‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’: Objective and Relation with Law

By Pravesh Aggarwal, RGNUL

Editor’s Note: This paper discusses the novels ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Old Man and the Sea’ and its relation with the law. In Heart of  Darkness, author Joseph Conrad discusses colonialism and imperialism in depth. The intersection between literature and law can be seen in the novel. The novel Old Man and the Sea portrays the immense strength and valour of the Old Man in successfully completing his long-dreamt goal of capturing fishes. This novel evokes the concept of ‘laws of nature’, as distinguished from the human made laws, which are indispensable for one’s survival.

Exposition would deal with the objective for which the two novels Heart of Darkness and Old Man and the Sea have been written and to analyze whether the given objective has been achieved or not. In addition, it would deal with the relation of the novels with law and explicate whether the novels conform to the present and the past laws prevailing at the time the novel was written.

Through the story Heart of Darkness, the author Joseph Conrad laments upon the sheer darkness that could be seen in ravening and rapacious society for power and wealth. In the novel, he propounds the cruel idea of colonialism and imperialism that seems to spread like a disease among the robust countries by enforcing their strength upon the colonial people. In the book, Marlow is very critical of imperialism and its effect like in Europe, which created a situation of tensions, unrest, conflicts and terror in the society. He further gives instances of how African people were brutally treated and enclosed upon the walls of their region beyond which they could not have a glimpse of the outer world of peace and equality. Through his work, the author shows the implicit and explicit darkness that was buried in the soul of these colonial people and there seemed no ray of hope which could extricate their condition, with Englishmen brutally thrashing them with slates and taking undue advantage by engaging these colonial people in the manual work under filthy conditions.

In addition, the darkness of jealousy which persisted till the very death of Mr. Kurtz within the General Manager seemed baffling to the author and shows how the hunger for power arouses sinful thoughts about someone’s death. Later, the darkness creeps in in the Mr. Kurtz’s beloved, on knowing about his death, which fills her with regret and emotions. Thus, most of the events in the story portray some kind of darkness that prevails in the atmosphere and in the hearts of people and attracted many of its readers into the vivid expressions of the book. However, in some instances, a ray of light could be well established in the story like Marlow’s longingness to meet Mr. Kurtz alive was fulfilled and Marlow had an ultimate triumph over the clutches of dreadful journey in Africa  by its successful completion. Moreover, he expounds the idea of morality that was diminished on Marlow’s journey to Africa, with exploitation, crimes, death, decay and murder seen all over the journey.

Mr. Kurtz tried to go beyond the morality, by engaging in savagery and carrying out raids and brutal killings in other regions for collection of ivory, in which he failed miserably and finally succumbs to death. Thus, the author shows that the breaking of certain set of moral principles based upon civilization tend to be pernicious to one’s own disadvantage. But, the idea of morality seems a bit faded in the book, since it becomes difficult to predict whether the author criticizes the imperialism over the whole world or over British Empire only, as in the first chapter, the author expresses the mainstream belief that imperialism is a glorious and worthy enterprise by praising the notable leaders who went for conquest over other countries and growing the seeds of modernization, which is often done by brutal treatment of the colonial people and creates their own morality which is distinguished with what world as a whole would accept. The author, through the novel, attacked the temperaments of the common man by filling the reaction to a particular response in the same commonly accepted and expected way of the masses.

The theory of ‘objective correlative’ has been used by the author to attract the readers and to evoke the realistic effect of the novel upon the people, in which he succeeded. Marlow’s dreaming and fulfillment of achieving something great in life by going to the treacherous journey to Africa, his feelings of kinship that arose for the native African people and showing up of sympathies for their miseries, his compelling nature to extricate Mr. Kurtz out of the clutches of darkness in the jungle and his hiding of the truth about savage nature of Mr. Kurtz from his beloved and falsely telling her about the love he had for her which were reflected  from his ultimate words of her name- these instances verily reflect the natural reaction that the readers may expect. Conrad himself offered an explanation of his method by saying,

