Top 10 Closing Lines in English Literature

Contains spoilers.  Obviously.

The closing lines of a book can end up defining it.  They can bring a sense of closure to the story, complete plot threads and character arcs, or leave the reader wanting more with a cliffhanger.  They’re much more significant in literary terms (as opposed to marketing) than the opening lines, which can often be drab, unmemorable and difficult to absorb due to the author’s lack of familiarity with the story – unless you’re Jane Austen, anyway.  It’s a difficult/impossible task to compile a list of all my favourite endings to books, especially since I can’t claim to have read a significant portion of English literature – let alone the established canon – but I’m going to attempt it anyway.  So here’s my top 10 list:


10. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (2009)

“But Gale is not one to keep secrets from me.  ‘Katniss, there is no District Twelve.”

These words form the colossal cliffhanger of Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  Suzanne Collins excels at bringing characters from despair to hope, and at bringing everything crashing down once again.  At this stage of the novel Katniss has just been rescued from the death-match arena, surviving her second Hunger Games which were supposed to be a death sentence.  Furthermore, her actions in the arena proved to be the final spark which blazed into life a rebellion against the Capitol and the brutal dictator, President Snow.  Yet after this we learned that Peeta had been captured by the Capitol forces in their escape and then, finally, we’re given this final line that states Katniss’ home district is gone.  We know that the government has firebombed the coal-covered District 12 and that her mother and sister are safe, but this shocking final message with its brutal lack of detail hammers it home as the reader runs out of words.  We don’t know how many people survived – if any, nor the wider context of this attack.  This cliffhanger is highly effective and is a taste of things to come in the third and final novel, Mockingjay.


9. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)

” ‘And then what?’ said her dæmon sleepily.  “Build what?” ‘The Republic of Heaven,’ said Lyra.”

This final line to my all-time favourite book, though not a literary masterpiece in itself like other lines in this list, remains a highly fitting conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy.  The central theme to the books is that humanity should not look to a deity, real or otherwise, for meaning and purpose, but find and build it within themselves.  The Republic of Heaven begins as an attempt to build a real society in contrast to the Kingdom of Heaven which ends in war between the two, but it becomes clear that such a project is doomed to fail as people cannot inhabit other worlds than their own in the long-term.  Earlier in the book Lyra is told by a ghost, “We must build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”  At first she probably didn’t understand this, but her assertion at the end of the novel indicates she has embraced this philosophy. Knowing there is no conscious existence after death, nor hope of life in other worlds, Lyra has accepted after multiple sacrifices that she must live as fulfilling a life as possible in her own world during her own lifespan, bringing the thematic journey of the series to a satisfying conclusion.


8. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1931)

 “Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south–south-west; then paused, and after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left.  South-south west, south-south east, east…”

This somewhat graphic description of John the Savage’s suicide brings Brave New World to a close.  These final lines are powerful because of the sheer brutality of their imagery, using the comparison of compass needles and an agonisingly long, drawn out list of directions to create a vivid image of his feet dangling from above.  This makes the ending far more effective, as his suicide had been built up to throughout the book as he struggled to adapt to this horrific new world he found himself in, and particularly after the confused and drug-induced events in the previous scene where he let down all his moral barriers, which could have made the ending seem predictable otherwise.


7. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (2012)

“Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal-blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes.”

This closing line is important for several reasons.  Pagford’s divisions are laid bare between its wealthy residents and deprived families by the former’s collective act of looking away from the coffin of the woman who epitomised the latter, Terri Weedon.  The people of Pagford have made no success throughout the novel in understanding people in situations different from their own.  Their averted gaze symbolises the ignorance they held the family’s condition in, continuing to view their faults as self-imposed rather than the result of institutional, generational poverty.  For a novel which explores all aspects of human society, the good and the bad, this may seem surprisingly hopeless, though it’s important to remember the individual characters who have been redeemed throughout the novel.  This final line, then, confirms the novel’s message that although humans may see positive changes on an individual level over the course of the novel’s timespan, societal change is a much slower, messier process.


6. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)

   “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning- So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”

Fitzgerald’s lyrical writing flows from the page to summarise the novel’s themes, told by the narrator Nick Carraway.  These final paragraphs offer us two contrasting visions: the first of a temporary setback in reaching their dreams – the American Dream – and the second revelation that obsessively seeking your dreams, as was the case with Gatsby, merely drags you further into the past as you seek to recreate former glory.  Which is doomed to fail because, as Nick enlightened us earlier, “you can’t repeat the past.”  Furthermore, this is confirmation that the entire concept of the American Dream is a lie, or obsolete in this postwar world.  These final lines show us why The Great Gatsby remains hugely relevant for American society today.


5. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

“Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”

The closing line of this wonderful short story completes the narrator’s mental breakdown  having been confined to a bedroom in solitary confinement so she can ‘rest’, a barbaric but oh-so Victorian way of treating depression.  We watch the narrator’s mental state unravel as she becomes obsessed by the patterned wallpaper in her room, fixating all her world’s meaning upon it, and begins ritually walking round the room stripping the paper off.  Her husband, upon viewing her, faints, but this does not deter her and she continues walking her path over him.  These closing lines show just how removed from reality she has become that she is unable to even contextualise her husband’s identity and wellbeing, so severe has her mistreatment been.


4. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004)

“Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

This last line of Adam Ewing’s diary brings this epic of a novel to a close.  By this point we’ve witnessed six different time periods, movements to abolishing slavery, multiple personal adventures, revolutions and even the end of civilisation itself.  In each of the six stories it is heavily implied that a major character is the reincarnation of another from a previous story.  Whether Mitchell means this literally or as a metaphor for the consistent nature of the human soul, be it habit of the strong to exploit the weak or the enduring power of love, this final line must summarise not just the entire book but also humanity in its entirety.


3. Animal Farm – George Orwell (1945)

“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike.  No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs.  The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

This classic ending to Animal Farm completes the story’s circular plot of the farm being ruled by oppressive humans, the animals themselves in a brief period of freedom before being oppressed once again by the pigs.  Orwell masterfully shows the pigs gradually adopting more manlike manners by reneging on their laws outlawing alcohol and murder, among others, and then by the pigs entering the farmhouse and sleeping in human beds.  These closing lines bring this process to its natural conclusion where the pigs, to all intents and purposes, have become men.  As this is Orwell there is inevitably a political purpose, and here it is to show how the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union have become indistinguishable from the former Tsarist regime.  Never has there been a more successful allegory.


2. Ulysses – James Joyce (1922)

“and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Without a doubt the most unorthodox quote you’ll find on this list, the final lines of Ulysses (as opposed to the final sentence, which is over three thousand words long) brings some perhaps surprising order to this novel that so many people find unfathomable.  Throughout the day of Leopold Bloom, described in eye-watering levels of detail, he has been portrayed as a gentle and kind person, a protective father figure for Stephen, possessing moderate political views in opposition to xenophobic Irish nationalism and remarkable understanding towards his wife Molly, who has just begun an affair.  As a result of this he is frequently emasculated by characters throughout the book, particularly during chapter 15’s nightmare sequence in which he is literally turned into a woman.  His inadequacy as a hero is reinforced with the constant allusions to Homer’s Odysseus, proving himself to be the stark opposite of this bold, heroic figure.  And yet, in Molly’s final soliloquy, her lasts thoughts before falling asleep are of Bloom as she remembers the day he asked her to marry him.  We can finally recognise Bloom as the undoubted hero of the novel as he wins this ultimate victory against his rival for Molly – a victory not just for himself but for his values of tolerance.  It becomes clear that Bloom is indeed a hero, and perhaps precisely the one that Ireland needs.


1. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)

“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished.  He had won the victory over himself.  He loved Big Brother.”

