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Examine The Significance Of Blank Spaces In Conrad's 'Heart Of Darkness'?

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"True, by this time it was not a blank space any more ... it had become a place of darkness." (Heart of Darkness) Examine the significance of 'blank spaces' in THREE novels of the 19th and/or early 20th centuries.

The ellipsis in the titular quote refers to an important omission: "it [the blank space] had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery - a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over."1 Conrad's Marlow highlights the major significance of the 'blank space' at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries here - that of ignorance, but a challenging ignorance; a temptation to the empirical enthusiasts of the Victorian era and beyond. In this essay, the semantic challenge of the term 'blank space' will be addressed as the layers of meaning, in a 19th and 20th century context, are both relevant and important in discussing a topic of this kind: the perceived value of unexplored territories, the 'uncivilised' culture of the native inhabitants, the importance of nature as a barrier of progress and a combatant against technology, and the metaphorical and allegorical treatment of knowledge and ignorance.

The books chosen as reference are Erewhon by Samuel Butler2, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad3, and The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle4. Written in 1871, 1902 and 1912 respectively, these books were published at the end of an intense period of exploration 'in which Britain, like most of Western Europe, spilled out to investigate, explore, colonise and exploit the rest of the world.'5 This upsurge in imperialism, coupled with the great scientific and technological advances of the Industrial Revolution a century before, drew even more attention to those undiscovered and unexplored areas of the world whose maps had been purged of fantastical topography, wiped clean, and 'given over to the strict demands of "scientific" practice'.6 Professor Challenger's first elaboration on his trip to South America imparts the lure of the unknown:

You are aware - or probably, in this half-educated age, you are not aware - that the country round some parts of the Amazon is still only partially explored, and that a great number of tributaries, some of them entirely uncharted, run into the main river. 7

The blank spaces upon the maps are seen as mysterious, and ultimately full of riches, be they scientific, economic or spiritual. Challenger and his companions travel ostensibly for scientific motives (although these can be viewed as questionable in light of Challenger's pride being at stake and Lord John's stumbling upon diamonds): "It was my business to visit this little-known back-country and to examine its fauna..."8 Indeed, upon their exploration of the prehistoric plateau, the group comes across five live iguanodons, and the different motives for journeying there are revealed - Lord John's love of adventure and trophy-hunting and the professors' love of science and discovery:

I looked at my comrades. Lord John was standing at gaze with his finger on the trigger of his elephant-gun, his eager hunter's soul shining from his fierce eyes...the two professors were in silent ecstasy. In their excitement they had unconsciously seized each other by the hand, and stood like two little children in the presence of a marvel...9

Erewhon's narrator travels into his 'blank space' in the hope of finding a country "as valuable as that on our own side of the ranges."10 He is so convinced that this secret region is profitable that he says:

The more I thought, the more determined I became either to win fame and perhaps fortune, by entering upon this unknown world, or give up life in the attempt. In fact, I felt that life would be no longer valuable if I were to have seen so great a prize and refused to grasp at the possible profits therefrom.11

This idea of unexplored 'blank spaces' in the world being valuable, or indeed 'possessions' to be claimed and guarded is one that is shown by the emphasis on the power of withholding map information and repeatable directions within or to these lands. In The Lost World, the map given to Malone, Summerlee and Lord John by Challenger is in fact a blank piece of paper12, and the maps throughout the book are "neither oriented nor to scale."13 The narrator in Erewhon shows the same degree of reluctance in sharing his newly-acquired information:

I fear that my story will be doubted unless I tell the whole of it; and yet I dare not do so, lest others with more means than mine should get the start of me...I have therefore concealed my destination on leaving England...[and] dare not mention the season, lest the reader should gather in which hemisphere I was. 14

Indeed, not only are these regions blank spaces in terms of their physical cartography and what is known about them, but also blank in terms of a Westernised civilisation and industrialisation. It is only in Butler's treatment of exploration that the inhabitants have a cultural structure and society comparable to that of those in the West, in terms of having a recognisable judicial system15, organised religion16, and educational structure17. It should be understood that as a satire, Erewhon is meant to be read on a different level than The Lost World and Heart of Darkness (in the latter, although allegorical and symbolic, the reader is not invited to make specific judgements against Victorian societal institutions in the same way). The Erewhonians serve a different function for the author than the African tribespeople of Heart of Darkness or Conan Doyle's apemen and natives. In spite of this, when he first meets the inhabitants of this 'blank space', Erewhon's narrator insists that he will go back to 'civilise' the Erewhonians:

...if these people were the ten tribes of Israel...the opening was too excellent to be lost. And I resolved that should I see indications which appeared to confirm my impression that I had indeed come upon the missing tribes, I would certainly convert them.18

At the end of the book, however, his motives for returning have changed somewhat:

I have no doubt...that we could fill our vessel with emigrants in three or four journeys...We should then proceed to Greenland, and dispose of our engagement with the Erewhonians to the sugar-growers of that settlement, who are in great want of labour...19

In the same way, by Lord John's discovery of diamonds in the prehistoric plateau of The Lost World20, it is hard to see



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