Thursday, December 24, 2009

Classic Christmas Films

Celebrate the Christmas Spirit with Films that Evoke a Bygone Era

Many people are far too busy during Christmas and often forget what the holiday truly stands for. I know for my own part that I have been guilty of that. Of course, you may not even realize that you have forgotten. After all, you’re not busy buying presents for yourself, but for others. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Well, not quite. As David Niven observes in the film The Bishop's Wife,
All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It's his birthday we're celebrating. Don't let us ever forget that. Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.
Indeed, many Christmas films have wonderful messages about the true meaning of the season and really help you to get past all the wrapping paper and commercialization of the holiday. That’s why I love watching them this time of year.

I’ve compiled a top ten list here of classic Christmas films. I hope that several of these are your favorites or, perhaps, you’ll find one to add to your own list. And if you have a suggestion of a wonderful movie that I have missed out on all these years, please do share!

10. White Christmas (1954)

Although the film suffers from over sentimentality and a paper thin plot, it is rescued by the performances of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as the leads and the wonderful song and dance numbers, all written by Irving Berlin. The movie follows the adventures of two war buddies, turned entertainers, as they help their former army commander save his failing Vermont country inn. Also features the talents of Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen as the love interests. This is a feel-good movie to brighten the holidays. In the words of the classic song, "May your days be merry and bright / And may all your Christmases be white." Watch the trailer here.

The story-line of this classic film has so endeared itself to the imaginations of the public that it was remade into two movies, the 1949 musical In the Good Old Summertime and the 1998 comedy You've Got Mail. The original movie is set in Budapest and follows the lives of an employer, Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan), and his clerks as they prepare for the holidays. Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) and Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) fall in love as they share correspondence, though they do not know the identity of their pen-pal. When Klara is hired at the shop where Kralik works, however, the two become bitter enemies. While the movie revolves around this Shakespearean comic plot, it is also tempered by a hint of sadness -- the driving theme is a fear of loneliness. This leads to a very serious and dramatic twist half-way through that nearly destroys the lives of everyone in the shop. Of course, everything is eventually put to rights and, in a particularly touching scene between Matuschek and the new errand boy, no one is left alone on Christmas Eve. The witty dialogue and excellent acting jobs by all, including the character actors, make this a must-see. Watch the trailer here.

Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) doesn't believe in Santa Claus. Her mother, Doris (Maureen O'Hara), has taught her that fairy tales are silly. Meanwhile a very kind old gentleman, who calls himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn in an Academy Award winning role), is hired to be the Santa at Macy's New York City store, after taking the place of an intoxicated Santa in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Kris Kringle claims to be the real Santa and his good will and warmheartedness nearly win young Susan and her mother over. But through a series of very unfortunate events, Kringle is confined to a mental hospital and in order to be discharged has to prove his identity in a formal hearing before the New York Supreme Court. Other notable performances are John Payne as Fred Gailey, Kringle's attorney and Doris' love interest, and Gene Lockhart as the skeptical judge, Henry X. Harper. Gailey summarizes the heart of the film when he exclaims, "Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don't you see? It's not just Kris that's on trial, it's everything he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles." Watch the trailer here.

7. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Monty Woolley stars as Sheridan Whiteside, a famous radio broadcaster who arrives in Mesalia, Ohio to give a lecture and reluctantly accepts an invitation to dine with Ernest and Daisy Stanley (played by Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke respectively). But just as he climbs the icy steps to enter their house, he slips and falls, injuring himself. Bedridden and then later confined to a wheelchair, the cynical Sheridan commandeers the house and servants as he recuperates over the Christmas holidays, overturning the peace of the Stanley household, and refusing to leave. When his secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) falls in love with the local newspaper man Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), the egotistical Whiteside does all in his power to destroy the romance, calling on the talents of Lorraine Sheldon (Anne Sheridan) and Banjo (Jimmy Durante). Reginald Gardiner also turns in a fine performance as Beverly Carlton; he would later appear in Christmas in Connecticut as well. Indeed, the star studded cast is one of the reasons this movie has become a holiday classic, and the sharp, speedy dialogue only adds to the fun. This is the fear of one's holiday guests overstaying their visit taken to a most hilarious extent. Watch the trailer here.

