British Colonialism Revisited: Heart of Darkness and Wide Sargasso Sea Essay

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Heart of Darkness and Wide Sargasso Sea

These two novels will be reviewed and critiqued within these three themes: from a feminist point-of-view; from the colonialism point-of-view; and paper will present postcolonial implications as well.

Heart of Darkness -- From a Feminist Perspective

Women do not appear often in this novel, and they don't have important roles to play in the novel either. And because of the way Conrad describes women has led some feminists and others to assert that Conrad was sexist and that his book is sexist. While not necessarily agreeing with that assessment, it is true that Conrad does seem to belittle women in the novel. At least, he uses narrative that makes them sound weak and easily duped.

For example, when Charlie Marlow, the protagonist (and Conrad's alter ego, one presumes), wants to get a captain's position on a river steamboat; he asked men he knew to help him get an appointment because "…I must get there by hook or by crook" (12). But the men "did nothing" so Marlow reached out to his aunt to get the appointment he wanted. He said, "Then -- would you believe it -- I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work -- to get a job!"

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He describes his aunt as "a dear enthusiastic soul" who said that his wish was "a glorious idea"; that word "glorious" was perhaps intentionally used by Conrad to indicate how naive his aunt was, because traveling up the Congo River doesn't sound at all like a "glorious" journey. She was "determined to make no end of fuss to get appointed skipper of a river steamboat," he wrote (12). The word "fuss" has a distinctive female tone to it; you don't hear of men making a "fuss" over helping someone out. In a few sentences Marlow shows his eagerness to go to Africa after another captain "had been killed in a scuffle with the natives"; so while a woman sees this opportunity as "glorious," Marlow is either a madman or a masochist because he can't wait to go where the previous captain was killed by natives.

Essay on British Colonialism Revisited: Heart of Darkness and Wide Sargasso Sea Assignment

His next encounter with females occurs when he goes to the company headquarters in Belgium; there are two women in the office as he enters, "…one fat and the other slim," and the slim one rose and walked toward him, continued knitting but did not look up -- she was like a "somnambulist" (a person walking in her sleep) -- and never spoke to Marlow but led him into a room. The description sounds like the woman was a robot or moving manikin. Her dress was "plain as an umbrella cover," which seems a literary put down. How drab and dull can a person get? The fat woman (with a wart on her nose) seemed "uncanny and fateful," and both women were "feverishly" knitting black wool, which almost seems too obvious to be foreshadowing of Marlow's upcoming trip to a place where black natives thrived. Once he was "far away" Marlow envisioned these two women as "guarding the door of Darkness" (15).

Another example of Conrad's seeming lack of respect for women was the way in which he built up Kurtz when he went to visit the "Intended" (Kurtz's fiance). Taking into account the fact that Kurtz had an African mistress that Conrad had described as "sensual and sexual flesh," the lies he told the Intended (who is described as a "devoted and chaste spirit") bespoke of his lack of respect for her. Naturally he wasn't going to tell the grieving woman the truth about Kurtz's bad moral behavior, and his cheating with an African woman who was just a sexual outlet for him. But he lied in order to give the Intended the best possible image to focus on during her mourning. He also lied so the reader could get the impression that without a man, a woman is lost. In their meeting, the Intended had "fair hair, a pale visage" and a "pure brow" that was enveloped by an "ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me" (73).

Telling the Intended that her deceased lover was "a remarkable man," with "a noble heart" and "a goodness that shone in every act," was a whopper, but it aided her grieving. Because the picture of her grieving created an image of a sad person who was now but a shell of a woman whose life was without purpose.

Heart of Darkness -- Colonial Images

Conrad constantly presented images that were black and white, mostly black. Darkness of course symbolizes evil, the unknown, it conceals things that humans cannot and should not see, and it hides danger from the men on board the river boat. The white is also present in the form of ivory, which was one of the points of the colonialism in the Congo; white men wanted to exploit the black man. And while Europeans looked down at Africans as savages, it is apparent that white men too are quite capable of savagery, which was illustrated by Kurtz's placing human heads on poles surrounding his station house. The colonialists -- the white men -- push deep into the darkness of the jungle with their advanced technology (the river boat and guns) but the darkness is far too powerful and enveloping for them to survive as they wished to.

There are images presented which suggest that the colonialism had goodness as a motive (Kurtz believed the company stations should be "like a beacon on the road to better things," a place for "humanizing, improving, instructing") but those words seem like lip service because the real reason for England to be meddling in African cultures is profit and exploitation. A more accurate portrayal of what the English thought vis-a-vis colonizing Africa was spoken by Marlow's aunt: her nephew will surely help in "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways." Marlow says taking things 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."

On page 69 Conrad writes (through his narrator) "…They grabbed what they could get…it was robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale," and that pretty well sums up the way in which the British made their presence known in Africa.

Heart of Darkness -- Postcolonial Images

The most vicious postcolonial literary attack on Conrad's Heart of Darkness was launched by the well-known and prize-winning Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The noted author called Conrad "a thoroughgoing racist" who has written a book that is "offensive and totally deplorable" (Clendinnen, 2007). But other writers and scholars have praised the Conrad novel because it did embrace the real harsh truth about colonialism and the greed that was shown by European people in order to exploit the ivory and the people there. Conrad's book noted the destruction that Europeans had visited upon the people and the jungle:

"I've seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but by all the stars! These were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils that swayed and drove men -- men I tell you. But as I stood on this

hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther" (18).

Marlow was against colonialism perpetrated on Africa by Europeans and it is obvious that he is ashamed of what Kurtz does. He feels pity towards them, and it seems he is the only European in Africa who feels that way. He writes that while the African "groaned somewhere" the "indefatigable man with the moustaches" said, "Serve him right. Transgression -- punishment -- bang! That's the only say. This will prevent all conflagrations for the future" (30).

In hindsight, a reader can clearly see that the colonialism foisted upon the Africans was repugnant to Marlow. When Marlow sees the skulls of men that Kurtz put on poles around the hut, he was at first confused, but later, when he "…had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow" (74).

Wide Sargasso Sea -- a Feminist Perspective

What this story reveals in several ways is that women do not have the ability to get past the oppression when it is visited upon the female gender. For a woman in a man's world, it is tough going, according to Rhy's novel. And the European male mentality of control plays a major role in the story -- similar to the European hegemony that the natives in the Congo experienced at the hands of the British. Antoninette, the protagonist in this novel, has emotional problems from the beginning of her life because she is raised by… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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