In literature, various literary theories consist of the ideas and the practical methods used in reading literature. They mainly reveal what literature is all about and what it means (Barry n. p). These theories are the tools that enable learners to understand literature since they focus on examining the author and how he or she interprets the texts and developing historical, racial, social, and gender ideas within their work. In response to these literary works, many criticisms arise in each text, and it is addressed. The reason for the criticism is that not everyone understands or appreciates the ideas imposed in each writing.
There are various forms of critical theories in the literature, and they vary from biographical to formalist, feminist, structural, psychoanalytical, deconstruction, reader’s response, Marxist and historical (Barry n. p). All these critical theories have an approach in literature as each of them has been analyzed, and it stands up for something. In this paper, the analysis will focus on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. To begin the analysis, the biographical criticism of the author is an essential aspect.
In biographical criticism, much is focused on the author since some elements in his texts could hold some truth about them and also at the time when the text was written. The ideas could either be set up or merely coincidental (Bressler n. p). According to the novel heart of darkness, the texts are a direct symbol of what happened to its author Conrad and his Congo experiences during King Leopold 2 (Meyers n. p). Conrad had gone to the Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, to fulfil his quest for a childhood dream of marking a white spot in the African continent. During his one-year stay, the events he experienced made him a changed man by the time he went back to Europe since his views about Africa’s people were entirely altered by the events that happened (Meyers n. p).
In the plot and the novel’s setting, a nameless narrator introduces four other people on board a vessel known as Nellie that is set to anchor at the Thames river. In the wait, they listen to the narrator’s experiences, whose name turns to Marlow starts giving his audience his experiences in the Congo (Watts 20). Marlow serves as a narrator and also the main character of the novel. Many critics claim that Marlow acted in Conrad’s place since most of his narrated experiences were Conrad’s actual events that happened to him while he was in the Congo. This claim further states that Conrad used this technique to protect himself from the criticisms of exposing his experiences, which puts him in a fortunate position (Watts 20).
Marlow tells his audience that since his childhood, he had desired to become a sailor and in his dreams, he always fancied going to uncharted places that he saw in his maps, the likes of Africa and South America (Wasney n. p). In the real sense, this was Conrad’s experience since, as a child, he always wanted to mark his white spot in the continent of Africa (Meyers n. p). The contents of the text in the heart of darkness and Conrad’s records make us know that Conrad’s real-life experiences inspire Marlow’s experiences. In another context in the text, Marlow describes how he got a job as a captain thanks to his aunt who was so influential is the same as Conrad’s real experience of how he got the job as a commanding captain due to his persuasive aunt, Mme Poradowska. The latter is Conrad’s first cousin to his maternal grandmother (Watts 22). In the excerpt, Marlow did not give an actual name of who gave him the job, but in Conrad’s diary, the real name of the person who was of significant influence in the trading company was Albert Thys (Watts 22).
According to the excerpt, Marlow told his audience that he started his journey in a French Steamer and always kept in touch with his aunt and Conrad’s diary and personal records. It was confirmed that he always kept in touch with his aunt. Still, he began his journey at the French Port and sailed to Boma, the Congo’s principal seaport (Watts 25). Some of Conrad’s text characters are from his real-life experiences, while others are merely imaginative characters. He did these so that people cannot know so much about his actual experiences and made the novel more interesting to read (Meyers n. p). In the end, Marlow returns to Brussels having been infected by a fever that nearly killed him, and this was the same experience of Conrad’s reason to leave Congo since he was greatly affected by an illness he got from Congo. He had written to his aunt telling him that and how he regrets his journey to Congo (Watts 30).
In reflection on the texts, it is evident that it is a story written within a story. Conrad’s literature was influenced by his personal experiences when he visited the Congo and his childhood dreams of marking a spot in the African continent through his passion for using maps and going to uncharted places. Conrad used Marlow to rent out his anger and frustrations from his Congo experiences into the text (Wasney n. p). He used the multiple characters in his texts to narrate his story and give a chronological unfolding of one text to another.
Conrad’s real-life experiences are an exact reflection of Marlow’s narration in the texts. He uses this technique to narrate his experiences but as another person to avoid using himself as the first person in the excerpt. This prevents him from being directly criticized for his personal experiences. Conrad has used various modifications in his texts to avoid using the actual real names of the people he encountered during his journey and also so that he could make the novel more attractive to the reader so that they could relate to the narrative instead of focusing on him as the author (Billy 493).
