The Metaphor of the Pastoral in Heart of Darkness and The Return of the Soldier
by Kirsty McLaren
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.
"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.
"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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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,
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.