"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 19 th and / or early 20 th 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 19 th and 20 th 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 19 th and 20 th 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 Butler 2, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad 3, and The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle 4.
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, coloni se 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 guarded is one that is shown by the emphasis on the power of withholding map information and repeatable directions within or to these lands.
In The Lost World, the map given to Malone, Summer lee and Lord John by Challenger is in fact a blank piece of paper 12, and the maps throughout the book are "neither oriented nor to scale." 13 The narrator in Erewhon shows the same degree of reluctance in sharing his newly-acquired information: I fear that my story will be doubted unless I tell the whole of it; and yet I dare not do so, lest others with more means than mine should get the start of me... I have therefore concealed my destination on leaving England... [and] dare not mention the season, lest the reader should gather in which hemisphere I was. 14 Indeed, not only are these regions blank spaces in terms of their physical cartography and what is known about them, but also blank in terms of a Westernised civilisation and industrialisation. It is only in Butler's treatment of exploration that the inhabitants have a cultural structure and society comparable to that of those in the West, in terms of having a recognisable judicial system 15, organised religion 16, and educational structure 17. It should be understood that as a satire, Erewhon is meant to be read on a different level than The Lost World and Heart of Darkness (in the latter, although allegorical and symbolic, the reader is not invited to make specific judgement's against Victorian societal institutions in the same way).
The Erewhonians serve a different function for the author than the African tribes people of Heart of Darkness or Conan Doyle's apemen and natives. In spite of this, when he first meets the inhabitants of this 'blank space', Erewhon's narrator insists that he will go back to 'civilised' the Erewhonians: ... if these people were the ten tribes of Israel... the opening was too excellent to be lost. And I resolved that should I see indications which appeared to confirm my impression that I had indeed come upon the missing tribes, I would certainly convert them. 18 At the end of the book, however, his motives for returning have changed somewhat: I have no doubt...
that we could fill our vessel with emigrants in three or four journeys... We should then proceed to Greenland, and dispose of our engagement with the Erewhonians to the sugar-growers of that settlement, who are in great want of labour... 19 In the same way, by Lord John's discovery of diamonds in the prehistoric plateau of The Lost World 20, it is hard to see how any subsequent expedition could be anything but exploitative. This theme of exploitation and using blank spaces and their un-Westernised inhabitants for mercenary, territorial gain is one that also permeates throughout Heart of Darkness; ivory trading becomes the foundation on which the supposed exploration and civilizing of the Africans is based: The word "ivory" rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.
21 The fact that many regions of Africa and South America were left unexplored and unmarked by Western civilisation in the mid-1800 s has a great connection to the ferocity and imperviousness of the natural surroundings and climate in these areas. Huge swathes of forest and jungle, along with Equatorial temperatures and fauna, combine to create an impression of these areas being inhospitable places (especially compared to Western and European ecosystems). The ideas of regions being 'blank spaces' in terms of their physical impenetrability by humans is one covered by all three books discussed. In Heart of Darkness, the mass of jungle is given lavish and sensual description: And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this clear speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion... the silence of the land went home to one's very heart, - its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life. 22 The emphasis on feelings and sensory judgement is given perhaps a greater importance due to Conrad's own travels to the Congo, the language and intensity drawn from personal experience.
23 In The Lost World, Conan Doyle's plateau is also guarded by its natural surroundings: On the ninth day, we began to emerge from the trees... their place was taken by an immense wilderness of bamboo, which grew so thickly that we could only penetrate it by cutting a pathway with the machetes and bill-hooks of the Indians... on the sixth day we completed our circuit of the cliffs... we were a disconsolate party, for...
it was absolutely certain that there was no single point where the most active human being could possibly hope to scale the cliff. 24 Erewhon is equally well-protected: There was an awful river, muddy and horribly angry, roaring over an immense river-bed, thousands of feet below me. It went round to the westward, and I could see no farther up the valley, save that there were enormous glaciers which must extend round the source of the river, and from which it must spring. 25 The 'blank spaces' of the world and their foreboding natural protections were, by the late 1800 s, gradually being overcome with increasing technological advancement -John Fitch had been granted a US patent for his steamboat design in 1791, made commercially successful by Robert Fulton in the early 1800 s. 26 The travellers in The Lost World charter a steam-launch in order to traverse against the current of the Amazon (." ...
the excellent engines of the Esmeralda could disregard the sluggish flow of the stream"27) while Conrad's Marlow uses his "little begrimed steamboat [to travel]... along empty reaches, round the still bends, between the high walls of [the] winding way, reverberating in hollow claps the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel." 28 With steam power came the ability to travel upstream against the currents of the great rivers into the 'blank' interiors of Africa and South America at a far greater rate of progress than before, when reliant on sailboats. The relatively new (1783) technology of hot air ballooning is also mentioned in two of the books. 29 Challenger constructs one, as a possible means of escape, from the "dried and scraped stomachs of one of the great fish lizards from the lake... [and] the gas bubbling up from the mud of the geyser," 30 and in Erewhon, a balloon is the escape vehicle for the narrator and Arowhena: ... the Queen...
promised to get leave for me to have a balloon made and inflated; I pointed out to her that no complicated machinery would be wanted - nothing, in fact, but a large quantity of oiled silk, a car, a few ropes, &c. , &c. , and some light kind of gas... 31 It is clear that the natural forces protecting the 'blank spaces' of the world from exploration and exploitation were rapidly losing their battle against the growing technology of the Victorian traveller. Until Livingstone's arrival at Cape Colony in 1849, Africa was largely unexplored, with the exceptions of the lower course of the Nile, the middle of the Niger and the mouths of the Congo and the Zambezi. 32 In South America, Baron von Humboldt's travels from 1799 to 1803, with his friend Aim'e Bonpland, contributed hugely to scientific knowledge on flora as well as topographical information.
