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Colonialism Heart Of Darkness And Chinua Achebes English Literature Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness is considered to be a great work of art not only because it painfully portrays how brutally and unjustly the natives are treated in the African wilderness, but also because its treatment of colonialism is considered a cornerstone in the history of western fiction.

Colonialism refers to the enterprise by which a nation extends its authority over other territories; it is characterized by an unequal relationship between the colonists and the natives of a country. Colonists usually think that they are doing the country good by bringing civilization and enlightenment; however the result is atrocity and death. This is clearly portrayed in Heart of Darkness. One of the characters who exercises colonialism is Kurtz whose main purpose is extracting ivory from the land in whatever way he can. He is treated as a supernatural authority by the Africans who always seem to obey and listen to him carefully. Marlow indicates the Africans’ obedience to Kurtz when he tells us, “He was not afraid of the natives; they would not stir till Mr. Kurtz gave the word. His ascendancy was extraordinary. The camps of these people surrounded the place, and the chiefs came every day to see him. They would crawl.” (p. 131) Kurtz believes that everything in the wilderness belongs to him, as Marlow hears him say, “My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my…” (p. 116) Moreover, he thinks that there is nothing wrong with what he’s doing; on the contrary, Kurtz believes that he’s doing the right thing. His civilization mission and his philosophy regarding the natives are expressed in his report of which Marlow tells: “But it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings–we approach them with the might as of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ etc., etc.” (p. 118) Although Marlow is not a native, he finds himself obliged to be treated like one. In other words, he finds himself reacting in the very same way as the natives themselves to Kurtz’s authority. “I did not betray Mr. Kurtz – it was ordered I should never betray him – it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.” (p. 141) It is interesting that Marlow refers to Kurtz as ‘the nightmare’; it seems as if he is hypnotized by him and has no choice but to do as he is told. Moreover, the phrase, ‘it was ordered’ adds to the ambiguity of what Marlow is trying to say. He could have said, ‘I was ordered’ but he does not.

It is worth mentioning here that Heart of Darkness is a novel that is partially biographical. Conrad was obliged to seek employment with a Belgian company in Africa due to difficult labor conditions in 1889. Although he stayed for a short while in Africa, it was an experience that shattered his health and changed his world-view, while the moral degradation he witnessed in the Congo’s economic exploitation disgusted him. A decade after this, he wrote Heart of Darkness, which is about his experience in Africa. What is really ironic is that in the book Joseph Conrad in Context, it is mentioned more than once that Conrad never got over his experience in Africa, as if other people in his place would not feel the same thing! So basically, Marlow seems to echo Conrad’s own opinions in his novel.

Colonists are driven to exploit ivory at an insatiable rate without even bothering to think about the devastating effects on the natives. This is very clearly shown in the following quote: Marlow refers to the ivory merchants as a “devoted band” calling themselves “the Eldorado Exploring Expedition.” He says “they were sworn to secrecy.” They spoke the language of “sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.” (p. 87) In brief, what these colonizers were doing was purposeless, which in turn means that the consequences which were brought about as a result of their actions were also useless.

Furthermore, the colonists had a quasi divine authority to do as they pleased in the colonies; this is portrayed by the conversation between the uncle and the nephew, which was overheard by Marlow, “‘Certainly,’ grunted the other; ‘get him hanged! Why not? Anything–anything can be done in this country. That’s what I say; nobody here, you understand, here, can endanger your position. And why? You stand the climate–you outlast them all.'” (p. 91) Here, they are talking about hanging Kurtz’s assistant and probably Kurtz himself, so that they can get Kurtz’s possessions, including his ivory.

