Book review and analysis- ‘Heart Of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad

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Author– Joseph Conrad

Genre– Novella/ Fiction/ Roman-à-clef / Colonial literature/ Frame Story

Themes– Colonialism/ Racism/ Savagery versus Civilization/ Exploration/ Time/ Hypocrisy of European Imperialism/ Absurdity of evil

Introduction

Joseph Conrad (born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski), Polish by birth, was the only child of the Polish poet, writer, translator and political activist, Appollo Korzeniowski. Homeschooled by his father, he introduced little Conrad to the works of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and other Polish authors. His career as a sailor began in 1873. His first novel is ‘Almayer’s Folly’(1895). The novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, Conrad’s most famous, influential and controversial work, was first published in Blackwoods Magazine in 1899 as a three-part serial story and published as a book form in 1902.

Summary

Heart of Darkness begins on the deck of the Nellie, a British ship anchored on the coast of the Thames. The anonymous narrator, the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, and Charles Marlow sit in silence. Marlow begins telling the three men about a time he journeyed in a steamboat up the Congo River. For the rest of the novel, Marlow narrates his tale. Structured as a frame story, it is not a first-person- narrative but initially narrated by an anonymous person who listens to Marlow on the deck of Nellie.

Marlow begins by briefly explaining London’s dark history and the Roman invasion to his companions. Then, London might well have been a dark place where the Romans struggled to adapt. ( They had the bond of the sea between them. The Thames is described as a venerable stream, a conduit of history, of Romans, triremes, Gauls to the once dark England. It had served the great knights-errant of the sea like Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Franklin, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, generals of East India Fleets, bearers of the spark from the “sacred fire”( civilization).

Marlow was a seaman who”still followed the sea“. He was different from other seamen leading sedentary lives without an eye for the mystery and with a disdainful ignorance. But, for Marlow, ‘ the sea was the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny‘. He loved to spin yarns as hazy as the halo enveloping the glow. With his typical ascetic gesture, Marlow embarks on the story of his travel to the farthest point of navigation, the impact it had on him, how it enlightened his shadowed mind with the somber, pitiful light, though it was hazy.

Voyages had always awed Marlow and after a journey through the East, he hankered for an adventure, but to a relatively unexplored place, a blank space on the map that had captivated him as a child, a delightful mystery, later filled with lakes and rivers, a place of darkness. He was charmed by the huge snake with its head on the sea, its body curving, the River Congo, like a silly little bird. Marlow, with the influence of his aunt, got hold of an appointment as the captain of a river steamboat. He got the job in place of a Danish captain who was killed in an altercation with the natives( Conrad describes the Company building in Brussels as a “whited sepulcher“.This is an allusion to Mathew in The Bible. Similarly, he sees two women knitting as he enters the building. This is another reference to his sealed fate- The Greek Mythological Fates – or Moirai – are a group of three weaving goddesses who assign individual destinies to mortals at birth. Their names are Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Alloter) and Atropos (the Inflexible)).  Marlow had been told about the sublime nature of the captain who went out for a noble cause, that changed after the interactions with natives, transfiguring him to a killer( example of contradiction that Conrad uses in the novella). The natives left his body to rot, fearing the supernatural voodoo hoodoo possessed by white men and had fled the village.

Conrad uses the symbolism of the silent knitting women for the tight-lipped, know-all,  rules-based control of the Company over its employees. They are symbolic of sealed destiny, knitting black wool for a warm pall. ” Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again” The non-disclosure agreement that he signed indicates this and he got the air of something not quite right from the start itself. Even the clerk’s sententious, resolute reply and the doctor’s farcical questionnaires, zany actions and prescient warnings gave an eerie feeling to Marlow. From the start, it is clear that Marlow was not blindfolded by the specious appearance of the glorified Company as an ‘ emissary of light weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’. He mentions how out of touch women like his aunt were, who got carried away by this rot let loose in print and talk.

Marlow left Brussels in a steamer and along the way, his perspectives of the coast of Africa and the natives began to unroll. The coast he glimpsed was featureless, still in the making with a monotonous grimness( in contrast to other places with an enigmatic appeal, mute with an air of whisper  ‘ come and find out’). He describes the forest with the huts dotted in the midst as ‘ God-forsaken wilderness‘. Even the names of trading places seemed to him ‘ to belong to some sordid farce acted in front of a sinister black cloth’. ( The symbolism is less like that of a percipient interpreter of the ambiance and more towards a prejudiced mind contrasting it as a mere backdrop with farcical characters). Marlow describes the native boatmen as having ‘ faces like grotesque masks‘, yet, realizing that they were vital humans still, took comfort in straightforward facts. But that wouldn’t last long as he witnessed a French warship insanely firing into the continent without any trace of an enemy. He describes the feeling like a “lugubrious drollery” (Another instance of oxymoron from Conrad). He got a general sense of death, of a vague and “oppressive wonder” as the steamer moved along the river, ” a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares”. The skeptical and cynical tone of the Swede captain about the activities of the Company staff roused him to be on the qui vive.

A rocky cliff, with houses and mounds of turned-up earth, reminded him of “inhabited devastation” where black, naked people moved like ants. He witnessed decayed machinery, rails, and mindless toil by the natives for no purpose other than just toil. The naked chained toiling men with “death-like indifference” were less like enemies, and more like criminals punished by an outraged law, an “insoluble mystery from the sea”. Though not prone to emotive excesses, the sight triggered a moral disquietude in him and he discerned the hypocrisy hidden among the lust of the red-eyed, rapacious devils committing a pitiless folly in the name of enlightenment ( Conrad satirizes the Company many times using his witty styled prose One example of this is the sentence in which he describes the purpose of a purposeless trench dug by the natives – ” it might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do”). ( Another example of allusion is seen in the sentence describing the feeling he got when he stepped under the shade of trees- “it seemed to me that I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno” – alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy). The natives were not enemies or criminals, not even humans, but black shadows of disease and starvation.

Marlow witnessed with horror, the collapsed, weak and dying men scattered on the earth and left to die. (Conrad’s descriptions and adjectives seem a bit inflated and egregious. He describes them as phantoms and creatures!!). The scene is contrasted with a well dressed, preened and primed colonist, an accountant that Marlow met in the station office, so uncanny that he took it first for a vision. Even the groans of a dying native or the buzzing flies in his office did not move him from his work. The kept-up appearance in that demoralization awed Marlow, something which he tallied with character, accomplishment, and backbone(Though a minor character in the novella, the Accountant mentioned above symbolizes the studied obliviousness and the blatant nonchalance of the Company towards the subjects). Marlow got an initial picture of Kurtz, described as a remarkable individual who sent much of the ivory from the Central Station, from the Accountant.

