Landing : Athabascau University

Conrad and the Critics: Responses to Heart of Darkness (II)

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By Lisa Goddard July 17, 2012 - 4:42pm

Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan (Philosophy, Metaphysics) – This essay explores the religious overtones of Marlow’s quest in Heart of Darkness. The author argues that Marlow has embarked on a pilgrimage of sorts, the aim of which is to get at “the truth of things”. We might guess from this rather vague and romantic notion that the revelation is not to come, and Marlow entertains the same doubt even as he embarks on his journey. A skeptical pilgrim, Marlow embodies contradiction. Like Brooks (who argues that we can’t understand until we get to the end, but there is no end) and Miller (who argues that Conrad lifts a series of veils, only to reveal another veil), Erdinast-Vulcan focuses on the author’s deliberate withholding of epiphany. Marlow has the spiritual drive of a pilgrim, but his objective seems lost in the mist, and “the reader who expects this mistiness to clear…is faced with a thickening fog” (418).  Conrad uses vague language to obscure the purpose of the quest, and to deny the reader any final illumination. As Kurtz is hollow at the centre, so is Marlow’s pilgrimage devoid of a concrete objective. Kurtz is “an atrocious phantom”, imperialism sits on a foundation of lies, and Marlow renounces his quest for an authoritative external voice by becoming the speaker.

Edward Said (Colonialism)– Said argues that despite best intentions neither Conrad nor Marlow could have presented a world view that was completely outside imperialism, because being “inside” these “world-conquering attitudes” (424) makes it impossible to imagine what might be on the outside. Marlow’s complex, unorthodox style of storytelling reflects his own discomfort with the imperial narrative. The story of imperialism told in Europe does not match his lived experience in Africa. Europeans are not illuminating the darkness, on the contrary it threatens to engulf them. The alternative vision that Marlow paints is that Africa has the power to reduce Europeans to savagery. Although Conrad is enough of an outsider to recognize the flaws in colonialism, he is not enough of an outsider to imagine an alternative where the natives reclaim autonomy over their lives, and establish a moral and political authority equal to that of Europe. Furthermore Said suggests that modern day critics of imperialism are blind to ways in which patriotism, chauvinism, ethnic, religious and racial hatred continue to play out in very similar patterns across the world today. Conflicts based on these prejudices seem to us as inevitable as imperialism did to late 19C Britons, and it is just as impossible for us to imagine resolutions that are outside our own systems of representation.

Paul Armstrong (Race) – Armstrong begins by setting Achebe’s accusation of Conrad’s racism against Clifford’s praise of Conrad as an exemplary anthropologist. Clifford sees Conrad’s ability to contain more than one competing truth within his text as an ideal trait for those who have to represent other cultures. Armstrong suggests that the lack of reciprocity and dialogue between Europeans and Africans in Heart of Darkness is a means of dramatizing the impossibility of writing “the Other”.  He suggests that Conrad is reaching out for an understanding of the other while simultaneously constrained by a sense of “cultural solipsism”, the idea that cultural experiences are neither shared nor universal. In the novel Marlow has extremely little conversation with the Africans. He doesn’t even seem to fully acknowledge that they have a language, and refers to the sounds they make as howls, shrieks, and “savage discords” (39).  Armstrong contends that Conrad is making a point about the paucity of channels through which understanding might be passed back and forth between African and European, but I think that this is a generous reading. I am not convinced that Conrad was particularly concerned about bridging communication with the other. We hardly see any European making an attempt to speak with an African in the book, even though we know that the Africans have some command of English. Their language skills are only used to communicate the fact that they’d like to eat their fallen comrade. The only European who makes serious contact with African culture is Kurtz, and he is utterly destroyed by it. If anything I think that Conrad is arguing for separate spheres – Africans in their “natural” place and Europeans in theirs.