Colonialism is also explored in other parts of the novella, where the reader can see just how mercilessly and brutally the natives are treated by the colonizers. When Marlow is on a steamer with a Swedish captain, he describes how the natives, whom he sees on his way to the station, are being exploited and treated as mere beasts. All the natives are represented as being naked and horribly thin; they are never referred to as humans. They are forced to work under hard conditions, are given no clothes, and are left to starve: “A continuous noise of the rapids above hovered over this scene of inhabited devastation. A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants. A jetty projected into the river. A blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare.” (p. 63) When Marlow finally arrives at the station, he sees yet another traumatizing scene,

“A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking… but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying a rifle by its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one button off.” (p. 64)

When reading this passage, one cannot help but wonder, how could these poor natives possibly be criminals? They do every single thing they are told to do, without the least bit of complaining and yet, they are called criminals. The words ‘tails,’ ‘collar,’ ‘breasts panted,’ and ‘dilated nostrils’ immediately bring to the mind the image of dogs. And of course, we should not forget the colonizer, who is right behind them with a rifle, making sure that these men walk ‘in a file,’ ‘without glancing’ at Marlow, and only ‘staring stonily uphill.’ So not only are they compared to animals, but they are also expected to work like machines!

This is the main reason why Achebe does not accept Heart of Darkness, it is because he does not like the way African people are portrayed in it. Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian poet and novelist, was attracted to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a child. However, in the 1970s, he changed his mind about it and until today, he continues to dismiss the novel. In his essay on Conrad’s novel, Achebe attempts to explain why. He says that what Conrad is terribly worried about is the idea of kinship between him and the blacks, which is why he dehumanizes them. Contrasting with this is Edward Said’s opinion that Conrad is exaggerating the imperialistic and the dehumanizing discrepancies so that we, as readers, are outraged at its injustice and therefore work out “solutions” for ourselves. In other words, Heart of Darkness is, according to Said, a self-referential novel. But still, Achebe has a strong point in saying that Conrad has dehumanized the Africans because Conrad seems to be obsessed with the words ‘black’ and ‘darkness’ since he associates them with the Africans and uses these words numerous times throughout his novel.

Convincingly Achebe believes that the most revealing passages in the novel are about people. He says that the following quote contains the meaning of Heart of Darkness, “… but what thrilled you was just the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough …” If only the thought was thrilling, then what would knowing do to us?! It is this ‘remote kinship’ that seems to terrorize Conrad and is implied throughout the novel several times.

However, his passages about the natives or savages, as Conrad refers to them, seem a mere description of what they are and what they are going to do. His personal sentiments are never revealed. But the vocabulary he chooses and the way he describes the Africans force the reader to sympathize with them. However, there are parts in the novel where we can infer that Conrad, although not showing sympathy towards the savages, cannot bear looking at them. For example, when he sees the six men tied to each other with chains around their necks, he says, “My idea was to let that chain-gang get out of sight before I climbed the hill.” And in another incident, he says, “The hurt nigger moaned feebly somewhere nearby, and then fetched a deep sigh that made me mend my pace away from there.” Clearly, he was not strong enough to neither hear nor see these savages being treated mercilessly.

When Marlow arrives at the Central Station, he witnesses more of these atrocities towards the ‘niggers.’ The manager of the station is apparently an uncivilized person who is there only because he hasn’t been ill, as Marlow tells us, “He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. That was evident in such things as the deplorable state of the station. He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him–why? Perhaps because he was never ill . . . He had served three terms of three years out there…He was neither civil nor uncivil. He was quiet. He allowed his ‘boy’–an overfed young negro from the coast–to treat the white men, under his very eyes, with provoking insolence.” (p. 74)

One of Conrad’s greatest fears that is implied in the novel is the possibility of the whites having ‘distant kinship’ with the blacks, and this is mentioned by Achebe. This explains why Marlow wasn’t able to forget his African helmsman’s look on his face just before he died, “And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory – like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.” Conrad’s careful word choice of ‘distant kinship’ rather than ‘brother,’ for example, is cautiously observed by Achebe. He understands that Conrad is trying, as much as possible, to create layers between himself and the natives. Also, the words ‘remains to this day in my memory,’ are understood by Achebe as a negative connotation, as if this ‘memory’ continues to torture him to this very day. Achebe concludes from this that Conrad is a racist.