After a 200 mile grueling tramp, on the course of which he noticed the solitude of hills ablaze with heat, ruins of huts without the dwellers, Marlow reached the Central Station where he learned about the sinking oh his steamer. The meeting with the general manager, a successful, cold, blue-eyed man, with a stealthy half-smile brought the picture of the character, Kurtz again to Marlow. ( There is an allusion to the Arthurian round table here. This man had built a round table for dining, partly to fend off the altercation among his white staff as to who should sit where and partly to imply his sitting position, wherever it was, to be the first and the rest nowhere). He learned of the perils in the upper stations and to Kurtz and the much-needed exigency of action to evacuate the stations and Kurtz whose fate was unknown and guessed at. Marlow was assigned the task to regain the sunken steamer and mend it in three months’ time. He started working on it, turning his back on the goings-on there, still appalled at the “faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence”( an allusion to John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress‘), whose “imbecile rapacity for ivory blowing like a whiff from the corpse“.

Months passed by and the futility and hypocrisy of the Company dawned more and more on Marlow. (Conrad employs the symbolism of the manager carrying water in a pail with a hole at the bottom to douse a shed-fire that was blazing with all its might). He encountered Company ‘pilgrims’ with job descriptions on the face of it, but ill-intentioned to make wealth from the ivory trade, intriguing, plotting against, and slandering others, an unreal setting as feigned as the philanthropic pretense of the Company, their talks or show of work. He exclaims, ” By heavens! there is something after all in the world allowing one man to steal a horse while another must not look at the halter”. This would provoke sympathy and even the most charitable of saints would act in response. Marlow gradually got more information about Mr. Kurtz as an emissary of pity, science, and progress, yet the sensation of absurdity overcame him as he was unable to bring up an image to mind no more than one of an angel or a fiend. He stared with horror at how a native was beaten for the shed-fire and the black shadows moving listlessly on the station ground in the backdrop of a silent forest. The staves in the hands of the Company staff, the mystery, silence and the concealed reality of the place perplexed him. Marlow’s work of overhauling the steamer got suspended due to the nonavailability of rivets, a straightforward errand in itself, but taken precedence by other obscure missions in the station.

Marlow learned more about Kurtz from the manager who told him that Kurtz is supposedly ill. The dubious disposition of the manager and his feigned concern for Kurtz made Marlow suspect his involvement in wrecking the steamboat to intercept the supplies from reaching Kurtz. The suspicion turned true when he overheard the conversation of the manager and his uncle about the former’s fear of losing the managerial post to Kurtz and the latter’s assertion of the power of the jungle to do away with him. Having had the steamboat repaired, Marlow left for the Central station along with the manager, some agents and a crew of cannibals to take relief to Kurtz. Nearer to the Inner station they were attacked by arrows by some unknown natives which killed a henchman and Marlow got disappointed that Kurtz might have been killed by those natives as well. Marlow felt a kind of distant kinship and regret for the dead helmsman.

And when they reached the Central station, they encounter a half- English, half- French man, a frail. sick, bald man, Mr. Kurtz. He had lost his mind in the wilderness, where civilizational instruments of checks and balances are absent. Having been assaulted by the power of darkness, ordinary humans would not thrive there or else one needed to be an exalted creature, deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Hence the faith and devotion in the back-breaking business of ivory trade. When Marlow met Kurtz, he was out of his nerves that caused him to preside over midnight dances and rites. Marlow found a pamphlet written by Kurtz in which he exhorts the Whites to appear as supernatural beings to savages and to approach them with the might of a deity. He had pictorialized an exotic immensity ruled over by an august benevolence. Amongst the eloquent, burning words and the altruism was the postscriptum ‘exterminate all the brutes’. Kurtz emerged as a composite character with the power to charm and frighten the savages and for commanding misgivings as well as camaraderie among the whites. Kurtz had a Russian assistant, who explained to Marlow the reason for the attack by the natives, they did not want Kurtz to be taken away, they adored him. As Marlow approached the hut, he distinguished the ball shapes on the stakes around it as human skulls.

The native’s heads, those of rebels, on the stakes struck Marlow as symbolic rather than ornamental and laid bare the brute who had done this for the gratification of lust or fulfillment of something wanting in him, though there was nothing profitable behind this act. Kurtz might have been bewitched by the solitude of the wilderness that avenged him for the invasion and echoed within his hollow core the deficiencies he harbored. The natives adored Kurtz to the extent that they crawled before him on all fours. The Russian, Kurtz’s last disciple seemed to fawn over him subserviently and exclaimed his feelings at how Kurtz was abandoned by the Company people.

Kurtz was taken on a stretcher to the steamboat and when the boat started to move, the natives and his mistress appeared at the shore. His health deteriorated and the steamer broke down the river, while he handed Marlow a heap of letters for safekeeping from the Company people. He died uttering the words “horror, horror” and got buried in a muddy hole.

The narration ends with Marlow visiting Kurtz’s fiancee and handing over the private letters and a portrait to her. When asked what his final words were, Marlow lied to her that it was her name. The anonymous narrator now resumes his narrative and the narrator looks at the overcast sky over the Thames that seemed to lead him into the heart of an immense darkness.

Character analysis of Kurtz

One of the most impenetrable characters in twentieth-century literature, Kurtz is an embodiment of oxymoron and symbolic of not just the darkness inside the empire, but an amplification of greed and lust harbored by all men. He is at the same time a brutal tyrant as well as a god-like cult figure among the natives. The evil at the core of the empire is personified as Kurtz. The Company feels his actions menacing as he turns out to display his intent without the sugarcoating of the ostensible enlightening narrative of the empire. Though his intent was philanthropic at the beginning ( enlightening the natives as the symbolism in his painting suggests), the coercive power of the dark jungle remolds him into the actual brute that he becomes.

His unsound methods in trading ivory without the veil of good intentions make him a thorn in the eye of the Company people. While Brussels is a white sepulcher of hypocrisy, Kurtz does their bidding brazenly. Marlow explains this clearly in the sentence ‘all of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz’.

Review and analysis

Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charles Marlow, a contemplative sailor, who describes the journey up the River Congo into the heart of Africa to meet an ivory trader named Kurtz. The dark episodes and the absurdity of evil of European colonialism and imperialism are brought to light in this short novel. The characters are based on real-life that includes the novella in the Roman-à-clef genre. Like Marlow, Conrad traveled through Congo in 1890. He describes the novella as ‘ an experience pushed a little beyond the actual facts of the case’.

It is not an easy read, an intricate work of art, a Byzantine composition, intentionally made arduous for the reader to feel the grueling journey through the jungle, though Conrad’s witty slices are scattered throughout. Structured as a frame story, it is not a first-person- narrative but narrated initially by an anonymous person who listens to Marlow on the deck of Nellie. The narrator’s ideas of colonial Europe and its imperialistic exploits and ambitions, underpinned by lies, changes after listening to Marlow’s perspectives on the characters. Heart of Darkness fundamentally points to the darkness inside the heart of civilized Europe during colonialism. What makes it an arresting read, is the gradual unraveling of the horrors perpetrated by the ostensibly civilized colonizers that Marlow happen to encounter in Congo, one that instigates him to see through the facileness and dig into the shallowness, a self- seeking exercise in a way, and fathom out the darkness beneath the civilized whiteness.

