Joseph Conrad and George Orwell as historical chroniclers
Both Conrad and Orwell serve as moral chroniclers of the times in which they live. Both use their powers of authorship to tell a story of their day. In both of the works given, Heart Of Darkness and Burmese Days, we can see carefully crafted parables. These works serve as lessons to the Authors' contemporaries. Indeed, to this day they serve as lessons to us as well, though the situations which prompted their writings have long since passed. From the viewpoint of a historical critic, these stories can be seen as being as close to reality as any contemporaneous work in that they arise directly from the experiences of their authors. Even history books have a certain point of view, that cannot ever be totally impartial. Thus, it is fair to say that these two works, if not exactly accurate, are accurate to the time period. This analysis will refrain from bringing in extraneous points of reference, as might the work of a new historicist who wishes to view the authors through a feminist or deconstructionist lens. Instead, we will use what we know of the authors to augment our understanding of their intent. Through this, we will come to better understand the authors' work.
in Heart of Darkness, a case in contemporary criticism, Jerome McGann presents a valuable model for use by a historical critic to evaluate an author's work. First and foremost, McGann states that we must be attentive to the "point of origin" (p235) of the work. That is to say, we must look at the history of the Authors. For example, what did Conrad see in the Congo? How did Orwell's viewing of a public hanging affect him? What was the common perception of these events at the time? Secondly, McGann says that we must also be attentive to the "point of reception" (p235) of the author. In particular, who was the intended audience of this work? How might the educated man of the day have reacted to the works? Would the works be perceived as "anti-English" or as humanistic works designed to right an injustice? To speak to this, McGann goes on to say that the third thing a historicist must do is consider the expressed intentions of the Author. How did Conrad feel about his writing? What did the authors say about their own works? Also, McGann says that a historicist must consider the history of the book's reception. How did the public view the book? How was it received? Finally, McGann says that to bring all of these considerations together, the critic must "point to the future" (p235) of the work. What does this work mean to humanity today? Is it still relevant? How has society changed, and how will it change, as a result of their work? It is through the suggested guidelines of McGann that this paper will attempt to dissect Orwell and Conrad in a historical light.
To understand the "point of origin" of these authors, it is necessary to know a bit about their history. Both authors had direct contact with the types of situations about which they write. But to what degree is what they write "true" to the times? Did they write about incidents that they actually saw, or were their stories amalgamations of the various elements of the places in question? That is to say, did Orwell write about an actual man that he knew, or did he simply create this man to show a situation that easily could have happened? Did Conrad actually spend time with cannibals on a boat, and forge into the deep jungles in search of an elusive enigma, or did he write a more metaphorical saga of humanity in the wild?
It is doubtful that Conrad experienced everything that he wrote about. The images are too fantastic, too replete with symbolism to be taken at face value. However, it is known that Conrad himself had a similar trip down the Congo. Further, Conrad was a sailor, and his knowledge of boats and navigation are established. In his trip down the Congo, Conrad kept a series of notebooks. According to the biography presented by Simon & Schuster, Conrad not only follows his real-life journey very closely, but actually uses real people in his life as characters. His Aunt, for example, actually had something to do with his real trip. Even the character of Kurtz is allegedly based on a man named Georges-Antoine Klein (S&S, p8). Thus, while the story is indeed fantastic, it has elements of truth. These literal truths are quite possibly just as real to Conrad as the truth about man's natural state of darkness while within and acted on by the Congo.
Orwell also based his writings upon personal experience. In the biography presented it is said that Orwell "learned the bitter truth of what it meant to be an oppressor: that doing 'the dirty work of the empire' was morally corrupt." (Scammell, p8) This is certainly consistent with the rest of Orwell's life as well. His career is filled with writings about the dominion of tyranny over human spirit, and the consequences thereof. In 1984 and in Animal Farm, the topic of tyranny is also the guiding theme. It was Orwell's experience as a policeman that lead him to write Burmese Days. It was during this period of his life that Orwell became intimately familiar with the dynamics of power in the empire. At one point in his career, he even witnessed the torture and hanging of Burmese natives. It is no stretch, then, to say that Burmese Days is a direct result of his imperialist experiences in Burma. Further, Orwell's long history as a political and humanistic writer only strengthens the argument that Orwell had a specific message to convey.