Yes, Orwell again!  These famous lines represent The Party’s ultimate victory over Winston, providing one of the bleakest yet most powerful endings in English literature.  Throughout the novel Winston has opposed The Party and Big Brother, expressing his hatred of them both multiple times throughout.  And yet Orwell shows that even the deepest convictions can be uprooted by force, in Winston’s case through systematic torture and the horrors of Room 101.  The final sentence, deliberately basic in its construction, is an affirmation of Winston’s conversion, while the shift to a relaxed, reassuring tone expresses clearly how he has changed from the anguish-ridden man from the rest of the novel.  Completely at odds to the rest of the book, these final lines serve as the ultimate warning to the power of totalitarian regimes to bend and breaks their citizens upon their own whims.  It’s a message just as important today as it was in 1949.


Do you have any thoughts on this selection?  Have I made any notable omissions you think I should reconsider (or read!)? Let me know in the comments!

Nelson Mandela and LGBT Rights

Having just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (unsurprisingly, one of the most inspirational books I’ve ever read – if you’ve not read it yet, stop reading this blog and go do so right now!), I’ve been pondering a lot on the man who has indisputably become one of history’s most revered individuals.  I never fail to be impressed by his capacity for tolerance and forgiveness, by his ability to see the humanity in every human no matter how cruel their actions or by his pragmatic approach to every problem, putting aside his personal feelings.  He was by no means perfect, and prone to as many failings as the next person, yet in a sea of corrupt and tyrannical political leaders, when compared to the likes of Robert Mugabe or Muammar Gaddafi in Africa – or frankly, any leader taking power after a period of intense turmoil – he’s a saint.

One area many revered political leaders tend to have less than admirable records, however, is that of LGBT rights.  Margaret Thatcher, a hero to Britain’s current government – which recently legalised same-sex marriage – introduced strict rules against the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality not unlike what Putin’s doing in Russia today.  This isn’t confined to right-wing ‘moral values’; even George Orwell regarded homosexuality as unnatural.  The argument is often given that these attitudes are a product of their upbringing and common to all in their generation.  While this is true, it cannot wholly serve as an excuse.  Despite being seven years older than Thatcher, and only fifteen younger than Orwell, it was under Nelson Mandela’s presidency that South Africa adopted one of the most liberal approaches towards LGBT rights not just in Africa but in the entire world, even extending to guarantees for transgender people (often left out of the LGBT banner).  Mandela belonged to the very same generation as Thatcher and a similar one to Orwell.  Granted, his cultural background greatly differed, though homophobia was prevalent in both Britain and South Africa in the early 20th century.

This is just another example of Mandela’s astonishing ability to overcome opinions and reactions which he would have been socially-conditioned into.  To be clear, he was never a vocal advocate for LGBT rights – South African journalist Mark Gevisser portrays him as not ‘always comfortable’ with the idea.  Which, given the society he grew up in, is perfectly understandable.  But the point is that he overcame these ingrained prejudices and accepted that the universality of human rights includes the LGBT community.  Sure, he never pushed for these rights as president (though in fairness his list of impending priorities was pretty large), but nor did he offer any opposition when it became ANC policy.  This is in stark contrast to so many other leaders who have allowed their gut reaction to colour their opinions, and just another example of why Mandela deserves so much respect.  It’s easy for the liberals of today to accept LGBT rights as natural and correct, but we must bear in mind how much of a cultural leap it would have taken for previous generations. That South Africa retains, by far, the best record of any African country regarding LGBT rights, is due in no small part to Mandela’s decision to embrace the winds of change in public opinion.