Moreover, Achebe states that Conrad has dehumanized Africans. But I do not agree with him on this point. My evidence to this can be seen in this quote, when Marlow who can be considered Conrad’s mouthpiece at this instance says, “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.” We can infer from this quote that Conrad was actually against the idea of Africans being treated the way they were. Also, according to Edward Said, Conrad, being a creature of his time, ‘could not grant the natives their freedom, despite his severe critique of the imperialism that enslaved them.’ In other words, Conrad was against this imperialism and he criticized it as well, but the era that he lived in made it impossible for him to do anything about it. In my opinion, it might be that Conrad never meant to dehumanize the Africans; it might be that the experience he was going through during his stay in Africa was so overwhelming to him that he could not or was not able to reveal his sympathy. Maybe he did not want to reveal anything at all in order to emphasize it being a part of its “darkness.” After all, it is Conrad himself who chose to write his novel in an ambiguous and subtle way which leaves the reader with puzzled thoughts about what exactly Conrad is trying to say. Almost everything in Heart of Darkness seems; everything is not is.

In conclusion, as we can see, examples of colonial acts are displayed throughout Heart of Darkness. Colonists take over the wilderness and practice exploitation only to acquire ivory. But at the same, the colonists’ actions are purposeless, such as when they order the natives to aimlessly blast the railway when there is actually nothing to blast. This brings about the failure of their exploitation and civilizing mission.

Works cited:

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1967

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261

Said, Edward. “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness” Culture and Imperialism, (1993) pp. 22-31

Feminism in To the Lighthouse

Mrs. Ramsay vs. Lily Briscoe

During Virginia Woolf’s time, women were deprived of numerous rights which men had access to, including education. Women were only expected to get married, give birth to children, raise them, and take care of the household. However, towards the end of the 19th century, a series of feminist movements began, whose concern was to give equality to women in terms of education, employment, and marriage laws. These movements are known as the three waves of feminism. The First Wave occurred in the late 19th century and ended in the early 20th century, during Woolf’s time; its primary gains were to acquire the right to vote and the right to practice birth control. Virginia Woolf, among other female writers, had to fight for her rights as a woman. In the novel, To the Lighthouse, Woolf presents two female characters, Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, as complete opposites. Mrs. Ramsay is depicted as a subservient Victorian woman, whose main mission is not only to take care of her family, but also of others around her. This was very typical of Victorian women, who basically spent their time at home, making sure that everything was tidy and fine. However, Lily Briscoe on the other hand, is the total opposite of Mrs. Ramsay. The fact that she achieves her vision and completes her picture at the end of the novel is because she has asserted her rights as an independent individual and has rejected Victorian morality.

Throughout the novel, it is clearly understood that Mrs. Ramsay is an uneducated woman. Her lack of education is presented in several quotes: “What did it all mean? To this day she had no notion. A square root? What was that? Her sons knew.” (p. 123) Woolf’s deliberate use of ‘sons’ instead of ‘sons and daughters’ or ‘children’ is to show that Mrs. Ramsay’s daughters, just like Mrs. Ramsay herself, are uneducated. “Her husband spoke. He was repeating something, and she knew it was poetry from the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy in his voice.” (p. 129) This again shows her lack of education, for she recognizes that her husband is speaking poetry because of the rhythm and tone, not because she knows the poet Charles Elton. Even while reading a book, she has no notion of what she is reading, for she feels that she is “climbing backwards, upwards, shoving her way up under petals that curved over her, so that she only knew that this is white, or this is red. She did not know at first what the words meant at all.” (p. 139) Also, when Charles Tansley talks to her about his dissertation, she is not able to “quite catch the meaning, only the words, here and there… dissertation… fellowship… readership… lectureship. She could not follow the ugly academic jargon.” (p. 13) Although this may seem exaggerated, it was very true of the condition of women during that time. Women being uneducated was a privilege to men for this gave them superiority and complete control over women. While looking at his wife reading, Mr. Ramsay “wondered what she was reading and exaggerated her ignorance, her simplicity, for he liked to think that she was not clever, not book-learned at all. He wondered if she understood what she was reading. Probably not, he thought. She was astonishingly beautiful.” (p. 141) Not only does he seem to enjoy that his wife is uneducated, but he also mocks at her for not being able to understand what she is reading. The only thing that he praises about her is her beauty.