6. Remember the Night (1940)

Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) faces spending Christmas in jail after shoplifting a bracelet, but assistant district attorney John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) takes pity on her, posts her bail, and offers to drive her to her family in Indiana. Lee's mother cruelly turns her daughter away, however, so John invites Lee to his own family's home for Christmas. When the film was released, Frank Nugent wrote in his review for The New York Times, "It is a memorable film, in title and in quality, blessed with an honest script, good direction and sound performances...a drama stated in the simplest human terms of comedy and sentiment, tenderness and generosity...warm, pleasant and unusually entertaining." The film encapsulates the Christmas spirit as a story of redemption and the power of love. Watch the trailer here.

5. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Cary Grant is Dudley, an angel sent to earth in answer to the prayers of Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven). The Bishop is trying to build a new cathedral, but has run into trouble about the funds and prays for "guidance." His obsession with the project has led him to neglect his beautiful, but unhappy wife Julia (Loretta Young) and daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes, who would later play Zuzu in It's a Wonderful Life). While Brougham would very much like the angel to show him a way to get the needed money from the wealthy Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), Dudley's guidance is much different. The angel touches the lives of all (including the disillusioned professor Wutheridge, played by Monty Woolley), reminding them of the true meaning of Christmas -- selflessness and loving kindness. A Christmas gem -- who would think Cary Grant could play an angel so convincingly? Watch the trailer here.

4. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Barbara Stanwyck stars in another Christmas movie as journalist Elizabeth Lane, who writes a column about her gourmet cooking and her life on a farm with her husband and infant son. The only trouble is Lane can't cook, lives in a small apartment in New York City, isn't married, and doesn't have a child. When her publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), wants to send war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) to her farm for Christmas and decides to invite himself as well, Lane and her editor, Dudley Beecham (Robert Shayne) risk losing their jobs. But with the help of her friend Felix Bassenak (S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall), who owns a local restaurant, and John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), her relentless suitor who owns a farm in Connecticut, everything looks like it may turn out "hunky dunky" (in the words of Felix). The screwball comedy is a delight to watch with strong performances by all. Connecticut really does seem the perfect place to spend Christmas. Watch the trailer here.

3. Holiday Inn (1942)

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" was originally written for this film and soon became one of the best loved Christmas songs and the best selling single of all time. Bing Crosby plays Jim Hardy, a singer engaged to the lovely Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale), who plans to quite his job as an entertainer and buy a farm in Connecticut. Lila, however, would rather remain in showbusiness and leaves Hardy for his former partner, dancer Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire). Hardy, however, persists in his dream of farm life. Yet, disillusioned by the hard work, he decides to convert the farm into an inn that will only open during the holidays. The inn turns out to be a huge success, especially thanks to the talents of Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), who has been looking for a way to break into the entertainment industry. Hardy is soon falling in love with Linda, but one night Hanover shows up at the inn searching for a new dance partner. Lila left him for a millionaire. Will Hardy be jilted again and his inn forced to close? The beauty of this film is that it does not only revolve around Christmas, but has song and dance numbers for nearly every holiday from July 4th to Valentine's Day to Easter to Thanksgiving.  Watch the trailer here.

2. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

It seems incredible that this Christmas classic did rather miserably at the box office when first released. The American Film Institute now names it as number one on their list of the most inspirational American films of all time. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) dreams of leaving the small town of Bedford Falls. He reads National Geographic as a young boy and saves up his money to go to college and travel around the world. At one point, he exclaims, "I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm comin' back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields, I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm gonna build bridges a mile long... " But George's dreams are shattered when his father suddenly dies, forcing him to take over the family business, the Bailey Building and Loan. George consistently sacrifices his dreams for the sake of others, settling down in Bedford Falls and marrying Mary Hatch (Donna Reed). But even this little world is shattered on Christmas Eve and George, believing his life has been a failure, nearly kills himself. He is rescued by an angel Clarence (Henry Travers) who gives George a glimpse of what Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never lived. Clarence comments, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" Capra's classic is equal parts nostalgic, touching, humorous, and thought-provoking. Stewart delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Lionel Barrymore is at his best as the horribly evil Henry F. Potter. All can relate to the struggles of George Bailey, who ultimately understood that though his personal dreams were never realized, he really did have a wonderful life. Watch the trailer here.

1. Scrooge (1951)

Although there have been numerous film adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Alastair Sim's performance as Scrooge is often considered the best. The film presents Dickens' story with little changes or additions (and what additions there are work wonderfully for this version). Scrooge, a hard hearted old businessman, is haunted by three spirits on Christmas Eve who give him a chance to repent and forsake his miserly ways. Mervyn Johns delivers a convincing performance as Scrooge's clerk, Bob Cratchit, and young Glyn Dearman as Tiny Tim seems to mean every word he says when he declares, "God bless us, every one." The Spirit of Christmas Present emphasizes the true meaning of the holidays when he states, "We Spirits of Christmas do not live only one day of our year. We live the whole three-hundred and sixty-five. So is it true of the Child born in Bethlehem. He does not live in men's hearts one day of the year, but in all days of the year." Watch the trailer here.


Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 10:22 PM |

Monday, December 07, 2009

Today in History: "A Date That Will Live in Infamy"

Commemorating the 68th Anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." -- Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!

The following is a speech that I entered several years ago in the NCFCA's Original Oratory category where it won 1st place at the Regional Tournament. It had been adapted and lengthened from an essay originally written for the Veteran's of Foreign War's 2008 Voice of Democracy Competition which had placed 1st in the state and 7th nationally.

This is posted here in loving memory of my Grandpa Art, a WWII veteran, who passed away May 6, 2008. Also in memory of my great-uncle, Henry Koven, who died on December 7, 1941, during a deadly storm. He was far away from Pearl Harbor, fighting under the British flag as a merchant seamen but perishing on his ship the SS Sauternes (the Christmas Ship), trying to bring supplies to the Faroe Islands. And, finally, in memory of the events of that fatal Sunday morning on an island in Hawaii sixty-eight years ago today.

The Silent Soldier

How should we, as citizens of America, honor the silent veterans of our nation? This is a question that many of us probably do not think about very often, but my experiences with my grandfather have taught me that it is a very important question indeed. In fact, by answering this question, we will also discover why it is necessary for us to honor them at all.

First, then, who are the silent veterans of our nation?

My Grandpa Art never talks about his service during World War Two. Somehow it became an unwritten rule that no one was to ask about what he had done or what he had seen. In July of 2007, he turned eighty-seven years old. Even after all these years, the rule has never been broken – except once.

One afternoon when I was about seven years old, Grandpa Art visited my house, bringing with him a small box. Inside were several war medals. I remember holding them in my hand and seeing that they were beautiful. Then, he held the box and the medals in his own hand, so gently and so carefully. I knew they must also be very special.

Unfortunately, it was so long ago that I have forgotten all he said, but one thing has remained in my memory. As he talked, I remember seeing a look of pride quickly wash over his face and then disappear with sudden sadness.

There was no more talk about the war.

As a little child, I saw those medals merely as something beautiful, something, perhaps, that I might have liked to play with. But now I can look at them and know that they are much more than pretty things. I understand all that they symbolize – courage, duty, and sacrifice. All those things that my grandfather never speaks of but are worthy of honor.

What does it mean to honor? The word is rather difficult to define. One dictionary describes it as a showing of usually merited respect. Oftentimes we give this honor almost subconsciously to a powerful political ruler, a religious leader, or someone extremely talented and brilliant. Usually, no one tells us that they deserve our respect. Somehow we just know.

