Examine the Significance of Blank Spaces in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'?

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  • Topic: Professor Challenger, Arthur Conan Doyle, Roger Casement
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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...
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