“We Are the Hollow Men”: Empty Ideology and the Devotion to Efficiency in Conrad and Achebe

Kevin Peterson

Writer’s Comment: My initial inspiration for writing this essay was a bit unorthodox—it was mostly out of antagonism for Chinua Achebe. I had spent years reading and appreciating Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, only to one quarter read Achebe’s famous essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’” Achebe’s claim stems mostly from the fact that Conrad denies the African natives a voice throughout the novel; however, after reading Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for Professor Schildgen’s fantastic COM 151 course, I saw an opportunity to channel this frustration into a comparison of the two (seemingly disparate) authors. The result is an essay that (hopefully) shows how both novels present radically different characters that ultimately participate in the same ideological subjection—a common trait in colonial and postcolonial discourse.
—Kevin Peterson

Instructor’s Comment: Kevin Peterson’s “ ‘We Are the Hollow Men’: Empty Ideology and the Devotion to Efficiency in Conrad and Achebe,” was the second of three required five-page essays written in Comparative Literature 151: Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, taught in Winter, 2009. Primarily historical in its focus, the course examines the literature produced in colonial and postcolonial settings in the twentieth century. This course considers how literature and film address issues of anti-colonial struggle, language, political resistance, race relations, the political and social consequences of the struggle against colonialism, and contemporary worldwide poverty. The assignment covered Joseph Conrad, Franz Fanon, Camara Laye, and Chinua Achebe, and the students had to write a comparative essay on at least two of these writers. Because Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was partly written in response to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one of the choices for the second essay assignment was to contrast the treatment of “interior Africa” in the two works. This was the assignment for which Peterson wrote this extraordinary essay.
—Brenda Deen Schildgen, Department of Comparative Literature

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
—“The Hollow Men,” T. S. Eliot

In the midst of Marlow’s narrative within Heart of Darkness he recalls a chance meeting with an African native with “a bit of white worsted round his neck.” This visual anomaly immediately poses a number of questions, as Marlow asks: “Why? Where did he get it? Was it a badge—an ornament—a charm—a propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it?” (14). This last question, that is, the question of ideology, seems to resonate throughout the entirety of Conrad’s larger narrative as well as through all narratives that represent colonial and post-colonial situations. The relationship between ideology and colonialism is undoubtedly a complex one, though it may be best understood in the context of material production—indeed, colonial conquest was nearly always driven by the need for labor and cheap material resources. Ideology as understood in this material context is helpful for an understanding of the inherent similarities between the colonizers and the colonized. In his landmark text Ideology and “Ideological State Apparatuses,” Louis Althusser delineates the main features of ideology, as well as connecting the function of ideology to the reproduction of conditions necessary for material production. This definition of ideology seems fitting for both Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—both of which center on characters (in the form of Marlow and Okonkwo, respectively) who are driven by a devotion to efficiency that ultimately blinds them to the realities of colonialism and prevents them from experiencing life in its frank reality, which is to say, with any awareness of truth. In both cases this ideological devotion to efficiency ultimately displaces the characters far beyond the physical displacement of colonialism.

Early on in Marlow’s narrative in Heart of Darkness he wonders about the original colonizers of England, picturing a solitary figure who “has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable,” and explaining that living in the unknown “has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him.” Marlow explains that this “fascination” would certainly be of “an abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate” (4). These effects, which are decidedly negative and center around a feeling of displacement and alienation, seem to be typical of all colonizers—indeed, Marlow seems to preface his own experience with the “abomination” with broad judgments about the legacy of colonial conquest in general. However, Marlow is quick to assure his audience on the Nellie that “none of us would feel exactly this,” concluding that “what saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency.” Marlow continues to distinguish between himself as a “colonizer” and the explorers of old as “conquerors,” stating that “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much” (4). Here Marlow seems to challenge the conventional view of colonialism of the time, implying that colonial exploits are simply the plundering of resources based on racism and intolerance. 

However, Marlow redeems himself with a “redeeming” fact about their colonialism: “What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer sacrifice to” (4). This blatant appeal to ideology appears on the surface to be noble—we would indeed assume that colonial missions may be justified with the intent of educating and advancing knowledge to other societies. However, Marlow’s appeal to ideology is in itself empty; he offers no inkling as to what the “idea at the back of it” is, only that there must be something, anything that can be worshipped as if it were a god. This view of ideology, and indeed its inherent vacuousness, is supported by Louis Althusser’s assessment of the concept, as he believes that ideology, at its most basic level, functions to reproduce the conditions for the production of labor. He explains that this ideology requires that “all the agents of production, exploitation, and repression . . . must in one way or another be ‘steeped’ in this ideology in order to perform their tasks ‘conscientiously,’” and that this ideology, in the end, can only “[represent] the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser 1485; 1498). This “imaginary transposition of the real conditions of existence” is caused by a small number of cynical men who base their domination and exploitation of the “people” on a falsified representation of the world which they have imagined in order to enslave other minds by dominating their imaginations. (Althusser 1499)