In his critical essay, John Hardy presents the metaphor of Mrs. Ramsay as a queen. He claims that she is constantly queen like during dinner; while sitting at the head of the table, she carefully observes, one by one, each and every person sitting round the table. Hardy furthermore says that Mrs. Ramsay is enabled to triumph over her husband, because during dinner and even afterwards when dinner is over, she is able to “read his mind.” These two qualities, again, elevate the female, i.e. Mrs. Ramsay, over the male, i.e. Mr. Ramsay.

However, although being uneducated, Mrs. Ramsay seems to have supernatural powers, such as having premonitions and casting spells. “They must come now, Mrs. Ramsay thought, looking at the door, and at that instant, Minta Doyle, Paul Rayley, and a maid carrying a great dish in her hands came in together.” (p. 114) “Always she got her own way in the end, Lily thought… She put a spell on them all, by wishing, so simply, so directly.” (p. 118) These are powers that none of the male characters in the novel have; in fact they do not even seem to understand such things. Woolf, by giving Mrs. Ramsay such powers, has elevated the female figure to a higher status. “Will you not tell me just for once that you love me?… But she could not do it; she could not say it… For she had triumphed again.” (p. 144) Mrs. Ramsay, by not saying the thing that her husband very desperately wants her to say, has triumphed over him. According to John Hardy, in this scene, what may seem to us as Mrs. Ramsay’s surrendering to her husband is in fact the inverse. By admitting that he was right and that they would not be able to go to the lighthouse, she has surrendered to her husband. But because, while doing so, she has lost her self, i.e. her personality as a Victorian woman, the surrender becomes a triumph. In other words, her being able to say that she was wrong places her, Hardy says, “on another and higher plane” which is undoubtedly right. Hardy, furthermore, views Lily’s final painting of Mrs. Ramsay as an admiration of her, in triumph over her husband.

Even more important than her powers and intuitions is the fact that she not only takes care of her family, but also of others around her, as we learn that she knits a stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s ill boy. (p. 5) It is Mrs. Ramsay who prepares dinner for her entire family as well as the guests and tries her best, during dinner, to make sure everything goes fine. This again is another characteristic of a typical Victorian woman. After all, “it was not knowledge but unity that she desired.” (p. 59)

Interestingly, Hardy argues it is Mrs. Ramsay who holds everything together and hence is the central figure of the novel. After all, it is only after Mrs. Ramsay’s death that the characters feel “an unbearable silence with undertones of panic.” Since Mrs. Ramsay is gone, her power has also gone. Moreover, we are left with the thought that if it wasn’t for her, there never would have been a trip to the lighthouse. And Lily too, is able to complete her painting only after Mrs. Ramsay’s death. Berenice A. Carroll, however, in her essay, “To Crush him in our own Country,” has opposed this view. According to her, it is Lily who is the heroine of the novel. But the fact that she is persistently associated with being “little” and “insignificant” and also that “she paints as she sees, not as the dominant artist of the time” makes her anti-heroine.

By creating the character of Lily Briscoe, Woolf presents the absolute opposite of Mrs. Ramsay. Although faced by many obstacles, namely Charles Tansley, who tells her “women can’t paint, women can’t write” (p. 56) and whose voice seems to haunt her for the rest of her life, Lily Briscoe overcomes them and succeeds in asserting her rights and achieving her vision. It is this exact thing that has shocked many readers in the Modernist Era – a woman breaking away from Victorian beliefs and customs. Every time Lily hears Charles’ words “women can’t paint, women can’t write” (pp. 100, 106, 183, 184, 228) in her head, she is greatly disturbed and struggles, yet does not give up. Aside from saying that women can neither paint nor write, Charles also believes that “It was the women’s fault. Women mad civilization impossible with all their ‘charm,’ all their silliness.” (p. 99) Women, according to him, are charming and silly, nothing more.

