Examining Interactions: West and Indigenous Societies in Literature
The Age of Discovery, the colonial period, and the establishment of strong connections between various parts of the world allowed people from the West to establish their presence and influence in almost all parts of the world. There were complicated and controversial relations between local people and newcomers that many writers have described. Joseph Conrad, Chinua Achebe, and Bruce Feiler demonstrate in their works the intricate relations established between indigenous societies and foreigners that can be traced in many elements, such as the mutual perception of the parties and symbols of relations and women presented by authors.
The Image of Natives and Foreigners
Conrad presents a clear attitude towards indigenous people in terms of their description. The author introduces natives as underdeveloped, brutal humans without a basic sense of manners. For instance, Marlow calls them cannibals, who fortunately “after all did not eat each other before my face: they had brought along a provision of hippo-meat which went rotten, and made the mystery of the wilderness stink in my nostrils” (Conrad 40). Such a description illustrates the existing bias about local people whose way of life was judged according to Western standards without understanding the reasons for such behavior.
By way of contrast, the image of Westerners demonstrates their superiority. The chief accountant of the company, who works at the station, serves as a perfected icon of Western civilization. Though he has been living out of his native country for almost three years, the accountant’s attire is white, clean and elegant. Moreover, the man taught a native woman to keep his clothes in perfect order. This achievement is a genuine triumph where “a man had verily accomplished something” (Conrad 20). On the whole, the outlook of a Western person tells about the high status and progress.
At the same time, Conrad does not idealize all Westerners but shows that different kinds of people go to Africa. For example, pilgrims who work at the station and travel with Marlow are greedy and pursue only self-interest. They come to Congo only to make money and do unskilled work, almost the same as indigenous people. However, pilgrims treat natives as animals while trying to be promoted and trade ivory (Conrad 28). Thus, the author attempts to show Westerners in a positive light and try to be more objective about people who travel to Africa.
In Things Fall Apart by Achebe, the collision of two different attitudes towards indigenous people is also obvious. On the one hand, the writer describes a kind and soft-hearted priest, Mr. Brown, who made friends with people from the tribe (Achebe 74). On the other hand, Reverend Smith is cruel and strict with native people. While Mr. Brown is careful and wants to learn about local people and their culture by listening to their opinions and stories, Smith rejects any sympathy toward indigenous people as a way of colonial intolerance (Achebe 76). Indeed, the division between the colonized and the colonizers prevails in Smith’s outlook, and this separation is more popular when compared to attempts to understand locals. As a result, Achebe distinguishes the existence of opposite attitudes towards native people.
More importantly, a Westerner’s perception of Okonkwo’s death illustrates the divergence in life interpretation. According to the Umuofia clan’s customs, a person who commits suicide is a huge sin, and no one can touch him or her. Consequently, Okonkwo’s body would remain on the tree as long as a stranger appears to take him down. From the Commissioner’s perspective, such an attitude is unbearable because Okonkwo was one of the greatest and most influential people in the tribe. Moreover, combining other things and deeds that Commissioner did not understand, he wrote The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger (Achebe 86). The choice of the title allows assuming that while being a Westerner, the Commissioner judges everything only from his point of view and does not even suspect that his mission in Nigeria in some way caused Okonkwo’s death as well. Thus, many Westerners interpreted events around them one-sidedly.
In the same way, Feiler demonstrates that not only foreigners are biased about locals, but indigenous people also have some prejudices. The author includes in his book a characterization of the bath ritual that happens outdoors each year before the beginning of the school. Many people gather to see such an unusual event with the participation of the foreigner. They start evaluating a newcomer according to their standards by saying he is tall, just like a real model with a different form of a nose that is high (Feiler 6). Moreover, by sharing common bias, the Japanese do not fully accept him into their community, even though they kindly call him Japanese because of his skillful usage of chopsticks and his knowledge of Japanese (Feiler 298). This attitude is more a result of their treatment of him as a guest rather than a real friendship because everything should follow the ritual, and the main task is not to lose face in front of others. Overall, Learning to Bow presents the existence of prejudices about Westerners that influence the relations between locals and foreigners.