“Fiction appeals to temperament. And . . It must be . . . the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose. . . power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time. Such an appeal to be effective must be an impression conveyed through the senses; and, in fact, it cannot be made in any other way, because temperament . . . is not amenable to persuasion. All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions.[i]

In the novel Heart of Darkness, the intersection between literature and law could be seen in many areas. The author tells about the lawlessness that existed under the rule of imperialism and colonialism, as seen in unlawful beating of the white people to the black Africans and thereby hurting their sovereignty and showing discrimination on the basis of color. This even went the other way round, with blacks killing the white, as seen in the murder of Fresleven by the Company’s chief’s son for hammering the chief with a stick for being cheated in a bargain. This showed that primitive people resorted to violence and terror, as opposed by law in the modern world, when there was no legal route to punish the perpetrators of crime. In the absence of law, harmony, equality and equal treatment for everyone seems a farfetched dream and one could not ensure peace in the society by assuming dominance over other in an unlawful manner in the imperial world.

When Marlow reached the Company’s first station, he recalled the black men as “criminals, and the outraged law”[ii], who were walking along in chains under the guard of another black man, showing that there is no way to escape the liability of one’s wrongdoings, even in the primitive times. One could figure law in the book by the fact that there exist a legal contract between the Company and Marlow by signing some documents for undertaking a journey in the Congo River and to work in accordance with the company’s terms and conditions. In addition, later the company’s chief threatens to bring legal proceedings against Marlow for not giving all the documents of Mr. Kurtz.  The attack of the ship by the native Africans and the consequent killing of helmsmen on its way to the inner station showed how one’s sovereignty, i.e. the ship could be attacked by the external force. The similar case could be propounded in the recent Italian Marine case, whereby two Indian Fisherman were attacked and killed by the Italian marines, but for which the Italian government had to pay compensation to the deceased’s legal heir.

This aspect of literature shows how absence of law could be detrimental to one’s justice. Besides, since the law and order for a country is responsible for the creation of political institutions in the country, Marlow realizes the absence of “policeman” in putting up restraint over Mr. Kurtz’s savagery activities hunger in collecting ivory by engaging in brutal killings and by threatening the European trader to give ivory to him lest he would be killed, which gives rise to the accusation of ‘Criminal Intimidation[iii] in the present world. The ivory trade wasn’t considered pernicious for the habitat, owing to the presence of many elephants and its many uses, but recently, it has been considered an illegal activity in many countries owing to the endangerment of many elephant species. Even. In the primitive times, people knew and realized the importance of trade secrets, as propounded in Marlow’s non-disclosure of trade practices done by Mr. Kurtz. Thus, this piece of literature showed different aspects of law that were mainly lacking in History and showed how its absence governs people’s lifestyle.

The novel Old Man and the Sea portrays the immense strength and valour of the Old Man in successfully completing his long-dreamt goal of capturing fishes. This highlights that it is possible to beat all the odds in life, provided that the hope, strength and the desire to achieve something remains undeterred by the possible failures in life. The author purposely chooses the Old man as the protagonist of the story since, inspite of old people being generally regarded as weak and submissive, broke all the odds to achieve success in fishing by capturing a very large fish. Inspite of his eighty-four days of fruitless attempt to get hold of any fish, he seemed undeterred and stood fixed towards his goal.

The repeated attacks by the shark did not baffle him and did not scare him out of his wits. Thus, the author opposes the generally believed conception of old man and propounds that to fear death is to fear the life since the life is all about risks and facing challenges and achieving success is not possible by extricating these risks., as rightly said by Heuy Newton that, “My fear was not of death itself, but a death without meaning.”[iv] According to Ernest Hemmingway’s biographer Jeffrey Meyers, in one of the interviews, he said that,

