Professor Abby Mendelson
February 21, 2014
World’s Been Infected
Incidentally, it is obvious that the musical number accompanying both Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart is that of Wexford’s native songstress, Christina Aguilera. A grieving Aguilera describes the splintering pain tormenting her soul after she has been neglected, her life ripped to pieces. Things are not the same as they once were. The object of her longtime love has been taken away, her enemy snatching the prize and leaving her listlessly lost. She wallows in a helpless state of darkness. Outside forces undoubtedly encroached on her way of life and ultimately led to the demise of her happiness. Still, there is the possibility that part of this tragedy emanated from within. “You Lost Me” certainly typifies the collapse of normality, peace, and culture in the works of Joseph Conrad and of Chinua Achebe. Just as our good friend Christina Aguilera was deserted and maimed by the one she believed she could trust, so are the native peoples in Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart. An affable, yet cunning smile has the power to fool anyone if the proper tactics are employed. An enigmatic fog cannot veil the atrocities committed when cultures come to an impasse in Africa. Their surroundings amalgamated with their interior alterations cause Kurtz and Okonkwo to lose themselves.
Mr. Kurtz has a rather self-centered desire for an increasingly powerful, controlling stature among the natives. He has built himself up as a sort of god to them, and thus a large part of his descent into madness and ultimately his death is the result of his own manufactured evil. Everyone who knows of him can contest that he will do great things, so he is surely ambitious, but his desire to succeed as star of the Company goes too far. Kurtz sees that his effect on the natives is sweeping; they will do anything he demands because he appears to them as a divine being. He even authors a 17-page piece written for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, according to Marlow. However, not long after, things begin to go astray: “This [report] must have been before his—let us say—nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites…” (Conrad 60). Despite the extensive change that occurs in Kurtz’s interior, until his time is up, he is still quite the eloquent writer. Natives who went against Kurtz’s grand plan were made examples of, as seen by the horrendously ornate fence post embellishments detailed by Marlow as he peers through his binoculars for a more in-depth analysis of the station:
I went carefully from post to post with my glass…these round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were symbolic of some cruel and forbidden knowledge. They were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing, food for thought and also for the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. (Conrad 70)
These heads are an indication that Kurtz has gone off the deep end, Marlow insists. He goes on to say that “there was nothing profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him.” Becoming engrossed in the wilderness and with the local people has truly taken a toll on Kurtz, Marlow says. Kurtz had become “hollow at the core” (Conrad 71).
By the final section of Heart of Darkness, it becomes clear via accounts from others that Kurtz and his obsession with acquiring ivory, not to mention power—through whatever means necessary—has gone too far. A Russian man even relates to Marlow that he “had a small lot of ivory the chief of that village near my house gave me…well, [Kurtz] wanted it, and wouldn’t hear reason. He said he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and cleared out of the country.” This same man also admits that “there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased” (Conrad 69). Apparently there is a fine line between getting caught up among the natives’ rituals and being certified “mad,” according to those who know Kurtz. The Russian who speaks with Marlow hints that Kurtz would “disappear for weeks [and] forget himself amongst these people” (Conrad 69). Eventually, even Marlow, a once-outspoken proponent for the godly Kurtz, wishes not to hear any further details regarding the rites performed by him, wondering if Kurtz is nothing but smoke and mirrors: “‘I don’t want to know anything of the ceremonies used when approaching Mr Kurtz,’ I shouted. Curious, this feeling that came over me that those details would be more intolerable to hear than those heads drying on stakes under Mr Kurtz’s windows were to see” (Conrad 71). Marlow is not so certain of the prestige of Kurtz after all.
The downfall of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz is spearheaded by himself, no doubt. But there should be some consideration of the impressionable people he is civilizing. They want a commander in chief to give them instructions. They follow closely Kurtz’s orders, hoisting him onto a high pedestal. Also, competition within the Company is fierce, and Kurtz’s career could be snatched from beneath him at any time. He constantly looks to increase his control over others. Kurtz wages an internal war with evil, and a similar struggle can be found in a character from another piece of literature.
Parallel themes of unchecked grandiloquence and perilous hubris pervade Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Okonkwo possesses many of the same characteristics of power and echoes Kurtz’s fear that such amassed power should be taken away by force. It is partially Okonkwo’s own character that contributes to his downfall. It is his way or the highway, as anyone who dares question him would discover in a heartbeat: “…whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists” (Achebe 4). This immediate resort to brutality over words proves to be a tragic flaw that is brought on by the minutest stimuli. Okonkwo values above all else his masculinity and his hulking image of a conqueror, a man strong enough to defeat even the storied Amalinze the Cat. He who insults Okonkwo’s toughness will not walk away unscathed. This short temper is not exactly a gift during a time of cultural upheaval, as each impediment amid a changing time inflames Okonkwo’s short fuse. One of his earliest motivations to become something important via grueling labor is the failure that was his father, Unoka. Okonkwo detests everything about his father, “[who] was in fact a coward and could not bear the sight of blood” (Achebe 6). Okonkwo is determined that that lazy, womanly bum will not sully his good name. Luckily, “achievement was revered” by his people so that Okonkwo could build his own fortune (Achebe 8). In addition to his wrestling feat, Okonkwo boasts a great list of achievements, including his wealth as a farmer, his taking of two esteemed titles, and his skill in wartime. Okonkwo has risen so far, however, that he risks falling from these same great heights.