With these facts in mind, it is quite clear that both authors have a very personal stake in the stories. They have a message, based in reality, that stands on a higher moral ground. Their stories are a warning to us, about the effects of Empire, and of imperialism. Both authors have seen the results of power. To both, it is a corrupting force. In Heart of Darkness we can see the downward spiral of man in the Congo, slowly losing his humanity. In Burmese Days, we can see the devastating backlash of the English's aristocratic ways and callous rule. It is this combination of personal experience and moral viewpoint that make the authors' tales so powerful. It is through the authors' synthesis of moral advice and literary craft that such striking stories have come to life. Clearly, the "point of origin" for both Orwell and Conrad is one that is very personal. It transcends simple fiction, and becomes instead a social statement.
To consider the "point of reception" of these two authors, it is necessary to remember that both writers were highly political. As such, their messages about the injustice of imperialism were highly charged. Some, such as the humanists of the day, found a great moral message in their works. Others saw the criticism of the status quo as a kind of betrayal of the values and society. Both authors, however, were clearly engaged in an active dialog with their contemporaries. These were stories written for the people. They were meant to be agents of societal change. In retrospect, it would appear that their original intention has been fulfilled.
Conrad, writing much earlier than Orwell, approved the last version of Heart of Darkness in 1921. The first draft was written years before. At this time, the British empire was still very much alive and vibrant. Because of this, Conrad's intended audience was still very much enamored with the idea of the empire. Conrad, however, had a counter-message that belied the popular notion of the colonies. His counter-message showed how the white man changed, and became corrupted in the colonies - even to the point of becoming a villain. It is his own personal experience in the Congo that prompted him to write this story, and apparently to become the advocate of the natives. Because of this, it is no surprise that many found his message disturbing. Politically, Heart of Darkness hit many nerves. However, Conrad was not the only critic of Imperialism writing at the time. It is of interest to note that Conrad made excessive use of the politically charged word "nigger" in his book. Although the use of such words was at one time commonplace, by the time he wrote Heart of Darkness it was considered improper. Nonetheless, Conrad uses the word repeatedly. It would seem that Conrad used the word intentionally, knowing full well that it would be seen as racist. But was it Conrad that was racist, or was it the character? Was the use meant to condone racism, or simply to accentuate the decay of human decency in the Congo? Whatever the reader's opinion, language is simply another example of the political undercurrent within Heart of Darkness. Literarily speaking, Conrad's audience saw him in a couple of different lights. According to the Simon and Schuster biography, Conrad was seen as both a symbolist and a moralist. His talent as a symbolist is clearly shown by his frequent use of Jungian and religious imagery. He uses imagery designed specifically to evoke an emotional response within his reader. Further, this imagery is used to provide clues to Conrad's message. In particular, the frequent images of death serve to augment the feeling of decay (both moral and physical) within the story. His talent as a moralist is implicit in the story. Conrad shows us how the white man lives in the Congo, how he enters full of conviction and pride, but slowly walks down the road of moral malaise. The message to his contemporaries is clear in both his moralistic and symbolistic craft.
Orwell was also a highly political writer. Throughout his life, Orwell was a proponent of the common man, and an enemy of tyranny. This is especially exemplified by other works, such as 1984 and Animal Farm. However, while those two stories deal more with Stalin and communism, Burmese Days stands as a lesson on Imperialism. Orwell wrote about many of the same themes as Conrad. Specifically, the idea that the English in Burma had gone beyond their "white man's burden" and become tyrants. Indeed, when war broke out, it was often the colonial administrators that became targets of the rebels. When Burmese Days was published, it was only a scant few years since a period of civil unrest between 1930-1932, in which the villagers of the Irrawaddy delta revolted. (Marshall, p179). With this history in mind, it is not surprising that such a story was brought before the public. Not only was the book timely, but it was inspired by Orwell's personal experiences. In a sense, it was perhaps a more accepted work than Conrad's, in that public sentiment had already swung towards the political left in regards to these issues.