Yet, what is ironic is that while everybody is having dinner together, it is Lily who comes to Charles’ rescue after he goes through great pains in order to state his opinions. “Lily Briscoe knew all that. Sitting opposite him could she not see, as in an X-ray photograph, the ribs and thigh bones of the young man’s desire to impress himself lying dark in the mist of his flesh – that thin mist which convention had laid over his burning desire to break into the conversation? But she thought, screwing up her Chinese eyes, and remembering how he sneered at women, ‘can’t paint, can’t write,’ why should I help him to relieve himself?” (pp. 105-106) Lily can very clearly see that Charles is suffering for not being able to join the conversation, yet she does not help and enjoys watching, rather she sits there “smiling.” “Of course for the hundred and fiftieth time Lily Briscoe had to renounce the experiment – what happens if one is not nice to that young man there – and be nice.” (p. 107) It is only after Mrs. Ramsay’s request that Lily finally helps Charles and he is “relieved.” Again, it is women who seem more powerful than men and come to the rescue.

Mrs. Ramsay also functions as a match maker in the novel. In fact, this is the only thing she seems to be thinking of most of the time. “She was driven on, too quickly she knew, almost as if it were an escape for her too, to say that people must marry; people must have children.” (p. 70) Mrs. Ramsay’s belief that people must get married actually seems to come out of her spontaneously. The word ‘driven’ shows that she cannot help but think this way. Of Paul and Minta, Mrs. Ramsay keeps insisting that they must marry. (p. 57) In fact, Paul is driven to propose to Minta because of Mrs. Ramsay’s ceaseless insistence. (p. 136) This shows that Mrs. Ramsay is only concerned with making the match, but completely indifferent of its outcomes, as what happens to Paul and Minta. This is exactly why Hardy argues that Mrs. Ramsay is a “colossal egotist” – the fact that she matches up couples and arranges walks for them by the beach but at the same time is irresponsible of their outcomes does in truth show her as egotistical.

“Ah, but was not that Lily Briscoe strolling along with William Bankes? Yes, indeed it was. Did that not mean that they would marry? Yes, it must! What an admirable idea! They must marry!” (p. 83) Another clear instance where we see Mrs. Ramsay being obsessed with matching up people for them to get married. However, Lily is the only woman in the novel to assert her independence as an individual. By doing this, she becomes Mrs. Ramsay’s foil. Lily, in fact looks at marriage, as “degradation” and “dilution.” “She need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution.” (p. 119) In his essay, Hardy points out that Lily goes as far as to describe Mrs. Ramsay’s matchmaking mission as “mania of hers for marriage.” After ten years, when Lily does in fact not get married, she feels she has “triumphed over Mrs. Ramsay.” (p. 202) “I must move the tree to the middle; that matters – nothing else.” (p. 100) For Lily, her art is more important to her than anything else, including marriage. Even while having dinner, while everybody is engaged in conversation, all Lily can think about is how to improve her painting. During Woolf’s time, it was very difficult for women to get educated and even if they were educated secretly, it was difficult for them to publish their writing. Therefore, they had to hide their work and Woolf shows this in her novel through the character of Lily. “She kept a feeler of her surroundings lest someone should creep up, and suddenly she should find her picture looked at.” (p. 20) “and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.” (p. 22) These two parts are where Virginia Woolf has very skillfully portrayed the difficulty women had to go through in order to do what men could without facing any hardships.

Mrs. Ramsay’s daughters, in a sense, resemble Lily, though not completely, in that they too dream of a life, where they do “not always have to take care of some man or other.” (p. 7) However, this is not what Mrs. Ramsay believes. During dinner, she looks at Prue, her eldest daughter who is watching Minta, and says to herself, “You will be as happy as she is one of these days. You will be much happier, she added, because you are my daughter,” (p. 128) referring that she will get married.

Mrs. Ramsay believes that women, only through marriage, will find true happiness. According to her, “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” (p. 58) Ironically, those who do get married in the novel end up in a tragic life. After Paul and Minta’s marriage, not even a year passes and Paul leaves Minta for another woman. As for Prue Ramsay, she dies in childbirth. Even Mrs. Ramsay dies. It is as if these women are taught a lesson for following Victorian conventions.

Lily, on the other hand, does not get married and is rewarded by being able to complete her painting that she had started ten years ago. Hardy points out that Woolf has deliberately chosen to end her novel with Lily and her painting, nothing else. We never get to know about the work of Augustus Carmichael, the only other artist in the novel. This again, is done intentionally by Woolf, her purpose was to reinforce Lily’s, and in turn the female’s work over that of the male.

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