In Roland Barthes' provocative 1967 essay, "The Death of the Author," he claims that an author's biography and the historical context in which the literary work was written are not relevant to an interpretation of a text. Instead, all that matters is the reader's response to the words on the page, regardless of the author's intent. While we respect the reader's role and responsibilities in the interpretive process, we also maintain that an author's background and the historical context are still valuable in helping students understand the larger themes of the novel or play. Even though we can never definitively determine an author's intent, it does help us understand the text by examining the time period in which the work was written and the perspective that an author might have based on the historical context and the author's personal experience.
With each novel or play, we provide students with a two-page condensed biography of the author or playwright. For instance, prior to reading Heart of Darkness, students read the following biography of Joseph Conrad that has been adapted from the Encyclopedia Britannica website:
From a teaching perspective, what is most important in the author's biography depends on the focus of the AP Literary Argument prompt selected for the unit. With Heart of Darkness, we want students to focus on Conrad's anti-imperial stance towards the colonization of Africa in the late 19th century. With that political interpretation as our focus, we chose the 2009 (Form B) AP Literary Argument prompt for the final essay:
2009 (Form B): Many works of literature deal with political or social issues. Choose a novel or play that focuses on a political or social issue. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the author uses literary elements to explore this issue and explain how the issue contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.
For students to understand the political significance of Conrad's novella, they first have to understand the history of colonization, and especially the "Scramble for Africa" in the late 19th century. In class we present slides that not only show the way Africa was divided between competing European nations, but also the moral reasoning that justified the entire colonial enterprise, as exemplified by King Leopold II's proclamation at the Brussels Conference in 1876 that the colonization of Africa was an altruistic, noble enterprise:
To help students understand the European justifications for colonialism, we have them analyze Rudyard Kipling's "The White Man's Burden" for the AP Poetry Analysis assignment during the unit. Kipling's poem helps students understand the perspective of someone like Kurtz, who enters the Congo thinking of himself as an "emissary of light" (14), which are the words that Marlow's aunt uses in describing Marlow prior to his own departure for the Congo. Kipling's poem not only symbolizes the prevailing attitude of most Europeans, but it also reveals the significance of Conrad's novella in challenging the existing belief system of the time period:
In some ways, Barthes' argument is correct in that the text itself clearly reveals the author's attitude towards European colonization without our having to know the historical context or Conrad's personal biography. We maintain, however, that it is helpful to know that information. When looking at Conrad's biography for clues as to his attitude towards imperialism and colonization, it is noteworthy that he was born in 1857 in "Russian-occupied Ukraine." To help students understand the historical context, we compare a modern map of Europe in 2020 with one from 1860 to show Russia's annexation of Eastern Europe during Conrad's childhood:
We also learn from Conrad's biography that when the author was six years old, his father, Apollo, who is described as "a poet and an ardent Polish patriot," was also one of the revolutionaries who "helped organize a Polish insurrection against Russian rule in 1863," which suggests that Conrad was raised in an environment that was hostile to occupying forces imposing their will on native peoples. Whether it is the Russian occupation of Poland or the European colonization of Africa, Conrad's sympathies—based on his personal experience—would seem to lie with those being occupied rather than with the occupiers.
Furthermore, we learn from Conrad's biography that after the failed insurrection, Conrad's parents were arrested, and Conrad was "sent with his family into exile in northern Russia." To help students understand the trauma of being physically removed from one's homeland, we show Aleksander Sochaczewski's 1894 painting Farewell to Europe, which depicts the Polish insurrectionists—of which the artist was one—stopping by the obelisk marking the border between Europe and Asia on their way to Siberia, where they would live in exile for their role in the "January Uprising" of 1863:
Not only do we learn that Conrad's family had to live in forced exile away from their homeland during his childhood, we also learn that his mother died from tuberculosis while in Siberia, the "harsh climate" being listed as significant contributor to her death. For Conrad, his anti-imperial stance is clearly not just political, but personal.
While Conrad's childhood experience certainly seems to have impacted his perspective on colonialism, it did not prevent him from taking a job as a steamboat captain in the Congo in 1890. His time in the Congo, however, allowed him to see first-hand the atrocities committed in the name of altruism and "progress." According to his biography, he claimed that before going to the Congo, he was "a mere animal," which suggests that his ability to feel compassion and empathy for others was awakened in Africa by seeing the suffering inflicted on fellow human beings through an enterprise in which he was complicit.
To help students understand the depravity that Conrad most likely witnessed in the Congo, we share pictures taken by Christian missionaries in the late 19th century that show African prisoners bound in chains and the severed hands of so-called "rebels" who had allegedly been killed for disrupting Belgian operations in the Congo Free State:
What these missionaries later discovered, however, was that the missing hands were not taken from rebels who had been killed, but from neighboring tribes to account for bullets that Leopold's "Force Publique" had used for their own purposes—most likely hunting game to feed their families. The result was that a slew of native people in neighboring villages were missing hands, which the missionaries documented in disturbing photographs that eventually caused an outcry when published in European and American newspapers:
Conrad's novella was published in serial form in 1899 and played a significant role in attention being paid to the atrocities committed in the Congo, which eventually led to King Leopold II's relinquishing his holdings in the colony in 1908. Conrad's novel also made Europeans question the morality of the entire colonial enterprise, and it is our contention that understanding the author's background and the historical context not only helps students understand "the meaning of the work as a whole," but also gives them a deeper appreciation of the novella's impact and significance in the time period in which it was written.
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