HEART OF DARKNESS

 

 

 

Background

 

 

 

The book was written in 1899.  In his 1917 introduction to this & 2 other novellas, Conrad mentions that the only ” bond between them is that of the time in which they were written.”  The first book “Youth” “marks the first appearance in the world of the man Marlowe, with whom my relations have grown very intimate in the course of years.”

 

Heart of Darkness is the second book and is a story “told “by Marlowe in his mature years.  “He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, and an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol” (pages 67 to 68).

 

The third book “The End of the Tether” concerns the end of a certain Captain Whalley.

 

Journeys

 

 

 

The current trend in the HSC is to have a theme for the year – such as “Journeys”, “Discovery”, “Relationships” and “Belonging”.  Although each is wide and meaninglessly enough to apply to almost anything, it is likely that Heart of Darkness is categorised under “Journeys”, although it could also come under “Discovery”.

 

Journeys can be actual (physical) or emotional (psychological, imaginary etc).  Heart of Darkness describes a journey which is both actual and emotional.  It tells the story of a voyage up the Congo River, presumably in about 1899, by Marlowe to pick up the legendary Kurtz.  More interesting than the physical voyage is the emotional or psychological encounter between Marlowe and Kurtz.

 

Journeys often involve obstacles and detours, so these seem to be questions favoured by examiners.

 

Discovery

 

 

 

In the course of the journey Marlowe discovers a great deal about himself and Kurtz.  While  describing actual events in some detail Conrad conveys emotional/psychological impressions in even more detail.  There is in an air of mysticism about the Congo, darkest Africa (particularly in 1899) and the relationship between Marlowe and Kurtz.

 

“Better his cry – much better.  It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions.  But it was a victory!  That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last…”

 

Characters

 

 

 

Marlowe is the narrator and everything is seen through his eyes.  However, Kurtz is the central character as he dominates the book, well before his actual appearance.  Marlowe is on a steep learning curve – old and experienced as he is.  He has never come across anyone like Kurtz before.

 

 

 

It is difficult to know whether Kurtz, seen through the eyes of Marlowe, is a villain or hero or both.  He is certainly larger-than-life and dominates his community of followers –both through terror and charisma.  Writing in the late 19th century, Marlowe has to overcome contemporary attitudes to Kurtz as more of a villain than a hero – dominated by lust for ivory and power.  Which is more important to him – money or power?

 

But Marlowe transcends contemporary morality and admires “his own exalted and incredible degradation” (page 80).  Later on that page Marlowe says “I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, and no fear…”.  Conrad sees Kurtz as a person with a magnificent obsession,  horrific, but head and shoulders above the meanness and pettiness of the manager and the pilgrims.

 

Seen through our eyes today is he just another robber-baron?  In modern times we applaud people who amass great fortunes – even though the means utilised may be questionable.  In the 19th century the great empires built by Vanderbilt, Rothschild, Ford and others were simply applauded.  More recently we have Bill Gates Alan Bond and the Wolf of Wall Street.

 

 

 

Evaluation

 

 

 

The book has stood the test of time and is the best-known of Conrad’s works.  Does anyone read Conrad these days – unless they have to?

 

But although some of its language is dated and obscure, an interesting picture emerges of darkest Africa and the people, like Kurtz (and probably Stanley) who opened up the dark continent.

 

 

 

Personally, I think Conrad started writing a book about his experiences in Africa and then got carried away by the character of Kurtz.  Kurtz is probably based on a number of contemporary people, but probably also was a symbol of all that was bad, unusual and beyond the pale in a new, unknown and terrifying country.

 

 

 

Schools

 

 

 

In a way, it is a coming-of-age book.  Kurtz is a fascinating and terrifying character.  There is an air of mystery and mysticism about the Congo and Kurtz.

 

Schools may be interested in slavery and the treatment of the natives.  They will also see the book as an intense psychological description of obsession – for money or power or both.  There is a boy’s own annual element but can schoolchildren appreciate the psychological and ruthless obsession of Kurtz for money and power?

 

In his 1917 introduction, Conrad says: –

 

“Heart of Darkness is experience too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers That sombre note had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.”