“I think that’s true. I mean, the theme is victory and defeat. And the statement in the book that’s usually used to describe the theme is a man can be destroyed but not defeated. The story goes back, in fact, to Hemingway’s personal experience, which he described in an essay called On the Blue Water, published in Esquire in April 1936, when in fact he did catch a huge marlin and on the way home is attacked by sharks.[v]

The given piece of literature evokes the concept of ‘laws of nature’, as distinguished from the human made laws, which are indispensable for one’s survival. This theory could be seen in many sharks’ multiple attack on the old man and there seemed no law to stop these ferocious attacks on him and the possible response and escape from this vulnerable situation is to attack or kill them. This is in accordance with Herbert Spencer’s theory of ‘Survival of the Fittest’, which shows that the strong survives and the weak perishes. There are other instances like the sun rising in the morning which wakes up the Old man, which are devoid of any human made laws.

The concept of ‘Child labour’ is a critical aspect in present as well as past which is revealed in the novel The Old Man and the Sea. Manolin, presumably an adolescent boy of age less than eighteen years, was engaged in fishing activity which is considered a hazardous activity because of the insurmountable risk involved, as could be seen by the repeated life-threatening attacks on the Old Man. Even in the history, child labor was considered a crime, i.e. an illegal activity, as could be seen under Section 212, clause (c) of The Fair Labor Standards Act Of 1938[vi], in which ‘no employer shall employ any oppressive child labor in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce or in any enterprise engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce.’[vii] Since commercial fishing was being carried out by the Old Man and the boy, it was in accordance with the laws of the U.S. as it could be pragmatically presumed that the author’s work was written after 1938.

There are many other instances in the novel The Old Man and the Sea that could connect it with law. In the initial stages, the Old man suggests to take the child out to gamble, which is considered an illegal activity for the minors. Later, the boy’s involvement in stealing the fish for the Old man is also considered illegal and results in criminal punishment. In addition, there were no legal provisions to check on the killing of the dolphins and even now, killing dolphin in U.S. is considered a legal activity. But, such mal-practice should be made illegal, for it will lead to near extinction of the dolphins, as done recently in Japan.

In both the novels Heart of Darkness and The Old Man and the Sea, one could see the dearth of laws or law enforcing bodies and mechanisms, i.e. laws were generally not made or not preached by the people in their conduct. Thus, lawlessness was there in historical times, leading to widespread conflicts, wars, battles and deaths of the innumerable people (mainly weaker sections of the society), as could be seen in the novel Heart of Darkness, and people’s own natural conduct devoid of any law, as could be seen in the novel The Old Man and the Sea. In the modern world, the making of many laws and their savior, i.e. the implementers of law like the Judiciary, has not only made lives of the people simpler and easier but also provided a mechanism for punishing the law-breakers of the society, depending on the extent of breach of legal duty they had committed.

In the novel Heart of Darkness, the author wishes to convey the existence of external force in the making and enforcement of laws on the alien people and using the laws manipulatively for their vested interest without taking into concern the sheer predicaments faced by the outsiders. Whereas in the novel The Old Man and the Sea, it is the internal forces which brings about the formulation of own laws taking into consideration the surrounding aspect of individual and no external force creeps into the internal affairs of the people. This mostly helps in reducing conflicts than under the colonial period since people govern themselves by making laws suiting theirs’ and the counterparts’ need, by knowing the scenario in which they live and how to act accordingly, but under some external rule, the external forces, in most of the cases, cannot probably understand the unknown place in which they land and make laws for the purpose for which they arrive: power and money.

 Edited by Hariharan Kumar

[i] Conrad, Joseph. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Volume 3. Ed. Frederick R. and Laurence Davies. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Print.

[ii] Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 2001. New Delhi: Rupa Publication, 2011. Print.

[iii] Section 108, Indian Penal Code, 1860.

[iv] The Enduring Depths of ‘Old Man and the Sea’. npr, 4th March 2006. Web. 20th October 2013.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. The Fair Labor Standards Act Of 1938, As Amended. New York: WH Publication, 1818. Print.

[vii] Ibid.

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