Historical context is largely responsible for assigning a place into which a text can be ‘fitted’, a set of conditions out of which the fiction has been moulded and a grounding which is therefore fixed historically in time and space.
However, historical context is essentially the backdrop and starting point from which the literature comes into being and as attitudes of readers change over the years so adaptations of context alter the reception and analysis of the text, thereby challenging the authority its initial circumstances have over the literature for years into the future.The question of the usefulness of historical context in getting to the core of a text can be compared to the scientific puzzle of nature versus nurture in the assessment of human character. In the same way that the essential nature or historical circumstances of a human is regulated and balanced by its nurture or changing circumstances and influences, there is also a limiting extend to which the fact behind the fiction helps to explain or determine a text more deeply.The novel “Heart of Darkness” is often identified in this way by its assigned timing in terms of the imperialist attitudes of the west and placement as a discourse of colonialism within Africa. The thematic journey into the unknown, the discovery of foreign, dark and mysterious places and the striking imagery of otherness which pervade the novel were directly relevant not only to Conrad’s own experience of the river Congo but to a wider consciousness in Britain at the time.
The relationships between east and west, white and black, colonised and coloniser took a particular form during the early nineteenth century which can be traced through certain aspects of the novel yet are constantly undermined by the ironic tone of Marlow’s narrative function and therefore bring the importance of historical perspectives in analysing literature to light. In order to assess the extent to which historical context is relevant to “Heart of Darkness” the three main areas which must be addressed are the capacity for its power and insight to be contained solely within the text, the alignment and identification of Conrad’s own ideas with his narrator, Marlow and the relationship between the imagery and attitudes expressed in the book and the historically colonial perspectives of western consciousness.It is this balance between fact and fiction, and the dependence of one on the other, which in some respects make historical context such a prevalent factor when reading “Heart of Darkness”. This is because, while the novel is in some way shaped by Conrad’s own western influences, his literature, and literature in general is responsible for propagating and forming the future attitudes of its readers.Benita Parry points out that there are “hazards both in empiricist readings of self-evidently historical texts and in formalist procedures that suppress their immanent political meanings”1 which helps to identify the problem faced by readers attempting to find the balance between the two areas. She warns against the presumption that the historical source of a text may hold the key to unlocking its hidden meaning and in the case of “Heart of Darkness”, the reader is made aware that the complexity and depth of the novel can hold no such simplified interpretations and attempts to do so hinder an engagement “with the fictiveness of the writings”.”Heart of Darkness” is often said to reflect the tone of the modernist age and while this can be read as a form of historical context it is better acknowledged as recognition of its role within literary as well as socio-political patterns of consciousness at the time of its press.
By identifying a common trend of cultural and moral disillusionment within writing of this age, the novel takes on a universal meaning and results in a more profound impact in undercutting the power of imperialism and revealing the hollowness of white man and disorientation of the west. Conrad’s depiction of the man Fresleven’s weakness when the spear “went quite easy between the shoulder-blades”3 and hollowness with the “grass growing through his ribs”4 can be read allegorically to represent the sense of cultural and psychological vacuity being experienced at the time, a backlash against the literature of romanticism.E.
Said recognized that “grand narratives had lost their legitimation in large measure as a result of the crisis of modernism”5 which identified with imagery of the white man’s lack of substance in the novel. The implications of the modernist slant on the nature of the heart of darkness indicate that the reference is “not to a place (Africa) but to the condition of European man, not to black people but to Colonialism”6. This type of reading reveals that in many ways the context of the novel was integral to its interpretation and analysis, however whilst it can be accused of reflecting or relating a certain historical consciousness, as a fictional work, it can be argued that its aesthetic qualities are maintained within the text and therefore detached from peripheral historical pressures.The structure and temporality of the novel is particularly important in forming its own context while showing that its revelatory substance is intrinsic to the fiction rather than supported by any outside interpretative evidence. While, Marlow sets out his tale through the chronological sequencing of his memories, the “effect of the experience, dreamlike and absurd”7 denies this type of order and “renders meaningless the conventional measurements of time and space”.Without any kind of fixed temporality the novel is allowed to lose its structural shape, echoing both the modernist crises of subjectivity and the psychological chaos present in the heart of the human mind. Marlow’s description of his journey becomes an expression of deep disorientation, “everyday the coast looked the same, as though we had not moved” and dissatisfied loss of perspective, “long reaches that were like one and the same reach, monotonous bends that were exactly the same”; reflecting the increasing disillusionment in the minds of the west.
However, in using Marlow as a secondary narrator, Conrad casts a safety net around any perspective which is aroused by Marlow’s story telling. Marlow’s authority on his own narrative is set against the unnamed first person used to introduce him, just as the fiction as a whole is shadowed by Conrad’s role in producing it. In this way the introductory passage which lets the reader know “to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside”9strongly indicates the enigma of “The Heart of Darkness” in its multi-layering of meaning and its lack of an ultimate heart to define it.What is suggested about the novel and can be related to the importance of its context is that certain outer influences are able to provide small insights “as a glow brings out a haze”, whereby moments of clarity are reached and “made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine”10. So, while the nature of the novel as an expedition into the unknown or a search for some deeper revelatory meaning leads the reader to believe that they will make some grand discovery at the pinnacle, this initial passage suggests that the method of the narrative has no such simple intelligibility, rather that the moments of lucidity are revealed only in certain lights.