twentieth century literature an absence of any sense of being able The

Twentieth century literature an absence of any sense

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twentieth-century literature, an absence of any sense of being able The Twentieth Century: The Early Years 227 to gather strength from belonging, from being a part of something. As is the case with Conrad, who wrote in a language other than his native tongue, even words seem untrustworthy. A general air of scepticism, including scepticism about language, writing and literature, becomes even clearer in Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1902). Marlow, who is also the narrator of Lord Jim, on this occasion relates the story of his journey up the River Congo on a steamboat owned by a Belgian trading company; this firm is known for its ruthlessness in the acquisition of ivory. He begins to hear sto- ries about Kurtz, the company's most successful agent, yet at the same time a man with a reputation as an idealist. After a number of delays, Marlow reaches the Inner Station, where he is confronted by heads on sticks surrounding Kurtz's hut. It becomes clear that Kurtz, rather than standing as an apostle of western civilisation, has taken part in barbaric acts, including human sacrifice and, quite possibly, cannibalism. As Kurtz dies, his final words are The horror! The hor- ror!', but on his return to Europe Marlow tells Kurtz's fiancee that he died with her name on his lips. The story ends, therefore, with a sen- timental lie; it is as if, in the interest of keeping alive the old reassur- ing fictions, Marlow chooses to keep quiet about the excesses he has witnessed. The main way in which a harsh sense of the reality of a world dom- inated by colonialism is brought to life in Heart of Darkness is through references to bodies, in particular the abuse and destruction of peo- ple's bodies. There are many grotesque episodes and passages of description in the work, but these find their most extreme expression in the suggestion that Kurtz has engaged in cannibalism, the ultimate transgression. Cannibalism as a topic appears in other novels. It is, for example, of central importance in the first major English novel, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. But traditionally such depravity is associated with non-European people , such as natives, or with dissident charac- ters, such as pirates. Indeed, the mark of Crusoe as a civilised man is that he is appalled and outraged by the existence of cannibalism. Heart of Darkness inverts this scale of values. In this work it is the rep- resentative of the West who is the murderer and the cannibal. Possibly for the first time in English literature, the representation of white civilisation is associated with the kind of behaviour that the
228 A Brief History of English Literature western imagination generally associates only with uncivilised peo- ple and the uncivilised world. Kurtz's conduct suggests that there might be something rotten at the very heart of civilisation; indeed, it is possible that the very idea of civilised people and a civilised society might be nothing more than an anachronistic myth.

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