Tuesday, 29 September 2015

“Chaos was the law of nature, order was the dream of man”: on the presentation of order and chaos in The Iliad (c.850BC), The Franklin’s Tale (c.1395AD) and Heart of Darkness (1899AD)

The concept of chaos, and its struggle with order, is central to how cultures through history have perceived self, culture, love, death and society. Authors and literary figures have long been preoccupied with the nature of existence, and about the narratives we impose upon our chaotic existence in order to assign it meaning. These texts offer different interpretations of chaos, but also contain some inherent similarities.
That chaos is something both profoundly significant in, but also intrinsic to, the natural world is accepted to varying degrees by all three texts. Marlow in Heart of Darkness likens his journey to the Congo, ‘a place of darkness’ (12) and therefore symbol of natural disorder, to a journey to ‘the centre of the earth’ (18): chaos lies in the very kernel of our world. The finest expression of such imagery comes in the description of sailing up the river Congo: through the prehistoric nature of the surroundings, Conrad implies such natural chaos is a constant which has always existed. This is evident in the phrases ‘going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world’ (48) and ‘we were wanderers on prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet’ (51), as if Conrad is likening our supposedly ordered modernity to a pre-human age without any system or society. His choice of words is highly suggestive of war or strife, reminding us of warring empires of antiquity such as might be found in The Iliad: ‘vegetation rioted on the earth’ (48) and ‘the big trees were kings’ (48). Similarly, the jungle attains a near-ghostly pall: ‘the forest stood up spectrally’ (37) says Marlow of the woods beyond the Central Station, recalling imagery dating back to Dante’s Divine Comedy of woods representing danger and the unknown. It has taken a journey to such a vivid location to awaken Marlow’s anagnorisis: Conrad compares the Earth as we ordinarily perceive it to ‘the shackled form of a conquered monster’ (51), but in such a primordial, inchoate setting, he sees the world as ‘a thing monstrous and free’ (51). That the creature Conrad picks as appearing in the river is an ‘ichthyosaurus’ (43), an extinct reptile, is suggestive once more of the timelessness of this chaos.
The one major emblem of chaos in The Franklin’s Tale, a work born out of a vastly different cultural context to Heart of Darkness, is again natural and seemingly immovable. The emblem of chaos is a row of jagged rocks on the coastline which unbalances the wife fearful for her husband’s safety. Chaucer’s portrayal of her stunned reaction to the imposing rocks is memorable and vivid:

‘But whan she saugh the grisly rokkes blake,
For verray feere so wolde hir herte quake
That on hire feet she myghte hire noght sustene’ (859-861)

These natural features have always been an existing part of the coastline, but Dorigen feels they cause upset and discord in the world she knows, to the extent that she is in danger of collapsing. She goes on to address God, lamenting the existence of such a needlessly destructive force in a world she finds comprehensible and ordered. She claims the rocks do no one any good (‘ther nys yfostred man, ne byrd, ne beest’ (874)) but threaten human happiness (‘see ye nat, Lord, how mankynde it destroyeth?’ (876)). She weeps,

‘But, Lord, thise grisly feendly rokkes blake,
That semen rather a foul confusion
Of work than any fair creacion
Of swich a parfit wys God and a stable,
Why han ye wroght this werk unresonable?’ (868-872)