2013: My Books

Unless I do some pretty quick reading over the next two days, I think I’m able to compile a complete list of the books I’ve read over the last year!  I’ve managed to extend my record of 38 books last year to 41!  I’ve also increasingly branched into reading non-fiction, largely around historical or political topics though also some science as well, but I’m making sure to keep up the fiction as well.  Like last year, I’ve compiled the books into two lists: in order by date read and my enjoyment of them.  I’m beginning to wonder whether it might be better to have two separate lists for the fiction and non-fiction, as it’s so difficult to compare the two forms.  I’ll bear that in mind for 2014.  For now, here they are:

Order Read

  1. Twilight (2005) – Stephenie Meyer
  2. New Moon (2006) – Stephenie Meyer
  3. Eclipse (2007) – Stephenie Meyer
  4. The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era (2012) – Liu Noueihed and Alex Warren
  5. Breaking Dawn (2008) – Stephenie Meyer
  6. American Gods (2001) – Neil Gaiman
  7. Brave New World [re-read] (1932) – Aldous Huxley
  8. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) – Owen Jones
  9. Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell
  10. The Bridge (1986) – Iain Banks
  11. Teach Yourself Islam (2003) – Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
  12. Heart of Darkness (1902) – Joseph Conrad
  13. Death on a Longship – Marsali Taylor (2012)
  14. The Great Powers 1814 – 1914 (1992) – Eric Wilmot
  15. Romeo and Juliet (1597) – William Shakespeare
  16. Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters (1998) – Steve Lyons
  17. The Thief of Time (2000) – John Boyne
  18. Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth (1979) – James Lovelock
  19. Fight Club (1996) – Chuck Palahniuk
  20. Battle Royale (2000-2005) – Koushun Takami
  21. Hamlet (1603) – William Shakespeare
  22. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – George Orwell
  23. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) – Mark Haddon
  24. Consider Phlebas (1987) – Iain Banks
  25. Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky (2009) – Bertrand M. Patenaude
  26. Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton
  27. The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  28. The Turn of the Screw (1898) – Henry James
  29. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) – Muriel Spark
  30. Oliver Cromwell (1991) – Barry Coward
  31. The Decline of the English Murder and other Essays (1965) – George Orwell
  32. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) – James Hogg
  33. Waiting For Godot (1953) – Samuel Beckett
  34. Cloud 9 (1979) – Caryl Churchill
  35. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – Oscar Wilde
  36. Richard III (1592) – William Shakespeare
  37. Ishi’s Brain: In Search of the Last “Wild” Indian (2004) – Orin Starn
  38. Pride and Prejudice (1813) – Jane Austen
  39. The Wasp Factory (1984) – Iain Banks
  40. The Casual Vacancy (2012) [re-read] – J. K. Rowling
  41. Road to Referendum (2013) – Iain Macwhirter

Order of Enjoyment

  1. Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell
  2. Brave New World [re-read] (1932) – Aldous Huxley
  3. The Bridge (1986) – Iain Banks
  4. The Casual Vacancy (2012) [re-read] – J. K. Rowling
  5. Road to Referendum (2013) – Iain Macwhirter
  6. The Great Powers 1814 – 1914 (1992) – Eric Wilmot
  7. The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. Consider Phlebas (1987) – Iain Banks
  9. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) – James Hogg
  10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) – Mark Haddon
  11. Pride and Prejudice (1813) – Jane Austen
  12. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – George Orwell
  13. Death on a Longship – Marsali Taylor (2012)
  14. Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters (1998) – Steve Lyons
  15. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) – Muriel Spark
  16. The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era (2012) – Liu Noueihed and Alex Warren
  17. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) – Owen Jones
  18. Waiting For Godot (1953) – Samuel Beckett
  19. Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth (1979) – James Lovelock
  20. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – Oscar Wilde
  21. The Wasp Factory (1984) – Iain Banks
  22. Ishi’s Brain: In Search of the Last “Wild” Indian (2004) – Orin Starn
  23. The Decline of the English Murder and other Essays (1965) – George Orwell
  24. Battle Royale (2000-2005) – Koushun Takami
  25. Cloud 9 (1979) – Caryl Churchill
  26. Oliver Cromwell (1991) – Barry Coward
  27. Hamlet (1603) – William Shakespeare
  28. Richard III (1592) – William Shakespeare
  29. Teach Yourself Islam (2003) – Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
  30. Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky (2009) – Bertrand M. Patenaude
  31. American Gods (2001) – Neil Gaiman
  32. Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton
  33. Heart of Darkness (1902) – Joseph Conrad
  34. The Turn of the Screw (1898) – Henry James
  35. Romeo and Juliet (1597) – William Shakespeare
  36. Twilight (2005) – Stephenie Meyer
  37. The Thief of Time (2000) – John Boyne
  38. Breaking Dawn (2008) – Stephenie Meyer
  39. New Moon (2006) – Stephenie Meyer
  40. Eclipse (2007) – Stephenie Meyer
  41. Fight Club (1996) – Chuck Palahniuk