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century signified the heydays of European colonialism( a scramble for Africa and division of the continent under many European powers, though Belgium was the worst) and the concomitant atrocities and genocides. The accounts of Henry Morton Stanley about his travels through Africa ( Adventures and Discoveries in Central Africa and Through The Dark Continent) were best-selling books in Europe at the time and the greedy King Leopold II of Belgium colonized Congo under the guise of civilizing the people and dispensing largesse, in effect plundering its wealth(ivory and rubber) and capitalizing on slave labor, whipping them with chicotte (dried hippopotamus skin) and beheading them( The historian Adam Hochschild‘s book, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ deals with these atrocities). Conrad’s novella is the real-life scenario of Leopold’s Congo, the atrocities he had witnessed during his travels, slavery, murder, only the names altered, the events are a fervent recountal of facts that had existed in broad daylight.

The 1979 film, ‘Apocalypse Now‘ was inspired by this novella though the setting was changed to jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The movie explores America’s military involvement in Vietnam and the figurative “darkness” that led to the apocalypse in the hearts of those sent there to fight. In T.S Eliot‘s poem ‘The Hollow Men‘, he uses a sentence from the novella, “Mistah Kurtz-he dead” as the epigraph. The essential hollowness in the core of the white colonialists is the gist of Heart Of Darkness. The work has inspired writers like William Golding ( The Inheritors), T.S Eliot( The Waste Land), Orson Welles, George Orwell (1984) Graham Greene (A Burnt-Out Case) and Francis Ford Coppola ( 1979 film Apocalypse Now). The capacity of his work to instigate debates, criticisms or even polemics and the staying power makes it one of the best classics in English literature.

The novella broke the generally embraced narrative conventions of the time for its ambiguity( “foggishness” in Conrad’s words) that Marlow uses for the subjective perception of conflicts and horrors. It’s somewhat interesting that Conrad, not a native English speaker, learned the language when he was in his twenties. He has once said that he would prefer French to the English language without clean edges and whose words are instruments for exciting blurred emotions. Ironically, this could be one reason for the palpable ambiguity in the novella. It is a classic that captivated many readers and irked a few critics like the British novelist, E.M Forster for the ambiguity and the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe for the implicit and explicit racism in it. Achebe denounced it as the work of a bloody racist in his 1975 lecture. The eagle-eyed English critic F. R. Leavis drew attention long ago to Conrad’s “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.” Achebe dismisses Conrad’s adjectival insistence as not a mere stylistic flaw or felicity, but a trickery to induce a hypnotic stupor in the mind of readers by the bombardment of emotive words and though regular readers usually bypass such tricks and baits, here Conrad had chosen the subject astutely and assumed the role of purveyor of comforting myths- one that would not put him in conflict with the reader’s mind or one for which he would not have to contend with any resistance.

In Achebe’s words,” [Heart of Darkness has] Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world”

“Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world. Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings.”

“Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin. Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth. But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad”.( Source-http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html).

It is exactly the sort of mythologizing Africa( as a place of savages and cannibals) and racism sticking out like sore thumb amidst Conrad’s main purpose of unveiling the dark colonial legacy, that is rubbing up critics like Achebe the wrong way. In his 1958 novel, ‘Things Fall Apart‘, Achebe documents the spiritual history of Igbo people, their rich and civilized life before European colonization. The novel critiques Conrad’s work as not differentiating myths from facts when approaching the subject of Africa and seeing it through the white colonizer’s prism.

The title has aroused one of the most critical debates in the history of literature. Though from Achebe’s perspective, these allegations are true, more so as the reader attempts to step into his shoes and read the book, it is unjustifiable not to take into consideration the period during which the novella was written, the historical context and the zeitgeist captured during the middle and late nineteenth centuries when neither colonialism nor racism at their pinnacle was reckoned as ills or evil, but as run-of-the-mill and the travel writings and art projected and cemented the savagery as a pivotal and constant theme in them. A novel or any work of art was read/ seen for its literary qualities/ aesthetic values only. So, the then critics focussed on the form of the novel only. At the time Conrad, a creature of his time, would probably not have been able to present anything other than an imperialistic world-view. Though he criticizes imperialism, he finds it unavoidable in the end in part by vindicating Kurtz.

Contradictions and ambivalence abound in Conrad’s writing. Taking an example, Fresleven, the Danish captain has been described as a sublime soul who ends up murdering a native. Another example is the accountant, whom Marlow meets at the company station in Congo, who maintains an immaculately clean suit and coiffed hair despite the filth and chaos reigning the station- a light in the darkness. his views on life are ambivalent. Conrad begins the story by glorifying the idea of colonialism but shatters it by expounding on the horrors of Belgium Company in Congo. His justification of colonialism as “devotion to efficiency” transforms into”robbery with violence“. He repulses at how the natives are treated, still, they have never been conferred the equal human status as the colonizers. Near the end, Conrad describes life as ” that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose”– at once meaningful and meaningless. Whether these were adjectival flaws on his side or studied insertions are still debated.

The veil of hypocrisy employed in vindicating the purposes of imperialism is torn off to expose the nefarious activities of the company men. They describe their activities as ‘trade’ and ‘civilizing missions’ all the while suppressing and exterminating the natives. Though we feel that Marlow is trying to expose the hypocrisy, he has objectified and dehumanized them and they are just a framework for him to philosophically self-contemplate and expound on an existential struggle( Marlow refers to the native helmsman as a piece of machinery and Kurtz’s African mistress as a piece of statuary). This kind of implicit racism is much more sinister than the explicit one as per Conrad’s critics.

Kurtz’s madness is employed to gain the reader sympathy. Whether the Company or the natives are responsible for his madness is hazy. Similarly, Marlows moral confusion and absurdity in the judgment of evil, insanity and social values are evident in the part where Kurtz’s homicidal tendencies and a leaky bucket evoke the same reactions from him. Marlow is trapped between the devil and the rock and is forced to choose the lesser of the two evils- a hypocritic Company or rule-defying Kurtz.

The pointlessness and futility of the European mission in Africa are elaborated by a few instances like a French warship firing at an invisible enemy, the pointless attempt to extinguish a burning grass hut, and the random hole digging by slave laborers. The hollowness and moral bankruptcy of the colonizers is alluded to in the description of the chatty brickmaker with a forked beard and hooked nose (alluding to Devil) who he meets at the Central Station. He describes him as “papier-mache Mephistopheles” ( A demon in German folk-lore, he appears as the devil who tempts Faust into selling his soul in the drama ‘Faust‘ by Goethe and in the 16 th century English play ‘Dr. Faustus‘ by Christopher Marlowe). The brickmaker has ” nothing inside but a little loose dirt”. The same allusion is applied in the case of Kurtz. Marlow describes the African wilderness whispering to Kurtz-  “It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” Later, as Kurtz lays dying, he is described as a “hollow sham” of his later self.