Okonkwo harbors a deep-seated anger that may be the result of his past great fame boosting his ego slightly too much. It may come from an overriding and constant pressure to impress the men of the clan—to be the best of the best: no exceptions. Or still it might be a response to the embarrassing pariah that is the hulking Okonkwo’s woman-of-a-son Nwoye. Depression descends upon Okonkwo after realizing, while exiled to Mbanta, that he is not accomplishing what he has set out to achieve. The nagging fear that he will sink to the level of an abomination like his father crushes Okonkwo’s resolve when he fails to update his repertoire of a self-made man’s accomplishments. He “knew that he would have prospered even more in Umuofia, in the land of his fathers where men were bold and warlike” (Achebe 162). He is ashamed of himself near the end of the tale, positioned miserably in front of the fire, wondering “how then could he have begotten a son like Nwoye, degenerate and effeminate? Perhaps he was not his son” at all (Achebe 153). His hardheaded ways lead him to break ties with Nwoye, who has become an overall irritant who has made the foolish decision to accept the white man’s religion and education. When the warrior hears that his feminine son was spotted with Christians, “[Okonkwo] sprang to his feet and gripped [Nwoye] by the neck,” then threatened to kill him (Achebe 151). It is evident Okonkwo does not adjust well to change, and under increasingly difficult circumstances, he fails to cope and eventually causes his ruin. He constantly fights with his own emotions, and his inner struggle torments him until he ends his life: “Okonkwo’s fear was greater…it was the fear of himself” (Achebe 13).
Okonkwo’s downfall can also be attributed to his culture. For instance, he has been accustomed to such entrenched standards regarding the role of women for so long that such treatment constitutes normalcy. Nothing seems amiss as “[the women] scrubbed and painted the outside walls [of the egwugwu house] under the supervision of men” (Achebe 88). Okonkwo even insults himself, asking when alone, “when did you become a shivering old woman?” (Achebe 65). Masculinity involves the telling of violent stories. Okonkwo dismisses all stories told by women as soft and silly, and though he may be a legendary wrestler, his true fight is with himself. A constant battle that eats away at him is grappling with the want to show affection and emotion. But the force that he always cites as causing him to bottle up his feelings is what others will think: “No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man” (Achebe 53). Also, the war-like nature of the Ibo men involves fierce competition and the villages revere strong men who can win the fight. The emphasis placed on Okonkwo’s impressive wrestling history at the beginning of the book serves as a shining example of the warrior-esque male figure that these people value. Unfortunately for Okonkwo, he loses the big fight. One could say it is the trials Okonkwo faces that cause his ruin, but more likely it is how he reacts to them that does him in. He stands up for his culture and against the enemy, but his preparations to return to Umuofia after his exile reveal that his need to have a wildly successful image, combined with other factors, cause his destruction.
The final nail in the coffin for Okonkwo consists of the ultimate questioning of his power—when the white men begin to filter in, ready to convert the people of each village and determined to efface an historic culture. The trait Okonkwo despises the most is weakness; after all “his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness” (Achebe 13). Combine this with his controlling nature and when alien men, of all people, try to barge into his territory and dispel his authority, such is too much to bear. Okonkwo could restrain himself no longer, breaking down with vengeance, and he “drew his machete…[it] descended twice and the man’s head lay beside his uniformed body” (Achebe 204). It is clear Okonkwo’s need for absolute power and control over his wives, his children, and his land in general leads to his painful resignation. By the end of Things Fall Apart, his worst fear is realized. He questions whether he has become his father, and the feeling of defeat by foreigners throws him into a rage. In addition, when the members of the clan decline to join Okonkwo in a war against the colonizers, Okonkwo at last does himself in, refusing to be ruled against his will.
Kurtz lost his ivory fortune, his Intended, his power, his control. Okonkwo’s star faded when he was exiled, when the agony of raising a feminine son sat in, and when his mighty return to Umuofia was welcomed as warmly as intruders when they materialize out of thin air. These men believed in their causes with a wild passion, both embodying the aftermath of a meteoric rise to prominence. The fall of the mighty is never pretty.
The callous colonizers simply could not keep their hands to themselves, Aguilera concurs, choosing lust when they deceived numerous tribes by defiling what the natives held sacred. The interlopers debased what others held in high regard and showed no concern for damage control. As is brutally evident in the case of the skin-and-bone Kurtz, and, indeed, at the horrific sight of a dangling Okonkwo, the wrath of an accumulating sinister force will surely inflict suffering on its subjects, abandoning a shattered people and leaving them “as shells” of their former selves, Aguilera would say. A heart that has been allowed to crack like the shell of a skydiving tortoise onto unforgiving sharp things below will take time to heal. But when the pieces are collected and put back together, things will never be the same. Mending what has been shattered into myriad, serrated slices is difficult. One can rebuild from the inside out, but should one not consider starting from the outside in to disinfect a dirtied world?
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Conrad, Joseph. The Heart of Darkness. London: Orion Group, 2002. Print.