Heart of Darkness
Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of ”meanings,” Susan Sontag. It is a persons interpretation of any form of literary work that defines itself, what the author intends a reader to discover may be completely different from what the reader interprets. In the novel, The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, a reader can understand and identify the thematic aspects of the novel by studying the literary criticism theories of historicism, psycho-analytic and Marxist.
Historicism is portrayed in the novel through the conquering of the Congo, the racism of the whites and natives and the grove of death. Psychoanalytic theory is present when the doctor meets with Marlow, as Marlow lies throughout the novel and the worries Marlow experiences while searching for Kurtz. Marxist theory is portrayed through the accountant in white’s arrogance, the condition of the chain gang and the shed fire blamed on the native. Historicism is an important literary criticism theory that helps the readers of the novel understand the underlying context of the novel.
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By studying the historical time period in which the novel takes place, readers will better understand the novel. Historical significances are portrayed through the conquering of the Congo, the racism portrayed through the natives versus the white men and the grove of death. The novel is based on the conquering of the Congo for rubber and ivory trade in the late 1800’s. During this time period the Congo was under constant destruction for the abundance of rubber and ivory.
Marlow explains the condition of the Congo, “And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth’” (Pg. 70). By understanding the historical events that occurred during that time period the novel is set in, readers can further understand the full underlying context of the novel and will keep readers appealed. Racism is present and is not frowned upon during this historical time period; the treatment of the natives by the white men is a prime example of the historical cruelty.
Marlow describes the story of Fresleven, “Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, and while a big crowed of his people watched him, thunderstruck, till some man–I was told the chiefs son–in desperation at hearing the old chap yell, made a tentative jab with the spear at the white man” (Pg. 73). By understanding the hardships the natives in the Congo were put through during this prejudice time period, readers can understand the historical setting and relationship in the novel. In the late 1800’s, King Leopold was having his soldiers kill many slaves and this represented the grove of death in the novel.
Marlow explains what the Grove of Death is, “Paths, paths, everywhere; a stamped-in network of paths spreading over the empty land, through the long grass, through burnt grass, through thickets, down and up chilly ravines, up and down stony hills ablaze with heat; and a solitude, a solitude, nobody, not a hut. The population had cleared out a long time ago” (Pg. 85). The representation of the Grove of Death in connection to King Leopold’s genocide in the Congo can further help a reader understand the historical relationships in the novel through further study.
The literary criticism theory of Historicism and the relationships in the novel give readers an understanding of the historical significances that are portrayed in the novel. They study of the psychoanalytic theory can also help readers better understand the underlying context of the novel. Marlow is a very complex character in the novel and by studying his mind and his behaviour as a representation of the author, readers will better understand the novel.
The doctor believes that Marlow is going through changes and by understand what the changes represent for Marlow, readers can identify his relationship to the authors understanding of the novel. Marlow believes he was changing in the way the doctor stated, “He was very anxious for me to kill somebody, but there wasn’t the shadow of a carrier near. I remembered the old doctor — ‘It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot. ‘ I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting. However, all that is to no purpose” (Pg. 6). By understanding Marlow’s mindset and change, readers can benefit from this and grasp a better understanding of what the author wants the readers to understand in the novel. Marlow detests lies, however in the novel, this is contradicted, by understanding why Marlow contradicts himself, readers can identify the moral meaning of why he lies in representation of the author. Marlow describes his hatred for lies, “You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me.
There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies — which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world” (Pg. 96). If a reader can understand why Marlow hates lies but why he ends up contradicting himself in the novel, readers can further identify why the author portrays this behaviour through Marlow. Marlow is concerned about Kurtz’s well being on his journey, by analyzing Marlow’s conspicuous concerns, readers can better understand why Marlow is concerned for someone he has never even met.
Marlow ponders in his thoughts about Kurtz, “I had plenty of time for meditation, and now and then I would give some thought to Kurtz. I wasn’t very interested in him. No. Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all and how he would set about his work when there” (Pg. 102). Marlow’s concerns are questionable due to the fact that he has never even met Kurtz and if the readers understand why Marlow is concerned, they will further their understanding of the novel.
Marlow’s complexity is difficult to understand, however, by studying the literary criticism theory of psychoanalytic, we can identify the relationship between Marlow and the author and the choices he makes throughout the novel. Studying the Marxist theory of literary criticisms can help readers better understand the context of the novel. In the novel, Marxist theory can help readers identify the economic situations throughout the novel. This is portrayed through the accountant in white, the conditions of the chain gang and the fire in the shed.
The economic situation in the novel is portrayed by the white men’s wealth and the native’s slavery. The accountant in white portrays his character as an arrogant human being and he flaunts his arrogance. Marlow describes the accountant in white, “His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser’s dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That’s backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character…’I’ve been teaching one of the native women about the station.
It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work’” (Pg. 83). The accountant in white is arrogant because he is rich and he envies off his power and control. By studying the Marxist theory, readers can further understand the economic differences in the Congo through the whites and natives. The “Chain Gang” is controlled by the “reclaimed one,” this portrays how the economic differences are controlled by whites and enslaving natives is how they control the outer station.
Marlow describes the conditions of the chain gang, “Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path…they were called criminals, and the outraged law…without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages” (Pg. 80). The chain gang is punished for conforming their class and by studying the Marxist theory of literary criticisms; readers can better understand the differences of classes in the novel. The natives are blamed for the fire in the shed because they are of a lower class in the Congo and the white men take control over this class and treat them brutally.
Marlow describes the native being blamed, “A nigger was being beaten near by. They said he had caused the fire in some way; be that as it may, he was screeching most horribly” (Pg. 90). Marxist theory can give the readers the opportunity to understand that they natives are blamed due to their social status in the Congo and that social classes are represented through the natives and the white men. By understanding the Marxist theory, readers will benefit more by understanding the social and economical standpoints and classes that the characters are portrayed through in the novel.
The literary criticism theories give readers the opportunity to understand the novel with further knowledge. The literary criticism theories of Marxist, Psychoanalytic and Historicism are portrayed in the novel to give a description of the underlying principals by which the readers of the novel, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, attempt to understand. Historicism is portrayed through the conquering of the Congo, the racism between the whites and natives and the grove of death. Psychoanalytic theory is portrayed through Marlow’s changes, he contradictions of Marlow’s lying and his concerns for Kurtz’s well being. Marxist theory is portrayed through the accountant in white’s arrogance, the conditions the chain gang are put through and the blaming of the shed fire. In essence, literary criticism theories are developed in order for the readers of the novel to understand they underlying context of the novel. The study of this literary criticism theories can help further a readers interpretation of the novel and the relationship between the character’s and the author.