Critical Approaches

English-Fall 2008

blog#2 – Historical/Biographical Approach October 5, 2008

                                                                 ‘Journey Up The River’

Well, somewhat of a difficult blog topic this week. Unfortunately I am insanely busy and still haven’t completely decided what approach I am going to use for my critical approaches paper.

         As far as applying a critical approach to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I seem to favor a historical/biographical approach. Basically what this focuses on is the authors; what kind of lives did they lead, what was going on in their life at the time their work was written, what was happening in the world around them at the time? Personally, before I read any text or watch a film that is assigned for any English class I research the author and the era in which the work was written; I find that it generally allows me to gain a better insight on what the text may have been trying to portray. However, I do see the problem with doing this; I go into the text with perhaps more knowledge than necessary, I may have created somewhat of a bias or perception of the text that was not meant to be there.

In our assigned book, “Texts and Contexts,” the traditional view of history and biography is explained… “The traditional view of history and biography assumes that there are “facts” that we can know, with some degree of certainty, and as readers we simply need to gather them (if we can), and fit them together (if we can), and cautiously relate them to literary works (if we can)” (p.145). I love the repetitive use of “if we can,” which is so true….what we know depends on what we have access too. The reason that I favor the Biographical/Historical Approach is that I believe that it mirrors what may have been happening in society at the time. I enjoy reading a text from this perspective because it allows me to gain insight on a specific period through the author’s point of view.
When applying this approach to ‘Heart of Darkness,’ I mostly focused on the impact of colonialism. Through research I found that Conrad drew from his own experiences in the Congo. The impact of colonial experiences in Congo was devastating to the Natives resulting in the mistreatment of the natives of Congo, and the harsh exploitation of them and their resources. This exploitation is supported by historical facts. For a quick example, “Leopold II declared the Congo Free State his personal property in 1892, legally permitting the Belgians to take what rubber they wished from the area without having to trade with the African natives. This caused a rise in atrocities perpetrated by the Belgian traders”(Wikipedia). Now I know, I know, it’s from Wikipedia, but it is a fact and I was just trying to give you a quick example. It is interesting to me that no matter how much we look at this as inhumane and unacceptable; it still happens in societies today. This leads into another reason why I favour a historical approach; it allows us to examine how much things have or haven’t changed over time.


So that was just a quick intro in the historical/biographical approach and a brief overview of how I applied it to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. I know we all have a lot of reading to do in these blogs so I will keep it fairly short and sweet for everyone!

         Please take 5 minutes to watch this video; it’s a presentation of images depicting the impact of colonialism.

Just a couple quick questions to end on; What do you think are some possible pros and cons of a historical/biographical approach? Do you think that focusing on the author or the historical context in which the work was written could possibly take away from the text itself?

Thank you, and I look forward to reading everyone else’s blogs this week!






7 Responses to “blog#2 – Historical/Biographical Approach”

  1. zombiesquee Says:

    That really opened up both the historical and biographical approaches for me; I’ve never really touched on either of those to a serious extent, and you explained the concept quite nicely. It turns out all along I’ve been leaning toward this approach without even knowing it, because I also have a habit of looking up information on the author every time I read a book. Your use of the approach on Heart of Darkness is great! I mean, historically, the events are awful and all, but knowing that information really brings in a new vibe for what was going on at the time.

    As for the pros and cons of this approach, I think one major con is that the approach relies entirely on reality and is fairly objective. This works quite well for some novels, such as this one, but if you were to apply it to more abstract texts it may end up actually drawing away from several possible meanings within the text, you know? It all really depends on the text being analyzed.

    I’m looking forward to your next blog posts! =D

  2. cosmoqueen24 Says:

    Meaghan, I think the historical/biographical approach adds to the text. Having knowledge of a specific time line increases one’s understanding of the content of a text or a movie.
    ps. I thought you are busy…your making me look bad by putting research material into your blogs…tee hee…just kidding. I enjoy reading them…knowledge is power!

  3. heatherjervis Says:

    Great blog. The video was a great addition as it really gives focus to the effects of colonialism in Africa.
    I agree that reading up on the author does help with the understanding of a text most times, however sometimes when we are armed with this information I think we tend to infuse more into the text, whether or not it is really there. If we know that the author has a particular bias or passion sometimes I think we look for it when it may not exist in a particular text.
    Great blog…This text really lends itself to this theory.

  4. jaysunlockheart Says:

    I believe the type of literature is the defining factor that decides whether a piece can be interpreted without a historical or biographical background. If we did not know when Heart of Darkness was written, the same messages would be evident, however our interpretation would be completely different on the same subject. Pretend we assume the novel was written just a few years ago. Of course this book would seem racist and imperialistic. A few scholars suggest that Conrad was a racist and that his work should not be deemed an important piece of literature. I would have assumed the same if I wasn’t aware of the historical background and time line of the setting of the story. As much as Marlow was a part of the suppression in the Congo for merely participating in the venture, this was a common thought among his society. It was common to have a slave or African housekeeper. Slavery was a part of their society.

  5. jessf67 Says:

    Hey Megs! This blog is very informative as, prior to this class, I rarely focused on the historical/biographical approach. However, I do believe that relating the text back to history and the author’s biography can really empower the reader’s interpretation of the text. By being aware of the historical background of a text, reading can become “fun” in a sense, because the reader will be able to draw connections immediately. Although I agree with Jason when he states that this type of literature is important in novella’s such as Heart of Darkness, I do not believe that every single piece of literature is based on history or the author’s experiences. I cannot remember for the life of me the name of the text, but last year in intro. to english, we discussed a fairly well-known short story, and part of our class discussion was on how this piec’s was simply a piece of literature, written to simply entertain it’s readers and make them think! Despite this, it is true that the historical/biographical approach has great significance and allows for various connections to be made!

    Great Job Megs you are the smartest girl I know! haha

  6. tc100067449 Says:

    Meaghan; Thank you for adding further perspective on historical and biographical approaches. This along with the presentation only further solidifies my position on what I feel Conrad was trying to convey; that which the true madness came from the misstreatment and the imperialistic attitudes of Europe during this dark period. Great vid clip as well
    Thank you very much

  7. katiedesro Says:

    Hi Meaghan, you’ve done an excellent job summarizing the biographcal/historical approach and applying it to Heart of Darkness. I too often find myself researching an author and the social structures of their time period before I start reading their work (especially if it’s for school). I often read literature under the belief that they are reflections of the values and beliefs of the author. I think this can apply to Heart of Darkness, as Conrad is using his own experiences from the Congo to illustrate his story. I also find that knowing that Conrad witnessed the abuses in the Congo first hand, created a whole new level of depth to Heart of Darkness.

    The youtube clip you included is excellent. It really portrays the negative effects of colonialsm, both in Conrad’s time and in our own (ie. fast food chains).

    As for your question, the pros to the histroical/biographical approach would definately be the extra knowledge a student would have behind the events taking place in the story. Of course, this extra information is also double-edged, which is where the cons come in, as it can give reader’s a biased perspective of what they read.

    Excellent blog 🙂

    -Katie D.

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