Anthony Fothergill (Colonialism, Racism) – Fothergill is yet another scholar who points to an inherent tension in Conrad’s work. He contends that representation in Heart of Darkness is “both the culmination of a profoundly entrenched European literary/political way of seeing the non-European Other and a radical critique of it.” (445) Fothergill points out (in the deconstructionist fashion) that binary terms like European/African and Civilised/Primitive have an implicit hierarchy of value. Fothergill also borrows from the New Historicist school as he includes a lot of contextual information about the 19thC view of African and Africans. This included lingering Romantic notions of the exotic “noble savage”, overlayed with Darwin’s “scientific evidence” that presented Africans as the “contemporary ancestor” of the white man. Fothergill identifies a shift from the 1850’s wherein explorers were primarily missionaries with an objective to convert people from heathen beliefs, to the turn of the century when Africans were seen as a cheap labour source for the empire. Conrad’s critique of colonial brutality is complicated by his internalized cultural assumptions about the primitive.

Andrew Roberts (Gender Studies, Queer Theory) – Roberts explores the representation of femininity and masculinity in Heart of Darkness. He posits that women occupy three types of roles in the book: the ignorant, the known, and the unknowable. Africans are also ascribed these “feminine” characteristics, in order to maintain the proper hierarchy in the binary with white men on top. The role of knowing subject is reserved exclusively for white male characters, like Kurtz, Marlow, and the businessmen on the boat. Conrad is complicit in a gender construction that posits women and Africans as the Other of white male knowledge. Marlow’s inexplicable obsession with Kurtz is a homoerotic impulse that is eventually channeled into more socially acceptable expression, as when Marlow waxes eloquent on the beauty of Kurtz’s intended. Roberts contends that adding this female mediator is a classic attempt to heteronormatize male desire. Kurtz finally falls from his pedestal, and is subsequently reviled by Marlow, as a disappointed lover might repudiate the former object of his affections. Roberts implies that Kurtz’s “unspeakable lusts” and “transgressions” may have a distinctly sexual implication that contributes to Marlow’s shock and discomfort. These reflect Marlow’s fear of the part of himself that has been so deeply drawn to Kurtz.

J. Hillis Miller – Miller writes in response to the many critics who view Heart of Darkness as a sexist, racist, imperialist tome. He poses a question as to whether Conrad should retain his place in the canon of English literature, or “Should we read Heart of Darkness?”.  This question is problematic, as it can’t be answered until one has read the book, at which point it is already too late. Miller demonstrates that the text meets the characteristics of “literature” as seen in its narrative structure, use of rhetorical devices, radical irony, and use of personification. Miller suggests that literature is inherently complex, so we cannot take literally every word that is uttered, nor can we necessarily ascribe the beliefs of the characters to Conrad himself. The framing narrator has warned us that Marlow’s tales “have a different way of making meaning” (470). Armstrong suggests that Conrad deliberately keeps his meaning veiled, and that the reader is required to make his or her own conclusions about the message. In this sense Heart of Darkness helps to prepare us to decipher coded messages in our contemporary media environment, and in this way serves the objective of the humanities to make us critical thinkers and engaged and thoughtful citizens.

Miller elides the question of canon when he suggests that everyone should read Conrad for himself or herself in order to pass judgment. This is true of any book of course, and it does not follow that Conrad deserves to be widely read in the context of formal education (as we have done in this class).  

Lisa Schneider – (Feminism, Psychoanalysis) Schneider uses Kurtz’s oil painting of a blindfolded woman carrying a torch to elucidate gender representation in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  She argues that the choice of a female figure is not arbitrary, but rather that it was common in the 19thC for the female body to serve as “an abstract dummy for Western society’s most outstanding ideals”. (479) Women are fetishized in order to meet male status needs, to provide psychological reassurance, and to act as an Other against which men can define themselves. Women are typically either idealized as pure and virtuous (the torch) or vilified as ignorant and morally suspect (the blindfold).  The oil painting presents a strange mixture of these two tropes, and further underlines the contradictions that are encoded in Conrad’s work. If female icons are both revered and untouchable, then how to coexist with real women who are flawed and tangible and are quite possibly not there just to meet your needs? It’s not clear that confirmed bachelor Marlow has successfully negotiated this conundrum.