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There are a lot of ways of interpreting and readings of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but there is one I particularly find the most interesting of all that is the cultural perspective of the book criticising the social, and the economical system of a society living in the heart of the darkness.
To tell the truth, it is really difficult to understand the whole story for the very first reading of it, because it is full with few notions, which make the understanding a bit more difficult, and that give the hidden message of the novel. When the first instalment of the book was published in Blackwood’s Magazine (February, 1988), the author sent a mail to one of his friends called R. B. Cunninghame Graham, who anyway liked the story, saying: “There are to more instalments in which the idea is so wrapped up in secondary notions that you – even you – miss it. And also you must remember that I don’t start with an abstract notion. I start with definite images and as their rendering is true some little effect is produced.” However, we should make an effort to read it more than once, and we will surely find interesting themes and notions including the culturally critical interpretation of the book.
In order to observe the cultural perspective of the book it is necessary to get acquainted with cultural criticism and if we are talking about cultural criticism, we apparently need to know how culture is represented in this way of critical interpretation. Culture is rather like an iceberg. The part, which can be seen on the surface, is the smaller part of it, because the bigger one is hidden under the water. This is the same case with culture. The smaller part of it is always on the spot, but we rarely think of the hidden part of it. This may easily lead us to a faulty consideration about the culture. “Most people hear ‘culture’ and think of ‘high culture’. Consequently, when they first hear of cultural criticism, most people assume it is more formal than, well, say, formalism. They suspect it is ‘highbrow’, in both subject and style.” – writes Ross C. Murfin.
Raymond Williams, who is an early British cultural critic, considers art and culture something ordinary. He did not want to ‘pull art down’, but rather to point out that there is “creativity in all our living”. He may think that it is part of our everyday life and we do not need to judge or classify the parts of culture to get the core of it. What does it mean if we take literature, or art, into consideration? How literature is being critically approached?
“Rather than approaching literature in the elitist way that academic literary critics have traditionally approached it, cultural critics view it more as an anthropologist would. They ask how it emerges from and competes with other forms of discourse within a given culture. They seek to understand the social contexts in which a given text was written, and under what conditions it was – and is – produced, disseminated, read, and used.” (Murfin, 1996, p. 259.)
Cultural critics want to get the reader away from thinking about certain works as the best ones produced by a given culture. They seek to be more descriptive and less evaluative, more interested in relating than in rating cultural products and events. Their aim is also to discover the (often political) reasons why a certain kind of aesthetic or cultural product is more valued than others. Murfin says additionally: “Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984 ) and Dick Hebdige in Hiding the Light: On Images and Things (1988) have argued that definitions of ‘good taste’ – which are instrumental in fostering and reinforcing cultural discrimination – tell us at least as much about prevailing social, economic, and political conditions as they do about artistic quality and value. That is why we can say that cultural critics examine a given piece of literature from different point of view, in a more complex and comprehensive way concerning its own – cultural – aspects.
However, it can be a disadvantage too, because culture is so wide topic that critics need to focus on certain parts of it to gain a specific interpretation. Patrick Brantlinger does so in his essay. He tries to identify different topics and phenomena in Heart of Darkness such as anti-imperialism, impressionism, and racism, as well, and begins his essay by alluding to a famous and controversial claim – made by Chinua Achebe, who is an African novelist – that Joseph Conrad was a racist and that Heart of Darkness is a racist work. It happened in 1975 in a lecture at the University of Massachusetts. “It projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where every man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality” – said he.
In my opinion, this statement is not so relevant in this particular piece of literature or in literature in general. Literary works of art generally are aimed to influence their readers so the content, the characters and the plot can be considered to be simply tools serving a successful delivery of the message from the author towards the receiver. In this sense books should not be blamed for racism, discrimination and for other social differentiation. For instance, a novel with homosexual protagonist who is suffering from discrimination can’t be regarded as a discriminative writing, since its aim could be totally different and it is almost impossible to determine the intention of a book, because that is a completely subjective matter being different in every individual’s own interpretation. In connection with Heart of Darkness, the Africans are showed as a discriminated ‘race’, but this fact is hardly enough to call the novel racist. The differentiation against the black in the story could be a tool to indicate a critical approach to the discrimination against the inhabitants, and the relevant economic, or social system.
In order to understand what does this book criticise we need to examine the context of the story and the author. According to Murfin, the book is not only about the things what Conrad saw and noted in his diary during his journey, “but also the revelations of atrocities that began appearing in the British press as early as 1888 and that reached a climax twenty years later, when in 1908 the mounting scandal forced the Belgian government to take control of Leopold’s private domain.” He also claims that Conrad was sympathising to a reform movement called Congo Reform Association, established in 1903. Apart from the fact that we are not able to identify the intention of the author concerning his book merely from biographical facts we see that Conrad set a critique against the state of the African country. He said: “It is an extraordinary thing that the conscience of Europe which seventy years ago … put down the slave trade on humanitarian grounds tolerates the Congo state today” (Morel, Rule 351-52). This quotation was also represented in Patrick Brantlinger’s essay on the cultural perspective of Heart of Darkness showing that Conrad was actually critical to his own ‘culture’, that represented a highly questionable attitude to the African countries. The leader of the Congo Reform Association, Edmund Morel called Heart of Darkness the most powerful thing ever written on the subject.
As we can see Heart of Darkness sets critique against the economic and social system of Congo, which is considered to be forced by the imperialist states of the world. The criticism is working on personal (the case of Kurtz, pilgrims…) and on a more global level in the book. Heart of Darkness presents, furthermore, a bridge between Victorian values and the ideals of modernism. Like their Victorian predecessors, this novel relies on traditional ideas of heroism, which are nevertheless under constant attack in a changing world and in places far from England. While the book offers a powerful condemnation of the hypocritical operations of imperialism, it also presents a set of issues surrounding race that is ultimately more troubling.
Murfin, R., Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness. (Ed.). 1996. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston.
Brantlinger, P., Heart of Darkness: Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?
Cox, C. B., Conrad: Heart of Darkness, Nostromo and Under Western Eyes. (Ed.). 1981. The Macmillan Press LTD: London.
Dean, F. L., Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (Ed.). 1960. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: USA.
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