Yet how do you honor someone who does not wish for you to know of their achievements? Someone who refuses any special recognition?

How do you honor the silent soldier?

My other grandfather, Grandpa John, is also an American veteran, though he did not serve during a war. I believe this may be why he is more willing to tell about his experiences. Indeed, he loves to talk about the time he spent in the army. Yet, always when he speaks, his voice fills with a sense of pride. Pride because, to him, to serve was his duty as an American. I remember a conversation once where we discussed fighting for your country even if you didn’t believe in the war.

“It’s still your country,” he said.

His words have given me insight into my other grandfather’s silence. I realize the depth of the pride and the patriotism they both share for their country.

Though he may never speak about the horrors he witnessed during the Second World War or put into words the love he has for his country, Grandpa Art does not need to.

For many years, a beautiful American flag has been displayed in front of his house. He never needs any special holiday to use as an excuse. For me, this is words enough.

But still I wonder how to honor him when he does not want my honor?

Through my grandfather’s silence, I finally found the answer. It was in that look of sadness I had seen so many years ago.

He served so that his children and his grandchildren would not have to experience the same grief and sorrow he witnessed during the War. We can only honor him by preserving what he and so many others fought to attain. This means sharing both my grandfathers’ undying love of their country and never forgetting their sacrifices and those of so many other American soldiers.

Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day were created specifically as holidays of remembrance, but sadly they often become transformed into mere social gatherings. This past June, as I browsed through several newspapers on the 6th, I found only one that mentioned the events of D-day.

The philosopher George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In honor of my grandfather and in honor of so many others like him, it is my duty not to forget. Because of this, it is my role in honoring America’s veterans not to let others forget.

On the anniversary of D-day this year, when so many others were silent, I told as many people as I could and wrote about it on my websites so I could reach even more.

Though the silent soldier does not ask for my honor, he deserves it.

It is true that I know little about my Grandpa Art’s service during WWII, but I do know that he was a medic who served in a Medical Collecting Unit a mile behind front lines in Germany. If his experiences were anything like that of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, then I can understand why he does not speak of them.

McCrae was a Canadian surgeon who served during the First World War. In the Second Battle of Ypres, he was in charge of a field hospital. But though he had practiced as a physician before the war, nothing could have prepared him for the horror of battle, witnessing the agony and suffering of the young wounded soldiers whose lives it was his duty to save.

One life he could not save. His close friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed by a shell burst on May 2nd, 1915. McCrae poured his grief into the words of a poem that has come to immortalize the fallen soldier’s and all soldier’s sacrifices for our freedoms.
In Flanders Fields [he wrote] the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Daniel Webster, a prominent early American statesman, noted that, “God grants liberty only to those who love it, and are always ready to guard and defend it.” The soldiers of our nation are the ones who are always ready to guard and defend our liberty – many times when necessary with their very lives. They dedicate themselves to making sure our freedoms are safe. That is why we must honor them. In a speech in memory of D-day, Ronald Reagan said, “Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for…Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”

I write this in honor of America’s veterans and all soldiers who have fought and those who have died to protect the rights we treasure.

Never forget the battles they fought, share their deep patriotism, and you will honor them as well.

Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 2:17 PM |

Thursday, December 03, 2009

"And all shall be well..."

An explication of T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding"

Modernism professed that man was living in a post-Enlightenment era. It emphasized a bleak disillusionment for the things of the world. The Enlightenment philosophy had taught that man was progressing and would eventually be able to solve all the world’s problems. Yet the horror and carnage of two world wars revealed that this progress had lead to technology with the ability to take rather than prolong human life. The wars struck a blow to the belief in the superiority of Western civilization and destroyed any idea of the innate goodness of man.