Heart of Darkness was not the only artistic work where critics missed the racial content during those times. The famous art critic John Ruskin did not acknowledge the racial content of JMW Turner‘s painting The Slave Ship. Though, there were westerners like the Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer who was a theologian, organist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician( he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952) who sacrificed his brilliant career to serve the people in the same heart of Africa that Conrad describes as the seat of savagery, during the same time frame. This equivocality of perspectives is something to give thought to, during the period when the book was written and also while reading this book at any time period.

The way by which a reader approaches a work, literary or art, depends on many factors like how subjective or objective he/ she is, whether biased or unbiased, level of emotiveness in sympathizing/ empathizing/ hating/ liking a subject/ character and so on.  The senseless murder by the character, Mersault in Albert Camus‘ ‘The Stranger‘, the imprudent murders by the character Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky‘s ‘Crime and Punishment’, the abhorrent repulsive transgressions and sin of the deluded pedophile Humbert Humbert in Nabokov‘s ‘Lolita’– these are a few characters that linger and blemish our mind like indelible blotches. We adore these masterpieces, yet, when we read them, we get to encounter the goods and evils alike but never can/ never do we vindicate the evils they had done, the reader should never be short-sighted to blindly follow what the characters say or do. Exactly so, as an unbiased and impartial reader, though I could think highly of this masterpiece, notably Conrad’s use of foggy adjectives, symbolisms and imageries, his virtuosity for story-telling, modernist style, attempts at tearing the facade of colonialism……..the apparently misplaced adjectives seem a bit convoluted when he describes the savagery of the indigenous people in ostensibly racist terms with contradictory symbolisms and imageries, as something so bestial as to be inclined to spawn madness in a white colonialist man. Never can I vindicate or sympathize with a character like Kurtz. We are reading it in the 21- st century, and hence it is absolutely impossible to ignore the explicit racism while Conrad describes the African subjects in the darkest of tones and be impersonal to his narrative, though his intent might have been sublime in exposing the raw Company and its deeds. It is hard to leave the racist tones out of the picture, though there is a specter of the intentional fallacy while judging and critiquing any artwork, more so something that has famously triggered debates, through the frame of reference of a historian or psychologist.

All of which eggs on the mind to question the definition and criteria of the civilized-  is it skin color? Is it the ability to read, write, communicate, dress up? Does it make the colonialists civilized or any better than a bunch of hoodlums, taking into account their hooliganism and plunder of the colonies, seizing hold of their wealth, thrusting them to indigence and ill-health? Naked, dark or savages, let them be, they never traveled west to invade or plunder the hypocritic, self-proclaimed “civilized society”. They led their own lives, followed their rituals or practices, living as units and families in communities without engendering any harm to the outside world, disconnected from the “civilized” society until the scramble for Africa took root, not for the ostensible humanitarian purpose but for looting and repressing them. Barring a few egalitarian souls like Albert Schweitzer, all of the “civilized” west from the Dukes and Monarchs to their minions in the lowest rung, men and women of letters including, literally and figuratively committed unpardonable, execrable barbarities in the colonies, which in itself is the single most reason to debar them from the canonical “civilized” society. And it is not cumbersome for the reader to discern, in whose heart the darkness dwells.

 

 

Book review and analysis- ‘A Room Of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf

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Author– Virginia Woolf

Genre and subgenre– Nonfiction/ Essay/ Feminist literary criticism/ Modernism

Themes– Position of women in fiction and real-life/ Sexist attitude in or towards literature/ Effect of the gender of the writer on their characters or theme or style/ Critical analysis of patriarchal society/ Women’s rights/ Materialistic approach to intellectual freedom and hence literary freedom/ Freedom for creativity in the form of private space as opposed to confinement in a common environment vis-a-vis Edwardian, Elizabethan, and Victorian women.

Introduction

Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room Of One’s Own‘ is one of the earliest and iconic texts of feminist literary criticism. It is an extended essay based on two lectures that she delivered on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’ at Newnham College and Girton College( two women’s colleges at Cambridge University) in 1928.

It is interesting to note that the essay begins with a ‘But’- emphasizing the contrarianism in the topic of women and fiction. She explores her famous argument/ opinion, ‘ A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction‘, and develops and amends it freely through her ‘train of thought‘ method similar to the modernist ‘stream of consciousness‘ method used by James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and William Faulkner and utilized by Woolf in her novel,’To The Lighthouse‘. While developing her argument, she cautions the audience to be wary of lies that might flow from her lips amidst truths and facts and to parse the prejudices, idiosyncrasies, and limitations of her argument before drawing one’s own conclusion. And she indicates that fiction might have more truth than fact. The methodology used is historical and sociological analyses, fictional hypotheses, philosophy utilizing symbolism, and motifs. ( Enjoy the brilliant symbolisms as in the other Woolf works)

Woolf invents a fictional narrator, Mary, to serve this purpose ( Woolf tells us that her name does not matter), and a fictional University of Oxbridge. It is the character, Mary who takes the arguments forward on the course of visiting the fictional colleges and The British Museum while scouring documents for asserting her arguments.

Review and analysis

The essay starts with Mary sitting on the banks of a river near the college, lost in serious thought about women and fiction. Woolf compares the thought as ‘letting its line into the stream‘, and idea as ‘ a small fish tugging at the end of one’s line, a sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating‘.

Mary, intent on developing the thought, slowly walks over the grass turf of the college, while she is being intercepted by the Beadle with horror and indignation. He literally (and figuratively) shows her path as the gravel and not the turf and stresses that only Fellows and Scholars( all men) are allowed to use the turf. Though the turf is better than gravel for walking, it has been protected as an all-men privilege that has been rolled out in succession for the past 300 years and the interruption sends her little fish( idea) into hiding. She thinks of literary geniuses like Charles Lamb and Thakeray who had set their feet on that ground hundreds of years ago. She opens the library door and is again being intercepted by a gentleman who tells her that ladies were not allowed, but with a Fellow of the college or with a letter of introduction. Mary vows never to enter there again- ‘ let it sleep forever. Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again.’

She passes a chapel watching a congregation flow inside and hesitates to enter, lest she might be denied entry again.  Reflecting on the amount of money, gold, and silver that might have flowed into the basements of these buildings from the coffers of kings, queens, and nobles during yesteryears, nowadays donated by wealthy civilian men ‘when the age of faith was over and the age of reason had come’, who endows chairs, lectureships, and fellowships. She goes to lunch, describing the gourmet food on display that she compares with the minimal dishes for dinner in a women’s college. Suddenly she sees a tailless Manx cat walking across the quadrangle and feels something is lacking. The tailless cat is symbolic of the post-war period that changes the music of pre-war England to meaningless regular conversations. It might also be symbolic of women as second-class citizens, lacking the qualities of men and so unwelcome on the grassy lawn. The luxurious lunch is symbolic of the wealth possessed by aristocratic men whose thoughts and conversations are unimpeded unlike the dinner at the women’s college which is striking and representative of the inequalities endured by women for centuries from a patriarchal society.