33 By the 1880 s, the expeditions of Burton, Spoke, Livingston and Stanley had filled in many of the 'blank spaces' on the map, at least within Africa. 34 The final semantic interpretation of the term 'blank space' is that concerned with knowledge, or more specifically ignorance. The 'blank spaces' in the novels could equally indicate those subjects or parts of the human mind undeveloped or unexplored. Erewhon, as a satire on Victorian society and values, highlights the hidden, disguised features of English culture of the time. The Musical Banks are a metaphor for English churches, dealing with a worthless currency used solely for outward appearance 35; the Colleges of Unreason draw attention to the shortcomings of the old-school English education system, Oxford and Cambridge Universities being major targets 36.
In The Lost World, essentially an adventure story written for the purposes of entertainment alone, the controversial topic of slavery is briefly mentioned, when Lord John Rox ton tells Malone of his travels in South America:" That's the rifle I used against the Peruvian slave-drivers three years ago. I was the flail of the Lord up in those parts, I may tell you... There are times, young fellah, when every one of us must make a stand for human right and justice, or you never feel clean again." 37 Conrad's Heart of Darkness is an ambiguous allegory for the metaphysical journey his narrator takes - Marlow's descent into the darkest recesses of Africa can also be read as a comment on the effect these regions can have on the supposedly 'civilised' West - the differences between the urbane white man and the barbarous savage are situational rather than deep-rooted and physical: ... 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. 38 The unknown depths within man as a species are detailed, using Kurtz as a model of depravity. It is clear that the enormous expansion of knowledge on the natural world, heralded by the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century, had a great impact on literature. These unexplored regions are mysterious and yet inviting; the promise of wealth - be it spiritual, scientific or pecuniary - being too much of a temptation for the Victorian traveller. In the same way, each author has his own motives for writing his tale of exploration, from social commentary to cathartic philosophy to entertaining adventure romp; and yet, each tale has the themes discussed above running throughout.
The quote below condenses the spirit of exploration and the motives propelling it - books such as the ones discussed highlight the interest and popularity of exploration, readers vicariously experiencing the 'blank spaces' of the world. Explorers. Some travelled with an ideal. Others searched in greed.
Some were map-makers; or travellers in search of trade; others went to spread their own form of religion; some simply to claim new lands for their country - with the promise of wealth and personal honour. For many explorers, curiosity itself was sufficient reason to travel to the unknown, to risk their lives in searching. For them, just to survive the experience, and later to tell of it, was enough. 391. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (London: Penguin, 2000), p.
222. Samuel Butler, Erewhon (New York: Dover Thrift, 2002) 3. Conrad, Heart of Darkness 4. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World and Other Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1995) 5. Peter Raby, Bright Paradise: Victorian Scientific Travellers (London: Pimlico, 1996), p. 2226.
Jon Hegglund, web Abstracting Africa: Thematic Mapping and British Imperialism, 1870 - 1930, Newberry Library, 20027. Conan Doyle, Lost World, p. 208. Ibid. 9. Conan Doyle, Lost World, p.
8910. Butler, Erewhon, p. 1411. Ibid. 12. Conan Doyle, Lost World, p.
5213. Conan Doyle, Lost World, p. 6514. Butler, Erewhon, pp. 1-215.
Butler, Erewhon, pp. 54-5916. Butler, Erewhon, pp. 73-8117. Butler, Erewhon, pp. 106-11618.
Butler, Erewhon, p. 2919. Butler, Erewhon, pp. 160-16120. Conan Doyle, Lost World, p.
16921. Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 4422. Conrad, Heart of Darkness, pp. 44, 4823.
Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. xxii 24. Conan Doyle, Lost World, pp. 63, 7625.
Butler, Erewhon, p. 1326. Mary Bellis, web The History of Steamboats, About Inc. , 200327. Conan Doyle, Lost World, p. 5428.
Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 6129. Mary Bellis, web Airships - Aerostat, About Inc. , 200330.
Conan Doyle, Lost World, p. 14931. Butler, Erewhon, p. 15132.
Desmond Wilcox, Explorers (London: BBC, 1975), p. 6133. Wilcox, Explorers, pp. 143-16434.
Hegglund, web Butler, Erewhon, pp. 73-8136. Butler, Erewhon, pp. 106-11637. Conan Doyle, Lost World, p.
44 38. Conrad, Heart of Darkness, pp. 61-6239. Wilcox, Explorers, p.
6 Bibliography Bellis, M. , The History of Steamboats (web About Inc. , 2003) Bellis, M. , Airships - Aerostat (web About Inc. , 2003) Butler, S. , Erewhon (New York: Dover Thrift, 2002) Conan Doyle, A.
, The Lost World and Other Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1995) Conrad, J. , Heart of Darkness (London: Penguin, 2000) Hegglund, J. , Abstracting Africa: Thematic Mapping and British Imperialism, 1870 -1930 (web Newberry Library, 2002) Raby, P. , Bright Paradise: Victorian Scientific Travellers (London: Pimlico, 1996) Wilcox, D. , Explorers (London: BBC, 1975).