20th Century Novels Essay
To what extent could Heart of Darkness be described as a disturbing novel that reflects some of the major concerns of 20th Century fiction?
Due: 4th June 2004
Joseph Conrads literary classic Heart of Darkness serves as a powerful indictment of the hypocrisy of imperialism and the evils of racism. It reflects the savage repressions carried out in the Congo by the Belgians in one of the largest acts of genocide committed up to that time (Brians, 1998). Typical of many of the other modernist literature produced in the early decades of the twentieth century, Heart of Darkness is also as much about the human condition of alienation, loneliness and solitude as it is about imperialism.
We live in a world in which the consequences of nineteenth-century European imperialism are still being felt. Primarily between 1880 and 1900 many European governments scrambled frantically for territory (Schmiechen, 1999). During this age of imperialism, in the centre of the African continent lay the newly colonised Belgian Congo, and the setting of the novella Heart of Darkness. The issue of Imperialism is explored in complicated ways in Heart of Darkness. The central character of Marlow encounters many scenes of torture, cruelty, racist superiority and near-slavery, and this results in the book offering a harsh picture of colonial enterprise to the reader.
The hypocrisy of imperialism is felt to some extent in the novella, for the most part amongst the characters of the pilgrims and cannibals. The pilgrims of Heart of Darkness, although appear to be Christian, are not pilgrims in the religious sense but men from Central Station, who carry wooden staves wherever they go. They are obsessed with keeping up a veneer of civilization and proper conduct, and are motivated entirely by self-interest. They all want to be appointed to a station so that they can trade for ivory and earn a commission, but none of them actually takes any effective steps toward achieving this goal: They beguiled the time by backbitting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of wayThey slandered and hated each other only on that account. (pg.53-54). They despise the natives and treat them like animals, although in their greed and ridiculousness they appear less than human themselves. In an astounding lack of intelligence, the pilgrims attack the jungle, creating a cloud of smoke which blinds Marlows navigation: The pilgrims had opened with their Winchesters, and were simply squirting lead into that bush. A deuce of a lot of smoke came up and slowly drove forwardI couldnt see (pg. 80) In another incident, the pilgrims throw the cannibals’ only source of food overboard in what “looked like a high-handed proceeding.”(pg. 75).
In the novel the natives hired as the crew of the steamer are known as the cannibals, paradoxically they are surprisingly reasonable and well tempered. The leader of the group, in particular, seems to be intelligent and capable of ironic reflection upon his situation. Marlow respects their restraint and their calm acceptance of adversity. Fine fellows cannibals – in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And, after all they did not eat each other before my face. (pg. 67). Whilst narrating his story Marlow not only emphasises the savagery of the pilgrims by comparison with the “nobility” of the cannibals, extending the contrast of civilization and savagery, but he also begins to indicate what it is that deserves some measure of respect. The nearly impossible feat of withstanding hunger is accomplished by the savage cannibals through some inexplicable integrity: “No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of ones soul (pg.76). Although they out number the pilgrims thirty men to five, The cannibals continuously maintain a measure of self-restraint, choosing rather, to face near-starvation.
While Heart of Darkness offers a powerful condemnation of the hypocritical operations of imperialism and the paradoxical human nature, it also addresses issues surrounding race that can be viewed as even more disconcerting: The prehistoric man was cursing us (pg. 68). This comment reflects the European inclination to view the African natives as primitive, further back on the evolutionary scale than Europeans. It draws comparisons with Marlows earlier remark in some way these savages are perhaps just like the English were when Britain was colonized by Rome.(pg. 30). What disturbs Marlow most about the native peoples he sees along the river: It was unearthlythe suspicion of their not being inhuman. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces (pg. 69). It is a shame that in these moments Marlow admits the limits of his own perception and still casts Africans as a primitive version of himself rather than as potential equals. The book also suggests Africa is responsible for mental disintegration as well as for physical illness. The African people and the darkness and remoteness of the African continent seem also to be a mere backdrop in which the novella Heart of Darkness explores philosophical and existential struggles of European men. Their existence and their exoticism enable Marlows self-contemplation. This kind of dehumanisation may be harder to identify, but can be just as destructive as colonial violence or open racism (Gatten, 2004).
Throughout Heart of Darkness, the themes of alienation, loneliness, silence and solitude predominate. The question of what the alienation and loneliness of extended periods of time in a remote and hostile environment can do to men’s minds is a central theme of the book. The doctor who measures Marlow’s head prior to his departure for Africa warns him of changes to his personality that may be produced by a long stay in Africa. It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot(pg. 49). The book also attempts to blame the homicidal megalomania of Kurtz on the mental breakdown he has suffered as a result of the alienation experienced in Africa. The novella can be described as a fictional case study of what happens psychologically to those colonized, or those forced into years of solitude in a strange and foreign land. The book begins and ends in silence, with men first waiting for a tale to begin: There was silence aboard the yacht. (pg.28) Then left to their own thoughts in solitude after it has concluded: Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent (pg. 121).
The novella Heart of Darkness is a prevailing reflection on Twentieth Century fiction. It depicts some of the Twentieth Centurys darkest tribulations such as imperialism, colonialism, racism and extreme violence but also represents some deeper issues regarding the human condition. The reoccurring themes of alienation and loneliness, silence and solitude, integrity and nobility are universal and no amount of cultural differences can change their meaning to the individual.
Brian, P and others (1998) Reading About the World, Volume 2 Harcourt Brace Custom Books, Washington
Conrad, J (1902) Heart of Darkness Penguin Books: England
Gatten, B; Martin, M (2004). Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness online at <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/heart/>.accessed on 3 Jun. 2004
Schmiechen, James (1999) A History of Western Society, 6th ed. Study Guide vol. II. Houghton: Boston