second half of the English Literature 2 course at Edinburgh University. (This is not to suggest, however, that Romantic writing is not formally interesting or, on the other hand, that Modernist writing is pure experimentation without any wider social and historical context). Students had a balanced amount of lectures on modernism and style and on modernism and value/politics. I envisaged the debate as an opportunity to encourage students to examine the interaction and tensions between these two elements, which also underpin various theories of literature and art. The privileging of style over politics, according to Achebe, can have terrible consequences, and students were invited to reflect further on this idea using Heart of Darkness as a case study. In the concluding section of the case study, I provide examples of other texts which have been subjected to similar criticisms, and which could be used as the basis of similar debates.

Activities / Practice

For the preparation stage, I divided the students in my tutorials into two groups and gave each group separate instructions:

First group (Prosecution): Your mission is to demonstrate that Achebe is right.

Second group (Defence): Your mission is to defend Conrad’s Heart of Darkness against Achebe’s criticisms.

The way the two groups’ mission is formulated does not prescribe the nature of the debate as I deliberately did not give very specific or narrow information. One of the things the first group had to decide was whether they were going to back up Achebe’s argument that Conrad (or the text) is racist or whether they were going to concentrate on the broader question raised in his essay, namely how one can respond to classic works that exhibit racist views, and whether such works of art deserve to be part of the canon. Similarly, the second group had to plan their strategies of defence taking into either possible criticisms or broader questions or a combination of the two.

The debate took the form of an interactive trial. I explained to students that they would have to meet outside class to plan their case and decide on matters such as the division of labour and the structure of their presentation. Because I have tried this exercise in the past, I have experimented with various formats. On the level of preparation, when I felt that students needed more concrete guidance about how to approach the task, I would produce handouts with detailed suggestions. The handouts drew students’ attention to various points made by Achebe as well as to specific sections from Heart of Darkness, which they could mine further to illustrate their arguments or counter those of the other side. This was one way I encouraged them to do some close reading. I made the point of stressing that “the jury” (the external referees I invited to attend the debate) might not be familiar with the debate or might have read the novel a long time ago, so they needed to ground their argument in specific examples from the text, as vague and general comments would not be sufficient. Another purpose of the handouts was to indicate “virtual” witnesses each group could recruit, by which I meant a number of postcolonial critics and other commentators who have responded to Achebe’s polemical article. Suggesting a few names and sources was one way I invited students to do further research, using theoretical work to validate and add authority to their argument. At the same time, I made it clear that they would have to apply these ideas, carefully connecting them to the text without being afraid to challenge the so-called experts’ views.

Below are two sample extracts from the handouts I gave each group. Part of the fun in distributing this material a week before the debate is that because each handout is different, students take seriously the fact that evidence should not “leak”, as this would jeopardise their chances of winning the debate. In this way, the climate becomes prepared, and students start to look forward to the day of the debate.

First group (Prosecution)

Below are some points from Achebe’s essay on which you could build up your case:

“…the desire in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (p.1784)
“For reasons which can certainly use close psychological inquiry, the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa” (p.1793)
“Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray—a carrier on to whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate” (p.1793).

You can illustrate Achebe’s points with examples from the text. These will persuade the jury that Achebe is right. You can also use another witness, Edward Said. Said’s approach to Heart of Darkness throughout Culture and Imperialism has been characterised as “one of studied moderation; he does not neglect its imperialistic perspective (pp. 24-9, 32-4, 81-2, 197-201), and yet he stops well short of Chinua Achebe’s indictment of Conrad as racist (p.200)” (Kennedy, p. 102). Have a look at the relevant pages and see whether you can spot something in Said’s response which you could use to argue your case. Said’s Orientalism (Leitch, pp.1990-9) can also prove very useful when it comes to analysing the quoted extracts from Achebe above.

Second group (Defence)

The other group has a potential witness you need to face up to, namely Edward Said,but his approach has been one of “studied moderation”, so you could use the ambivalence he expresses for your own argument.Read some excerpts from Culture and Imperialism (Leitch, pp. 24-9, 32-4, 81-2, 197-201) and from Orientalism (Leitch, pp.1990-3).[…]

Said suggests that most western texts produce the Orient in ways which reinforce the dichotomy between the Western and the Oriental. Dennis Porter criticises him for that: “Said does not seem to envisage the possibility that more directly counter-hegemonic writings or an alternative canon may exist within the Western tradition. The feasibility of a textual dialogue between western and non-western cultures needs to be considered, a dialogue that would cause subject/object relations to alternate, so that we might read ourselves as the others of our others and replace the notion of a place of truth with that of a knowledge which is always relative and provisional” (p. 153)

How can you use Dennis Porter as a defence witness for your case?

As you can see, there is symmetry in the two handouts, which is one way balance is maintained and each group gets to receive a fair amount of support beforehand. Although I anticipated that students would mainly draw on the points of the handout, fearing that this would constrain them and dictate the terms of the debate, I was surprised to discover that the material had stimulated their appetite for more evidence and witnesses. Most students did further research, bringing into class evidence that the other team did not have in its possession, and of which they were very proud.