Orwell, in writing Burmese Days is clearly speaking from the heart. His own words have shown him to have a very negative opinion of the situation in Burma. His own presence there, especially during the tumultuous early 1900's, proves that he was very much aware of the situation there. Burma is yet another example of the destructive force of British imperialism. In 1885-1886, when Britain first occupied Mandalay, a great societal change was enacted. Burma was previously a Buddhist country, ruled by the Konbaung dynasty. As such, it had a rich cultural tradition that included politics and religion. When Britain invaded, it splintered the country in more than political ways. The presence of the British, at one point, an army of 32,000 troops and 8,500 military police (Marshall, p179) caused a kind of social dissonance. So great was this dissonance, the Buddhist monks known as the Pongyi took to arms. It is difficult to think that Buddhist monks would engage in the art of war in this way. Considering that Buddhists at this very moment yet fight for their homeland of Tibet in non-violent ways, their motivation to shed the British rule must have been very great indeed. This cultural dissonance manifested itself in other ways, as well. In particular, the European ideology, which worshipped all that was English, caused the cultural rift to widen. By making "holy" all that was British, the English were able to divide the Burmese themselves. As is seen in the book, the English often played the Burmese against each other. By offering token jobs, the attention of Europeans, and the trappings of Empire, the British were able to make the Burmese fight amongst themselves for European favor. This is especially exemplified by the perpetual quest by Dr. Veraswami to join the European's club. Because of the status given by such a membership, the position was much sought after. So powerful was this token gesture on the part of the English, U Po Kyin had no choice but to fight him to maintain face and power. It is certain that Orwell, living in Burma during this time, had experienced this cultural dissonance first-hand. Perhaps Orwell's acute attention to the matter of European favor is an indication of his awareness of this rift. Considering the amount of attention paid to the issue of this in-fighting, it is reasonable to assume that he is intentionally drawing attention to this situation.
Further, this backdrop can be used as a context in which to frame the major characters of the book. Flory, the most empathetic of Englishmen, feels the angst of the Burmese around him. He is very much a part of both the cause and the solution of the problem. Because he is English, he is responsible in part for the cultural rift in Burma. In addition, he adheres most vehemently to the trappings of Empire, despite his otherwise humanistic tendencies. When he takes a consort, he lavishes her with the praise and wealth that many Burmese people seek. He perpetuates the English myth, at least in the eyes of his woman. When he breaks off his relationship with her, in essence because he has found something better, he causes in her the same rift that the country itself feels. She is torn between her love of him (or perhaps of things European) and her culture. In truth, she can never go back to the way she was, just as Burma could never go back to their pre-European history.
Doctor Veraswami is similar to Flory's consort in that he is also very much enamored with things European. He is the consummate enthusiast for the European cause. He truly believes that the British are a benevolent force, and that the modernization and education of his country would be their salvation. Towards that end, he has left behind his Burmese history, and focused on becoming the ideal Burman. On the other extreme is U Po Kyin, who seems to serve as the counter-point to Doctor Veraswami. Kyin is intelligent, indeed, and crafty. He works within the European system, but only in as much as it can bring him benefit. Most importantly, Kyin is still a part of his own culture. He dreams of his golden years, in which he will build many pagodas to cleanse the sins of his past. He prescribes to the older, more Burmese ways, and sees the English as contemptible. It is the interchange between Kyin and Veraswami that seems to accentuate the two poles of the cultural rift. Both characters represent an extreme ranging from Burmese/traditional to English/new. It is the conflict between these two extremes that draws attention to the rift, and hence to Orwell's message. In crafting this battle of wills, Orwell seems to be exemplifying what he, himself, saw as the malaise of Burmese society.