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The Chorus

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Role of the Chorus – from Greece to Canterbury

Antigone, Murder in the Cathedral and Noh

 

Antigone

 

The chorus played an essential role in Greek plays.  They told the story and had the first and last word.

In Antigone by John Anouilh (1946), the chorus opens the play and sets the scene.

“Well, here we are.

These people that you see here are about to act out for you the story of Antigone…”

The chorus also has the final word.

And there we are.  All those who were meant to die have died.  Those who believed one thing, those who believed the contrary thing, and even those who believed nothing at all, yet were caught up in the web without knowing why…”

In a new translation of Antigone by Bagg and Scully (2011), the chorus opens and closes with condemnation of pride – arguably the central theme of this modern translation, if not the original (fifth century BC).

“How Zeus hates a proud tongue!”

 

 This is followed by the story of how the “doomed pair born to one father, one mother, who share even their death – when the twins spears drive home.” 

 

This theme of pride is picked up in the final chorus: –

“Good sense is crucial to human happiness.  Never fail to respect the gods, for the huge claims of proud men are always hugely punished…”

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Murder in the Cathedral

 

In 1935, TS Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral for the Canterbury Festival.  He uses the chorus in the same way as the ancient Greeks – to open, close and link the story.

 

Seven years and the summer is over

Seven years since the Archbishop left us,

 He who was always kind to his people,

But it would not be well if he should return.

King rules or barons rule; “

 

And at the end, the chorus underlines the horror of the murder of Thomas a’ Beckett in the Cathedral: –

 

“A reign of blood has blinded my eyes.  Where is England?

Where is Kent?  Where is Canterbury?”

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Noh

 

The Japanese too, apparently quite independently of ancient Greece, discovered the utility of the chorus.  The classic period for Noh was during the 14th and 15th centuries.

 

A chorus, usually consisting of eight, sits at the side of the stage, functioning to narrate the background, the story and its mood.  It also sometimes describes the characters’ thoughts and emotions or even sings for the characters.

 

While the use of a chorus in traditional Greek and Japanese plays is a comparatively primitive and easy way to fill in background and describe thoughts and feelings – it was used most effectively by TS Eliot and may still have a role to fill in the modern theatre.

 

In any event it is part of the history and tradition of the theatre and as such is well worth studying and learning from.

 

 

 

 

GOOD WRITING- MANSFIELD & MALOUF

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Mansfield

“The Rivers of China” a play by Alma De Groen – 1988

 

 

 

“When I write a story I choose not only the length of every sentence, but the sound.  I choose the rise and fall of every paragraph to set the mood or the character on that day at that moment.  After I’ve written it I read it aloud, until I get it right, until there is not a single word out of place, and not one word that could be taken out.  While I’m writing I am engulfed.  Possessed.  Anyone who comes near is my enemy.  It takes the place of religion for me.  It is my religion.”        ……….

 

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This is a play about Katherine Mansfield, the famous New Zealand short story writer.  The playwright puts these words into her mouth to express how she writes and what she feels about writing.

 

 

 

Extracts from notes I took at the David Malouf interview at the Sydney Writers Festival on May 22, 2014

 

 

 

When I write I am in a state of heightened emotion and lose track of time and place.  I have a heightened state of awareness.  The writing self has its own processes and makes its own demands.  I have to trust its own logic and its own agenda.  The characters take over and have their own life and logic.  Writing novels is like writing poetry.  The poem knows something that the poet doesn’t.

 

When I’m writing, I have to be careful about the music of the work.  I write with a view to being read aloud.  I’m very conscious of the rhythm and music of everything I write.  I write for slow readers who can savour the music and rhythm.  My writing is very visual and reflects the interior of my characters.  Therefore I cannot see how my works can be translated to the screen, where movement and action is everything.  Nothing happens in my writing.  Interiorisation is not the Australian way, until Patrick White came along.

 

 

 

These are my rough notes only, but I hope it reflects his attitude to writing fiction.  It must make music.  It must be capable of being read aloud.  It only differs from poetry by being more expansive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAVID MALOUF

DAVID MALOUF

 

DAVID MALOUF

DAVID MALOUF

Psychobabble

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When does jargon become psychobabble?

