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The Metaphor of the Pastoral....

The Metaphor of the Pastoral in Heart of Darkness and The Return of the Soldier

by Kirsty McLaren

‘Country’ and ‘city’ are very powerful words, and this is not surprising when we remember how much they seem to stand for in the experience of human communities. In English, ‘country’ is both a nation and a part of a ‘land’; ‘the country’ can be the whole society or its rural area. In the long history of human settlements, this connections between the land from which directly or indirectly we all get our living and the achievements of human society has been deeply known. And one of these achievements has been the city: the capital, the large town, a distinctive form of civilisation.
-Raymond Williams

Since the beginning of the British literary canon, there has been a unique relationship between the country and the city. In his work The Country and the City, Raymond Williams directs pastoral theory towards English literary composition in order to clarify trends in pastoral writing. Using an escalator as a metaphor for the historical perspective of rural values, Williams finds that the historical period influences the rural aspect in British attitudes and literature: “Old England, settlement, the rural virtues—all these, in fact, mean different things at different times, and quite different values are being brought to question” (Williams 12). The different trends in the pastoral movement can be followed into modern literature as shown through the analysis of Terry Gifford. Gifford presents the multitude of pastoral meaning, arguing that there are three different kinds of pastoral: 1) the retreat and the return; 2) a direct contrast between the country and the city; 3) the pastoral as “pejorative” (Gifford 2). While he does not recognize a fourth form of the pastoral, Gifford acknowledges post-pastoral criticism and raises the question of whether the pastoral can exist in the twentieth century.


The pastoral, in the traditional sense, can no longer exist in British literature because the relationship between the country and the city has been impacted as a result of England’s growth in imperialism and the Industrial Revolution. These changes led to a physical, mental, and structural change of both city life and country life. Hence, Modernist authors could not use the pastoral in the traditional sense because of the vast technological and ideological transformations in England. However, modernist authors attempt to continue the pastoral tradition because it pertains to many English attitudes and lifestyles and because the opposition between the city and the country will remain a powerful influence over English sentiments. As a result, the modernists used the country and the city metaphorically to accurately reflect the industrial influences, both on a larger and smaller scale. Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness employ the metaphor of the pastoral in order to mirror the social impact of England’s growth. While Conrad’s short novel shows a perspective of imperialism, West’s more contemporary piece reveals the impact of World War I.

Conrad dives into the complexity of British Imperialism and reveals the harsh realities of the nation as a dominating force on the other, or the less industrialized country. In order to achieve the analysis of British Imperialism, Conrad applies the pastoral form and theory to his narration. However, because the pastoral can no longer be used in its traditional sense, Conrad uses it as a metaphor for a larger more broad sense of the country and the city. To clarify, Conrad’s use of the pastoral represents England as the city and the Congo as the country. One way in which Conrad accomplishes this contrast is Marlow’s retreat from England, a critical foundation in the form of the pastoral and the character’s development of the retreat and return.

As a major urban center, England defined civilization. The country was a symbol of imperial efforts, creating a uniform mentality of progress, growth, and service within the British society. In the short novel, the setting and the invading tone revealed in the beginning of the story sets in motion the dark contrast created between England and Africa: “The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth” (Conrad 103). The tone Conrad sets foreshadows the uncivilized and grotesque realities that are hidden behind the “greatness” of England. While English society viewed imperialism as the strengthening of England, Conrad focused on the morbid aspects of England’s power over the less industrialized nations. Therefore, the reader is able to acknowledge that the story will unveil a darker side of imperialism that was unknown to the English people.

Conrad’s metaphorical contrast between the city and the country, as England and Africa, generates the oppositions between white and black, industrial and the natural, and the civilized and the savage. As Marlow discovers these oppositions for himself, he is able to deconstruct the values implemented in England, and discover that Britain’s idealization of imperialism is an oversimplification of the complexities that exist in Africa. This oversimplification of the country (Africa) is what the pastoral theory reveals as a consequence of the city dominating the country. For example, when Marlow is imagining Kurtz’s journey on the river and his return to the depths of Africa he states,

"It was a distinct glimpse: the dug-out, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home—perhaps; setting his face towards the depths of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station (Conrad 135)."

