BBC radio 4: Heart of Darkness

In this BBC radio broadcast, Melvyn Bragg discusses Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Written in 1899, Heart of Darkness is a fascinating fin de siecle critique of colonialism and man's greed. Conrad draws on his own adventures for the plot. The story's main narrator is Marlow, a merchant seaman who pilots a steamship upriver in what is largely assumed to be the Belgian Congo. He finds the scramble for Africa well underway, with Europeans desperately competing to make their fortunes from ivory. Marlow's journey takes him into the interior of this mysterious silent continent. After a dangerous passage he finally arrives at the company's most remote trading station. It is reigned over by Kurtz, a white man who seems to have become a kind of God figure to the local people. Marlow is fascinated by him, preferring his messianic ravings to the petty treachery and mercenarism of the other white traders. On the journey back, Kurtz dies, whispering “the horror, the horror”.

The interpretation of these words has perplexed readers ever since and the book has prompted a diverse range of readings from the psychoanalytical, that sees the novella as a metaphor for the journey into the subconscious, to feminist readings that examine how Conrad excludes female characters and focuses on the male consciousness.
Conrad wrote; “My task is, above all, to make you see”. So did he intend this novella to provoke a discussion of the immorality and rapacity at the centre of colonialism? Was he questioning the hero's welcome given to those famous explorers who came back from “civilising” Africa, as they saw it? Or was he, as the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe put it, “guilty of preposterous and perverse arrogance in reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?

With Susan Jones, Fellow and Tutor in English at St Hilda's College, Oxford;

Robert Hampson, Professor of Modern Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London; Laurence Davies, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in English at Glasgow University and Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire 

Questions for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (deadline: 3/19)

Answer one of the following questions with 200-250 words, cite relevant examples to prove your points:

     1) What does Kurtz represent to Marlow? Why does Marlow want to meet Kurtz? What does Marlow learn from his meeting with Kurtz?

      2) Explore the concept of “savagery” in this story. Who and what constitutes savagery? What does it mean to be civilized?

      3) Discuss Heart of Darkness as a quest narrative. In what way is this a journey into the self? What does it mean to encounter the “heart of darkness”? How do the African people and landscape reflect Marlow’s state of mind?


Two women writers: Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys (deadline: 6/22)

Answer one of the following questions with 200-250 words:
1) Why are the two sisters in "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" unable to deal with the challenges of the everyday life on their own? Why don't they have the ability to make decisions for themselves? What causes their indecisiveness and child-like timidity?

2) "Class" is a central issue that is been contemplated in Mansfield's "The Garden Party." How does Mansfield criticize the middle-class gentility and its pretentious snobbishness in the story?

3) In Rhys' "The Day They Burned the Books," the narrator is a white girl who only partially understands the painful entanglements of class, race, and cultural prejudice.  How are these issues reflected in the story?


An Interview with Ireland's first female president (deadline: 5/23)

We have spent two weeks discussing Ireland, her relationship with the UK, and the lives and works of  two famous Irish writers--James Joyce and W. B. Yeats. In the following link, you can listen to an interview with Ireland's first female president and a former United Nations high commissioner--Mary Robinson. In this interview, she talks about Ireland's social class gap, gender imbalance, Catholicism, the transformation of Ireland, and her advocation for "climate justice."  Listen to the story and write down anything that inspires or interests you in this interview.


E. M. Forster's "The Other Boat" (deadline: 5/8)

John Lennon's words perfectly summarize the message of Forster's "The Other Boat," which is published posthumously in 1972 because of the forbidden subject of racial transgression and homosexuality.

Answer ONE of the following questions with 200-250 words:

1) How does the story illustrate the ways in which imperialist racism goes hand in hand with homophobia and sexism?

2) How does the story explore the possibilities and limitations of human relationships when human beings are constrained by various forms of discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry?

3) How do you interpret the ending of the story? On the surface, the story does conclude unhappily, with the murder of the seductive Cocoanut and the suicide of the transgressive Captain March. However, is it possible to offer an alternative way of interpreting the ending?


A Room of One's Own (deadline: 4/7)

Answer ONE of the following questions with 200-250 words:

1) Conventional wisdom tends to lead us to assume that art belongs to a certain abstract and transcendental realm that is detached from life and the concrete conditions of its production. How does Woolf subvert this kind of belief in A Room of One's Own?

2) How does Woolf complicate the idea/tradition of fiction writing and of history making, which used to be considered as gender-neutral in the history of humanity?

3) Why does Woolf assert that "It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple"? Why does she insist that "one must be woman-manly or man-womanly" (2489)? What author or authors illustrate this kind of androgynous mind for Woolf, and why?


Heart of Darkness (deadline: 3/22)

Answer ONE of the following questions with 200-250 words:

1) How does Conrad's Heart of Darkness radically cast in doubt epistemological and ethical certainties that were believed by his Victorian predecessors?

2) If the focus on the unconscious can be said to be one of the main characteristics of modernist literature, how is this reflected in Conrad's Heart of Darkness?

3) In Heart of Darkness, certain characters are flat, while certain characters are round.  Give us at least one example of each type of character. Explain the reason why they are flat or round.