Aspidistras and Money

Contains spoilers.

Two weeks ago I finished reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, published in 1936.  As with most things he wrote, the issues he raised in the novel have lingered in my mind long since returning it to the library.  It focuses on the life of Gordon Comstock, a part-time bookseller and poet who descends into a life of squalor and poverty.  While not as revolutionary or powerful as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell admitted that, somewhat fittingly, he wrote the book largely because he was in need of money and claimed to be dissatisfied with the final edit – I would argue that it takes a critical look at society just as effectively.

The main theme of Aspidistra is, of course, poverty.  Never one for subtlety, Orwell shoehorns in references to the topic wherever possible, but the nature of poverty allows him to get away with it.  Throughout the novel are constant repetitions regarding Gordon’s lack of money; he is ever-aware of the coins in his pocket, he does mental calculations for every transaction he makes – every aspect of his life is ruled by money.  Through such basic repetition, Orwell gets his point across that we live in a society ruled by what he terms ‘The Money Gods’.   How shocking it is to have the dream of capitalism pulled away to reveal the murky truths hidden belief.  To follow a lifestyle where Gordon must turn down almost all social invitations, including pub gatherings, journeys to the countryside or meals, because they require him to spend money he doesn’t have.  For those of us who have never been at such a poverty line it truly is horrifying to consider how prevalent worries about money can be.

Arguably, Aspidistra is written as a comedy.  The way in which Gordon becomes obsessed by money is so unrealistic as to be comical, yet it does highlight how consuming poverty can be.  The most interesting part of the book is when Gordon unexpectedly gets sent a cheque from a magazine he sent poems to.  He begins rationally, planning to save and repay his debts, but by the day’s end he has squandered it all; on alcohol, transport, his girlfriend Rosmary, a prostitute – even his wealthy friend Ravelston – and finds himself in prison the next day.  As someone incredibly scrupulous with money I find this behaviour difficult to comprehend, yet it’s utterly realistic and the sort of actions I’ve seen displayed time and time again.  It’s not a case of “the proles can’t handle money,” but the result of handing someone the opportunity of a brief, glimmering escape from crushing poverty.  Therefore, it can be surmised that poverty breeds self destructive behaviour.  Never is this clearer than in Gordon’s eerily prophetic yearnings to see London destroyed by foreign bombers.

There are a couple of flaws with the book, however.  Most notably is that Gordon’s poverty is self-inflicted, as he actually once had a decent job working for an advertising company and throughout the novel faces the possibility of returning.  Fair enough, I can appreciate his disgust for such a job and his reasons for leaving in an attempt to defy the defy the Money God, but this does, in my opinion, somewhat limit the impact.  Is is true poverty if you have an escape route?  Much better to have had Gordon suffering from rapid unemployment and poor working conditions, I’d have thought.  It comes across less of a criticism of capitalist economics and more the character study of a slightly deranged man.