Psychobabble is described in Wikipedia as follows

“Psychobabble (a portmanteau of “psychology” or “psychoanalysis” and “babble“) is a form of speech or writing that uses psychological jargonbuzzwords, and esoteric language to create an impression of truth or plausibility. The term implies that the speaker or writer lacks the experience and understanding necessary for the proper use of psychological terms. Additionally, it may imply that the content of speech deviates markedly from common sense and good judgement.”

Here is an example, so you will know what to look for and avoid: –

This comes from an Article in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 29, 2014 by John Macdonald on  the current Sydney Biennale whose theme, “You Imagine What You Desire”, is described on Its website as follows: –

“It seeks to understand the need artists have today to create immersive and expanded environments, and locates this activity as part of an art historical trajectory, and as a pursuit into the issues of human consciousness, and their psychological cognitive and corporeal imperatives”.

This website description could mean anything or nothing and you can easily highlight and avoid meaningless words such as immersive, trajectory, human consciousness, cognitive and corporeal.

Mc Donald  says: –

“This is a textbook example of how to say nothing by speaking in generalisations and banalities”.

 

Psychobabble

 

 

M

Poem or Tree?

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“The simple News that Nature told –

With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed

To Hands I cannot see –”

This extract from the very short poem by Emily Dickinson “This Is my letter to the World” can be interpreted by the even shorter famous lines: –

“I think that I shall never see

A poem as lovely as a tree”.  {Trees by Alfred Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)}

At least I think this is what Emily is saying in her usual cryptic, brilliant way – that poetry cannot improve on nature.

Also brilliantly, the following cartoon by Leunig plays on the ironic concept that trees are lovely because they can be cut down and turned into dollars.

What do you think?

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Lord of the Flies by William Golding- Book -Club Questions

  1. Good v Evil

It is easy to see the book as an allegory: tracing the descent of man from civilisation to anarchy and savagery.  A number of commentators go further and see the central theme as man’s inherent evil nature reasserting itself, once the veneer of civilisation is stripped away.  Do you see it as civilisation versus anarchy or good versus evil or both?

In support of his statement in 4 below, the author only has to demonstrate that the leaders are inherently evil (Hitler and Mussolini), so that good men become collateral damage.  Jack is obviously deranged (a victim of the English public school system) and Roger is a psychopath.  Once they become leaders, good people like Ralph, Piggy, Simon and the twins become dispensable.  On this view the book is all about leadership and does not necessarily make the point that all men are inherently evil.  What you think?

2 The role of Ralph

Ralph appears to symbolise leadership and order.  However he does fall from grace on occasion and did take part in the murder of Simon.  Is  it too far-fetched to say that Ralph “portrays the role of government in any modern society.  While he wants to satisfy the wishes of the public, he must also realise that certain rules of behaviour must be followed in order to prevent anarchy”?

3 War paint

It is easier to kill and go troppo if you paint your face and body, engage in war cries, war dances, blood lust and mob rule.  This is first apparent in chapter 4 (page 66).  “He capered towards Bill and the mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness”.

Has this any relevance to the world in 1954 or 1945 ?  Is it a symbol or metaphor or just part of a boy’s own yarn?

4  Adventure Story v deep and meaningful allegory

On one level, this is a rattling good yarn.  However this is not the reason it has been set by numerous schools.  There are many interpretations, including by the author.  The author is reported as stating, probably in desperation, in answer to speculation about what he intended, that the theme was to trace the problems of society back to the sinful nature of man.  He says that he wrote the book to show how political systems cannot govern society effectively without first taking into consideration the defects of human nature.

