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BOOK REVIEW: The Correlation between Mental Illness and Places in the “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Mental illness has plagued people since the beginning of humanity. It is a generic term for many common illnesses, including depression, bipolar disorder, and OCD. Hereditary plays a central role in mental illness, but it can also be developed from traumatic experiences, such as violence, neglect, and stress. Nonetheless, the symptoms are often exacerbated by a person’s surroundings, such as boarding schools or military bases, due to limited human interaction or isolation from home. In times prior to the 21st century, globally, people suffering from mental illness were deemed “crazy” and relegated to spending the remainder of their lives hidden from society in mental asylums. Today, however, particularly in developed countries, people have access to advanced health care including diagnosis, medication, and counseling to improve their condition (Carney). Mental illness has been portrayed in literature and movies such as the “Perks of Being a Wallflower”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and the “Heart of Darkness” which was written by the Polish born British author, Joseph Conrad, who wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This novella is about the experience of Marlow, the protagonist, who traveled to the Congo by ship and observed atrocities of the white traders on the natives, committed notably by a man named Kurtz, whom Marlow befriended. In his novella, Marlow described Kurtz as a ruthless man, and in turn, the Russian trader described Kurtz as having struggled with mental illness. Marlow’s experience with the doctor, his feelings of solitude on the ship and his description of Kurtz and his struggles suggested that mental stability was a major challenge for European colonizers in the Congo.

Prior to embarking on his journey to the Congo, Marlow visited a doctor in England. The appointment with the doctor is rather insightful on how mental illness is explained as the doctor believed that Marlow was crazy for desiring to visit the Congo and explains his view about why he personally would never go. He states “I am not such a fool as I look, quoth Plato to his disciples” (Conrad 11). This citation brings up the idea that this journey is precarious and the doctor with all his expertise realized it could only result in tragedy and misery. In a sense, he brought up the idea that the trip and the jungle would create “madness”, stating ‘‘in the tropics one must before everything keep calm’’ (Conrad 12). It is important to note that while the doctor brought up the term “madness”, without the foresight of modern advancement of the diagnosis of mental disorders, it is a sort of umbrella term encompassing a variety of mental illnesses. Also, the doctor questions Marlow if there was “ever any madness in your [Marlow’s] family” (Conrad 12)? Marlow’s response is rather key to the stigma of mental illness at the time, as Marlow replied he “felt very annoyed” (Conrad 12), by the doctor’s probing, perhaps, because he felt the shame and awkwardness elicited by the question and the topic of mental illness in general. Later in his journey, Marlow reminisced about the doctor’s warning and how his hypothesis became reality for him. Marlow explained “I remembered the old doctor—’It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot.’ I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting” (Conrad 21). Marlow after having witnessed tremendous white-on-black cruelty, and as he was adjusting to a new lonely life, felt that the doctor’s words were becoming increasingly accurate. Marlow’s time in the jungle contributed both to his madness and sadness according to himself and similarly, his time on the ship created moments of mania and depression.

Marlow experienced difficulty in the jungle as well as on the ship. On his journey to the Congo, he experienced a deep feeling of loneliness and depression. He explained how he noticed a man firing at an empty coast “There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere (Conrad 14)”. Marlow having noticed the lonely ship firing brings up a parallel to him having been alone on this boat among many individuals due to the isolation he felt on the ship and a longing for his life to be interesting. Furthermore, there is a sense of social anxiety, Marlow encountered on a new boat with people he didn’t know while going to a country he had never visited before. He described this feeling as an “isolation amongst all these men with whom I [Marlow] had no point of contact” (Conrad 14) especially due to his fear of being eaten by “cannibals” on the ship. Eventually, when the ship landed, Marlow lost his anxiety and excitement for new experiences and fell into a meaningless routine of waking up, working, eating and sleeping. Marlow explained the daily boredom as “I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life (Conrad 23). With little ambition and hope, Marlow had begun to go insane largely due to the same routine involving duties on the ship. If he and his crew sailed the boat they “wouldn’t be able to tell where we were going to – whether up or downstream, or across – till we [Marlow and his crew] fetched against one bank or the other – and then we wouldn’t know at first which it was” (Conrad 42). The sense of the unknown surrounding Marlow’s little world created a deep sense of anxiety and isolation for Marlow and his crew members in the vastness of nature. Marlow also felt alone being a white man in a black land where he couldn’t communicate with the natives. Towards the end of the novella, Marlow began experiencing paranoia and the sense of being alone in this world which strengthened with time. For example, when Marlow was lecturing the pilgrims “they thought me [Marlow] gone mad” (Conrad 43), but these experiences faced by Marlow were also felt by his compatriot Kurtz.