Also, I take issue with the suggestion that only two options were open to Gordon: that he could either live by the Money God or reject the system and live in complete poverty.  Orwell’s message is almost ruined by the resolution of the novel – Gordon returns to his job at the advertising company, and therefore has to submit to the Money God, symbolised by throwing his poetry manuscripts into a drain and buying an aspidistra, that symbol of middle-class money worship.  What is Orwell trying to say?  A Democratic Socialist to his death, as a person he clearly wouldn’t have supported Gordon’s decisions yet he never provides any condemnation through the narrative.  Thing is, life rarely works in absolutes and I believe Gordon didn’t have to take such an extreme route either way.  Why couldn’t he have returned to the job but continued with the poetry in his spare time, resolved to resign the moment he could make a decent income from writing?  While most of the novel is brilliance, after reading the ending I could see why Orwell was ashamed of the book.

The only other option vaguely mentioned is Ravelston’s vague Marxist theories of tearing down the capitalist system altogether and establishing a Socialist State.  This, I suspect, is closer to Orwell’s own views, yet it’s discredited whenever mentioned.  I accept that political apathy is another byproduct of poverty and this is a point Orwell expressed well, but to expand on this option for Gordon would have gone some way to giving the conclusion the depth it lacked.

Criticisms aside, it’s remarkable how relevant Aspidistra remains today.  One opinion it has caused me to rethink is the morality of tipping.  It was actually another of Orwell’s books, Homage to Catalonia, which first made me wonder whether tipping is right.  He described the Communist/Anarchist (the ideologies were diverse and vague) revolution in Barcelona where, among other rules, tipping workers was banned.  This supposedly coincided with the emancipation of workers, whereupon tipping would be considered a bourgeoisie insult.  It has always been my opinion that the introduction of, say, a living wage would be much more preferable than making people rely on tips for an income.  Of course I do tip because I know how underpaid many workers in the service industry are, and Aspidistra has reinforced this for me.  It’s very much like giving money to beggars in that we shouldn’t have to do it, that there should be provisions from the state to make such actions unnecessary, yet until that happens to do nothing would be even worse.

Overall, Keep the Aspidistra Flyingis a very engaging book which can truly change your perspective on society and economics.  I wonder how long it will continue to be relevant for?

Exam Results!

I received my exam results today – my last ever encounter with the Scottish Qualifications Authority.  It will be like losing a difficult and demanding friend, but one who has stuck with me throughout many difficulties.  Anyway, I had the crazy idea of filming myself discovering the results on camera, which you can watch here.

I’ll now just pass you onto a couple of links I promised to upload a while back:

English dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218339/
History dissertation: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218347/
The British Revolutionhttp://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218366/
The Lightning Strike: http://www.writerscafe.org/writing/BlueMeltwater/1218368/

Thoughts on Heart of Darkness

Contains spoilers.

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is a short novel which seems to have permeated into the British consciousness.  I’d never actually heard of the book until a friend suggested studying it last year for a literature dissertation on imperialism, but the more I found out about it the more it began to crop up.  That image of a steamer trawling down a river surrounded by dense rainforest certainly resonates with other images I’d seem in the past.  I decided to read it after my favourite nerdy game released an expansion of the same name, and also because of my interest in Africa’s colonial past from my studies of South Africa in my Advanced Higher History course.  I wasn’t sure of Conrad’s viewpoint on imperialism before reading, so it was interesting trying to discern that as the story wove on.

Clearly, the novel’s central and generally sole theme is of imperialism.  It follows a frame narrative, featuring a sailor called Marlow recounting his experiences to his associates on a ship along the Thames.  The story then follows his experiences as a captain of an ivory-carrying steamer along an unknown river – probably the Congo – and his experiences with the indigenous African populations and his dealings with the enigmatic Mr Kurtz.

Firstly, it is really difficult to say what Conrad’s opinions are on imperialism.  It’s important to remember that the novel was published in 1902, so even slight deviancies from the Western perspective of ‘bringing civilisation and God to the savages’ could probably count as mild opposition to it.  It would be easy to mistake many of the references to ‘savages’, who Marlow repeatedly refers to as subhumans, as racism – indeed many African postcolonial writers, including Chinua Achebe, have understandably done so.  Yet, the book does at times seem harsh in its attitude towards colonialism.  Consider these two quotes, near the beginning:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly fatter nose than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only”

“Your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.”