T. S. Eliot’s (1888-1965) early poetry, especially The Waste Land and “The Hollow Men”, stood at the forefront of the Modernist movement, powerfully developing the deep darkness and despair of Modernistic thought. Indeed, he had often been hailed as the defining poet of the Modernist literary movement. Yet, in order for him to claim this title, a very important event in his life must be overlooked – his conversion to Christianity in 1927. His exploration of Modernistic thought was only his search for an answer to all the despair and hopelessness of mankind’s fallen condition. Indeed, it was not until after his conversion to Christianity that he reached the pinnacle of his poetic height in the most overtly Christian of all his poems – “Little Gidding.” The poem sets at odds the redemptive power of the Holy Spirit and the destructive power of man, following the outline of Dante’s Divine Comedy – the hopelessness of the Inferno (a world without God), the refining fires of Purgatorio (the journey to an understanding and faith in Christ), and, finally, the glorious eternal communion with God in Paradiso.

“Little Gidding” is the last in a series of a poems from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Though the poems act as a unified whole, each symbolizing a movement in a musical piece, it is possible to read them individually. This particular poem draws its name from a small village in Huntingdonshire where T. S. Eliot served as an air-raid warden during World War II. It opens on a scene in “midwinter spring” when “the brief sun flames the ice” and “there is no earth smell / Or smell of living thing” (1, 5, 12-13). Though filled with a sense of despair, there is a small glimmer of hope charged through these images. The speaker of the poem has not come without purpose to this village, but, rather, “You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid” (45-46). It is necessary to descend before he can ascend. In the beginning of The Divine Comedy, Dante attempted to reach heaven by simply climbing a steep hill out of the darkness into the light of heaven, but found it impossible. Instead, he had to journey back into the darkness and into the deepest darkness of all: the center of Hell. Dante had to realize fully his sinful state, dying to sin before he could be reborn in Christ. The first part of “Little Gidding” is a picture of Hell, a world removed from the light of God. T. S. Eliot describes what the village was like during the Blitz bombings, using “the dark dove with the flickering tongue” (the German dive bomber) as a symbol of all this desolation and hopelessness, the source of the destruction. After the houses were bombed, the ash would linger in the air for hours, covering people and their clothing,
Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended. (54-57)
With this background of Hell, Eliot continues to follow the pattern of Dante, evoking a type of image from The Inferno. Indeed, lines 78 to 149 have been considered as near to Dante's terza rima form as is possible in English. In The Inferno, Dante met the shades of many of the dead, who would stop to offer him some word of warning. After a bombing in Eliot’s poem, the narrator seems to see a ghost hurrying past him, who stops to talk with him. In all of this darkness and devastation, he summarizes the Modernist view of death.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit as body and soul begin to fall asunder.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm. (131-141)
The Modernist has no hope in his future afterlife – there are no answers to all his previous mistakes. Actually, he can look forward to nothing. Man is sinful and unable to perfect himself. He cannot stop the destruction on this earth. But there is another answer. “From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit / Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire / Where you must move in measure, like a dancer” (144-146). On these words, the ghost disappears.

Purgatorio followed Dante’s journey through the Catholic Purgatory, the spiritual realm where man was purified from his sin after death. Eliot evokes this with these words of a “refining fire.” He writes,
What they had to leave us—a symbol
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well....
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching (194-199).
Purification does not happen over night. It is a gradual process, a journey – just as one must come to the deepest understanding of his depraved condition before he can travel upward to the light. Augustine, one of the early Church fathers, wrote The City of God, in which he described two different cities: that of man and that of God. Eliot uses this type of imagery in this part of the poem, exclaiming,
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire (200-206).
In these lines, Eliot pits the symbols of the “dark dove” (the German plane) against the “dove descending” (the Holy Spirit). Man can either experience hope in the refining fire of the Holy Spirit or despair in the dark dove’s destruction. Yet, he admits that this is not always an easy decision. Being refined sometimes can be a “torment” (207). Both decisions are a fire, but the former is the only one that can lead to ultimate peace and happiness. At last, Eliot begins to build to the culmination of his poem,
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time (238-242).
When man is refined, his eyes are opened and he sees the world as if for the first time. The destruction around him can be fitted into the larger picture of God’s perfect plan. He knows that this not the end of everything for in the end “all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well” (255-256). There will be perfect unity and perfect peace.
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one (257-259).
The ‘rose’ was the greatest image in Dante’s Paradiso. It was made of circles and circles, tiers on tiers of the Saints. He described it as “the rose that blooms eternal, rank on rank, in incense of praise it sends up to the Sun forever vernal.” Ultimately, it was a symbol of the eternal communion of God and man.