Kurtz, who was an ivory trader as well as an owner of a trading post, committed horrendous cruelties, such as displaying severed heads of native Congolese people on stakes by his house. Ironically, his cruelty instilled fear into the natives but he was viewed as “godlike” by many of them. He often struggled with moments of being happy and then sad, likely this today would be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. In his happier moments, he presided over his trading post and in his sad, depressive moments, he simply “wandered alone, far in the depths of the forest” (Conrad 55). A Russian trader who befriended Kurtz explained how Kurtz struggled with his emotions, fears, and that “nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites” (Conrad 50). The rites are signs of his “godliness” among the natives which he received through immense brutality in the prison-like jungle setting. This gave Kurtz an exalted persona achieved through fear making him narcissistic, as well as paranoid of being usurped by figures such as the General Manager. These deep feelings of rage were shown apart from brutality on the natives such as when Kurtz threatened to kill the Russian over a small amount of ivory. The Russian explained of Kurtz’s invincibility and psychosis in his mind having stated Kurtz “could do so [kill him], and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased’’ (Conrad 56). The ideas that Kurtz was in a sense superior to all is related to his notion that others are lesser than him due to his race, gender, and social status. In one low depressive moment, Kurtz felt unhappy and “he struggled with himself, too. I [Marlow] saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself” (Conrad 66). Kurtz alternated between a persona of invincibility and that of a depressed man. On his deathbed, Kurtz exclaimed “the Horror! the Horror!” (Conrad 70), which probably alluded to his atrocities and his inability to control his Machiavellian urge, partially due to his mental state.

Concluding, mental illness is described in the “Heart of Darkness” as being caused by isolation and homesickness, such as being on the boat and in the jungle for European colonizers. Mental illness to Conrad would have simply been a madness, unlike today where there are different types of mental illnesses and extensive diagnostic tools. Connections to mental illness are found throughout the SPS community such as having a LINC day devoted to this issue which took place last term. The portrayal of mental illness is rather common in literature as well, such as in “The God of Small Things”, where Estha struggles with PTSD after being molested by the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man. Mental illness has been extensively documented such as when many soldiers returned from war they suffered from PTSD for the remainder of their lives (Longworth 1-7). Conrad’s descriptions of mental illness as a “madness” is rather different to its understating today. Unlike a form of ostracization, today when someone is afflicted they are often helped.

Sources:

1. Carney, Caroline. “Personality and Behavior Changes – Mental Health Disorders.” Merck Manuals Consumer Version. Merck Manuals, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2017. <http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/mental-health-disorders/overview-of-mental-health-care/personality-and-behavior-changes&gt;.

2. Carney, Caroline. “Mental Illness in Society – Mental Health Disorders.” Merck Manuals Consumer Version. Merck Manuals, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

3. Conrad, Joseph, and Paul B. Armstrong. Heart of Darkness: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2017. Print.

4. Longworth, Sarah Young. “Trauma and the Ethical Dilemma in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.” (2006): 1-7. University of North Carolina Wilmington, 2006. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

BOOK REVIEW: Being a Single Woman in The God of Small Things

 

BOOK REVIEW

Being a woman in India has its challenges especially if part of the lower class. Many women face struggles from conception, such as female infanticide, and during adolescence, especially in rural areas, are given away along with their dowries to often abusive husbands and in-laws. Many of them face difficulties in simply leaving their homes, which is usually not the case in Western society, including high rates of sexual assault (Udas) especially on the streets and in public transportation. An example of this is a case in 2012 where a woman in Delhi, named Jyoti Singh, was brutally assaulted by strangers on a bus with a metal pole, and eventually succumbed to her injuries. After her death, there were many protests in India regarding the status and security of women (Borde). Nonetheless, progress has been made since India’s liberation in 1947, women have acquired more rights and protections such as a women-only car on the Delhi subway trains (McCarthy) and the legalization of abortion in 1971 (Angloinfo). Indira Gandhi, the first and to date the only female president in India, furthered women’s rights, particularly by being a role model to women and girls (UCLA).

