Perceiving the Other in the “Frankenstein” and “The Heart of Darkness”
The concept of the Other is understood through its division from the Self. Specifically, Otherness represents those who run counter to predominant societal ideologies; thus, the Other, denounced as a threat to norms, is shunned from humanity, if not actively hunted. In Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” the creature, loathed by his creator and rejected by society, epitomizes Otherness. Such a grotesque appearance, along with the fact that he serves as the antithesis to natural reproduction, isolates the monster, resulting in his vengeful behaviour and leading to the seeming justification of Victor’s attempts to destroy him. Likewise, in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Otherness—evidently akin to abnormality—is realized in the attitudes of the European imperialists towards African natives. Conrad portrays the jungle as a primitive wilderness and its inhabitants as savage and dangerous, which facilitates communal support for the colonization of Africa by effectively dissociating the civilized Europeans, or Self, from their Other counterparts (4). Such an imposed racial divide—or the repression of species in “Frankenstein”—exemplifies the fundamental exploitation of the Other by the Self.
The monster in “Frankenstein,” upon the onset of animation, is immediately reviled by his maker, Victor. Though “infusing life into an inanimate body […] [was] desired with an ardour that far exceeded moderation,” Victor was “unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] had created” (Shelley 35). This despondent reaction, it is later revealed, forced the creature away from his place of origin and into a forest near Ingolstadt. Through this immediate ostracizing by his “natural lord and king,” the creature embodies Otherness (Shelley 69). When he is given the opportunity to explain himself to Victor, he asserts his natural benevolence, stating that, initially, “[his] soul glowed with love and humanity” (Shelley 69). The harsh divide between conventional and deviant is illustrated through the monster’s implicit understanding of the consequences of Otherness: “If the multitude of mankind knew of my existence, they would […] arm themselves for my destruction” (Shelley 69). In a similar way, Victor, for being indirectly guilty of his creature’s murders and overcome with grief, is detached from humanity and can also personify the Other. In accordance with either character, Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, explored “perceived physical differences […] [as the wrongful] central structuring principle for society” in 1789 (Bugg 656). John Bugg argues that “Frankenstein” fits this model, calling it a “master-trope of physical difference” (656). Consider the case of the monster who, split from society, commits fiendish behaviour as a result of the split, thereby justifying the public’s perception. Wollstonecraft, however, examined race as the distinction between Self and Other, describing the “[degradation of] the numerous nations, on whom the sun-beams more directly dart, below the common level of humanity” (qtd. in Bugg 655). Under this concept, Joseph Conrad portrays African natives as Others who, like Frankenstein’s monster, are presumed to be a threat to customary ideologies and need to be conquered.
The African jungle in “Heart of Darkness” is the mysterious, ominous Other to the white, civilized European Self. Bugg’s description of Otherness in “Frankenstein” as “the politics of biology” applies equally here, as African natives are under the control of the invading settlers as a result of race and land (656). The natives represent the “darkness” of the title, and are often presented as imperceptible shadows among the trees. Moreover, Africa and the jungle itself symbolize the Other World as they exist contrary to colonial Europe. In the novel, Marlow describes the “savagery, utter savagery […] [of the] mysterious life of the wilderness, that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men” (Conrad 4). Such prevailing attitudes throughout contemporary Europe, coupled with the sense of wealth, power, and domination, helped facilitate British imperialism.
Conrad portrays the jungle as a primordial, mystifying Otherness and Marlow and his crew as the frightened, innocuous Self. A recent book review refers to the colonization of third world countries as the “Imperial Project,” claiming that European writers of the time would present the native Other as “something inherently savage, threatening, and impinging upon the civilized world” (“Other” 1). Whether or not this was Conrad’s intention, the dark Otherness of the jungle and the African natives is evident in relation to civilized Europeans. In her article, Marilyn So claims the horrors of the jungle are covered up to “[convince] people back home of the worth of imperialism,” providing further evidence of the Imperial Project (13). Regardless, the fact remains that “Heart of Darkness” centres on the exploitation of African natives and land by the more populated, wealthy, and powerful European. This conflict between the prevailing Self and repressed Other forces the natives to resist, in turn substantiating the settlers’ fear and loathing.
The concept of the Other is illustrated through racial conflict in “Heart of Darkness” and the repression of species in “Frankenstein.” Both stories portray the Other as a deviation from societal norms and values, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which Frankenstein’s monster, for example, acts in accordance with the fearful public’s originally-unfounded presumptions. Similarly, in “Heart of Darkness,” the invasion by the settlers forces African natives to defend their environment; consequently, the Europeans, with much more influence and power, exist as the Self who needs to exploit and destroy the African Other. Further, Marlow likens “going up that river [into the jungle to] traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world,” indicating an apprehension and intrigue to the mysterious Otherness (Conrad 30). Nevertheless, Marlow and his crew, as coincidental members of the Imperial Project, carry on through the darkness out of duty. The fundamental idea to Otherness is in its likeness to abnormality. In “Frankenstein,” the creature’s rejection from conventional society leads to his fittingly monstrous behaviour, which then rationalizes the publics’, or Self’s, oppression over the Other. “Heart of Darkness,” on the other hand, explores the power struggle between races, while portraying exploited African Otherness by dominant European colonialists.
Bugg, John. “‘Master of their Language’: Education and Exile in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein.’” The Huntington Library Quarterly 68.4 (2005): 655-666. Scholars Portal. Web. 14 April 2010.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1902. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990. Print.
“The ‘Other’ in Colonial-Imperialistic Literature: Looking at Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Forster’s ‘Passage to India.’” Shroud Magazine, Associated Content, 20 Nov. 2006. Web. 14 April 2010.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 3rd ed. 1831. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum and Candace Ward. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1994. Print.
So, Mang-luen, Marilyn. “‘Otherness’ in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Forster’s ‘A Passage to India.’” HKU Theses Online March 2004: 3-41. University of Hong Kong Scholars Hub. Web. 14 April 2010.
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