In “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot described the spiritual journey in passionate and stirring terms. To classify him as a Modernist poet when he offers such hope to the world is a terrible error. Many writers of literary criticism will go so far to classify even this poem as an example of Modernist thought. While the first half does over a bleak view of the world, the poem hardly ends there. Yet, it is true that in a world devoid of God, Modernism is indeed the only answer. There can be no hope, no peace, and no love without a God ordering and controlling the universe. History will spin out of control with no point and no purpose. The dark dove will continue its desolation with no one to stop him. Unless man is burned by “the flame of incandescent terror,” he will continue to live in a wasteland, unable to see the world with new eyes and a new soul and say from the depths of his heart, “And all shall be well.”

Works Cited

Eliot, T. S. “Little Gidding.” 1943. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. 8th edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006, pgs. 2507-2534.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 1:16 PM |

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Disguise of Civilization

Critical Thoughts on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

(Conrad's novel was loosely adapted in 1979 into the major motion picture Apocalypse Now that takes place during the Vietnam War. But such a movie deserves its own critical essay and that would be another post for another time).

Joseph Conrad, though Polish by birth, grew up in 19th century Russia. He did not learn English until his sea voyages during his teenage years. After sailing on several English ships, he decided to become a naturalized English citizen in 1886 at the age of twenty-nine. Five years later, he left the sea and took up writing as a career. Even though English was Conrad’s third language (he learned French as his second), he soon became one of the most prominent English novelists of the 20th century and was even offered a knighthood. T. E. Laurence exclaimed that Conrad was “the most haunting thing in prose that ever was.” Nowhere does his genius shine more vividly than in his most famous novella, The Heart of Darkness.

The story describes the adventures of a seaman, Christopher Marlow, during his journey down the Congo to find an ivory trader, Kurtz. Symbolism plays an integral part in the story, especially in the conclusion. Indeed, one of the most controversial literary discussions centers on the closing pages where Marlow lies to Kurtz’s fiancée about Kurtz’s last words. If a close reading of the text is taken, however, his motives are obvious. The entire story revolves around the theme of darkness – darkness being Africa, the uncivilized world. When Marlow deceives Kurtz’ fiancée, it is his attempt to protect the civilized world from this darkness.

To understand the importance of this deception, however, it is necessary to see how the symbolism of darkness develops throughout the story. The first several paragraphs open on a scene on the deck of a cruising yawl anchored on the Thames River. Several of the members of the board are sitting about, watching the sun set. It is Marlow who breaks the silence by exclaiming suddenly, “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth” (2330). He explains,
I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago -- the other day. . . . Light came out of this river since — you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. (2331)
What does Marlow mean by “darkness”? The word seems have two distinct meanings throughout the novel. In this first part, it represents an absence of civilization. Before Marlow begins to speak, the sky “without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light” (2329). This symbolizes the England of Marlow’s day, glorious and powerful and dominating much of the world. Yet, he warns that it was not so long ago that England was inhabited only by barbaric tribes. It was Rome, and not England, that was the center of civilization. Subtly, he begins to compare these conquering Romans to the people of his own civilized world, remarking sardonically, “They [the Romans] were no colonists …. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force” (2332). Though he says that the Romans were different from the Europeans because they were conquerors, he is ironically implying that the civilized nations of his day are conquerors, too, and not mere colonists. Indeed, he scornfully remarks, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much” (2332). Later on in the novel, when he relates his adventures in Africa, he points out the death that the colonists have brought to the Africans, describing a heart-rending picture of the black laborers,
They 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 (2339-2340).
The other symbolism of darkness is an inability to see things clearly. As Marlow starts to tell his story, darkness begins to cover England. It symbolizes the civilized world’s failure to understand the violence and cruelty that are going unpunished in Africa; and, also, their refusal to view the Africans as fellow human beings. When Marlow pilots his steamboat down the Congo River, he catches glimpses of the Africans dancing in the villages. His impression is one of revulsion and he exclaims,
It was unearthly and the men were …. No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you, was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar (2354).
It is not in darkness that Marlow faces this realization, but in the full light of day. He remarks, however, that “there was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine” (2352). Faced with the truth, he can only think of “the long stretches of waterway that ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.” He is traveling away from this light into the heart of darkness – away from the civilized world and even the truth in Africa – into the darkness of an uncivilized world where no one can be certain of what is true and what is a lie. Indeed, when he reaches his destination, his steamboat is shrouded in fog. “The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere. Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind” (2357).