Neither of these paint a particularly pleasant picture of European involvement on the African continent, and both challenge the idea that Europeans were enlightened and superior, enforcing their rule upon Africa for the African population’s benefit.  Then at the end, when Marlow must submit Mr Kurtz’s report, he omits the crazed ending: “Exterminate all the brutes!”  I believe Marlow began to feel a sympathy for the Africans and, if he didn’t actively oppose the system of imperialism, he certainly didn’t advocate it.  It’s easy to criticise imperialism in retrospect but at the time just challenging this widely accepted view must have been quite revolutionary of Conrad.

I found the character of Kurtz a bit difficult to follow.  He’s built up as this enigmatic, wonderful man – in typical Victorian fashion – only to be revealed as a physically wizened figure who has been accepted into the African community.  He has kept his wit and intelligence but has abandoned European ‘civilisation’ – or that’s how I understood it anyway.  It’s an interesting idea: imperialism makes a slave of the oppressor, either literally or psychologically.  A similar idea was explored in George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant.  Though I don’t think that’s quite what Conrad was getting at.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what he was saying with the character of Kurtz.  Nevertheless, he certainly succumbs to Africa; it is explicitly stated as the cause of his death, in the famous line:

‘He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—”The horror! The horror!” ‘

Kurtz has been physically destroyed by this strange new continent, one beyond the European man’s capability to comprehend.  No description – a first for the novel – only, quite simply, ‘the horror’.

It wouldn’t be fair to call this a criticism of the book, but after a while I began to find Conrad’s writing style very difficult to read.  This isn’t necessarily a flaw of his – the work is incredible when you consider English was his third language, after his native Polish and French – but it did limit my enjoyment and understanding.  Perhaps the fact my reading was interspersed by hectic exam revision didn’t help.  I just found it rambled a lot and was unecessarily drawn out, particularly towards the end.  This is something I’ve struggled with a lot for Victorian literature – perhaps I’m just too used to the modern snappy style – but it’s particularly prominent in Heart of Darkness.  That said, Conrad does set up the scene of this colony well.  In that respect, I feel the novel is more successful.  It presents an idea, an image.  The book is short, and perhaps the plot is only of secondary importance.  I also enjoyed the way he used the frame narrative, flipping back to Marlow on the Thames which gave the reader some ‘breathing space’.

In conclusion, I am very glad to have read Heart of Darkness and I would certainly recommend it, despite it not being the easiest read.  I’m not sure how much I enjoyed it whilst reading, but in retrospect my opinion is surprisingly positive.  It’s a fascinating period account of imperialism, a topic still of great embarrassment for Europe.

Final rating (if forced): 7/10

Also included in the copy of Heart of Darkness I borrowed from the local library was extracts from Conrad’s diary and his ‘Up-river book’.  I was surprised by how basic his diary was, often a rambled and incoherent series of notes – though I don’t think his grasp of English was deep at that point.  The diary is useful in seeing how Conrad’s experiences as worker on a steamship himself influenced the story.  The ‘Up-river Book’ was a bit less interesting, presumably intended to be a series of directions for navigating up the Congo River only to stop mid-way in.  But still fascinating to skim over as a historical document.

Related article:
http://pbrigitte.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/an-image-of-africa-racism-in-conrads-heart-of-darkness-by-chinua-achebe/ (a detailed insight into Achebe’s perspective of the novel).

Brave New World of the 21st Century

I love Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World.  So much so, in fact, that I chose to write

my Advanced Higher Dissertation about it.  Published in 1931, it reflected Huxley’s concerns over the consequences of living in a society powered solely by the forces of profit and consumerism, of control by happiness and pleasure.  I wasn’t blown away upon first reading it, mostly because I rushed through it in a day whilst trying to find a counterpart to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but having studied it and allowed it to retire in my mind, I felt a return was needed.  What struck me most upon re-reading the book was how many parallels there are with modern life.  Similar sentiments are shared in the preface, where it’s suggested that the fall of Communism and the triumph of neo-liberalism has brought us over-closer to the world of Brave New World.  So I thought it worth a brief blog post discussing whether or not the novel did predict the direction of society’s future.