Conrad efficiently illustrates the contradictory nature of imperialism in Heart of Darkness. Of Marlow’s journey, the scenes of slavery, cruelty, and torture follow him. Above all, the Company’s workers perceive such conditions and the treatment of indigenous people as normal and a part of the trade process (Conrad 28). In contrast, Kurtz does not pretend to be civilized and openly states the need to kill and humiliate natives to get ivory. Moreover, while Kurtz treats his mistress, who is African, as statuary, Marlow perceives a helmsman as a part of the ship (Conrad 52). Therefore, the life of native people under imperial rule is challenging but viewed as natural.
The conflict between traditions and changes is a crucial theme in Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo, as a protagonist, symbolizes the traditions of a Nigerian tribe, where the central value is manliness. He acts cruelly and brutally towards his family, kills his foster son, and avoids being emotional as he deems it inappropriate for a man (Achebe 15-18). Conversely, Christianity brings new values, and people who have been outcasts become important and valued members of the community. Moreover, the traditional ways of life and living methods are challenged by the native language (Achebe 61). While many characters, such as Nwoye, are ready to change their lives and find inner peace with the help of a new religion, Okonkwo commits suicide because he cannot accept a new reality and find a place for himself (Achebe 85). Westerners’ new beliefs and values significantly influenced indigenous people’s lives in a short time.
Learning to Bow presents a relatively modern vision of Westerners’ perception of another culture. The book is about a young American man who goes to Japan to teach English at a rural school. He funnily describes local traditions and life while often touching on very intimate topics. For instance, “Co-workers who were rude to one another in the bar would be civil the next day at work; men who had been open and relaxed in the bath would be formal and rigid when behind a desk” (Feiler 54). Such illustration gives an insight into the separation of private and public life in Japanese society. At the same time, Feiler spent in Japan only one year and some of his views and assumptions can be superficial in some parts. Furthermore, his vision of Japanese relations and their judgments is based on his behavior model. Altogether, Feiler presents the American perception of Japanese relations.
Symbols of Women and Relations
Heart of Darkness introduces Western and African women’s perceptions. The author generally views females as the main reason for conquests and colonization because men want to demonstrate their status and success. On the one hand, “My Intended” is described as a gentle and faithful fiancée who is still mourning her love a year after Kurtz’s death and bears an idealistic vision of him (Conrad 89-91). On the other hand, Kurtz’s mistress is dressed in bizarre clothes that almost do not cover her body. She is described as having wild eyes full of sorrow while moving in the jungles (Conrad 71). This contrast of their appearances and behaviors underlines the difference between native people and Westerners.
At the same time, Things Fall Apart illustrates the role of women within the Nigerian community. The traditional perception of family and the exceptional role of manliness make a female dependent on a man. For instance, Okonkwo could only beat his wives to prove he was a real man (Achebe 15). Moreover, a soft and non-aggressive male is called agbala in the clan’s language, which means ‘woman’ (Achebe 86). At the same time, not all females are weak. For example, Okonkwo’s daughter, Ezinma, is bold and smart. She promises her father not to get married before he returns from exile, putting her feelings and emotions aside. Okonkwo often thought, “She should have been a boy” (Achebe 28). All in all, Achebe depicts the perception of women in African indigenous society.
Finally, Learning to Bow provides insight into relations between men and women:
- Local people strongly believe in a special full-scale strategy for picking up girls called napa.
- A special role in dating is given to love hotels, where two people can stay alone.
- Feiler’s friends even gave him detailed instructions on making love with Japanese girls.
Notably, Japanese men, particularly women, need a more superficial understanding of relations. From their perspective, Japanese girls choose their boyfriends based on their hair color and ability to create an atmosphere and give nice and proper compliments. In general, many things are similar to the Western perception of relations, but the bias about physical peculiarities appears again (Feiler 203-208). Hence, Feiler depicts the Japanese perception of relations.
The analysis of Conrad’s, Achebe’s, and Feiler’s works proves the existence of certain misunderstandings and prejudices that sometimes cause conflicts between representatives of different cultures. The perception of foreigners and natives is based on their opposite worldviews, so their images of each other are often one-sided. What is more, representatives of one culture rarely attempt to understand the culture of the other community. Imperialism, the clash between traditions and new changes, and the modern vision of Japanese culture are the main themes of the analyzed books. Finally, each writer uncovers the role of women and relations in society and the different attitudes of Westerners and locals towards these issues.
1. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Anchor Canada, 2009.
2. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Broadview, 1999.
3. Feiler, Bruce S. Learning to Bow: An American Teacher in a Japanese School. Ticknor & Fields, 1991.