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Stephen A. Reid’s Article The “Unspeakable Rites” in “Heart of Darkness”

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Reid’s article brings the “Unspeakable Rites” in Conrad’s “Heart of darkness” into focus. It mainly raises the question of whether critics should examine Kurtz’s rites or leave them unexamined. These rites are so horrible and terrible to the extent that critics have refused to examine them. These critics take such a stand as they tend to associate the ambiguity centring around Kurtz’s rites with Conrad’s desire to leave them shrouded in uncertainty. They, thus, see no reason for examining them. However, determined as he is, Reid stands against this view; he believes that these rites are to be examined. He says, “We must try to understand what those rites were.” Arguing that the critical function should not stop where Conrad does, Reid undertakes to examine Kurtz’s rites believing that such an examination will certainly serve to clarify certain inexplicable passages in the novella. Reid heads towards examining these rites for the purpose of wiping out the ambiguity by which Kurtz’s rites are characterized.

At this stage, it is worth mentioning that Reid, in examining these rites, draws a lot on the famous British anthropologist Sir George James Frazer. In order to account for Kurtz’s rites, Reid quotes from Frazer’s book “The Golden Bough.” Reid says, “My assumptions will rest upon Sir George James Frazer’s analysis of primitive man’s anxiety about the continuance of the world and about the mortality of the man-god, and of the methods used by him to allay the anxiety and to circumvent the inevitability of the man-god’s aging and dying.” According to Frazer, people in primitive societies hold firm beliefs as to the strength of their man-god. These people believe that the course of nature is dependent on the man-god’s life and, thus, the gradual enfeeblement of his powers and their final extinction signals calamities. Consequently, the loss of the soul of the man-god results in a loss of their own prosperity. As soon as their man-god falls ill in such a way that death starts looming in the horizon, they kill him in order to ensure that his soul is caught and transferred into a suitable successor.

Kurtz has established himself as a man-god, but he is aging and, thus, his health is failing. His worshippers, the natives, are very alert to this fact, for they believe that if Kurtz dies a natural death, there will be no one to drive back calamities and evil spirits. Will the aging Kurtz sacrifice himself for the sake of the tribe? Or will the natives act if he refuses to do so? Kurtz is a stranger; he is white, European, “Civilized,” and a colonizer. He does not believe in those beliefs hold by the natives. Therefore, he is unwilling to be killed. Kurtz has established himself as a man-god just for the purpose of ensuring a better and safer exploitation of the natives. Thus, in order for him to perpetuate his position as a man-god, Kurtz changes the rituals; he sacrifices a vigorous young man and consumes a portion of his body. In doing so, Kurtz gets the natives to believe that he gains new life and power as well. But as Kurtz’s illnesses become more frequent and pronounced, his sacrifices are increasing at astounding rates.

Reid makes allegations that the idea of Kurtz’s rites being linked to human sacrifices serves to clarify several inexplicable passages in the novella. In a bid to support his claim, Reid provides the reader with two examples of such passages. One of these centres around the agitation of the proud native woman in Kurtz’s hut and the other is Marlow’s moral shock at seeing the empty cabin. To what extent the way Kurtz account for these passages is viable will be highlighted in the second part of this essay.

Reid says that Kurtz is forced into the rites; if he did not kill, he would be killed by the natives. Reid is, hence, arguing that Kurtz kills not out of desire “lusts,” but out of necessity “Rites.” Kurtz, in this respect, has no choice; he is trapped in his environment. Reid talks about Kurtz’s “immense plans” which he associates with Kurtz’s desire to ensure continued domination over ivory.

He tries to account for the relationship between Kurtz’s bestiality and his exploitation of the natives. He sees that Kurtz’s unspeakable rites are means to an end- exploitation. Kurtz, Reid argues, is aware of his exploitation of the natives. The latter, however, deem Kurtz’s rites necessary for their own security. Without them, their very existence is at stake. Reid does not deny that Kurtz gains sadistic satisfaction from these rites; hadn’t the rite involved great relish Kurtz would not have carried them out. Simultaneously, however, Reid tells us that Kurtz might have been forced into the rites regardless of whatever spiritual enjoyment Kurtz gains. Reid, hereby, does not approve of attributing Kurtz’s rites to uncontrolled “lusts.” He writes, “The simple “giving in” to “uncontrolled lusts”- the usual explanation of Kurtz’s disintegration seems to me a psychologically unsound way of describing the case especially when a more precise explanation is available.” According to Reid, Kurtz’s problem of maintaining his rule underlies his constituting the rite of sacrifice and the attendant cannibalism whereby he carries out these rites. Reid here draws on “determinism” in claiming that Kurtz’s descent into bestiality is inevitable; according to him, should there be anybody in Kurtz’s shoes, he will have to act just as Kurtz did. It is this inevitability which accounts for critics’ refusal to examine these rites.

