At its height the British Empire was a vast communications network and was thoroughly represented as heroic conquerors and civilizers of the world in text. Letters, diaries, memoirs and notebooks from the imperial period (1815-1914) connected worlds and offered home audience information about the explorations on the other side. This way the British produced stories and history of their own by excluding the stories of the people which countries they “explored” on. This exclusion of native’s narratives depicts an image of the white man’s story being of more importance. When referencing to the colonized, they are often represented as less human, less civilized and savage to build the image of the superior Europeans.
One of the most well-known novels of this time is Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad. Conrad was a Polish émigré who himself experienced the dark sides of imperialism, growing up under the shadows of the Russian empire. When he later migrated to Britain, joining the British Empire, roles were switched. Conrad’s experience of both sides of imperialism is quite clearly shown through the conflicting events in Heart of Darkness.
The idea of ‘post-colonial theory’ emerges from the inability of European theory to deal adequately with the complexities and varied cultural provenance of post-colonial writing. The incidents of the ‘Mau Mau’ or Land and Freedom anti-colonial revolt in Kenya in 1952 inspired the revolutionary decolonizing process amongst many. Writers of post-colonial literature seek to reclaim self- portrayal from stereotypical representation in colonial literature and discourses. Amongst them, is the Kenyan writer Ng?g? wa Thiong’o, who was born in 1938 when Kenya was still a British colony and raised through the Mau Mau war of Independence. This shift has greatly influenced his third novel A grain of wheat (1967).
A grain of wheat is the end spectrum of the situation in Heart of darkness and displays the unmistakable debts to the events in Conrad’s Heart of darkness. They are the different perspectives, of different times treating the same historical experience. They are opposite sides of the same coin. One, may therefore assume there are no similarities between them, however as one reads through the process of colonization in Heart of darkness and then the process of decolonization in A grain of wheat there is a great similar questioning of the morality of action. The discussion of the collective versus the individual and the concept of identity. All through themes and concepts such as darkness, betrayal, and isolation.
This extended essay derives from interest for literature great capability to create an effect and the way literature has been used to form what we today know about colonialism. After having read work from authors in the late 20th century when independence on Africa started to take place versus work from earlier during the 19th century it is interesting how the works can form such different and similar effects. The idea is, therefore, to further investigate this by comparing the novels mentioned above to identify: How Ng?g? wa thiong’o’ in A Grain Of Wheat and Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness achieve the same effect of loss of identity?
In Heart of darkness, the reader follows Marlow’s journey through the Congo River, to relieve his employer’s agent Mr. Kurtz. As Marlow shares and reflects about the ongoing colonialization that is taking place, there is a great sense of questioning, hypocrisy, and wondering of the actions of the managers and Mr. Kurtz himself. They are supposed to be there for the “civilizing” however, he notices the great ivory industry that is taking place and starts doubting the doing of his companions.
A grain of wheat, which is set in Kenya tells the story of the main events leading up to independence. It recalls Kenya’s struggles against colonialism and its fight towards Uhuru, freedom. The Africans formation of a party led by Jomo Kenyatta and Harry Thuku and their struggle of liberty. Simultaneously, it deals with the white man, the remaining colonizer’s unwillingness to leave, their capturing of mau-mau members and the torture they put they them in, inside the detention camps for rebelling against the colonial government.
Though there is no physical questioning voice as clear as Marlow’s in Heart of darkness, it is clear that Ng?g?’s authorial one functions similarly. In both novels, these voices serve to account for the mental states of the characters and as stated in A grain of wheat: Freedom and Renewal, it reveals how they are products of events, layer upon later. One of the great causes being solitude. Two significant characters in the novels are Mugo in A grain of wheat and Mr. Kurtz in Heart of darkness. Both characters which image, completely changes throughout the novel and could be argued to be the work’s antagonists. Yet, they are presented as protagonist early on in the text. Mr. Kurtz is initially portrayed as a “very remarkable person”, “the best agent, an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the Company”, “He is a prodigy” ] This semantic field of words such a remarkable, best, greatest and prodigy create a positive attitude towards his character. Nevertheless, this tone of admiration interrupts because Mr. Kurtz is found out to be nothing of the expected. He is later described as “an animated image of death carved out of old ivory”. The use of death in this metaphor emphasizes the extent to which Kurtz has vanished. There is nothing left of the exceptional man Marlow had anticipated. The physical that is left of him is compared to death meaning that there is not much left of this person. And the use of ivory accentuates that he has become his obsession. This changed image and attitude towards Mr. Kurtz continues throughout the end of the book.
