Essay 'Into the Wild' Meaning

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For centuries, environmental terminology and themes have circulated through works of literature (Christensen, 2018, p. 1). The topic has often occupied significant space in narratives due to its ability to engage readers. Literary writers, through their works, have the ability to explore the impact of the environment on society, how society consequentially develops, and how society engages with the idea of the natural world (Prentiss & Wilkins, 2016, pp. 46). Writers Barbara Baynton and Joseph Conrad intertwine environmental and natural writing into their works of literature. Whilst Baynton delves into re-writing the traditional colonial Australian mythology, creating an utterly transgressive compilation of short stories, Conrad exposes his readers to the Age of Naturalism, investigating the redefining of the relationship between people and the environment.

Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies draws on colonial Australian ideologies, gathered from her bush experiences. The stories are grim and gothic, invoking a strong sense of a fierce gemeinschaft society; a traditionally non-progressive, rural community with strong patriarchal beliefs and values (Bradbury, 1971, p. 3). Baynton’s narratives exploit the alienation of colonial women by punishing them through the environment. In A Dreamer, Baynton employs deadpan narration, meaning the story occurs without an intermediary voice. Her repetitive use of imagery and lack of framing devices removes any distance between the reader and the story, invoking an unrelenting sense of realism. Therefore, the reader is invited to closely examine the psyche of the characters, and how their motivations and values appease the ideals of the time.

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Baynton’s diction precedes her. Her extensive use of adjectives and personification in A Dreamer implores echoing images: “A swirl of wet leaves from the night-hidden trees decorating the little station beat against the closed doors of the carriages” (Baynton, 1902, pp. 5). As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Baynton utilizes the environment to punish her characters as it conspires against the unnamed woman; a malevolent wild storm settles in during her three-mile journey home. This occurs due to the shift from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft as it is revealed the unnamed woman opposes the traditional, family-driven beliefs of colonial Australia as she had been away from her family: “Long ago she should have come to her old mother” (Baynton, 1902, pp. 8). The malevolent environmental changes arguably become the payment for her sins. However, as the wind “malignantly” (Baynton, 1902, pp. 7) fights her, and the water, “athletic furious” (Baynton, 1902, pp. 9), she states: “There was an atonement in these difficulties and dangers” (Baynton, 1902, pp. 7). This idea of atonement is derivative of Christian mythology, the traditional religion of colonial Australia, and infers the ideology of the ideal gemeinschaft girl. It is believed one must atone for the sin of Adam and Eve, and God will forgive so long as one persists and work hard (Considine, 2018, p. 1). However, once she arrives at her mother’s bedroom door after this treacherous journey, she is met with guilt and an undeniable burden: “The daughter parted the curtains, and the light fell on the face of the sleeper who would dream no dreams that night” (Baynton, 1902, pp. 10). Her mother has passed away. Thus, the unnamed woman is unable to achieve what provided her with purpose during her challenges and hardships with the environment. In true modernist writing form, Baynton unveils a certain truth about the alienation of women within colonial society by challenging the character’s morale and values, as well as society’s due to the shifts between the gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft ideologies. In addition, she discerningly infers the undeniable presence and significance of the environment during the time period.

In contrast, Joseph Conrad encapsulates the Age of Naturalism, a form of realism, delving into colonialism and the impact of imperialism on the environment (Zhang, 2010, p. 1). Heart of Darkness uses nature and the environment as chief themes to foreshadow throughout the novella. Conrad’s decision to write using frame narration ensures the reader is exposed to the imagery and detail of the environment as the storyline unravels. This imagery contributes to the overarching motif of ‘light’ and ‘dark’, and the impact of the environment on the characters’ struggles with this.

The presence of the wilderness within a story epitomizes what is readily apparent in the Old Testament: either one is fleeing from their problems in search of a sanctuary, or one is driven into an inhospitable environment. In Heart of Darkness, it is clear the characters are driven into what is deemed an inhospitable environment; “…an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal.” (Conrad, 1902, pp.12), and delves into the internal battles as the characters’ cope with this reality. In Kurtz’s case, his “…mind has given way to delusions of grandeur [although] he continues to be regarded as an exceptional man. While he possesses potential, his capacity for “greatness” is not achieved with the Company as his colleagues predicted. Rather, his distinction emerges as his madness manifests itself within the African wilderness” (Kinney, 2010, pp. 2). Essentially, Kurtz determines his success in the Interior will depend on his ability to lead the ‘primitive’ people, which manifests into an insatiable hunger for power. This leads Kurtz to obsessively hunt through native villages for ivory. As Marlow claims “[the jungle] got into his veins, consumed his flesh” (Conrad, 1902, pp. 44), meaning he was unrecognizable as he was transforming into the jungle’s “spoiled and pampered favorite” (Conrad, 1902, pp. 44). This establishes the idea that Kurtz’s descent into madness, and loss of humanitarian value and belief occurs due to the environment. Conrad confirms this when Marlow exclaims, “… I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing… They would have been more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house.” (Conrad, 1902, pp. 52). The heads Marlow refers to are outside Kurtz’s house and are of those who dishonored Kurtz’s divinity. Conrad’s continuous reference to nature in these instances reminds the reader of how external settings can impact the internal soul and challenge morality, whilst also exploiting nineteenth-century views of racism, as well as colonisation. Conrad’s expression of the environment and its impact on a once morally principled character suggests the colonization of Western civilization will lead to the spreading of darkness, and infers that such progress will lead to madness.

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