In addition, it is clear that Orwell was unhappy with the dynamics of power within Burma. As a policeman, he witnessed the hanging of a man, and other atrocities as well. Outside of the text of Burmese Days, Orwell also wrote essays about these events. A Hanging and When the White Man Turns Tyrant are two examples. In particular, Orwell felt that the dynamic of power in place hurt not only the colonies, but the British themselves. By acting with such callous disregard, they essentially ruined their own liberties, both in the colonies and at home. According to Scammel, Orwell himself is quoted as having said of the white man that "it is his own freedom that he destroys." In retrospect, this is certainly true, as the British were eventually removed from power in Burma. Orwell felt by acting as they did, the British were cutting their own feet out from under them, by eliminating a prime source of income from the commonwealth. In fact, Orwell is quoted as having believed that "the wealth of England was drawn largely from Asia and Africa" (Marshall, 329). With this in mind, it is no surprise that he would seek to right the injustices there, for both the sake of the natives and the sake of England. Considering Orwell's history as a political writer, it seems likely that Burmese Days stood as a warning, if not a prophecy, for the Empire, tainted as it was with humanistic compassion.
Perhaps Flory, in a metaphorical way, represented Orwell. Flory, like Orwell, was acutely aware of the feelings of the natives. Both were, however, loyal to the crown when it came down to it. They both acutely felt the situation in which they lived. They attempted to do right, within their limited sphere of influence. Flory's birthmark, ugly and stark, may very well be symbolic of the taint of consciousness that Orwell felt. In the end, Flory killed himself, and Orwell fled Burma. Perhaps if Orwell had stayed, he might have met a fate much the same as Flory.
Conrad also was a product of his times. Born a Belgian, and not and Englishman, the English language was not his first tongue. Nor was it his second language, but rather his third. Because of this, it is untrue to think of Conrad as wholly British. Although he wrote in English, about British issues, he is not entirely part of the culture. In fact, it is difficult to think of Conrad writing about the Thames from an outside point of view. The fact that he can immerse himself so much in things English well enough to craft this story is quite amazing. However, his messages about England very much cut to the quick. His message about the human condition, though transcending a certain country, were pointedly anti-British. His imagery of the gloom over London is a perfect example of his intense awareness of England as the self-made center of the civilized world. He realized the forces at work that made England the great power that it was, both militarily and culturally. However, he also saw how propped up this civilization was. Instead of seeing a country of missionaries and educators, dragging the heathens towards the school, he saw a self-serving people, bent on maintaining their political and economic power. He was not far off in his assessment of empire.
Conrad took a trip into the Congo, as did his protagonist. On this trip, he undoubtedly saw many of the same situations as written about in Heart of Darkness. In particular, the treatment of the natives was likely very bad. One image in particular stands as a kind of icon of the time. In 1906, a cartoon entitled "In the Rubber Coils" came out, which depicted a black man, being attacked by a long, sinewy snake with the head of king on top. This cartoon "reflects British revulsion at stories of atrocities inflicted on Africans in the Congo by the administration of Leopold II, King of the Belgians, who ruled the Congo as his personal domain." (Marshall, p372) Thus, it is no surprise that Conrad might present his own "cartoon" of the situation in the Congo. In spirit, the picture depicts the same idea - the harsh treatment of the black natives by the whites.