Here it seems fitting to equate Marlow and the many agents of the river-trading company with the “agents of production, exploitation, and repression,” as they treat the natives as material means of production that can be disposed of. Indeed, Marlow’s first encounter with the natives shows the degree to which they are enslaved by the European ideology of efficiency and personal gain, as they are described as merely “black shapes [that] crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks . . . in all attitudes of pain, abandonment and despair.” Marlow concludes simply that “the work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.” He muses further that these natives had been “brought from all the recesses of the coast . . . [and], lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest” (14). This emphasis on the natives “becoming inefficient” and then being allowed “to crawl away and rest” highlights the degree to which the natives are viewed as material resources dehumanized in the current of ideology. This ideology, however, is fundamentally questioned by the unreliability of Marlow’s narration—indeed, Marlow becomes both the disseminator of anti-colonial discourse as well as a tragic example of the inexorability of colonial ideology. 

Marlow’s unreliability becomes particularly apparent as he interacts with various station managers. He admires one in particular, as he explains that he “respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair,” marveling that “in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance.” He concludes that “this man had truly accomplished something,” which seems to suggest that Marlow admires not the particular actions of the man himself (a man who laments that “when one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages—hate them to death” (16)), but the apparent adherence to the ideology of efficiency—a system that makes possible the reproduction of the conditions of production for future use of the material resources. Marlow later alludes to the sneaking suspicion that this ideology is indeed empty, as he marvels at the manager who “originated nothing” and merely “[kept] the routine going—that’s all.” However, Marlow again concludes that “he was great . . . by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause—for out there there were no external checks” (18–19). This suspicion is further complicated by notions of truth, as Marlow later makes a direct connection between work and the realization of inner truth, admitting

No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work, the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show . . . (25)

Thus the inscrutable manager who “never gave that secret away” has, in Marlow’s estimation, either realized a personal truth or is consumed by the empty ideology—after all, he admits that “perhaps there was nothing within him,” suggesting a moral hollowness or vacuousness. Marlow repeatedly emphasizes that “out there there were no external checks,” nothing to question the actions of the colonizers as they brutally exploited the natives.

In the end, however, Marlow falls victim to the very ideology that he sees brutally realized. Instead of confronting the unjust actions of the fully-realized ideology of efficiency, he tragically embraces the vacuousness of ideology and concludes that one “must meet that truth with his own true stuff—with his inborn strength.” He assures his audience that “principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief,” though he admits that “a fool, what with sheer fright and fine sentiments, is always safe” (32). Here we may be tempted to label Marlow himself as the ideological “fool” who would rather embrace an empty ideology in favor of confronting true injustice that fundamentally questions one’s core beliefs, especially in light of his admiration of Kurtz who he brands “a remarkable man.” His reasoning echoes Althusser’s definition of ideology as a representation of the “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,” with Marlow claiming that Kurtz’s proclamation of “‘The horror!’ . . . was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had the vibrating tone of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth” (65). Marlow’s use of the phrase “appalling face” is particularly damning, as he blatantly acknowledges that becoming aware of the emptiness of ideology (which is to say, an imaginary relationship with the world), is, in fact, an “appalling” prospect. A similar adherence to the ideology of efficiency is seen in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, though in the novel the roles are tragically set in opposition to each other—the colonized native falls prey to the same ideology that spurs the colonization of his people in the first place.

Achebe’s novel opens with a description of protagonist Okonkwo’s father, a man who “was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow” (4). This man, Unoka, “was never happy when it came to wars,” and “was in fact a coward and could not bear the sight of blood” (7). This description is immediately set in stark contrast to the description of Okonkwo, a man who “was not afraid of war,” and who, “unlike his father,” could “stand the look of blood” (10). This apparent breach with the past is made explicitly clear as the narrator describes Okonkwo’s method of presiding over his household, explaining that he “ruled his house with a heavy hand.” However, the narrator wonders if “perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man,” explaining that “his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness.” This fear was “not external and lay deep within himself,” and was ultimately a “fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father”—a fear that causes his life to be “ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of these things was gentleness and another was idleness” (13). Okonkwo’s hatred of idleness cements his adherence to the ideology of efficiency, as he views inefficiency as a tangible threat to the continuation of his family and, by extension, his whole clan’s way of life. Under Althusser’s definition of ideology this devotion is exemplary, as the function of ideology is ultimately to replicate the same means of production and, in the end, the same blind adherence to the ideology itself. Okonkwo’s tremulous adherence to ideology is similar to Marlow’s assessment of how a man can meet truth: with either a “deliberate belief” or “with sheer fright and fine sentiments.” Okonkwo seems to dissolve this set of oppositions, adhering to ideology out of what seems to be a deliberate belief in the efficiency of his techniques and in “sheer fright” of his father’s shameful legacy. 