In this small passage, Marlow consciously unfolds the oppositions between the city and the country: white versus black, “home” versus the wilderness, and relief versus “desolate” and “empty.” Since he is from the more “civilized” and industrial city, naturally Marlow would respond with more security directed towards white over black, and the headquarters over the “desolate station.” If Marlow did not have these reactions he would carry over as a false character, instead, his point of view allows the reader to understand the duality of British power (society’s pride versus the devastating colonial efforts) while keeping the authenticity of his character.

In further examination of the simplification of the country, Gifford analyzes the context of pastoral pieces and the idealization that occurs when constructing a literary perspective of the country. In his book, he uses William’s explanations of simplifying the concept of the country, stating,

"For Williams this was an exploitation of the material attractiveness of the rural in order to cover the actual exploitation of the people who lived and worked in the rural landscape (9)."

Conrad reflects William’s argument of the idealized country which becomes apparent in his contrast between England and the Congo. For example, when he arrives in Africa, Marlow provides a much more detailed and personal view that is not acknowledged in England:

"They [Africans] were dying slowly-it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, -nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom brought from all of the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest (Conrad 118)."

The English ideals of the city surrounds the notion of pride, power, and progress, whereas the Congo is viewed as the path for British power and the nation’s ability to influence other cultures into the civility and character of such an established and prideful nation. As a result, the blatant ignorance of British society oversimplifies the dehumanization that many African natives endured because the English preferred to view Africa as a domain of English responsibility; 1) as a country in power using resources available to them; 2) to help the lesser societies who were not as industrialized, civilized, or in-tune to finer ways of living.

After he completes his journey, Marlow is able to fulfill the pastoral cycle with his return to the city. Through his experience, Marlow could see that stability in England was fabricated out of their lack of knowledge of the truth, and he acknowledges this when he returns to Belgium:

"I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other […]. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend (Conrad 179)."

The pastoral retreat and return provides Marlow with a new sense, or enlightenment, of the realities of British progress and how little British society really knows about their nation’s colonial efforts on other innocent cultures. Conrad’s construction of the city and the country allows his character Marlow to reflect upon his own experience instead of maintaining the homogenous values that overwhelm England. Therefore, Marlow fully accomplishes the pastoral cycle because he returns with a larger message for the rest of the inexperienced people.
Whereas Conrad uses the pastoral form to convey the realities of British Imperialism, West’s more contemporary piece reveals the impact of World War I. Similar to Conrad, she is unable to use the traditional pastoral form, however, West must use the pastoral in the metaphorical sense because of the Industrial Revolution and England’s involvement in the First World War. Therefore, West’s use of the pastoral is a metaphor to represent the war as the city, and the life of one soldier as the country.


In contrast to Marlow, Jenny, West’s narrator, does not go on a cyclical journey like Marlow. Therefore, she does not employ the retreat and the return form of the pastoral. Instead, Jenny experiences the contrast between the city and the country through Chris Baldry, her cousin. The contrast between the city and the country supports West’s construction of other significant binary oppositions in the text. Specifically, the oppositions of material and the natural and the rich and the poor evolve as Jenny’s narration dives into the complexity of the country and the city, which becomes a metaphor of Chris’s love for Margaret and the events of World War I. For instance, when Margaret enters the lives of Jenny and Kitty to tell them of Chris’s misfortune, an opposition is created between the characters. As Margaret was introduced to Jenny and Kitty, Jenny reflected on Margaret’s disposition:

"Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff (West 10)."

Jenny and Kitty’s aesthetic and material values hinder them from seeing Margaret in a different light. Ultimately, they felt displaced by Margaret’s presence, barring them from understanding what lies ahead: Chris’s past relationship and continuing love for Margaret. This barrier between understandings reflects West’s metaphor for the pastoral, using Jenny and Kitty’s evaluation of Margaret and the love she shares with Chris as an oversimplification of the country.
In his text, Gifford presents Lawrence Bull, the American critic of Pastoral theory, expressing Lawrence’s use of his second form of pastoral in defining pastoralism: “[…] that celebrates the ethos of nature/rurality over against the ethos of the town or city rather than the specific set of obsolescent conventions of the original literary form” (Gifford 4). In West’s text, the “ethos” of nature against the city is supported by Chris’s involvement in the war and then his return to his natural, more realistic form of himself. Through Jenny’s narration, Chris is presented as a strong, moral representation of a British male. However, when he becomes a symbol for the British military his masculinity is changed, leading him to break his present state and live through his past. His past experiences allowed him to free himself and reawaken the love he had for Margaret, a woman who presents the less aesthetic and material British lifestyle.