In the Marxism critics, the primary approach focuses on the representation and challenges of class, power, and social roles that conflict in economics where the ideologies rest on the dominant class’s influence. The middle-class capitalist exploits the working class, who work tirelessly to make profits for the capitalist but do not share them (Barry n. p). In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness criticisms, Marxist theory believes that Conrad’s motive was to attain economic power. Marlow’s journey to Congo as an agent of the Belgian ivory outfit and the Company in search of Kurtz depicts the wicked imperialism, the difficulties of classism, and religion’s errors (Watts 26).
The texts highlight the class struggles in Congo and between the Company, its workers, and the natives of Congo. This was due to the distinction between the affluent and the powerful, the bourgeoisie and proletariat as Kurtz’s main intention was to sell ivory and make money so he could marry a lady who belonged to the upper class (Wasney n. p). His quest to climb the class ladder was so profound that it portrayed the Marxist’s criticism that the economic system disadvantaged those who could not own the means of production (Wasney n. p). Kurtz was a greedy man as he became a god and took the Congo natives as willing slaves. He was gluttonous with imperialism and greedy with religion, a combination that the Marxist approach could not fathom. He used the first person as everything was his because he used words like my ivory, my river, etc. It was ironic how he believed everything was his, yet he did not know how many people he had put through the power of darkness to claim his own (Watts 28).
Kurtz had become an all-powerful capitalist who had claimed to build an empire in the Congo, which was only meant to make money for him by oppressing the natives and taking advantage of them by making them slave labourers instead of instilling new western beliefs in his new land (Watts 28). He undermined humanity for profit gain. Kurtz’s actions represented the Europeans’ actions by exploiting and westernizing the Congo people and the African continent at large by treating them as slaves. Kurtz had managed to gather an army of natives that adored him and willing to do anything for him as they praised him as quite a legendary religious leader, and Marlow could not wait to see him as they even did not want him to leave. Kurtz had done this as a way of protecting his malicious acts so that the natives could not know how he exploited them and used his power of darkness against them (Watts 29).
Conrad shows that the white man is not the saviour that the people believed them to be since they came to exploit Africa’s people. Consequently, Marlow sees starving and dying Africans at the beginning of his journey, dying of hunger. The Marxist ideas in the heart of the dark ring as valid since they show Europeans’ intrusion to Africa to exploit them and make profits through them instead of helping them, which is evident to date (Wasney n. p).
Feminist criticism focuses on the negative image that is portrayed about women as they are stereotyped by men. It suggests the view of our culture and the patriarchal society, which is controlled by men (Barry n. p). according to feminist critics, it is a gender issue where being female is how one is shaped by cultural conditioning. The principles and ideologies of feminism are mainly used to critique the language of literature.
In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the language is dominated by men leaving women with only two choices, as an image and representation of a male or choosing silence by becoming voiceless and invisible (Murfin et al. 148). According to Marlow’s narrative, Kurtz’s black mistress and the laundry lady are portrayed to be silent while Marlow’s aunt is allowed to make a sound but only to agree on the myth permitted by the males (Murfin et al. 148). According to critics, Conrad’s writings have forgotten and expelled women as a confirmation that Conrad is a male chauvinist writer who broadcasts the male value system by his protagonist Marlow.
Many people argue that Heart of Darkness is a direct symbolism that shows a direct connection between the female world and darkness and the wildness of a human soul (Murfin et al., 158). Marlow has been portrayed to put women in a dark place for an extended period as Kurtz’s fiancée is put in a “dim and dark background.” In the male-centred world, women have been put in a dark world”. In essence, “if you are from Africa, you are black coloured and your continent is dark and dangerous” (Murfin et al. 159).
In conclusion, critical theories in literature enable us to understand an author’s point of view by analyzing and describing the context in which their narrative is presented. In general, the biographical aspects of an author’s narrative depend much on the experiences they have encountered or are concerned about. Much of these theories have been well represented in the text, making learners explore literature.
Barry, Peter. Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester university press, 2020.
Billy, Ted. “Cedric Watts.” Joseph Conrad: A Literary Life” (Book Review).” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 33.4 (1990): 491-494.
Bressler, Charles E. “Literary criticism.” An Introduction to theory and practice (1999).
Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad: a biography. Cooper Square Press, 2001.
Murfin, Ross C., and Johanna M. Smith. “Feminist and Gender Criticism and Heart of Darkness.” Heart of Darkness. Palgrave, London, 1996. 148-184.
Wasney Michael. Heart of Darkness. Summary, Characters, Analysis & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020. May 21. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Heart-of-Darkness
Watts, Cedric. “Heart of darkness.” Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (2008): 19-34.Order Now