The narrator searches for answers in the British Museum, London by scouring the section on women and fiction, hoping to consult the learned and the unprejudiced, thereby straining off personal, accidental, prejudiced impressions and so to reach the pure fluid, ‘the essential oil of truth’. Here, she finds institutionalized sexism, the books about women were written by men and never in the other order. Instead of answers, she starts thinking more questions, primarily why women were poorer than men. She evokes the famed authors belittling women, citing Samuel Butler (‘ Wise men never say what they think of women’), and Alexander Pope (‘ Most women have no character at all’). Napoleon thought them incapable, Mussolini despised them. Yet, some like Dr. Johnson and Goethe honored them.

Figuring the truth running through her fingers, it seems a pure waste of time to consult those gentlemen who specialize in women. ‘One might as well leave their books unopened’. She draws a figure of Professor X engaged in writing ‘ The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex‘ as if he were killing a noxious insect, looking very angry and irritated. The figure itself was a reflection of the narrator’s anger upon seeing the title of his creation. She wonders how anger had snatched her pencil while she dreamt-‘Had anger, the black snake been lurking among the other emotions?‘. She wonders if the book had been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.

She reads a newspaper at lunch, pervading with misogynist, patriarchal condescension and notices the presence of the professor in it in the guise of the editor, sub-editor, foreign secretary, Judge, shareholder and so forth. It was his money, power and influence talking. But, still, he was angry and this perplexes her. She concludes that one would not have been angry if the professor had written dispassionately in an unbiased manner using indisputable proofs. He might well be concerned with his superiority while insisting emphatically upon the inferiority of women. Had he been objective by not utterly focussing on the inferiority of the other sex, he would have attained the freedom of thought for literary creation. Woolf, in the same manner, remains detached from the essay in an impersonal manner, by creating a fictional narrator, though she gives voice to the narrator, and ultimately could think objectively without personal prejudices.

She uses the ‘looking-glass‘ metaphor here-‘ Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and the delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size’. So, if she begins to criticize men, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks. She emphasizes the power of money/ inheritance on the freedom of thought, something valuable than the right to vote-‘ Remove the protection from the other sex and expose them to the same activities and exertions, make them soldiers and sailors…..’. Woolf stresses money as a means of personal freedom and thus creativity and the aesthetic ideology is conveyed as metaphors of the brilliant light on the sky as ‘ a fiery fabric flashing with red eyes, a tawny monster roaring with hot breath……’

The narrator is perplexed with the perennial puzzle of why no women wrote a word of that extraordinary literature or why the details about the life of women are completely absent from literature during the Elizabethan period. Woolf uses the metaphor of the spider web to describe the imaginative work needed for fiction, its intricacies, attached as it is to the various points of realities of life. Creating fiction is totally unlike the dropping of a pebble as science may be. The narrator finds a book titled ‘History of England’ by one Professor Trevelyan, in which issues like wife-beating, lack of freedom to choose a husband, marriages made out of family avarice and not personal affection are discussed. He mentions a paradox in which fictional women, Shakespeare’s heroines, for example, were never wanting in personality and character. Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Desdemona, Rosalind….. all of them have burnt like beacons in fiction. Thus a queer, composite individual emerges who has the highest importance in imagination, but worthless in reality, ‘ An odd monster that one made up by reading historians first and poets afterward, a worm winged like an eagle.’ One needs to think prosaically and poetically to conjure up this queer creature. She is a passing shadow, whisking away into the background, concealing, a wink, a laugh, sometimes a tear.

Thinking of an old gentleman, a bishop, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present or future, to have the genius of Shakespeare, she conjures up an imaginative character, Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, with the same genius as himself. The privileges consigned exclusively to the male sex transforms him to the Bard, while she, struggling to surmount the obstacles, is nipped in the bud. Thus she concludes that a genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among laboring, uneducated, servile people except for some rarities sometimes. She mentions Jane Austen, Bronte sisters, Robert Burns as novelists who transcended the many barriers to create fiction. Chastity was something to be guarded, in addition, that anonymity was the preferred mode of escape from slander- Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand….. and many others were victims of this inner strife. With this, the narrator asks a pertinent question- what is the state of mind that is propitious to the state of creation?

Though we do not know what Shakespeare, Carlyle, Flaubert or Keats went through while composing their masterpieces, the narrator presumes from the enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that ‘to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty’. Both material circumstances and the physical and psychological environment might have impeded them at their task. “ And mighty poets in their misery dead”- William Wordsworth( Resolution and Independence, stanza 17.

And the obstacles might have been formidable for women writers without a supporting income or a room of her own. The world was indifferent to Keats, Flaubert, but outright hostile to women writers. This presumption and declaration of the intellectual inferiority of the female writers and outright environmental hostility must have ‘lowered her vitality and told profoundly upon her work.’ Nick Greene had said that a woman acting reminded him of a dog dancing. Here, she offers a slice of advice to writers to ignore the criticisms leveled against their works. Still, she maintains that it is the men or women of genius who mind most what is said of them and that it is the nature of an artist to do this. ‘ Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others’.

The actual gravestone text of John Keats reads:

This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English poet, who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraved on his tombstone
“HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.”’

Here, Woolf brings out the light symbolism again. She writes, ‘ the mind of an artist in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him must be incandescent like Shakespeare’s mind. There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.’ The works of Shakespeare do not reveal any personal grudges compared to those of Ben Jonson or Milton. Hence the unimpeded flow of Shakespeare’s poetry. His mind was incandescent. Woolf is at odds with criticism, which dilutes the incandescence according to her. Contemporary feminist and minority literature theorists disagree. They use protest literature to reclaim their voices.

Discussing the freedom of female writers, the narrator mentions about aristocratic women who would take advantage of their comparative freedom and comfort to publish something without the risk of being stamped as a monster or witch. She mentions Lady Winchilsea who wrote poetry during the 17-th century, who was noble by birth and marriage, childless, all fruitful environs for her writings to flourish, still the indignation was palpable in her poems. Alexander Pope or Gay is said to have satirized her as ‘ a bluestocking with an itch for scribbling’. The incandescence in her is consumed by hatred for the opposite sex.  Woolf equally mentions this point for both male and female writers. Another gifted female writer, Dorothy Osborne, out of sense and modesty, wrote letters instead of books. And the narrator discusses the works of Aphra Behn( Oroonoko,  The Rover), which was a turning point in female literature. She, after the death of her husband, wrote to make a living and raise her children.

Aphra Behn thus changed the landscape of female literature and in the later 18-th century women began talking, meeting, writing based on the solid fact that women could be financially independent by making money by writing. ‘ Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for’. Middle-class women began to write. Here, the narrator turns her attention to the four famed female writers- Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and George Eliot. Their masterpieces definitely echo the collective voices of the female writers who came before them like Fanny Burney, Eliza Carter, and Aphra Behn.