Arundhati Roy was born in 1961, in Shillong, a town in North-Eastern India. She grew up in this period of rapid social and economic change, especially after the age of two when her parents divorced, and she moved in with her brother and mother south to Kerala. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The God of Small Things, published in 1997, describes the lives of the Ipe family in a town called Ayemenem in Southern India (Adams). In her novel, Roy addresses the problems women face in India, such as marriage, domestic abuse, raising children, and divorce (Roy). Being a woman in Indian society, as shown in The God of Small Things, is seen as uncomfortable, and precarious, as shown by Mammachi’s decision to remain in a sadistic relationship with Pappachi; by Ammu’s life story in not being educated, leaving her abusive husband, and struggling emotionally; and by Rahel being interrogated and judged by Comrade Pillai about being divorced and childless.

Mammachi struggled her whole life, especially throughout her marriage with Pappachi. He beat her frequently with a bronze vase and she often ran out of their house in Delhi. Being a woman with children, she felt hopeless and was stuck in this cycle of domestic abuse. In Vienna due to Pappachi’s work, after her music teacher believed she could be a professional, Pappachi forced her to stop the lessons and smashed her violin. This was because he was envious of other’s triumphs, especially with his wife being a woman and someone who was unequal to him in his opinion. Later on, when Chacko stopped the beating, Mammachi began her infatuation with him, as she needs a man to be a “repository of all her womanly feelings” (Roy 160) since her identity and importance were determined by his love. At Pappachi’s funeral, she cried because she “was used to being beaten” (Roy 49) and her self-worth was tied to him and his importance in society. She gave up the control of her factory to Chacko because she felt he is a better leader than her since he was an educated man. Mammachi accepts that Chacko brought women over for his manly needs, but she despised Margaret, because she stole him from her.

Mammachi also resented her daughter, Ammu, for falling in love with Velutha and having a satisfying sexual relationship. Unlike Chacko, she was chastised as a woman for having womanly needs, unlike his manly needs. As a woman, as a mother, Mammachi was frustrated with being stifled her whole life, but ironically towards the end, she just accepted her destiny being a mother and wife and the limitations imposed by society such as having to stay home.
Ammu had been marginalized her whole life. Her father had physically abused her as an adolescent alongside her mother. After graduating from high school in Delhi, she moved to Ayemenem since her father “insisted that a college education was an unnecessary expense for a girl” (Roy 19), so she had “to wait for marriage proposals while she helped her mother with the housework” (Roy 19). Hoping to escape her misery, after seeking permission from her father, she spent the summer in Kolkata. While there, she met Baba, whom she married to escape Ayemenem, and she moved to a tea plantation. The two ended up having fraternal twins: Rahel and Estha. Threatening to fire Baba, Baba’s boss asked him permission to sleep with Ammu, but when Baba demanded her to sleep with his boss, she refused, and he hit her before she defended herself. This soon became a cycle of domestic abuse, of “drunken violence followed by post drunken badgering” (Roy 42). As soon as the children became part of the abuse, “Ammu left her husband and returned, unwelcome, to her parents in Ayemenem. To everything that she had fled from only a few years ago. Except that now she had two young children. And no more dreams” (Roy 42). However, Ammu having children in this society meant she would become a stay at home mother. Ammu being divorced with children limited her employment and marriage opportunities, and she had became further marginalized in a society where simply being a woman is a liability.

Rahel, Ammu’s daughter, remained at home, even after Ammu left the house after being banished by Chacko after his daughter Sophie Mol’s death. Nonetheless, Rahel lost contact with her brother who was returned to their father. Rahel was also isolated from Ammu, who left her with Mammachi and Baby Kochamma, looking for work to eventually be financially able to take care of Rahel. Growing up after age seven, Rahel was isolated from her mother and brother and was expelled from several schools. Later on in her life, she joined an architecture class in New Delhi, where she met an American named Larry. Then, she married him and moved to his homeland: “Rahel drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge. With a Sitting Down sense.” (Roy 19). Rahel married Larry because she wanted to get away from her boring, sad life and escape India and her past experiences. He eventually divorced her because “when they made love he was offended by her eyes” since “they [her eyes] behaved as though they belonged to someone else”, perhaps “someone watching” or “looking out of the window at the sea or at a boat in the river” (Roy 20). Rahel constantly reminisced about the past, and Roy brought up the boat to show the night when Sophie Mol drowned, a traumatizing event for her even as an adult. Roy wrote the following about Larry: “He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough” (Roy 20). Rahel as a woman in India was stifled by the lack of opportunities and she faced a conundrum of whether to give up her dreams or try to succeed and move forward in life. She ended up working odd jobs after their divorce as a waitress in New York, and then as a night clerk at a gas station near Washington D.C., where she observed much violence, eventually moving back to Ayemenem. Upon her return, she met Comrade Pillai with whose son she spent time as a child. Comrade Pillai mocked her for being divorced “as though it were a form of death” (Roy 124) and not having children as he thought “that this generation was perhaps paying for its forefathers’ bourgeois decadence” (Roy 124). Comrade Pillai simply valued Rahel for having a husband and children and not for her own attributes. Like her grandmother and mother, Rahel was pressured by family and society to become a wife and a mother, although unlike her predecessors as a woman, she was allowed to get an education including university.

