The Quest for Order: a comparative Study of J. Conrad's Heart of Darkness and W. Golding's

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The Quest for Order: A Comparative Study of J.    Conrad's Heart of Darkness and W. Golding's Lord of the Flies
Ahmed Hussein Khalil
In a continually shifting world, whoever can get an orderly icon of anything? Whenever one perceives an image of something, he or she is not expected to hold it for long because other persons come to discredit it by hypothesizing other entirely different perceptions. This world is ipso facto changeable. Even scientific phenomena, known to be immutable, give in to this law of nature. Hence, insofar as our perceptions of this world cannot take immutable forms, they can never be dependable. However, searching for some order in this world had gone into high gear in the distant past and has been holding steady ever since.
Since quests for order or solid facts are idiosyncratic, this world is unsurprisingly represented in different images. Each one's experiences must play an influential role in the images approached. In one sense, everybody looks upon things the way they are experienced by him or her. It turns out to be a really enigmatic issue as such approaches are conceded; their holders are always held up to questioning due to their upsetting long-established grounds of several historical and scientific facts as well as philosophical and religious conceptions. Observing this, one is enticed to cite a debate on just one example of the late Victorian and modern novelists who have taken the venture of rewriting some aspects of the human history (e.g. imperialism, primitivism, civilization, and man's nature) in an attempt to verify, to the opposite of other scholars, that these aspects are paradigms of anarchy in this world.

It is this paper's main aim to compare Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and William Golding's Lord of the Flies, two prominent novels which have been appreciated at large by countless critics but still are debatable; they seek order but fail to find it anywhere in a world ruled by endless chaos and mystery, the reason of which the two writers attribute to man's innate evil. A concept of man as such is indeed very old, as old as Greek mythology, albeit it is viewed by Conrad and Golding from a quite different scope. Golding looks upon evil "as a blind alley," so does Conrad (B. F. Dick 1967: 103). The borderline between light and dark, symbolically good and evil, is intentionally blurred by these authors due to their great influence by certain experiences. If Conrad's witness of the atrocities of the European colonists in Africa haunted him, so did Golding's engagement in the Second World War. The hideousness of such experiences has provoked both writers to think inwardly and come out with an argument that man's heart is the center of darkness in this universe.
There are some other grounds which may validate this comparative study of Conrad (1856-1924) and Golding (1911-1993), despite the wide gap of time between the two. It is noteworthy that Conrad's Heart of Darkness is repeatedly estimated as a long tale of all times, therefore it is unsurprisingly put 'ahead of them.' Apart form using a new technique, "Conrad addressed issues of the day with such alert adroitness and ambiguity that he anticipated many twentieth-century preoccupations" (Cedric Watts 2000: 45). Similarly, Lord of the Flies' main focus on morality and man's position in the universe as well as his alienation will never make it an exhausted piece of literature as long as man lives. 1 Dick assures that although the story was criticized by innumerable critics, it "still remains an impressive first novel, and one would be hard pressed to find as good an initial piece of fiction from any of the post-World War II novelists" (98). Both novelists blame their own white civilization for mercilessly exploiting people within and outside the European borders. The two also write simple stories but wrap them with similar sophisticated techniques. Conrad's novel follows the adventures of its hero Marlow, a steamer for the Belgian Societé Anonyme pour le Commerce du Haut Congo (Limited Company for Trade with the Upper Congo), into the Congo state, symbolically the heart of darkness, in an effort to see how the agent Kurtz was doing his job over there, namely to write a full report on the natives' moral and cultural life for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs and to be in charge of gathering the ivory available in the region. After a long, arduous and risky journey, he returns with the dead body of Kurtz and, much more important, with illumination about the reality of not only the primitive Africans or the white colonists but also of his own self. Following the same journey technique, but with a plane instead of a ship as in Conrad, Golding's Lord of the Flies shows the horrible adventures of a pack of schoolboys marooned, after the crash of their plane in a nuclear war, on an isolated island. At the end of a long and bloody dispute over establishing order in the island community, the surviving children are taken back home on the deck of a ship. Like Marlow, the hero child Ralph learns about the true, ultimately evil, nature of man. The two stories also use paradox as a general technique, with an underlying irony.