She saunters to the section of 19-th century literature by women and wonders why all of them were novels but not poetry, with a few exceptions. Nothing seemed congruous about the four writers mentioned above except for the fact that all wrote novels, all four were childless. A middle-class family in the early 19-th century possessed only a single sitting room and amidst the interruptions cutting short their concentration, it would have been easier to write prose than poetry or play.  Jane Austen is said to have hidden her manuscripts while there were visitors to her house. Their only training was in observing the character and analyzing the emotions, naturally, the prose for fiction came easily to them. Still, they might have been capable of other pursuits like poetry, play, history or biography, could they been given a room of their own. Jane Austen and Shakespeare share the qualities of writing without hate, bitterness, protest or without preaching. In fact, they had consumed all their impediments.

Opening chapter twelve of Jane Eyre, the narrator’s eye gets stuck at the sentence ‘Anybody may blame me who likes’. She wonders what they were blaming Charlotte Bronte for. Laying the book beside Pride and Prejudice, the narrator infers that Charlotte Bronte has more genius in her than Jane Austen, still, it is not being expressed whole and entire as a result of her indignation and rage that deforms and twists her characters by infusing herself into the pages. She reflects on the range of freedom of life circumstances offered to men and even they commit sins, never do they need to seclude them from the righteous or else Tolstoy could scarcely have written ‘War and Peace‘. Life conflicts with something that is not life in a novel. What holds the work together among the readers is its integrity. It is the ‘invisible ink that nature traces on one’s mind, a premonition which these great artists confirm’. This is what makes War and Peace a masterpiece, she concludes. On the other hand novels with bright colors and dashing gestures bring to light only a faint scribble on the mind, a blot over there, a failure that comes to grief somewhere.

The narrator wonders how the sex of the writer interferes with the integrity, how the imagination falters under strain, confusing the insight to distinguish between true and false. Anger was clearly impeding the integrity of Charlotte Bronte in ‘Jane Eyre’. She left it in the midst to attend some personal grievance. Anger tugged her imagination, swerved and deflected it from its path. But, there were many more, ignorance for instance. She draws the portrait of ‘Rochester‘ blindly, in the dark, we feel her fear, a ‘buried rancor smoldering beneath her passion, contracting those books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain‘.

And next, the narrator links the difference of value among both sexes, transferred from life to fiction, ad how the critic evaluates the significance of the work according to these. For instance, football and sport are ‘important’ while the feeling of women in a drawing-room, what she does, how she feels is not. Woolf thus vindicates writers like Charlotte Bronte, who had to fend off these barbs by aggression or conciliation, docility or diffidence, anger or emphasis depending on what her temperament dictated. The flaw in her work comes from her head, from the center- ‘ Think of all the women’s novels that lie scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand book shops of London. It was the flaw in the center that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others’. The kind of genius and integrity to ward off the criticism in the midst of a patriarchal society without withering is a commendable feat. Only Jane Austen and Emily Bronte did that. They wrote as women write and not as men write, a feather in their caps. They were deaf to persistent admonitions, pedagogueries, patronizing speeches. She quotes Egerton Brydges, the English bibliographer, and genealogist- ‘female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex’. This sentence was written not in 1828, but in 1928, the narrator stresses. She calls those defiant women novelists, firebrand, to say to themselves that literature is open t everybody. ‘Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no bolt, no lock that you can set upon the freedom of my mind’.

Now, she comes to another difference between men and women writers- the absence of sufficient precedent for women writers and the mind of the two sexes. The pace/ stride of a man’s mind is too unlike her own to use any of his words or style, ‘The ape is too distant to be sedulous’. There is no common sentence ready for use. Thackeray, Dickens, and Balzac created their sentences with their own tint without ceasing to be common property. A man’s sentence is unsuited for women’s use. Charlotte Bronte, a genius, but she fell with clumsy use of the words. Geroge Eliot committed atrocities with them. It was Jane Austen who with her freedom and fullness of expression, shaped the words into her own squares, circles, arcades, and domes. So, with less genius that Charlotte Bronte, she got said more. She could build sentences and not just write. Thus, all the other forms of literature except the novel were shaped and hardened by her male peers by the time she started to write. Only the novel was pliable, young and soft in her hands to be shaped into one that she desired. Woolf laments that poetry was still denied an outlet from women. She hopes for a future where they would compose epics in verse or prose when she will be free to use her limbs to knock them to shape. Woolf herself provides the example by not just copying the Modernist ‘stream of consciousness’ style, but, modifying it into a free indirect discourse in her novel ‘ To The Lighthouse’. One of the great English stylists, she shaped her works with wit, elegance, and focus into natural cut out sentences.

The narrator finally gets to the shelves of contemporary writers, men, and women, she finds that women no longer write solely novels. There are Jane Harrison‘s books on Greek archaeology, Vernon Lee‘s books on aesthetics, Gertrude Bell‘s books on Persia. There are poems, plays, and criticisms, history, biography, and philosophy. She has begun to take writing as an art, something for a living and not solely as a means of self- expression. Here she creates a fictional author, Mary Carmichael who wrote’Life’s Adventure’, her first book. The narrator starts reading and wonders if the author has a pen or a pickaxe in her hand. The sentences lacked the melody of Jane Austen, to read her was like ‘out at sea in an open boat’. Maybe, she was being too conscious of the flowery prose in female literature and wants to provide a superfluity of thorns instead? The sentences and sequences were broken. Then she stopped at the sentence ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ and the immense change struck her. Sometimes women do like women, she thinks and muses how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered if Cleopatra liked Octavia instead of feeling jealous of her. Excepting a few like Diana of the Crossways, in Racine and the Greek tragedies, almost without exception women were shown in relation to men. Even Proust is hampered and partial in his knowledge of women as a woman in her knowledge of men. Carmichael’s female characters like each other, they share a laboratory and are working mothers. So much has changed in the course of years in female literature. Woolf once again uses the light symbolism, of Carmichael lighting a torch in the half-lights and profound shadows inside serpentine caves. The narrator watches curiously as the author captures ‘the unrecorded gestures, unsaid or half said words, which form no more than the shadows of moths on the ceiling when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and colored light of the other sex’. 