The imagery of the cartoon, which Conrad would surely have seen, is very dark. In the background, a woman and child are seen running from the scene in terror. This scene, most likely a wood cut, shows dark plants (presumably reminiscent of the forest) and a dark sky. These images are very similar in their connotations of Hades as the images the Conrad creates in Heart of Darkness. The images of decay, which are hinted at in the cartoon, are a primary artifice of Conrad. Also, it seems unlikely that the snake (biblically reminiscent of Satan) is coincidentally used. Instead, it would seem to strengthen the connection between this cartoon and Conrad's own imagery. Whether Conrad based any of his own work upon this image, or others like it, is difficult to say. However, it is clear that the public was at least marginally aware of the imagery. The idea of the darkness of the Congo in both a literal and metaphorical sense was found in many of the periods writings.
Like the character of Flory, Marlow seems to be at least in part a reflection of the author. Through the careful crafting of several layers of narration, Conrad was able to separate, to a degree, what he said from what Marlow said. This is, perhaps, why he was able to use the word "nigger" as he did. The function of Marlow speaking of Marlow, as told by Conrad makes the reader very much aware of the presence of a narrator. To what degree Conrad is separated from Marlow in his views is unclear, but the connection is there. Because of this connection, it is quite easy to say that both Marlow the character, and Conrad the person share some experiences in common. Conrad undoubtedly encountered a great deal of racism and abuse of the natives. In viewing this, it is no surprise that he would see how the white man changes and becomes "evil" in the absence of his native cultural constructs. This evil, which the white man slowly acquires while in the Congo, takes not only the form of violence, but also of greed.
In Heart of Darkness, violence and greed are linked. Kurtz, who once was the pinnacle of the English elite, has turned from a good man, to one for whom ivory and power are all-important. With this decline, he has dropped out of the society that he was once a part of. In a sense, this is very much like Orwell's work in that the abuser (England, by extension of Kurtz) has lost their own liberty (money, as shown by Ivory) when Kurtz makes his descent into darkness.
To make his point about human nature, Conrad repeatedly uses imagery of decay and darkness. Again, this is a specific strength of Conrad. As a symbolist, Conrad works very well. These images were also ones that would be easily recognized by his target audience, who would have been largely schooled in mythology and the bible. Because of this, it is clear that Conrad was part of a larger dialog about issues of power within the colonies. The fact that he could gain so much insight, and two write as precisely as he does in his third acquired tongue is a tribute to his motivation and craft.
Both authors, then, can be seen as fulfilling a specific historical function. They were, in a sense, trumpeting the ideals of morality and justice to their peers. In addition, it could be said that they were also trying to do their part to preserve their great empire. Orwell was clearly engaged in this pursuit for the sake of England, for he feared the loss of power and income that would ultimately come from their removal from colonial territories. In addition, Orwell wrote Burmese Days as a moral lesson to his peers, based on his own personal experience with the savagery of his fellow man. Conrad also gave this sermon, with biblical imagery and all. He showed us how dark the heart of man can truly become, when put into the correct circumstances. Circumstances, it should be noted, that were commonplace at the time. Whether Conrad wrote to preserve the empire is difficult to say, but his moral on the economics of tyranny comes through plainly.
To "point to the future" we must look at these parables within our
own times. Are these lessons still valid? Clearly, they are. Man has
come far in terms of technology, and in terms of his ability to
harness nature. However, has human nature changed so much in 150
years? Could such a thing happen again? Could these situations
happen once more? Vietnam may be one voice saying "YES!" to this
question. The stories of American soldiers, running amuck, raping,
burning, and killing are still fresh in our memories. Was Vietnam a
form of empire maintenance any less than Burma? Or the Congo?
Yes, the empire still lives, albeit an economic one. America's
empire stretches far and wide, from south America to Saudi Arabia.
The war to maintain the empire has become subtle and economic,
rather than overt and militant, but continues none the less.
Economically, our national interests must be maintained, even if it
means violence. Iraq can speak to this point in our day, as loudly as
Burma could in their own. The works of Conrad and Orwell are
timeless, not just because of the craft that went into their making.
The messages that were true 150 years ago are true today. These
works are so poignant because history DOES repeat itself, and by
looking at the history that gave birth to these stories, we can draw
meaning that is applicable for us all. Today.