The debate which ran in the academic year 2007-2008 included two brief presentations by both groups, a series of spontaneous confrontations between the two sides (one speaker responding to a specific point made by another), and finally some questions from the external referees before reaching their verdict. The external referees included colleagues in the English Literature department but also researchers and teachers working in different disciplines (film studies, sociology, anthropology), who were both interested in Heart of Darkness and in experimenting with a similar exercise in their own field of teaching.

Most students from the first group focused on Conrad’s representation of Africans in the novel and the various racial stereotypes the novel promotes. Students read out extracts from the text, pointing out sections where racist language is most visible: The Africans are described as “savage”, “the white of their eyes glistening”, with “faces like grotesque masks”, and in place of speech they “made a violent babble of uncouth sounds”. Conrad’s defence argued that “the differences visible in his descriptions of blacks and whites are fundamentally descriptive observations as perceived by a man (Marlow) who has not been exposed to such a different culture and, for this reason, cannot be proclaimed to be racist in the modern pejorative sense of the word”. At the same time, the attitudes towards Africans are not those of Conrad, but of the narrator’s, and students suggested that the framing of the novel (the narrator behind a narrator, a favourite modernist technique) opens the text to an ironic reading.

Seminar Students in debate at the University of Edinburgh

A big portion of the debate focused on what the term “racism” means and how understandings of it have changed since Conrad’s time. The strongest argument of the defence was that the time Conrad wrote removes him from the allegations Achebe makes: “Conrad actually tries to move away from the prevailing exploitive and racist views of his time, but of course it is understandable why he cannot transcend them altogether”. Conrad, they added, is equally, if not more, critical of his fellow western characters. The discussion then turned to the ways in which the author resists dualistic thinking, undermining rigid distinctions between the West and the Orient: “The river Thames and the Congo in the opening scene of the novel turn out to be pretty similar, and when Marlow enlists the twenty ‘cannibals’ as crewmen he describes them as ‘fine fellows’ or ‘men one could work with’ while he exposes the hypocrisy of the European Imperialist agents”.

The side arguing Achebe’s case chose to focus more on the nuanced argument with which “An Image of Africa” concludes, namely that “Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth” (p.1794). They also based their critique on Achebe’s argument that Africa functions merely as a setting or a prop for the “disintegration of the mind of Mr Kurtz” (p. 1789). The other group disagreed, arguing, through Said’s view in Culture and Imperialism, that the references to the darkness and “the dark places and peoples” in the novel, and the insistence upon the inexpressible, not only manifest Conrad’s modernist perception of the inadequacies of language, but also allude to a form of resistance, which both Marlow and Kurtz (and, as an extension, Conrad) cannot entirely see as such yet. The other point by Achebe that “Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist” and that “this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work …due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked” (p. 1791) was rejected by the group who argued that nowadays the racism of the text could not be left unnoticed.

To the claim that Achebe’s argument is extremely biased, the prosecution responded by showing why his argument is not based on personal preferences and questions of aesthetic taste. They cited Achebe’s own acknowledgement that there were grounds on which his arguments could be contested: “It is no concern of fiction to please people about whom it is written. I will go along with that. But I am not talking about pleasing people. I am talking about a book which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today”. Conrad’s defence, though agreeing that Achebe raises here a larger issue, which cannot be easily dismissed, drew attention to the polemical language of the article and Achebe’s unequivocal indictment of Conrad, siding with Said’s more moderate (read as less “personal”) approach to the text.

Before reaching their verdict, the external referees asked for a few clarifications, and some of them also found the chance to introduce their own points. For instance, one referee, who is a film tutor, brought up Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, which was inspired by Heart of Darkness: “Could this adaptation perhaps help illuminate aspects of the debate?” Though American interventionism takes the place of European colonialism in the film, the group defending Conrad suggested that the film is a strong critique of imperialism and of ideas of civilization and progress, but it is not characterized by the complexity and ambivalence of Heart of Darkness, which makes it so hard to reach a definitive answer on the question of its inherent racism.

In 2007-8, three groups ran debates on Heart of Darkness. In two of these groups Conrad’s defence won. In all cases, the external referees congratulated the losing team for their passion and conviction, and for the rhetorical skills they demonstrated in pursuing their argument.


The debate kept the students talking for the full hour of the tutorial, and they clearly enjoyed themselves. One of the reasons I think Conrad’s text stimulated such a vivid discussion partly had to do with the nature of Achebe’s response to it. Students do not usually expect academic criticism to be so “personal”. They are often advised to write their essays in a more objective and distanced way, and are afraid that “polemical” writing will be considered biased and unsubstantiated. The strong language of Achebe’s article fueled the competitive atmosphere of the debate and made students more determined to win. Still, a couple of times, I found that the clash generated interesting points that went beyond the respective “missions” of the two groups. This could be seen as undermining the spirit of the debate as students ended up agreeing with one another. However, as one external referee put it, it is the moment the debate “dissolves” that interesting and original arguments come up. In this case, the discussion raised important questions as to whether art should be accountable to politics and as to how texts that seem to propagate racist or sexist views should be taught. Rather than adopting Achebe’s radical position, which they saw as narrow, both groups suggested at the end of the session, when the debate was over and could take off their “masks”, that by revisiting “classic” works of art through contemporary criticism, they could put them to new uses, acknowledging both their achievements and limitations. Other examples of texts which were mentioned in relation to this argument were Skakespeare’s The Tempest and Rudyard’s Kipling’s poetry.