From this brief external look at the general frame of the two novels, it may come to light that they are transparent of their writers' ideas, themes and conceptions. However, a deep internal look may expose hidden secrets. Each novel tackles a sort of darkness lying at different levels, which is ab initio signified by their titles. Heart of Darkness "refers not only to the heart of 'darkest Africa' but also to Kurtz's corruption, to benighted London, and to innumerable kinds of darkness and obscurity, physical, moral, and ontological" (Watts: 47). Lord of the Flies points to 'Beelzebub,' a devil defined in both Old and New Testaments to be "most stinking and depraved of all the devils…" (Ramji Lall 1992: 281) Both titles thereby stand as a symbol of the devilish, identifiably dark, side of man's heart, which comes to the surface when man, regardless of age, is delivered from the restraints of customs or social laws. As a microcosm of this world, each novel is overshadowed, from the beginning to the end, with endless mystery. More importantly, the structural ingredients of each story are made to work together harmoniously to incarnate such a murky atmosphere within its frame, ironically signifying the civilized world.
As far as setting is concerned, Conrad's story takes place in many different and distant areas, whether in Europe or Africa, which are neatly strung together by the most commonplace journey technique, whereas Golding's sticks to one location, an isolated coral island to the south of Britain. The intricately symbolic embodiment of the setting in the beginning of each story is ominous of more mystery and anarchy to come. Heart of Darkness commences with showing the ship Nellie halting on the Thames in wait for "the turn of the tide" to set out to Africa (1). In the distended horizon "the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide … in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished spirits" (1). This image of light, as expounded by the luminous sea scene, is made to stand at variance with that of the surrounding land: "The air was dark above Gravesend and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over" Kent, which is ironically called "the biggest, and the greatest, town" not just in England but "on earth"(1). This apparently plain representation of setting is indeed dubious. Deep below the antithesis there seems to lie a sordid irony. The commonplace image of light and darkness, symbolically good (or innocence) and evil, is proposed to be analogous to Europe's appearance and reality: Europe's attractive civilization, as propagated to be the center of light (or civilization) for the whole world, really cloaks an unfathomable evil. This dark reality of the continent is gradually given rise in the novel. Under the pretension of civilization (or modernization), Belgium, like ancient Rome and Victorian England, is repeatedly shown to exploit the African economy and strip people of their identity. Brian Spittle's contends that Africa was in the 1890s "the arena... for international political, economic, and occasionally military, conflict." 2 It is thus logical to read that these criminal deeds of colonists are finally doomed to a gloomy darkness that will continually lurk over the skies of their homes. Actually, the image of juxtaposed light and dark is used at large in the novel, but to point to various realities. With every flash of light used to reveal a side of a character, scene or situation is always associated an intense stream of darkness. There is no doubt then that the things contained in the novel are made from the very outset to appear, as they really are, out of order.
The revelation of some other paradigms of color-binary opposition, namely light and darkness, may give more credit to this point. Marlow, the central character and narrator of Conrad's novel, envisions the Belgian capitol Brussels as 'whitewashed sepulchers.' Since the exterior attractive look of the graves contrasts with their interior reality, the rotten or decayed bones of the dead, the imagery here implies that the beautiful façade of the city hides its truly ugly reality. It is on this ground that many critics have claimed that Belgium, like all other early colonists (e.g. France, Portugal, Germany, England, Spain, and Netherlands), had embellished its brutal behavior in Africa with the charm of economic profits for both countries, and, much more importantly, with civilizing the primitive Africans. This notion is sustained by Adena Rosmarin's statement that the whole scene is redolent of the Bible's figuration of the hypocrite, "the man of inner darkness whitewashed by outer manner and conventional deed" (1989: 161). In order to collect all amounts of ivory available in the ironically called 'free' state of Congo, as commanded by the Belgian company, the chief agent Kurtz consumes the energy of the native workers, and kills many of them. Hence, the fascinating whiteness of the ivory, analogous to the white façade of the company, conceals behind it the skulls and the ribs as well as the joints of the native laborers. One of the scholars fleers at this nasty reality of the company by wondering: "What if the Company's real objective were wealth derived from a trade in bones?" (The Victorian Web) On the other hand, the African natives should complacently, and indeed ridiculously, content themselves with "the great white lie of the White Man's Burden with its implicit, pseudo-altruism," if they are to be ameliorated, "transformed into white people with black skins" (The Victorian Web). Such ironic discrepancy between the reality and appearance of white civilization is vehemently underlined in the novel, where Marlow pities the miserable condition of a group of the African laborers by saying: "I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain…" (Heart of Darkness, 20). He hardly believes that these creatures can by any possible means be called "criminals" or "enemies," as propagated by the white colonists (20). If these people's real life is hard, it is hardened more and more by the colonizers: "the outraged law, like the busting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea" Marlow adds (20).