Through the opposition of the city and the country, West’s text aids the reader in criticizing the war and the city’s growth in Industrialization. Williams’s in- depth analysis of the pastoral supports West’s metaphor of the country and the city when he discusses the Virgilian context of the pastoral, especially its development into the contrast between war and peace:

"Thus the contrast within Virgilian pastoral is between the pleasures of rural settlements and the threat of loss and eviction. This developed, in its turn, into a contrast already familiar from some earlier literature, in times of war and civil disturbance, when the peace of country life could be contrasted with the disturbance of war and civil war and the political chaos of the cities. It depends very much how this contrast is made (Williams 17)."

Williams’s point on the construct between war and peace and its reliance on the specific construction, allows West the freedom to create her opposition between the city and the country which becomes a metaphor of war and peace. One way in which she does this is when Chris returns from the war and feels discomforted by the material, city-like atmosphere of his country home:

“It seems so strange that you should not remember me [Kitty] […]. You gave me all these […].” “I [Chris] am glad I did that. You look very beautiful in them.” But as he spoke his gaze shifted to the shadows in the corners of the room, and the blood ran hot under his skin. He was thinking of another woman, of another beauty (West 24)."

After his experience of the city and its industrial dominance, Chris no longer identifies with materials or mentalities that represent the city. Instead, he yearns for “another beauty,” one that presents peace, inner-love, and the natural. In the novel, this is supported when Jenny tried to tell Chris of Margaret’s aging and physical degeneration. She says,

"But Chris, I must tell you. I’ve seen Margaret. […] She’s the greatest dear in the world, but she’s not as you think of her. She’s old Chris. She isn’t beautiful any longer. She’s drearily married. She’s seamed and scored and ravaged by squalid circumstances. You can’t love her when you see her. Didn’t I [Chris] tell you last night, […] that that doesn’t matter? (West 39)"

Jenny’s inability to see Margaret differently supports the pastoral theory of oversimplifying the country. Similar to Conrad’s text, the country is not seen in detail, it is only perceived through the lens of the city. This lens only provides a view of the country in its most simplistic terms, one that sees the country as a branch of the city. Therefore, the country, although a separate entity, is valued through ideals and material importance of city values. The metaphor that represents this simplification in West’s text is Jenny’s approach to the connection between Chris and Margaret. Jenny is only able to see Margaret through a material approach, hence, she cannot understand the love that Chris has for Margaret.

Ultimately, Chris cannot overcome the dominance of the city and is taken out of his realm of peace. Since Jenny and Kitty could not relate to Chris or the values of the country, Chris was forced back into industrialization/war/city. Jenny realizes this too late and says,

"He walked not loose-limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the soldier’s hard tread upon the heel. It recalled to me [Jenny] that, bad as we were, we were yet not the worst circumstance of his return. When we had lifted the yoke of our embraces from his shoulders he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man’s-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead (West 81)."

The city’s conquest over the country doesn’t allow for Chris to find the peace of the country, in other words, his true self and the love he has for Margaret. The dark description of Chris’s destiny, allows the reader to understand that the city and its industrialization does not allow for a man to truly be himself. The values and progress implemented at the time of World War I no longer valued the man and his heart, but the man and his armor. Furthermore, Chris’s downfall represents the material and the aesthetic value of the city and how it creates ignorance than bars understanding of the country or the values that represent country-life.

Although Conrad and West’s short novels are not a traditional pastoral text, with a clear geographic contrast between country and city, they depict the pastoral on a larger, metaphorical scale of imperialism and industrialization versus the natural, both physically and mentally. Conrad provides a personal view of British power in order to present a lens for many of the citizens who were blinded by the concept of growth and sophistication. While Conrad uses a more personalized form of the pastoral, West applies the pastoral form to construct the boundaries of communication between people who represent the city and people who relate with the country. As a result, Conrad and West go against the traditional pastoral form of oversimplifying the country and use the literary mode for a larger political purpose, not to prevent questioning of England’s industrial progress, but to directly question whether England should be proud of its civilized society.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Oxford U P, 2002.

Gifford, Terry. “Three Kinds of Pastoral.” Pastoral. New York: Routledge, 1999.

West, Rebecca. The Return of the Soldier. New York: Modern Library, 2004.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford U P, 1975.