This is where Marlow is confronted by Kurtz: the ivory trader who displayed the decapitated heads of natives on poles outside his hut, who took his ivory by force and violence, who exclaimed in an essay “Exterminate all the brutes!” Kurtz is a symbol of what the civilized world is really doing in Africa.
…Your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind--as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness (2332).
Kurtz is the embodiment of the ultimate extent of a Nihilistic philosophy. Without any true God, Kurtz becomes god, ruling his ivory trading post with fear and horror. He cuts off the heads of those who refuse to submit to his will. Thus, Conrad overturned the belief of the Romantics. Man in a state of nature is not essentially good. In fact, it is society that serves as a disguise to the evil in man's heart.

Marlow brings Kurtz back up the river on his steamboat, but the trader begins to die. “One evening coming in with a candle I [Marlow] was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, ‘I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.’ The light was within a foot of his eyes” (2379). It is here that all of the symbolism in the book reaches its culmination. Kurtz is trying to hide in the darkness of the uncivilized world even while the light of truth – the truth of all his despicable practices – is burning before his eyes. As Marlow watches his face, it seems as if a veil has been rent.
I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror -- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “The horror! The horror!”(2379)
When Kurtz dies, it is left to Marlow to decide whether he will tell this great secret to the world, or keep it hidden in darkness as Kurtz has done. His test comes when he visits Kurtz’s fiancée. She is a symbol of the civilized world, of the naïve blindness to what is going on in Africa. Even she cannot understand who Kurtz really was though she says she knew him best. Declaring “Men looked up to him -- his goodness shone in every act,” (2384) she proves that she has no knowledge of his barbarous actions. Then she begs Marlow to tell her Kurtz’s last words. If he tells her the truth, he will shatter all her blind trust and innocent belief.
I was on the point of crying at her, “Don't you hear them?” The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. “The horror! The horror!” (2385).
Yet, Marlow keeps the truth in darkness and says instead, “The last word he pronounced was -- your name.”

And here is the great question: why does he lie? He answers it in the next breath,
It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape …. But nothing happened. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark -- too dark altogether. . . .
By refusing to reveal Kurtz’s last words, Marlow is refusing to reveal what really happened in Africa. He does not wish to darken the light of the civilized world by exposing the cruel European practices that have until then been shrouded in secrecy. Marlow is a symbol of Europe because he turns a blind eye toward what is going on in Africa. At one point in the novel, he finds a sketch that Kurtz had drawn. It depicts a blindfolded woman bearing a torch, but the effect of the light “on the face was sinister” (2346). This woman embodies the European world. The torch she holds symbolizes the customs and civilized practices Europe is bringing to Africa. Her eyes are blindfolded, however, because she refuses to see the violent practices they have also brought. Thus, her face is threatening. Because of its blindness, the civilized world is just as much a horror as all of Kurtz' inhuman actions. This is the main message of The Heart of Darkness: the contrast between dark and light, barbarity and civilization, blindness and the ability to see.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Gen. Ed. New York, W. W. Norton & Co. 2006.

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