Tag Archives: Heart of Darkness

Controlling the Narrative: the relevance of “answering back” in Wide Sargasso Sea

9 Feb

One of the most interesting points raised by McLeod was the point of it being an error to apply Manichean aesthetics broadly to a reading of either Wide Sargasso Sea or Jane Eyre: he claims this is an error, as it wrongly imposes the concerns of the present upon the literature of the past, which completely undoes the concept of reading a literary work historically (181). McLeod goes on to argue that this kind of labeling fails to allow for the text to “potentially question” colonial views (182). I feel this point is no where more relevant than in discussing the concept of “Creole” as it develops through the text of Wide Sargasso Sea, and what it means to our understanding of Antoinette’s complex character.

According to O. Nigel Bolland in an article published in the Caribbean Quarterly, “… the term ‘Creole,’ referring to people and cultures, means something or somebody derived from the Old World but developed in the New” (1). Bolland goes on to state that “[i]n common Caribbean usage, ‘Creole’ refers to a local product which is the result of a mixture or blending of various ingredients that originated in the Old World.

Bolland suggests that the thesis which states that the “common people” in the Caribbean islands were “active agents in the historical process” expanded the understanding of Caribbean social history and “reconstituted… ways of looking at the dynamics of social and cultural change. Caribbean societies and cultures can no longer be thought of as the result of a one-way process, of the unilateral imposition of European culture upon passive African recipients” (2).

This brought the Fabian article to mind, and the discussion we had about the traveling back into history and time that Marlowe undertakes in ‘Heart of Darkness’– traveling back into primordial time, Marlowe meets Kurtz who has come undone after attempting this “unilateral imposition of European culture” during his ivory quests. In ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Rochester is undone whenever he attempts to impose his idea of European social hierarchy on his wife and on his surroundings. In addition, he is unable to control or influence any of the servants; even though he exerts power over Amelie via the act of sex, she is able to leave free and easily of her own free will. Rochester is unable to comprehend his wife, and though he attempts to overpower her by Othering her, by the end of the novel it is Antoinette who reigns supreme over Thornfield Manor, invoking a return to her true identity through the metaphor of fire.

According to McLeod, the characters in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ compete for the overall control of narrative by “answering back”– perhaps the very development of the term “Creole” during the course of Rhys’ text is an answering back to Rochester/European culture’s attempt to pin down the Creole identity to one set of stereotypes or concepts. Unlike the barbarians in ‘Heart of Darkness’, Rhys’ Creole characters defy European conventions by talking back regularly, and literally laugh in the face of them quite often, as Helle brought up in class today.

Considering the various approaches to understanding self-hood in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, I feel that McLeod is right in suggesting that Antoinette escapes the parameters of European representation, because the definitions of ideas such as madness, Creole identity, as well as psychological concepts like the death instinct are left open to interpretation, allowing Antoinette to take on far more meaning than what she was allowed as Bertha Mason in ‘Jane Eyre’.

Narrative Time and Imperialism

1 Feb

In the introduction to Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism he writes, “stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history” (xii). In this way, literature is how people understand and make sense of colonialism and imperialism. Narratives are what connect people to nations. However, if we look back to Heart of Darkness, it seems that this narrative confuses identity and picks away at the cohesive element that establishes nations to people. Said explains later, “Conrad wants us to see how Kurtz’s great looting adventure, Marlow’s journey up the river, and the narrative itself all share a common theme: Europeans performing acts of imperial mastery and will in (or about) Africa” (23). All three aspects of the novel also contain different time, which distances us to these stories. While we get parts of Kurtz’s story, parts of Marlow’s story, and step back once more to the narrator, who is listening to this inner story, we end up not getting a complete story with a definite understanding of the author’s views, the narrator’s views or any of the characters’ own views. Moreover, none of the outside world of the novel– the ‘natives’– don’t have a voice, so their thoughts are never captured. Said makes an interesting point to this, saying, “Conrad’s realization is that if, like narrative, imperialism has monopolized the entire system of representation – which in the case of Heart of Darkness allowed it to speak for Africans as well as for Kurtz and the other adventurers, including Marlow and his audience – your self-consciousness as an outsider can allow you actively to comprehend how the machine works, given that you and it are fundamentally not in perfect synchrony or correspondence” (25).  So we as readers understand the workings of imperialism through the imperialism of the novel. The point is no longer to understand the identity or thoughts of the characters, author or narrator, but to instead focus on how imperialism works. Then my question is, does the ending of Heart of Darkness with the sudden mixture of time [Marlow saying, “ ‘I saw her and him in the same instant of time—his death and her sorrow’” (69)] change anything for our understanding of Conrad’s narrative? Does a “world being made and unmade more or less all the time” influence our understanding of imperialism in the novel?