The narrator heedlessly starts to praise women as ‘infinitely intricate’. ‘highly developed’ and so forth, but realizes the absence of yardsticks to measure the qualities of a good mother, devotion of a daughter or fidelity of a sister. Yet, greats like Goethe, Carlyle, Cowper, Sterne, Shelley, Voltaire, and Browning have for one reason or other admired, sought out, lived with, confided in, made love to, written of or trusted in women, and not all could be said as platonic. And from these relationships, it was not just flattery, comfort or pleasure that those men sought, but some stimulus for renewal of creative power which only the opposite sex can bestow. The narrator hopes for Carmichael to be a contemplative novelist rather than a naturalist one as she needs to draw a lot of pictures of characters from the drawing-room to the street. Each gender has a blind spot ‘the size of a shilling on the back of their head‘ but through mutual observations, they can gain full enlightenment. The narrator dares the author to go behind the head of the other sex and point out the black spot. Reading further, the narrator compares Carmichael to other authors and notices that she had no love of nature, the fiery imagination, the wild poetry, the brilliant wit or the brooding wisdom of her predecessors. Nevertheless, she had certain advantages which women of far greater gift lacked— fear and hatred to men had gone, or if present in traces were shown in a slight exaggeration of the joy of freedom, a tendency to be caustic or satirical. She had that capacious sensibility that brought buried things to light and she mastered to write as a woman without conscious of being a woman. The narrator hopes for Carmichael to do her best in the test, to ignore the bishops, deans, professors, patriarchs, and pedagogues warning and shouting at her, to not stop or curse, to not laugh or fumble, imploring her to think of jumping over the fence and she flew like bid over the fence. But, there were many fences beyond the first one, and though her staying power was doubtful, she did her best considering she was no genius, but an unknown girl writing her first novel without a room of her own or five hundred bucks a year income. Give her these and in another hundred years, she will be a poet.

In the final chapter, the narrator discusses  ‘the unity of mind‘, a hypothesis that she puts forth, the mind having both male and female components in both sexes and which need to be united in harmony in order to attain satisfaction and happiness. She refers to Coleridge‘s saying that ‘ a great mind is androgynous‘. She infers that a purely masculine or feminine mind could not create. By the term androgynous Coleridge had meant a resonant, porous mind transmitting emotion without impediment, naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. Shakespeare’s mind could be taken as an example, but, it is difficult to say what he thought of women. She thinks of how much harder it is to attain a state of mind now than before, that does not think specially or separately of sex. The books by the men on women on the shelves is an example of this. She blames the Suffrage campaign for this, one which roused self-assertion in men by challenging them. The response has been excessive since they had never been challenged before.

She reads a novel by a well-respected male writer, written clearly, strongly, using a free mind, but balks at the self- assertive ‘I’ that pervades the novel. This feeling of superiority, that hides the other sex in its shadow impedes the creative energy of the author and he is protesting equality of the other sex by asserting his own superiority, The narrator hints that Elizabethan literature might have been different if the women’s movement had begun in the sixteenth century instead of the nineteenth. Thus, the author writing with only the male side of the brain will never be understood by female readers, the sentences fall plump to the ground. But with Coleridge’s sentences, the mind explodes and gives birth to all kinds of ideas and this sort of writing has the secret of perpetual life. She notices that the works of Kipling and Galsworthy cannot find in them the fountain of perpetual life, they lack the suggestive power and cannot penetrate deep inside the mind.

Woolf stresses the necessity of financial independence in creativity, the symbolic five hundred bucks a year and a lock on the door for the power to contemplate. She quotes the Cornish writer, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch next. ‘ Poetical genius bloweth where it listeth and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth’. ‘ The poor poet has not in these days nor has had for 400 years, a dog’s chance…..a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom’. Intellectual freedom depends on material things and poetry depends on intellectual freedom.  Of all the great poets of the last few hundred years only Keats, Browning and Rossetti had not attended university. Of these three poets, only Keats was not well- to do and he died young. Women had even less intellectual freedom than sons of Athenian slaves. And women have always been poor.

Thus, Woolf makes her case on stressing on the material aspects of life- a room of one’s own and 500 bucks a year- for intellectual freedom. She urges women to write and read. And she explains that when she asks women to earn money and have a room of one’s own, she means for women to live in reality. She exhorts women to utilize the privileges of education, to bear fewer children, to escape the common sitting room and write what one thinks is right. Judith would come again ‘if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile’.

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Book Review-“Orlando” by Virginia Woolf

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Title-                  Orlando

Author-             Virginia Woolf

Genre-              Fictional biography/ historical biography/ fantasy/ satire/                                                             modernism/magical realism

Theme-            Relationship b/w Fact and imagination/ gender differences/                                                              conformity/ flow of time/ identity

 

Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is difficult to be categorized under a specific genre. It could equally qualify for satire, mock biography, fiction, fantasy, magical realism, or modernism. Through the work, she elucidates, questions and examines serious topics like gender bias, the interconnectedness of fact and fantasy, sexual identity, conforming to mores and ethos, a materialistic society sordid with exhibitionism and parade of poseurs, literary progression, and the passage of time and it’s effects on people, through the androgynous protagonist, Orlando using her high flying poetic language. As in each of Woolf’s novels, symbolism and imagery are the predominant vehicles for conveying her thoughts to the reader.

It is a fantastic historical mock biography of ‘Orlando’ through 400 years of his existence whereby he goes through a gender change. The very first sentence of the novel, “He, for there could be no doubt about his sex……” takes in what the reader is about to encounter.

Orlando is claimed to be the product of Woolf’s complex relationship with fellow writer, Vita Sackville West, who was known for her many lesbian affairs and an acknowledged bisexual, so on this account the work is a fiction-biography fusion or autofiction. Woolf dedicates the novel to Vita. The androgynous Orlando exhibits transvestism and is drawn towards male and female characters. ( Reminds me of Shakespeare‘s hero Orlando in ‘As you Like It‘. Orlando’s lover Rosalind disguises as a man to test his love for her. Women cross-dressing as men is a common theme in many Shakespeare plays.)

The novel could be considered the first trans novel in English. But, at about the same time of its publication(1928), another lesbian novel made waves for wrong reasons- “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall. The novel was banned in the UK for obscenity and there was a court case against Hall before it became international best-seller years later. Though, Hall’s writing style comes nowhere near Woolf’s. Both the novels were published around the same period, still, interestingly, one was banned and Orlando managed to skirt around the prudish Victorian censors. The reason is laid bare by the way she brings forth the androgynous protagonist, her poetic language, exploration of sexual identity in a subtle way and through that anatomizing gender bias, and the process of literary creativity and literary maturation through Elizabethan, Victorian and Edwardian periods, the effect of time on self, and the progression of time. In short, Orlando is not just a trans novel.

The rigid conventions and restrictions of Victorian biography are flatly mocked. Traditional stereotypes of gender reinforced on Woolf by her parents are questioned and analyzed. Barbs aimed at her father, himself a biographer, stern and detached, is conspicuous. The narrator, who claims to be Orlando’s biographer, is subjective, intentionally, while describing him using overflowing poetic language and steers and leads the reader’s perception of Orlando’s actions by deliberately expounding for the protagonist. In short, Woolf tells us that biographies are never 100% factual truth, they are fictionalized facts. Woolf notes that ‘she must state the facts as they are known and let the reader make of them what he will.