Now that I have done with the first part of my essay, I would like to begin the second one which centres around my personal reading of Reid’s article in the light of my consulting the primary text by stressing that when I reread the novella, I was somewhat surprised at finding out that the way Reid accounts for Kurtz’s rites involves a lot of contradictions.

Reid seems to take certain passages out of their context in the novella and use them to delude the reader. One of these passages has been worked out by Professor Mekouar. This passage concerns Freslevan. Reid claims that after the death of Freslevan- the natives’ man-god as suggested by Reid, the village was deserted, for the natives expected all sorts of calamities on the ground that their man-god, Freslevan, who had been there to drive back calamities was now dead. However, in the light of our going back to the primary text and inquiring into its context, it turns out that the natives have vanished fearing guns, for the death of a white man is always associated with great wrath from the part of the whites who in such an incident start firing maniacally.

Another similar passage, which I have worked out according to my reading of “heart of darkness,” is the one Reid uses to account for Kurtz’s moral shock which he claims to have stemmed from Marlow’s realization that Kurtz’s disappearance means that he has gone to the acting of another midnight ritual. Reid here does not provide us with the whole paragraph. The part that is missed clearly states that Marlow’s shock resulted from his fear of a possible attack from the part of Kurtz and the natives: “I think I would have raised an outcry if I had believed my eyes. But I did not believe them at first-the thing seemed so impossible. The fact is I was completely unnerved by a sheer blank fright, pure abstract terror, unconnected with any distinct shape of physical danger. What made this emotion so overpowering was-how shall I define?-the moral shock received, as if something altogether monstrous, intolerable to thought and odious to the soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly. This lasted of course the merest fraction of a second, and then the usual sense of commonplace, deadly danger, the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre, or something of the kind, which I saw impending, was positively welcome and composing.

It pacified me, in fact, so much, that I did not raise an alarm.” Page [92] Other preceding passages testify to this: He [the Russian] informed me, lowering his voice, that it was Kurtz who had ordered the attack to be made on the steamer. “He [Kurtz] hated sometimes the idea of being taken away-and then again.” Page [90] Marlow has been warned by the Russian to keep vigilant as Kurtz and his followers may attack at any time. Kurtz does not want to be taken away. Marlow wakes up shortly after midnight to ensure that no attack is being executed: “when I woke up shortly after midnight his warning came to my mind with its hint of danger that seemed, in the starred darkness, real enough to make me get up for the purpose of having a look around.” Page [91] I think these passages clearly refute Reid’s claim that Marlow’s abstract terror stems from the latter’s awareness that Kurtz will be in close proximity to the “unspeakable” rites. It, therefore, seems that Reid distorts the meaning of the text by providing an interpretation which contradicts to a greater extent what the above-quoted passages convey. Readers, thus, should look at his article with scrutinizing glasses.

The second passage that Reid quotes from Frazer’s book “The Golden Bough,” and which he uses to account for Kurtz’s rites is extraneous. The heads that Kurtz cuts are not meant to perpetuate his position or to be used as a kind of fetish. Kurtz kills for two major reasons, the first of which is to repress insurgents: “He [The Russian] said: these heads were the heads of rebels. I shocked him excessively by laughing. Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear? There had been enemies, criminals, workers-and these were rebels.” Page [84] Gaining sadistic is the second reason underlying Kurtz’s strong desire to kill: “They [The heads] only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him- some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of his deficiency himself I can not say.” Page [83]

The “lusts” in the previous passage demonstrate that Kurtz is morally ill as they make allusion to a kind of uncontrolled passion which dominates him, driving him, thus, to carrying out his rites- murdering. What supports my claim here is Kurtz’s power over the natives; Kurtz seems to hold these people under his heels. Power is, however, corrupt, a fact which accounts for Kurtz’s moral corruption. He feels he has complete control over his environment. He can kill whomever wherever and whenever he wants. The Russian says, “There was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased.” Consequently, the driving force pushing Kurtz to kill is his moral corruption rather than his desire to perpetuate his position as a man-god.

Having had insights into the different contradictions Reid’s interpretation of Kurtz’s “Unspeakable rites,” I would like to stress that students of “Critical Approaches” should be alert as to the dangers of blindly assimilating whatever kind of interpretation. They are, more than ever before, required to develop a sense criticism; one should always read with a critical mind, inquiring into the ideas provided in whatever sort of criticism by means of making any necessary comparisons and contrasts between the primary text they are working on and the secondary one in the light of which the former is approached. An awareness of such danger will certainly pave the way for students to better deal with a number of literary critiques without getting trapped by certain critics’ attempts to distort reality via getting readers entangled in ambiguity.

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