The book opens with an audacious sequence within, essentially, a baby factory, where clone groups are created and assigned into castes, which determines their occupation and social class.  While this technology sort of exists, and is being developed through stem-cell research, it’s a divisive moral issue and not something I can see being implemented anytime soon.  Huxley appears correct to assume that society cannot survive without a class system, however; although less obvious than in his time, divisions in wealth and status are just as significant now as they were then.

Where I think Brave New World is most relevant is in its portrayal of economics.  There are frequent jokes about how everything in Huxley’s world is based on the level of consumption it can create – so, children are given hi-tech games rather than a ball, people are conditioned to hate nature so they’ll play outdoor sports rather than go for walks, etc.  They worship Henry Ford, creator of the modern assembly line.  This obsessive, mad need for economic growth above all else has many parallels with our world of today.  Sure, the people are happy, but that’s only because it suits the ruling oligarchs to have a happy, consuming, unquestioning population.  Huxley never addresses the issue of living in a world of finite resources, but this is surely a flaw of both the book’s economic model and of our own.  There is virtually no debate on whether we actually need growth.  If there’s any doubt of the level of consumerism in society today, simply turn up to see a movie at the cinema on time.  You’ll endure 20 minutes of highly-paid efforts to sell you useless things like expensive cars and perfume.  I rarely watch an advert without thinking of Brave New World, now.

Granted, there is an argument for economic growth if a country is (a) developing and (b) growing in population size.  I suppose for (a) there is no ‘end point’ of development for a country but I would mark it at a point where the living standards of the population have reached an acceptable level.  (b) is fairly straight forward; if a population grows, you need to produce more stuff to sustain the growth in order to prevent lifestyle changes.  However – and this could be Brave New World’s greatest flaw – neither of these conditions exist in Huxley’s world.  The oligarchs actively prevent scientific and technological progress, and they have capped the population at a level most suited to worldwide stability.  So, why is there such a need for growth and consumption?  I’m not an economics expert by any means so perhaps I misunderstand the arguments.

I don’t think we’re quite yet at the level of art mutilation as we see in the book; thus far we’re still allowed Shakespeare and the Bible.  At least half of the world has no significant censors on cultural endeavors, whereas in Brave New World, the ideas of conflict, love, jealousy, and family are prohibited as dangerous concepts for society, which has never quite been so radical in even the most oppressive dictatorships in reality; indeed, many dictatorships need a strong patriarchal model and a scapegoat to act as an object of hate in order to survive.  The destruction of knowledge, however, is more convincing.  While on the lowest end of its atrocities, the German Nazi regime’s systematic destruction of books never fails to sicken me.  Though again, apart from some oddball countries like North Korea, this is less prominent today.

Politically, the world of today bears no resemblance to that of Brave New World.  Far from being united, we are continuing to splinter into ever-smaller countries through the principle of self-determination.  Half the world is democratic, half is dictatorial but no country really fits the mold of being a ‘benign dictatorship’.

Finally, I think most of us could testify that consumerism and economic growth has not led to the stress-free, thoughtless blissful life which Huxley envisaged.  There could be parallels made between the drug soma and high rates of drug use in the developed world today, most prominently alcohol but also illegal drugs as well as the use of anti-depressants, but, other than Linda – who spent time outside of ‘civilisation’ – there’s never such a great dependence on soma.  Modern life is extraordinarily stressful, with jobs, lack of jobs, taxes, relationships, lack of relationships, bullying, death, natural catastrophes, etc etc.  We are far from abolishing unhappiness.

In many ways, Brave New World is an ingenius satire on the nature of modern life, but we’re not quite yet at that terrifying state Huxley imagined.  Who knows, though – perhaps it’s not far off?