As the novel progresses, the scene shifts from Europe to Africa. Generally, the latter shows itself to be more mysterious than the former, though in a paradoxical way. The attractive appearance of Europe has been already shown to cloak its very dark reality, while the dark look of Africa may conceal its true innocence. Marlow's first glimpse of the Congo River, the coast and people leaves him numbed: everything around him is black, except for the "eyeballs" of some men that show from a distance to be "white" and glistening" (17). The intimidation of the scene makes him unable to assess anything: "the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion" (17). The only aspect of reality which divulges some sense to Marlow is the sound of the surf at the coast, which he feels to be "like the speech of a brother" (17). A place as such must not be foretasted to provide any clear image of the Africans, because settings are often known to be formative of their dwellers' outer and inner lives. But Marlow is surprised, as are we, to come to discover that the Africans are not really the way they look. From a distance, he could see some African men paddling a boat at the shore and singing with "faces like grotesque masks…" (17). When he takes a closer look at them, he realizes that they are mild and friendly, a feeling which releases him from the apprehension he has been feeling since the moment of his arrival at the snake-like coast of the Congo. Seeming to breathe again, Marlow said: "They were a great comfort to look at" (17). At this point in the novel Marlow may think, as do we, that he has untangled the threads of the African reality, but he is deceived. Such moment of reality is excitingly temporary, as it soon comes to shift into illusion: "For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last. Something would turn up to scare it away" (17). The deeper Marlow and his company delve into the Congo River, the more mysterious things turn out to be. They call at many places; all seem unnatural, with "farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade go on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb" (18). The gloom of the scene started to insinuate into their hearts: "in and out of rivers, streams of death and life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, which seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair" Marlow admits (18). Over a month of fatigue and stress to reach the mouth of the Congo River these men fail to have "a particularized impression" of anything, and all that they, ironically, could capture was "the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder" that kept over-towering their minds and hearts (18). But this is not astonishing: how can they make sense out of 'a weary' and nightmarish 'pilgrimage?'
Turning one's attention to setting in Golding's Lord of the Flies, one may detect its indebtedness to certain technical aspects of Conrad. It is worth mentioning that Conrad's intensive use of symbolism and imagery does not only make his style more erudite but also gives his design of the setting more depth. This is however far from claiming that Golding, who won the 1983 Nobel Prize for literature, is not capable of producing an eloquent style. His story's simple and, most often, awkward style may be deliberate; since the setting is for the most part described by the characters, his child characters are not expected to subtly and aesthetically describe what surrounds them, as Conrad's intellectual adults do, otherwise they would never look realistic and convincing. What matters most is that the general frame of setting in Golding's novel is visualized with a smaller amount of symbolism, yet it is no less significant or effective.
Despite variation of setting in the two novels, both works are mainly based on the technique of contradiction between light and darkness or appearance and reality. In the opening chapter of Lord of the Flies, the shore is shown to stand against both the island and the river. Like the false whiteness of the city of Brussels in Heart of Darkness, the luminous shore in Golding's novel conceals behind it the blinding darkness of the island or the forest. This is interestingly elucidated by the image of the palm trees inclining against the beach to blur its light, and by the image of the sun rays struggling to penetrate the thick branches and trunks of the trees (see p.10). Also, the shallowness of the long beach pool is followed by "deep" and "dark green" water (13). Such examples of paradoxical setting may be patterned after Conrad, to whom he is indebted, since Golding employs them as connotative of the despicable mystery, horror and danger lying behind the charming appearance of both the shore and the lagoon, which can be taken as the facade of the island. It is on this basis that the leading children, Ralph and Jack, become cautious; they "go on an expedition" to find about the island before risking the lives of their fellows whom they leave on the shore (25). They get to the end of the forest and return with the substantial fact that it is an island "and not magicked out of shape or sense," as they have first thought (27). They could see in it "a jumble of the usual squareness, with one great block sitting out in the lagoon. Sea birds were nesting there" (27).