In conclusion, being a woman in Indian society poses challenges due to patriarchal traditions and constraints. Many women are essentially treated as second class citizens. In India, women lack rights, which are present in most of the Western World, such as the ability to own property (Jain 9-10) or be in a gay relationship (Choudhury). As a society evolves and modernizes, women in general gain a sense of empowerment (Welzel and Alexander). For example, in Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, the pretty girl who grew up as a second class citizen became a famous model, starred in a TV show, and owned a business in Pakistan (Hamid). Today in many South Asian countries, women have achieved great success on the world stage as actresses and models, notably Freida Pinto and Priyanka Chopra (Times of India) and activists such as Malala Yousafzai (Nobelprize.org.). It should be mentioned, however, that Roy’s story is simply one viewpoint of a vast country with over a billion people. Many men in India do not beat their wives and many women in India can attend school and university. Where a woman lives in India in some causes contributes to whether she is a victim of domestic violence, particularly due to a north-south divide with women living in South India, notably Kerala with higher gender parity (Misra). Nonetheless, as a country modernizes, the role of women becomes more significant as students, as workers, as politicians, and as businesswomen (Welzel and Alexander). As Gandhi said, “The day a woman can walk freely on the roads at night, that day we can say that India has achieved independence” (Karthik and Sivasubramanian). Until that day, whether it be in 2020 or 2050, but not in 1947, India will not be freed from the grasp and chains of British colonialism.

Sources-

1.Udas, Sumnima . “Challenges of being a woman in India.” CNN. Cable News Network, 12 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.

2. Borde, Lianne La. “India’s Daughter: The gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh.” Life Death Prizes. Life Death Prizes, 17 Feb. 2017. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.

3. McCarthy, Julie. “On India’s Trains, Seeking Safety In The Women’s Compartment.” NPR. NPR, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.

4. “Termination of Pregnancy and Abortion in India – India.” Angloinfo. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.

5. “Manas: History and Politics, Indira Gandhi.” Manas: History and Politics, Indira Gandhi. UCLA, n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.

6. Adams, Tim. “Tim Adams speaks to former Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy about global politics.” The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 11 July 2009. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.

7. Roy, Arundhati. The god of small things. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2008. Print.

8. Jain, Dipika. “Women, property rights and HIV in India.” Exchange (2006): 9-10. Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Web. 6 Mar. 2017. <http://www.bibalex.org/Search4Dev/files/292431/122954.pdf&gt;.

9. Choudhury, Chandrahas . “New hope for India’s gay-rights movement.” Al Jazeera English. Al Jazeera , 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.

10. Welzel, Christian , and Amy C. Alexander. “Empowering Women: Four Theories Tested on Four Different Aspects of Gender Equality.” UCI School of Social Sciences (n.d.): 1-40. UCI. Web. 6 Mar. 2017. <http://www.democracy.uci.edu/files/docs/conferences/grad/alexander.pdf&gt;.

11. Hamid, Mohsin. How to get filthy rich in rising Asia. London: Penguin , 2014. Print.

12. “Priyanka Chopra caught in an ego clash with Freida Pinto? – Bollywood actors who will never be friends.” The Times of India. The Times of India, n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.

13. “Malala Yousafzai – Biographical”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 6 Mar 2017. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2014/yousafzai-bio.html&gt;

14. Misra, Udit. “How India ranks on gender parity – and why.” The Indian Express. The Indian Express, 04 Nov. 2015. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.

15. Karthik, T. S., and K. Sivasubramanian. “Safety, an illusion.” The Hindu. The Hindu, 18 Oct. 2016. Web. 06 Mar. 2017.