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Knowledge and Ignorance in “The Garden Party” and Heart of Darkness, Essay Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1534

Essay

Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party” and Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, may appear at first glance to come from opposite ends of the spectrum. The first work deals with a ritzy garden party, complete with a marquee tent and a small band for live music. The second deals with a trip upriver into the heart of the African jungle at the height of the European exploitation of the continent’s riches and natives. What do such disparate works have in common? Both of them explore characters gaining an understanding of death—an understanding that will change the rest of their lives.

In “The Garden Party,” Laura Sheridan observes the preparations for a garden party her mother is planning later that day. “They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden party if they had ordered it” (Mansfield, 2346). Yet, as she watches those preparations, even takes charge of a few of them, she is struck by a sense of aloneness, of being unprepared and more than a little ignorant.

In the middle of party preparations, word comes that a man who lives on a nearby street—a working man, far below the social class of Laura’s family—has been killed in a tragic accident. Laura’s instinct is to cancel the party lest the music from the band seem disrespectful to the grieving family. Laura’s mother and sister disagree. They don’t actually know the man who was killed, and as Jose says, “’If you’re going to stop a band playing every time someone has an accident, you’ll live a very strenuous life. . . . You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental” (Mansfield, 2352). Knowledge is key to their response to the news of the man’s death. They didn’t know the man, not even his name. In spite of that, they believe they know the culture of the man as being “drunken.” An odd combination of knowledge and ignorance permeates their perceptions. Laura senses this dichotomy and is uncomfortable with it, but is persuaded to let the subject drop.

Only after the party ends does Laura’s father mention the accident and reveal that the victim was married and had several children. Mrs. Sheridan decides it would be a grand gesture to present the grieving family with the uneaten leftovers of the party. Yet Laura isn’t so sure. “To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?” (Mansfield, 2352). Laura is almost paralyzed by her ignorance of what is right and kind under these circumstances. Is it really kind to give cast-offs—scraps—to a grieving family? Laura fears not, but is bulldozed into carrying a basket of the party leftovers to the family.

It is only when she arrives at the house that her lack of knowledge becomes critical. She is overwhelmed by the “dark knot” of strangers hovering around the door. (Mansfield, 2354) She is aware of being inappropriately dressed—still in her party dress and hat, while those around her are in more somber clothes. Yet as she is ushered into the dark and gloom of the house, she discovers much more about how those less fortunate than herself live. Contrast, for example, her own home and garden, bathed in sunlight and glorious greenery:

They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. . . . As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the own flowers that impress people at garden parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels (Mansfield 2346).

Compared to the house of the grieving family, she has moved from a virtual heaven on Earth to at best, the outer edges of hell:

The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have heard her. “Step this way, please, miss,” she said in an oily voice, and Laura followed her.

She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp (Mansfield, 2355).

Do these two homes even exist on the same planet? Laura’s lack of knowledge seems complete as she descends into the darkness of true ignorance. Nothing exemplifies her lack of knowledge and understanding better than this gloomy, dark room with its smoky fire and the oily voice of the woman there.

Yet in reality, the people in this “wretched” home are perfectly polite, perfectly respectful, perfectly nice to her. They’re appreciative of her efforts to bring them her family’s castoffs, and offer her the opportunity to relieve the darkness of her ignorance by showing her the body of the accident victim, laid out in state on a bed:

There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. . . . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content (Mansfield, 2356).

She is deeply struck by the walls of ignorance that until now have sheltered her from life. She mutters the only thing she can think of—the symbol of her own wretched ignorance: “Forgive my hat” (Mansfield, 2356). The fancy party hat with its ribbon streamer seems to exemplify to her the frivolous and determinedly ignorant lifestyle of her family. With this revelation, she moves out of darkness of unknowing and into the realization that life and death are the basis for all of our existence.

While Laura Sheridan moves from sheltered knowledge into darkest ignorance into realization of true knowledge, so too does Marlow, the narrator (or, rather, the narrator within the narrator) of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Marlow begins his trek up river into the heart of the African continent having heard marvelous stories about Kurtz, the iconoclastic station master in the remote wilderness outpost. It is said that he is a miracle worker who generates far more ivory for the European masters than anyone else. He’s a legend of productivity. Marlow’s journey up-river is also a journey into greater and greater knowledge and understanding of what European exploitation of Africa has really meant.

“Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. . . . And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die” (Conrad, 1901).

As Marlow journeys farther and farther into the darkness—all the way into the very heart of darkness, he also journeys into the realm of ignorance. He learns that virtually everything he thought and believed about the European presence in Africa, and about Kurtz specifically, are wrong. Kurtz is, at the very least, a madman, a sadist, a vicious murderer who keeps human skulls posted around his hut to enforce his terrorizing of the natives who revere him as a wrathful god. Kurtz himself, suffering from his final illness as Marlow arrives, has journeyed out of the ignorance of his madness, and at last perceives the truth about his life in his final utterance: “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad, 1942).

But Marlow himself still has to make the final journey from darkest ignorance to understanding. His journey back to London leads him to the home of Kurtz’s finacée, a woman with an idealistic, completely ignorant perception of Kurtz. Perhaps she remembers the Kurtz who departed for Africa rather than the psychopathic madman Kurtz Marlow came to know. Marlow lies to her, tells her that Kurtz’s last words were her name. His lie frightens him—he is leading this gentle woman farther into the paths of ignorance instead of letting her gain the light of truth and knowledge. He justifies his lie to himself: “I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether . . .” (Conrad, 1947).

Knowledge, especially self-knowledge, lies at the heart of both these works. As different as they may seem on the surface, both of them follow their main characters from the sense of being knowledgeable, along the path of darkness to a realization of their actual utter ignorance, then back into the light of true knowledge. That knowledge may not be as comfortable as their previous ignorance, but at least it’s true.

Works Referenced

Conrad, J. Heart of Darkness. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. E, 8th Edition, Ed. S. Greenblatt, M. H. Abrams, C. T. Christ, D.S. Lynch, et al. New York, NY: Norton. 1890–1947. Print.

Mansfield, K. “The Garden Party.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. E, 8th Edition, Ed. S. Greenblatt, M. H. Abrams, C. T. Christ, D.S. Lynch, et al. New York, NY: Norton. 2346–2356. Print.

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