“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.”
“No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself too. I 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. “
The change of Kurtz character, the evilness, and madness that is found to be within him is explained by the isolation in the wilderness. And his reach to the isolation is because of his great desire of ivory which colonization provoked and stimulated. It is even explicitly told in the novel that: “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”. The desire for money and power that ruled and made nations go out to plunder other nations, evoked people as Kurtz in the novel to even go as far so that he lost himself in it. He became so obsessed that he lost himself, isolated in the world of ivory. And this becomes figurative when the Russian pilgrim tells Marlow: “I offered to go back with him. And he would say yes, and then he would remain; go off on another ivory hunt; disappear for weeks; forget himself amongst these people-forget himself- you know.”
There is a similar development and reveal of the character Mugo. He is invited to make the main speech at the event for the Independence Day because he supposedly helped the great freedom fighter Kihika who was killed. Mugo is praised as this powerful and great person who had enabled innocent people to escape the detention camps.
“You gave Kihika shelter without fear of danger to our own life. You did for Thabai and in detention what Kihika did in the forest., “you should lead in the sacrifice and ceremonies to honour those who died that we might live”
As he is compared and honoured to a similar extent to this great freedom fighter, it is situational irony when he later reveals that he is the murder of Kihika. However, this surprise is not as shocking as in Heart of darkness because of Ng?g?‘s significant use of foreshadowing. For example, when General R. asks Mugo about Kihika, it is described as: “Mugo’s throat was choked; if he spoke, he would cry” signifying that he knew more than them and was somehow involved. Because the narratives shifts between characters in A grain of wheat, the idea of isolation’s effect is greater comprehended because the reader is able to read from the character’s perspective and feel what they feel, in contrast to in Heart of darkness. This enables the reader to understand the impact isolation had on Mugo which contributed to the killing of Kihika. Firstly, Mugo was raised with a distant and drunk aunt that verbally abused him. He expresses that: “The world had conspired against him, first to deprive him of his father and mother, and then to make him dependent on an ageing harridan”. When the aunt dies, he suddenly misses her and is now experiencing the loneliness.
“He wanted somebody, anybody who would use the claims of kinship to do him ill or good. Either one or the other as long as he was not left alone, an outsider.”
He turned to the soil. He would labour, sweat and through success and wealth force society to recognize him. There was for him, then, solace in the very act of breaking the soil: to bury seeds and watch the green leaves heave and thrust themselves out of the ground to tend the plants to ripeness and then harvest, these were all part of the background against which his dreams soared to the sky. But then Kihika had come into his life.
Taken into consideration that Mugo’s character is not commenting on the great Independence struggle that most Kenyans in the nation seems to support. His sorrow or anger lays in the fact of his solitude. But the soil and his works keep him going, thus when freedom fighters such as Kihika cause disorder, which makes the white colonial government harsher against the Kenyan people, Mugo takes it personally. The disruption that occurs in the land sets his future in danger. Hence, when Kihika is haunted by the colonial government and finds rescue in Mugo’s hut. Mugo fears to return to prison and the detention camps so he decides to kill Kihika. He goes against the collective and the movement to save himself away from the isolation. “People voted the Party into power and resumed their toil. Mugo thought Thabai had forgotten him.”When reminiscing on the detention camps:
“Why do you tell me all this? I don’t like to remember”
“Do you ever forget? “
“I try to. The government says we should bury the past.”
Solitude surrenders the detention camps. The captivity and bondage of the prison could be interpreted as symbolism for the consequences of colonialism. Use of imagery through the verb “burying” implies isolation. To bury the past is to isolate it underneath the soil where it is dark and lonely. This quote embodies Mugo’s pain, suffering, and struggle.
In Russell West-Pavlov’s book about the politics and spaces of voice in these novels, he mentions that Ng?g?’s A grain of wheat follows a similar structure of narration as in Conrad’s Heart of darkness. A narrator that gradually shifts from omniscient to participatory which highlights the connection between the past and present. He continues that this narration is important because it shows knowledge and ignorance, it can be both objective and subjective which makes the narration more persuasive for the reader to agree with the central themes.