Now the mysterious and fearful looking of the forest changes into a plainly pleasant reality. This unexpected discovery goads the children to scream out: "Wacco!" … "Whee –aa – oo" as an expression of their exhilaration (29; 30). The cheerfulness of the place makes them stop worrying, at least temporarily, about living far away from home, parents and playmates in a deserted island. Every child comes to consciously celebrate the glamour of the island in his own way. For instance, Ralph "stood on his head and fell over"; while laughing, Simon "stroked Ralph's arm shyly," prompting all other children to burst into horselaughing (27). On top of a hill some of the children exult at throwing small rocks down into the sea so as to splash the water up and give the sound of exploding bombs. In another scene, the children are most often shown to enjoy swimming in the lagoon, eating various fruits, singing and dancing. After all, it is hardly surprising to find Ralph, the most intelligent child, in the opening scene of the novel resembling the whole place to his "home counties" (1). Such a portrait of the setting may owe something to the romantic story The Coral Island by Ballantyne. 3
However, this mutable shape of the place is not firm. The paradise-like island is abruptly transmuted into illusion. It no longer remains a safe resort where the children enjoy their life freely, without any parental or school restraints, but rather a house of horror wherein every child is scared to move lonely because it is believed to be inhabited by a beast coming from the water and the air. Only Simon, said by many critics to be something of Christ's figure, most often dares to seclude himself in it, but he is scared to death to encounter a slain pig's head on a stick, as a blood offering for attracting the beast, when it comes to speak with him as Lord of the Flies and evil personified. He hurries out to inform his friends about the reality of the beast, but he is not given the chance as all the boys leap in a barbaric way upon him, thinking him to be the beast, and end his life. Henceforth, the island turns into hurly-burly: it becomes difficult to tell if it is still an island or an unknown place, a state of mystery which the children noticed from the very start. Thus searching for an orderly picture of such place seems to have been fruitless all along.
The metamorphosis of characters in the two novels in question may not be just an emblem of the absence of order in the human world, but also of a Darwinian influence; that is, people are the products of their environment. If it is impossible, as displayed so far, to have a steady image of setting (a sea, a forest or a jungle), one is scarcely astonished to face the same problem in attempting to map out the features of the characters in both novels. It may be a deliberate technique of Conrad and Golding to pattern vague settings and types of characters to thicken the darkness of human nature, which is a main theme in their novels. To prove the soundness of such a view dictates the need to assay the characters of each novel separately.
In Heart of Darkness, Marlow starts telling the story of his 'inconclusive experiences' with describing his eerie journey to Belgium to undertake an interview for the post of ship's captain in the Belgian company for trading with ivory in the Congo state. He first comes across clerks, both men and women, who look so intangible that they make him feel "uneasy" and as though he has been "let into some conspiracy" out of which he wishes to get peacefully (12). These human beings do not talk much and look like ghosts. The two old women guarding the Company's outside gate and the doctor checking the candidates' health are evident examples. The women are busy with "knitting black wool as for a warm pall" while watching the gate's "door of darkness"; one of them is introducing the incomers "to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes" (13). The doctor also seems to be out of the common cadre: "He was shabby and careless, with ink-stains on the sleeves of his jacket, and his cravat was large and billowy, under a chin shaped like the toe of an old boot" (13). From the way he examines and questions Marlow, he gives the impression of being insane. While in Africa, Marlow also meets with no less exotic people. Generally, his traveling experiences attest the truth of their having been "somber enough… and pitiful – not extraordinary in any way – not very clear either" (6). Such words from Marlow suggest that he is 'perplexed' and 'perplexing' as well. His bewilderment lies in failing to come out of his experiences with clear-cut concepts of all the things he watched, yet he bewilders the reader by maintaining that everything around him looks ordinary. Nevertheless, this implies how difficult, if not impossible, it is for any mind to penetrate the inward reality of things, and thereby any quest for order in this life is anticipated to come to grief.
When Marlow crosses the Congolese borders, he marvels at watching the natives, who view so strange as though they have landed from another planet; each is a set of walking contradictions. The persons dwelling in the forest and on the hills of the central station show to possess no human characteristics; one may not exaggerate to call them animals in shapes of human beings. They walk out naked, yell and yelp like brutes in the wilderness. Such bestiality seems to be a general feature of all the Africans Marlow meets throughout his long journey in the Congo state. No better evidence of this than the ones who have made Marlow "horror-struck," when one of them "rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink" (23). They are ape-like men, according to Darwin's hereditary theory. To verify this fact, the European colonists in the Congo most often call the natives 'brutes.' At the end of the novel, when Marlow and his crew get to Kurtz's place, we are presented with a much more horrible and mythical scene of the Africans. It is hard for Marlow, and for us as well, to identify these abnormal people who owe much to the cannibals, nether jinni, apparitions, phantoms, and sorcerers – creatures from outside the orbit of our world. Here is how Marlow represents a group of men creeping, like nether jinni, out of their dens in the forest:

Instantly, in the emptiness of the landscape, a cry arose whose shrillness pierced the still air like a sharp arrow flying straight to the very heart of the land; and, as if by enchantment, streams of human beings - of naked human beings – with spears in the hands, with bows, with shields, with wild glances and savage movements, were poured into the clearing by the dark-faced and pensive forest. The bushes shook, the grass swayed for a time (89).

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