Can we not accept inevitable degeneration from bad to worse, without subscribing to the sin/evil interpretation?  Less sinful defects of man are laziness, selfishness, pleasure, irresponsibility and suchlike.  Do we need to treat man as an inherently evil bloodthirsty creature?  Or is this perhaps the aftermath of Hitler and Mussolini?  It is probable that the author had Nazi Germany in mind (and possibly the Nuremberg war trials) when postulating the inherent evil in all men.  However, it is quite possible to treat most of the behaviour of the boys as a descent from fun loving bloodthirsty irresponsibility (boys own annual stuff) to something far more sinister – tribal warfare.  But for the improbable intervention of the navy, the boys would have killed Ralph and then probably turned into cannibals when all other food sources ran out.  However, even this is not necessarily the result of deep rooted evil.  Irresponsibility degenerates into desperation.

What do you think or am I being too kind?

 5 Fear of the Unknown

Jack and his hunters were so absorbed in killing the pig that they let the fire go out and lost the opportunity of signalling to a passing ship (chapter 4 page 74).  So Ralph called a meeting to discuss the consequences of irresponsibility.

“So remember.  The rocks for a lavatory.  Keep the fire going and smoke showing a signal.  Don’t take fire from the mountain.  Take your food up there.”  (Chapter 5 page 87)

At this stage, most of the boys were prepared to listen to reason.  “Then people started getting frightened” (page 88).

To what extent does fear of the unknown (beast from water, beast from air and lord of the flies) account for, justify or excuse the descent into savagery?  Simon alone seems to have exploded this myth, but he fell for the beast within “myth” (see 7 below).  Does the author give us a realistic choice between fear of the unknown and the beast within, or is it unfair to link the two together?

6 Rules, Adults and we are British

Ralph and Piggy realise the importance of rules.

“Because the rules are the only thing we’ve got” (Ralph, chapter 5 page 99)

“What’s grown-ups going to say?  Cried Piggy again” (page 99).

Ralph, like a good leader, constantly battles his baser instincts. “Supposing I got like the others-not caring. What ‘ud become of us?”

“I dunno, Ralph. We just got to go on, that’s all. That’s what grown-ups would do”.( chapter 8 page 153)

Are we talking here about responsible v irresponsible, mature v immature or children v adults?

Ironically, somewhere early in the book, Jack says something like we are not savages, we are British.  This theme is taken up by the Naval officer at the end of the book: – “‘I should have thought,’ said the officer as he visualised the search before him, ‘I should have thought a pack of British boys – you are all British aren’t you?  – would have been able to put up a better show than that – I mean –'”

Also, throughout the book, there are references to British schoolboy language such as “waxy” and “caught short”.  Do you find any other such references?

Would Australian schoolboys, or any other schoolboys have acted differently or had different standards?

7 The beast without v the beast within

Simon’s epileptic encounter with the lord of the flies takes us further into the occult and the concept of evil.

“‘Fancy thinking the beast was something you could hunt and kill!  said the head.  For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter.  ‘You knew didn’t you?  I’m part of you?  Close, close, close!  I’m the reason why it’s no go?  Why things are what they are?’  ( chapter8, page 158)

This is probably the closest we get to the concept of evil being within every one of us.  Do you accept this interpretation of the story and, whether or not you do so, is it a valid thesis?

8. 12-year-old boys

In relation to the allegory theory, this is an interesting choice.  The absence of girls removes sex from the equation.  This allows the author to concentrate on leadership, play and the herd mentality.  However, 12-year-old boys are very immature and can be expected to prefer hunting and killing to keeping fires alight 24/7 and being responsible.  Also, the choir were accustomed to obeying Jack as their leader.  These reservations render doubtful the thesis that the boys represent mankind marooned on a desert island without any of the trappings of civilisation.

A further reservation is the question of whether the boys do act like 12-year-olds, or show maturity (at least in some respects) beyond their years.  After everything that has happened, the rescuing naval officer sees them as little boys playing “fun and games” (last chapter page 223).  It is amazingly deflating to see Ralph, who has been built up throughout the book as a hero, through the eyes of the officer: – “The officer inspected the little scarecrow in front of him.  The kid needed a bath, a haircut, a nose wipe and a good deal of ointment”.  This is the boy who had been fighting for his life.  And it is deflating to see Jack, king of the hunters, through the eyes of the officer: – “A little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist…”

In the light of all this, how far can the allegory theory be taken?