Okonkwo also transcends Marlow’s definition of ideology in that he turns to repression to inculcate his beliefs—a quality that aligns him more with the European colonizers themselves and that displaces him from his native community. Althusser’s assessment of the role of repression in ideology seems fitting here, as he claims that education is the fundamental means of preserving the ideology and, by extension, the relations of production. He explains that “the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order” (Althusser 1485). Hence “children at school also learn the ‘rules’ of good behaviour, i.e. the attitude that should be observed by every agent in the division of labour, according to the job he is ‘destined’ for,” which includes “rules of morality, civic and professional conscience, which actually means rules of respect for the socio-technical division of labour and ultimately the rules of order established by class domination” (Althusser 1485). Okonkwo assumes the role of this ideological educator, vowing to “stamp out the disquieting signs of laziness which he thought he already saw in [his son Nwoye]” (33). He also encourages his sons to adopt a warlike, traditionally masculine mentality in order to be efficient and well-respected members of society, telling them “stories of the land—masculine stories of violence and bloodshed” (53). However, through this emphasis on violence and masculinity, Okonkwo slowly alienates himself from the rest of his clan. The first such instance is his dealing with Ikemefuna, a prisoner of the clan who was put in his care. Okonkwo’s friend warns him that “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death” (57)—in spite of this warning, in the midst of Ikemefuna’s execution, Okonkwo, “dazed with fear . . . drew his machete and cut [Ikemefuna] down,” explaining that “he was afraid of being thought weak” (61). This contradiction of the clan’s wishes causes Okonkwo to seriously question his own adherence to the ideology of efficiency (which, in his estimation, includes an emphasis on strength and unyielding assertion of power), asking himself: “When did you become a shivering old woman, you, who are known in all the nine villages for valor in war? How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number?” (65). This sense of separation and fundamental questioning of his ideological views is only magnified with his interaction with European colonizers—a group of people who ideologically undermine Okonkwo’s clan and effectively destroy a sense of commonality and tradition.

Okonkwo’s main personal conflict with the colonizers comes as he reflects on Nwoye’s defection to Christianity. This apparent betrayal only reminds him of his own relationship to his father, claiming that “to abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination” (153). This sentiment is echoed by a clan leader, who [fears] for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors . . . (167)

This appeal to community and the spirit of kinship seems to stand in contrast both to the ideology of the colonizers (who seek to exploit the people and the land) and to the ideology of Okonkwo—an ideology that emphasizes an individualistic, masculine assertion of strength and efficiency that often leads to violence through fear. Indeed, Okonkwo promises that if the clan does not declare war on the Europeans, “I shall leave them and plan my own revenge” (200). In the end, Okonkwo resorts to such violence in favor of diplomacy, killing a colonial messenger. At that very moment Okonkwo realizes that “Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: ‘Why did he do it?’” (205). The key distinction here seems to be the “fright in that tumult”—a tragic response that ultimately forces the clan to submit to the colonizers and Okonkwo to resort to his empty ideology in the first place. This fear was also present in Marlow’s confrontation with the “appalling face” of colonialism, and it certainly seems that it is the only possible reaction to the terrifying power and tragic inexorability of empty ideology.

In the conclusion to his landmark text, Louis Althusser states that “the individual is [hailed] as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection,” that is “in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection ‘all by himself.’ There are no subjects except by and for their subjection. That is why they ‘work all by themselves’” (Althusser 1508). This truly disturbing ideological cycle, one that provides for its own maintenance through the inexorable subjection of every individual, is tragically realized in both Conrad’s and Achebe’s texts. Both Marlow and Okonkwo, two individuals from seemingly opposite sides of the colonial spectrum, are not only physically and psychologically displaced from their native cultures but also from themselves in a fundamental way—through their subjection to the ideology of efficiency they remove themselves from any possibility of personal fulfillment or the realization of any profound truth. Marlow, for his part, seems to appreciate Kurtz, the only character to glimpse the truly “appalling face” of an empty ideology, though in the end he prefers to live in the true darkness of a hollow ideology rather than face the reality of the injustice around him. Okonkwo, on the other hand, believes himself to be combating the evil of the European colonizers—a group who unabashedly embrace the ideology of efficiency to justify their exploitation. However, Okonkwo’s refusal to face up to the reality of the colonizers manifests itself in his totalitarian insistence on strength and brute force in the face of a decidedly immaterial ideological mission—a fight that leads him to alienate himself from his own culture as well as from himself in the most material way: in his eventual suicide. The similarity between Marlow and Okonkwo thus seems to transcend the simple division between the colonizers and the colonized into a realm of inexorable ideological subjection and a truly hollow embrace of a false reality.

Works Cited
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1483–1509.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover, 1990.
Eliot, T. S. “The Hollow Men.” Collected Poems, 1909–1962. New York: Harcourt, 1991. 77–82.