The Survival of Capitalism and the “Heart of Darkness”

25 Jan

Conrad’s depiction of Africa as a place where “the earth seemed unearthly” (32), where the “stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace” (30), and where “the steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy” (32) portrays traditional African societies as unnatural – a place of constant motion and restlessness.  With motion come shadows and darkness that threaten to infect the “pure” European “civilization”, with what Chinua Achebe describes as the remembrance of its “forgotten darkness.”  In contrast, Europe’s social and economic order relies on consistence and control – an order that Conrad describes through Marlow as “‘accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster,’” whether it be the earth itself or non-European societies.  European capitalism cannot exist without clearly defined ownership rights; a land that is simultaneously still, but not at peace, and frenzied cannot sustain this European system.

Kurtz tried to retain his European “light” of industry, civilization, and culture in the “heart of darkness”, but proved unable to sustain it without a solid base to build upon.  However, even though Kurtz’s civilizing mission succumbed to the “forgotten darkness,” the capitalist system that he introduced into the center of Africa survives, even though it is in a weakened form.  Despite Kurtz’s illness, he continued sending “in as much ivory as all the others put together” (16).  The “ivory” in this case represents both the economic motive of capitalism to exploit all the resources it can from the “conquered monster,” and acts as a symbol for the extraction of all light from Africa.  Towards the end of Marlow’s tale, company officials describe how Kurtz’s unconventional practices had set the company back, but had not completely ruined it.  Capitalism, like the “primeval forests” of Africa, is able to adapt to and overcome all the challenges it encounters because of its conflicting properties of creative destruction, where “innovation” can only occur with the destruction “inefficiencies.”

Ambiguous Darkness

25 Jan

“Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray – a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate. Consequently Africa is something to be avoided just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man’s jeopardous integrity. Keep away from Africa, or else!” (Achebe 7)


Although I agree more with Brantlinger’s view of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I found Achebe’s argument to give some interesting points. Especially his comparison of Dorian Gray to what he believes Conrad’s Africa to be. You’ve probably all read Dorian Gray, or at least know the basic story line. If Africa is like the picture, slowly decaying while Europe strengthens, then Conrad’s message in his novel would definitely be “keep away from Africa” because that is the hiding place to Europe’s own shortcomings (if I’m understanding this correctly). But then Europe can only improve if Africa deteriorates. Is that really the message Conrad is giving? I believe Conrad to be much more ambiguous in his message to his readers; he is not telling us what to believe or how to view Europe or Africa. We take what he gives us and make our own evaluations. As Brantlinger states, “At what point is it safe to assume that Conrad/Marlow expresses a single point of view? And even supposing Marlow to speak directly for Conrad, does Conrad/Marlow agree with the values expressed by primary narrator?” (Epilogue 2). Achebe seems to think Conrad’s novella is straight forward – black and white. However, not only does the distancing narration make this idea problematic, but also the characterization of Kurtz complicates this; he lives in the middle of black and white, quite literally in fact. Brantlinger discusses Kurtz as divided between two desires: to change/correct the ‘savages’ or identify with them. He states, “Kurtz is a product of this painful division. Yet not even Marlow sees Kurtz’s going native as a step toward the recovery of a lost paradise; it is instead a fall into hell, into the darkness of self-disintegration.” Kurtz has lost himself in this split. He has both a life with a ‘savage’ woman and a life with a European woman. If the ‘idea’ of colonialism (that Conrad discusses on page 4) is development and progress of (possibly) both Europe and Africa, then can Kurtz be seen as the embodiment of this idea? Does Kurtz’ death symbolize the death of progress in colonialism or at least the death of the redeemable quality of this idea? Even if this might not be the case, I think it’s safe to say that Brantlinger is correct is saying, “Ambiguity, perhaps the main form of darkness in the story, prevails.”

Out of Place

25 Jan

On page 50 of Heart of Darkness, Marlowe describes Kurtz’s blond, blue-eye Russian devotee quite positively—perhaps the most positively of any character in the book.  Marlowe says, “I was seduced into something like admiration–like envy…He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push through…If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this bepatched youth.”  The Russian seems to exist in a state of arrested development in which the realities of the world and of Kurtz’s “horror” have not touched him.  Unlike the “pilgrims,” the El Dorado Exploring Expedition, and Kurtz himself, the Russian appears to have no ulterior motive.

In some ways, the Russian seems to be more along the lines of a character in the adventure novels about Africa that Brantlinger mentions on page 189 of “The Mythology of the ‘Dark Continent.’”  The Russian believes in the imperial rhetoric Kurtz spouts, and, as Brantlinger points out, in the Protestant work ethic as presented in his precious book.  Even after witnessing all that Kurtz has done, he “remains calm” in the wilderness, at least relatively, even saying that Kurtz has “enlarged [his] mind” through their conversations (50).  Of all the characters in the novel, he doesn’t seem to belong—although he seems most at home with the local people and his surroundings, even telling Marlowe that he has friends among the “simple savages,” with whom he can stay.  Why did Conrad include this peculiar character?  Might he have written this character as an ironic poke at characters in adventure novels about Africa for boys?  Brantlinger does mention, on page 189, that Heart of Darkness fits ironically into the pattern of these adventure novels.  If this is too much of a stretch, what else might the Russian represent?