9 Format

The book is written in the third person, but mainly through the eyes of Ralph as the protagonist.  There is plenty of description of the island scenery – no doubt based on the experiences of the author during the war in the Navy and on islands.  Did you find the descriptions helpful, irrelevant or distracting?

The book is written as a boy’s own annual adventure story, so that the reader has to supply the allegory of what happened to man once the trappings of civilisation are removed.   As this is a novel and not a book on philosophy, it only works if the story is interesting enough to keep reading and hold your attention.

Did you find it sufficiently interesting and believable or too polemic or contrived?

10 Sequel

Has anyone written a sequel or attempted to work out what happened next?  It is interesting to speculate whether the Navy would try to find out from the boys what happened and to follow-up Ralph’s statement that two of the boys had been killed.  Should blame and legal consequences be attached to Jack for leading the mad sequence which led to the death of Simon and to Roger who deliberately set loose the rock which killed Piggy (page 200)?

Conversely, it is interesting to speculate as to what would have happened if the Navy had not intervened.  Do you think this “device” works or spoils the book?  Without such intervention, it would have been survival of the fittest – possibly until the last boy was left standing (Jack or Roger?).  Would this have served the purposes of the author in demonstrating the ultimate breakdown of civilisation?  If so, why the intervention?

11 Classic

Do you agree that this book is now a classic of English literature and if so do you think it deserves its status?  Many of us would have seen the film – some years ago.  I have seen it recently and it does fairly faithfully follow the book – particularly the bloody and sensational bits.  The 12-year-old boys are actually quite believable and quite frightening.  However a film can only convey a series of incidents and not necessarily tell the whole story.  What do you think?

If you do consider the book a classic, is it because of the subject matter or the writing or both?

It is somewhat strange that this is the only book I can think of which deals with children going berserk on a tropical island.  While this book uses children in the allegory, the concept of an apocalypse or holocaust (following nuclear wipe-out) was very real in 1945 and for some years following.  The book should probably be seen as part of a genre dealing with what might happen at the end of the world when there are only one or two survivors on a desert island (or New Zealand).  In this context, the author’s view of the chances of  the surviving adults (or children) recreating a meaningful civilisation, is a very bleak one, but possibly realistic.  What do you think?  It will no doubt be obvious that I don’t buy the theory of man’s inherent evil nature (making him ungovernable).  But I do buy the possibility of the survivors having a choice between responsible action and irresponsible descent into chaos.

I have probably said enough in these questions and comments to justify the book being treated as a classic and set by innumerable schools over the last 10 or 20 years.  Kids (and particularly boys) should be able to relate to the characters and should be able to engage in meaningful discussion about the consequences of their actions.  However, I may be too optimistic.  What do you think?

12  Is It Dated?

During and immediately after the war, the evil of people like Hitler must have been more apparent than today, but query people like Saddam Hussein and the current ruler of Syria.

Today, we are far more conscious of environmental impact – so the destructive fires (particularly the last one which probably destroyed the island) would mean more to us.

Otherwise, it would appear that the book still has relevance to countless schoolboys (query schoolgirls) today as it continues to be set for years nine and 10.  My year 10 grandson seemed to enjoy it but had trouble with the allegory – particularly the concept of good and evil.  Bible stories as allegories are not the strong suit of most year 10’s (mostly 16-year-olds).  Do you agree?

13.  What Did You and the Characters Learn?

The question asked of year 10 English at Mosman High was: –“’ Works of fiction involve learning experiences for the characters and the reader.’  In what ways is this true of the novel you have studied this term?”

If we accept the author’s view (4 above), man is inherently evil and ungovernable.  On any view all of the characters (with the possible exception of Ralph and Piggy) learned nothing but descended from irresponsible fun into savagery and chaos.  Ralph possibly learnt how hard it is to govern a mob – particularly where fun is far more attractive than hard work.  We certainly learn the same lesson.  Do you agree with my overview and assumptions?  Do any of the characters learn anything more – good or bad?  Do we learn anything more?

14.  Ungovernable?

Do you agree with the author (see 4 above) that mankind is essentially ungovernable?