The fluidity in a change of the narrator does have a significant impact on the central themes of identity and isolation discussed in this essay. The ability for the narrator to shift between all- knowing and to the first-person point of view highlights the idea of solitude and identity as the solitude and being of a character can be compared and analysed from a personal and external point of view.
The concept of isolation is prominent in the novels as it becomes a tool to account for the mental states of the characters. Loneliness seems to be a concept which highlights the idea of identity in these novels as their solitude results in their character’s personality and actions.
Except for the physical consequences from the isolation endured by the colonial setting, there is a great personal loss as well. One of the ways both Conrad and Ng?g? achieve to create an effect of loss of identity in both novels antagonist is through the concept of isolation. However, this idea is further developed through the novels personal themes of darkness and betrayal. Conrad achieves it by his use of language to frame an image of the native people being less human. Primarily, he uses the term darkness to depict the Congolese people as having no integrity. Therefore when the changed idea of Kurtz is later referred to have become like “them”, it becomes an indication that Kurtz identity has been lost in his isolation in the wilderness. The effect of loss of identity in A grain of wheat arises from Mugo’s personal struggle with guilt and his own identity. Ng?g? use of multiple narratives contributes to this effect as the struggle of identity in the process of decolonization is not only individual but collective.
Mr. Kurtz time in the Congo has made him sick and completely mad. His madness is referred to as impenetrable darkness, menacing and hollow. However, Marlow’s description of Kurtz is not particularly evil or negative. He rationalizes it as a natural part of entering deep within the wilderness in solitude. “But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude”. His time alone along the river appears to have caused a fundamental change within Mr. Kurtz. This conclusion that Marlow develops is foreshadowed when Marlow has a doctor’s appointment before this trip to the Congo.
“I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there,’ he said. ‘And when they come back too?’ I asked.´ Oh, I never see them, he remarked; ‘and, moreover, the changes takes place inside, you know.’ He smiled, as if at some quiet joke. ‘
‘Ever any madness in your family?
The question the doctors asks about madness is significant because it is this kind of change and madness that Marlow later recognizes within Mr. Kurtz. It appears that the identity of Kurtz, his humanity and restraint has utterly vanished. It is clear through the symbolism of the heads on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz’s windows. Symbolizing the insanity he has reached. Also, his loss of identity becomes evident when Conrad resembles Mr. Kurtz and the Congolese people. The Congolese people are represented as savages and criminals if not as black figures or shadows who lack identity. For instance on page 171: “One of the agents with a picket of a few of our blacks” and “shapes of blackness”. Because they are dehumanized in the novel it creates the idea that they are less human, if humans at all which deprives them of their identity. Thus, when the image of Kurtz changes to darkness it is as if he has become like the insane natives. “forget himself amongst these people- forget himself- you know.’ ‘Why! He’s mad,’ I said”.
“And the lofty frontal bone of Mr Kurtz! They say the hair goes on growing sometimes, but this-ah- specimen, was impressively bald. The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball-an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and-lo!- he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.”
Mr Kurtz has lost almost all sense and aspects of a human being. He has not only lost the physical but also the spiritual aspects of being a human being There is like there is nothing left of him than his physical body which reflects the ivory that has possessed him.
In contrast to Conrad’s Heart of darkness, Ng?g? emphasizes more on the emotion and guilt to express Mugo’s confusion of himself. Rather than elements in the setting. A grain of wheat: Freedom and Renewal indicate how Mugo’s betrayal to Kihika is mitigated by the suffering he experiences in the various detention camps. Mugo becomes a detainee because he saves a woman from a heavy beating from a home guard. Which labels him as a freedom fighter. He is drawn into the stream for reasons which has nothing to do with the fight for independence. While free again, he isolates himself, for him not to return. Thus, his frustration with freedom fighters such as Kihika increases when Kihika takes rescue in his hut.