Orlando sways between life, love, and literature in the process of completing his poetry, ‘The Oak Tree’, thus finding the meaning of life, love, and literary maturity at the end. Despite the pain and rigors in literary creation, she projects the incisiveness of the know-all critics and how even the greats like Shakespeare, Marlow, Alexander Pope or John Dryden were at the receiving end of their pen. Like Woolf, Orlando frets about criticism.

Orlando’s journey from the 16-th century to the 20-th century is about the need to conform to the spirit of the age. The struggle becomes more with gender change, as a woman, and more so during the Victorian period with its strait-laced mores and moral judgments. Conjugal relation is ineluctable and the role of women is pigeonholed as homemakers and propagators of the human race. For Orlando, identity is not defined by apparel, there is a man inside every woman and vice-versa, there is no specific delineation of identity or sexuality. Yet, she capitulated to the spirit of the age and decides to find a husband, and fails first, thus accepting nature, moor, as her husband. (A subtle snipe at Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights‘).

Finally, when Orlando finds Shelmerdine, a sailor, for her husband, Woolf parodies Gothic romance literature by describing their meeting and union that happens in seconds, inevitably entangled with nature. ( One could see a whole lot of feathery metaphors. Shel’s stretched-out moniker is ‘wild, dark-plumed with a steel-blue gleam of rook’s wings, hoarse laughter of their caws, snake-like twisting descent of their feathers in a silver pool’ ). True, nothing stops the reader from getting lost inside Woolf’s imagination!

A satirical punch is also delivered to Alexander PopeRape Of The Lock), Joseph AddisonSpectator) and Jonathan SwiftGulliver’s Travels). Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock‘( not literally) deserves mention here since that itself was a satirical work dedicated to his female friend and her fiancee. Pope parodies the circumstances in 18 th century Britain by satirizing an uneventful occurrence of cutting off of a lock of Belinda’s hair without her permission by his fiancee during a jamboree! ( hence the title). The moment had been overblown to elephantine proportions by comparing it with the irredeemable act of looting her virginity and hence chastity. The interesting feature here is, though, Pope lampoons the zeitgeist of the 18 th century by alluding everything from the clothes, hairstyle, way of talking, even furniture through juxtapositioning them with classical epics, instances of patriarchal condescension to female gender sticks out like a sore thumb throughout. Woolf points out that the passage of time has had nil whatsoever remodeling or transmuting effect on the putting down of the female bird brains. ( The poem is a very interesting one though).

The ambiguity of sexes is a constant theme throughout the novel. Orlando as a young boy is described as possessing some feminine characters like a shapely leg and arched lips. When the young man Orlando meets Sasha, the Muscovite princess, she first appears like a boy to him. (Sasha is said to the fictional form of Violet, Vita’s former lover) Orlando as a woman realizes that Shelmerdine(her husband) is more feminine and he, in turn, recognizes the masculine in her.

In the final chapter, the first-person narration by the biographer slides into a stream of consciousness style typical of Woolf. This chapter is about realizations, seeking and finding the truths, finding love and life and attainment of literary maturity. Orlando realizes that poetry is more a personal achievement of the soul than fame, money, and critical acclaim. It is a ‘voice answering a voice‘. The flow of time and reality is entirely subjective. We are many selves in an individual, sometimes more than a thousand identities in oneself. Identifying as a single self at a given moment is close to impossible. Rather Orlando finally becomes aware of the composite self, a unity of all the past, present and future identities that define her at the present moment.

Copyright © deepanairrp

 

Book Review ‘To The Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf.

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Author- Virginia Woolf

Genre- Fiction/ Modernism

Theme- Time

My review

Definitely not an easy one to read let alone understand, the novel tracks a tricky unconventional mode better known as the ‘stream of consciousness’ where the readers go through the mental pictures of characters rather than actual speech or actions. There are no specific indications or pointers as to whether they are traversing the past, present or future, each sliding stealthily into the other. Woolf seems to intentionally smudge the lines between them, thereby confusing the reader’s perception of space and time.

It’s confusing at many levels, primarily in getting a sense of location and chronological order. To give an example, Mrs. Ramsay’s soliloquy while knitting, darts from the future prospects of a nuptial union of Mr. Banks and Lily and suddenly turns into empathizing with the maid’s past, whose father had been suffering from cancer, who was forced to separate from him and work in a faraway place. Interestingly the reader’s mind darts in a similar fashion from future to past and from past to present, oftentimes failing to link events in order chronologically.

The novel has an autobiographical element, of Virginia’s childhood spent at the summer-house in St. Ives, Cornwall. That period is showcased in the first part of the novel, taking place before World War One, with all it’s Victorian mores and ethos. The last part centers on the post-Victorian period, same as Virginia’s adulthood when the frame of mind of the characters undergo a drastic change, their attitudes change and situations are weighed up against the past occurrences.

Postwar period ushered in a modernistic era when experimentation in formalism, modernism, structuralism, and realism took root in literature and art beginning from the dawn of the twentieth century. Virginia, who had been home-schooled by her mother, was able to experience the freedom of thought and style in literature through the masterpieces of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and the like.

Notable in the literary style is how Virginia composes the complexity of thought followed by simple actions. She explores the realities and mundanities of everyday life, a stark contrast to the romanticism of the Edwardian era novels. It is refreshing for the reader to experience life as it is rather than dabble in the fantasies of Romanticism. Nevertheless, our thoughts get entwined with the character’s inner working of mind so much so that the reader sometimes wish to escape from the bubble to a world outside. Another feature of the novel is the poetical beauty of her prose, especially while picturing nature. And here, she follows T.S Eliot’s Impersonal Theory of Poetry. The characters engage in a kind of ‘soliloquy in solitude’ disconnected from one another.

Woolf’s strong stance on feminism is said to have evolved from this novel onward. In the novel, the character Charles Tansley’s patriarchal and misogynist statement ‘ women can’t paint, women can’t write’, in a condescending manner, comes back to Lily’s mind every time she tries to start her painting. The status of women as an artist or anything beyond the role of a housekeeper during Victorian times is rigidly being looked down upon and criticized by the character, Charles. Virginia surmounts this by drawing Lily’s character as someone out of the box, individualistic, whose persistence and grit triumphs finally, in bringing forth her artistic vision. According to her own words, the novel had been sort of release from the obsessions of Victorian mores foisted on her and her sisters by their mother. Her attitude to the inevitability of marriage for a woman is criticized through the character, Lily who hates marriage and parries the efforts of Mrs. Ramsay to get her married. Virginia had expressed it inconceivable for herself to have evolved into a writer, had her father been alive. In the novel, she delivers subtle snipes against both her parents’ outlook to women in general.

The novel is rich in symbolism and imagery. Taking Lily’s artistic visions as an example, Virginia has used Lily as a medium to convey her ideas of feminism, to expound on life and death, persistence, and finally self-realization. The lighthouse could be symbolic of desires, unattainable/ reachable.There is not just one interpretation to the meaning of the novel, but many since it had been written and each offers different perspectives on a subjective basis.

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