The feedback I got about the debate from students, mainly through questionnaires, was very positive. Below are some indicative responses from my 2007-2008 groups who commented on various aspects of the exercise:

“That’s a good exercise in moving into a more academic sphere where rigour in argument is called for.”

“Any way of stimulating open and honest debate is helpful as I, for one, see the argument as part of your own process of understanding, allowing you to concede fixed early positions as a debate progresses”

“Preparation for a debate like this is not always easy. Time management, allocation of ideas, balance of argument and innovative elements weren’t straightforward in a group situation. For this reason, though, I think it was really useful exercise in compromise, organization and understanding.”

“Introducing external referees was such a good idea. It throws us students slightly outside our comfort zone and really stimulated heated discussion and a desire to impress!”

“Surprisingly, it was really easy to defend a side you might disagree with. Once some research has been done, it’s very tempting to get seduced by your own power of argument and believe what you’ve formally contested. I really liked this aspect of the debate. It was less about opinion and more about forming a case and proposing ideas effectively.”

Similarly, the feedback I got from external referees showed that they found the whole experience useful. Some of them decided to adapt it for use with their own students.

As noted in the introduction, the debate fitted well with my overall conception and delivery of the seminar. Exercises in the first week of the semester paved the way for the debate by encouraging students to think critically about labels and definitions. In my introductory session on Modernism, for instance, I divided the group into pairs and asked them to read a few stories which illustrate the fluid and contradictory meanings that terms like ‘modern’ have had for different people at different times and in different places, using Susan Stanford Friedman’s very useful essay “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism”. Later in the semester, we did something similar, though not as formalised, with Virginia Woolf. We looked at Elaine Showalter’s criticism ofA Room of One’s Own and Toril Moi’s attempt to “rescue Woolf for feminist politics” (p. 9). In the case of Bertolt Brecht, also included in the course, I asked students to write an imaginary dialogue between Marxist critic György Lukács and Brecht. Their conversation had to focus on the meanings of realism and formalism and on what constitutes revolutionary art, highlighting the two writers’ different views on the subject. Students did that in pairs, writing and performing the dialogue in class, showing both critical understanding and imaginative thinking. Clearly, then, debates can be extended to include a more creative aspect, and, of course, as another case study on the English Subject Centre website generously illustrates, “creative-critical” debates can be transferred online with many promising results (Miles). Finally, the debate can move outside the narrow confines of the classroom and involve more students, especially from different subjects, and, even, student societies. This requires more organisation, but can be a very rewarding experience. A recent example in Edinburgh, covered by the Student paper (Ellingworth, p. 4), was a public debate on the question of whether the NHS should treat those who bring their health problems upon themselves (such as smokers, drinkers, and the obese). The debate was organized by two University of Edinburgh societies: the Debates Union and Universities Allied for Essential Medicine, and was attended by a big audience. The Debates Union plans to stage more similar events together with other societies.

Debates encourage students to see literary texts as open to multiple and diverse readings rather than as closed systems. At the same time, staging a formalized debate in the classroom gives them opportunities to work together through various stages towards a common cause. It thus promotes group work and team spirit. Finally, since such situations require students to put aside their own beliefs and argue in one way or another, they provide a perfect occasion to exercise rhetorical skills and gain public speaking experience in a competitive, but friendly, environment.

Note: I would like to thank the tutorial groups at Edinburgh University who have participated in this exercise since 2005, when I first introduced it, and especially the three English Literature 2 groups from the academic year 2007-2008 who provided feedback and extensive comments on the debate, and who agreed to have their photos taken. Many thanks as well to the external referees: Georgia Axiotou, Nikos Kourampas, Penny Travlou, Antonios Kaniadakis, Vangelis Makrigiannakis, and Tony McKibbin.


  • Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’sHeart of Darkness” in Leitch: 1781-1794
  • James Ellingworth, “Medical Students and Debaters Battle it out over Care for Smokers, Drinkers, and the Obese,”Student, Week 5 5.02.2008
  • Susan Stanford Friedman, “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism,”Modernism/Modernity8.3 (2001): 493-513
  • Valerie Kennedy,Edward Said: A Critical Introduction(Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000)
  • Vincent B. Leitch, ed.,The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism(London: Norton, 2001)
  • Rosie Miles, “Text.Play.Space: Creative Online Activities in English Studies,” English Subject Centre, 20 March 2008
  • Toril Moi, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Feminist Readings of Woolf,” inSexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory(London: Routledge, 1987): 1-18
  • Dennis Porter, “Orientalism and its Problems” inColonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. (Harlow: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994): 150-151

March 2008