” Why would Kihika drag me into a struggle and problems I have not created? Why? And now I must spend my life in prison because of the folly of one man!” What shall I do, he asked himself. “If I don’t serve Kihika he’ll kill me. If I work for him, the government will catch me.” My God, I don’t want to die, I am not ready for death, I have not even lived”
This frustration causes Mugo to betray Kihika, which is the great climax of the novel. When he confesses, it is described as “He shook everywhere. The trembling and the depression increased the further he walked”. The interpretation here is that Mugo actually did not want to betray and kill Kihika. But, because of the situation, the colonial setting and his past experiences he believes that the betrayal is the only way that he can save himself. It is a great irony because the guilt eats him up and causes increased depression and isolation. Mugo ends up in a bad circle in which he finds himself unable to escape. He loses himself and his identity in it. He can no longer identify with his previous dreams nor identify with the people longing for freedom. His personal and individual struggle becomes too great which leads to his death because he confesses. Mugo’s guilt is clear when Ng?g? describes Mugo’s disrupted mental and physical state after the confession. “ Then the table, the chair, the D.O., the white- washed walls- the earth- started spinning, faster and faster again. He held on to the table to still himself. He did not want the money. He did not want to know what he had done”.
Ng?g?’s skills to take the reader into the character’s mind expands one’s understanding of Mugo’s actions based on his identity crisis. It allows one to realize the great losses and struggles as results of colonialism. Not only did people and the collective struggle, but there were also individual struggles. He accomplishes this to a great extent by using multiples narratives to represent different aspects of the process of decolonization and the effect the colonial period had on Kenyan’s, their culture and identity.
In conclusion, the effect of loss of identity is achieved in both A grain of wheat and Heart of darkness through their prominent and complex characters. Mr. Kurtz and Mugo are developed characters which are given depth and personality. Similarly, the concept of isolation’s impact on one’s mentality can be found in both works. Mr. Kurtz and Mugo faces physical isolation regarding the deep jungle and the detention camps, as well as mental solitude. However, the mental struggle of the mind and its effect of one’s identity is more evident in A grain of wheat because of the different narrative technique. Ng?g? enables the reader to greater see the loss of the character’s identity by setting the reader into the mind of the character. Mr. Kurtz loss of identity is only depicted from a third party. A grain of wheat emphasize the importance of struggle and loss for the purpose of freedom. The same way a grain of wheat when planted must shed its identity and break down in order to sprout. The significance of identity is also found in Heart of darkness. The progress of Marlow travelling up the Congo River to find the heart of darkness, is a process in which he reveals Mr. Kurtz lost identity. The same way the characters in A grain of wheat, through the novel are broken down to remove the layers of the colonial past.
At the same, the authors achieve the same effect differently. For instance, Conrad uses the theme and symbolism of darkness and comparison of the Congolese people to illustrate the loss of Mr. Kurtz’s identity and his state of mind. As well as the symbolism of the heads on the stakes while the different narrative and the character’s struggle is mainly the source of the effect in A grain of wheat.
Comparison of these novels enables one to recognize a similar effect of both parties as a result of colonialism in the books. The conquest and control of other people’s land and goods do not only deprive one physically but also mentally for all parties involved. Despite their differences, both novels shares the idea that colonialism has the effect of plundering one’s identity.
Joseph Conrad- Heart of darkness and other tales (2002) Oxford University Press
Ng?g? wa Thiong’o – A grain of wheat (1986) Heinemann Educational Publishers
Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin-The Empire Writes Back (1989)
Elleke Boehmer- Colonial-and-postcolonial-literature-2nd-edition file:///C:/Users/Student/Downloads/epdf.tips_colonial-and-postcolonial-literature-2nd-edition.pdf Accessed 13.11.2018
Heart of Dankness https://sites.google.com/site/hodstudyguide/part-ii/identity Accessed 24.11.2018
Ng?g? wa Thiong’o – https://ngugiwathiongo.com/about/ Accessed 15.11.2018
Russell West-Pavlov- The Politics and Spaces of Voice: Ng?g?’s A Grain of Wheat and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness https://resistanceandpowerofthewill102w.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/the-politics-and-spaces-of-voice-ngugis-a-grain-of-wheat-and-conrads-heart-of-darkness/ Accessed 17.11.2018
Shodhganga- A GRAIN OF WHEAT: Freedom and renewal page. 99 http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/85853/10/10_chapter%204.pdf?fbclid=IwAR03mQKUYzEjfH0VQP38FcO-Xt_g7CDNSC7Wy7fl5Pg5_J8AQdR2VGV5Tng Accessed 17.11.2018
West-Pavlov, Russell- “The Politics and Spaces of Voice: Ng?g?’s A Grain of Wheat and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 44, no. 3, 2013, page. 160–175. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/reseafrilite.44.3.160 Accessed 17.11.2018.
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