Not only do the rocks symbolise a separation of the ordered marriage of Arveragus and Dorigen, which is both right and just in the eyes of the Christian God, but they also seem a blot on ‘creacion’ and in Whittock’s words, ‘symbolic of all disaster…the incompatible elements…the meaningless chaos’[1]. Even in Chaucer’s devout medieval England, the strength of these fearful objects is enough to make Dorigen question the ultimate expression of order, her benevolent deity. Though the rocks perform a slightly different function to Conrad’s jungle – the former partitions that which is meant to be together whilst the latter is a corrupting background to the chaos within human beings – they are both emblems of how the natural world is complex, contradictory and independent of human thoughts and wishes.
The Iliad, where European literature begins, is a mostly anthropocentric tale, dealing almost entirely with warring soldiers and human relationships, but where Homer conveys the chaos of the Trojan War he does so through similes and metaphors connected with the natural world. There are dogs; vultures and eagles; locusts and wasps; snakes devouring sparrows; lions crushing fawns; wild-boars ‘who turn in high fury and charge the hounds that have chased them’ (205-6); and the warriors who ‘rushed in like wolves’ (199). The indiscriminateness of natural chaos is also invoked: Agamemnon’s assault on the Trojans was ‘like a virgin forest when a raging fire blown hither and thither by the swirling wind attacks the trees, and thickets topple headlong before the onslaught of the flames’ (201), whilst Diomedes ‘stormed across the plain like a winter torrent that comes tearing down and flattens out the dykes. Against its sudden onslaught, nothing can stand’ (94). The world is ruined, when muscular, virile young warriors are described as ‘a more enticing spectacle to the vultures than to their wives’ (201).
Another indication of natural chaos in The Iliad occurs in Book XX. Enraged by the number of corpses in his waters, the river God Xanthos ‘rushed on [Achilles] in spate…the angry waters rose and seethed around Achilles’ (386), but his progress is halted by Hephaestus. The resulting dual between the waters and Hephaestus’ flames is a clash of two of the Greeks’ four basic elements. Hephaestus calls up ‘a terrific conflagration’ (389) and ‘attacked the River with his dazzling flames’ (389), to the extent that ‘lovely Xanthos was consumed by fire and saw his waters going up in steam’ (389). This is cosmic disorder, chaos at the most basic level, where even the elements are ruled by man’s warring instincts. That the river is an angry and vengeful figure is itself suggestive of personification, whereby human attributes are assigned to inanimate objects: here it seems as though chaos is human and affects the river, rather than being something natural which contaminates human beings. Such a complex sequence of imagery is continually interwoven throughout the text, suggesting that in such times man reverts to his basest, most animalistic, most carnal impulses and glories in slaughter. It is implicitly suggested that the world is fundamentally ruled by chaotic principles.
These texts do not dispute that the natural world is a chaotic one, in which beast fights beast and soldier wars against soldier. The different ways in which this is presented are notable, however. In The Iliad, as with the rage of Xanthos, the natural world is less an instigator of chaos than a reflection of or subject to the chaos of human emotions and desires – the Judgment of Paris, jealousy, and the whims of the gods, are what ultimately cause and prolong the Trojan War. In Thompson’s words, ‘the disorder of human passion spreads outward, intensifying like a plague, affecting the gods themselves and disrupting the normal order of the cosmos.’[2] This is in stark contrast to the more ordered world of The Franklin’s Tale, in which the humans themselves do not cause or bring about the obstacles within Chaucer’s plot; though they prolong the difficulties, it is ultimately a flaw in nature which prevents the characters from getting what they want. Heart of Darkness relies on a late-19th-century conception of the universe which, driven by the philosophies of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, sees the world as essentially formless and without meaning: this is a broader canvas upon which both human conflicts and the natural world perceived in the Congo are depicted. Thus the works identify the sources of chaos differently.
The Iliad shows us an ‘extraordinary state of human/divine crisis’[3], because the barriers between humans and gods have been broken; it begins with the Achaeans in disarray and disunity, furious with each other.  Indeed, the very first word of the epic is μῆνιν, ‘wrath’. This artistic choice introduces one of the principal themes: the consequences of a lack of self-control. The wrath in question is Achilles’, and it is the central force of chaos within the story, the passionate fury which will bring about the deaths of many characters.
In Book I, Agamemnon’s ‘discourtesy’ (23) offends Chryses, a priest of Apollo, who then prays to the god for aid and revenge. This in turn causes a ‘deadly plague’ (23), during which ‘day and night innumerable fires consumed the dead’ (24) – a plague a conventional symbol of disorder and chaos. The plague is the subject of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, and the peace between them is short-lived, since the quarrel has spurred Achilles on to request the aid of Zeus through his mother Thetis, asking ‘to help the Trojans, to fling the Achaeans back on their ships, to pen them in against the sea and slaughter them’ (33). Achilles is requesting the massacre of his own people, and sets into motion the Plan of Zeus. This has upset the logical balance of the universe, and started off a chain of events which will cause most of the deaths in the poem.
There is thus a paradox at the core of The Iliad, which is that order can be achieved, but only arising from, and pursued through, chaos. Zeus’ great plan brings about order, but at a colossal cost in human life. In return for his wrath, Achilles must pay with the death of Patroclus; in return for the murder of Patroclus, Hector must pay the price with his own life; in return for killing Hector, Achilles must die himself. As Thompson notes, ‘all these “prices” help to re-establish the balance account between human beings and the gods, between heroic wrath and fraternal sanity, between war and peace’[4].
The order in Conrad’s work does not take the form of a divine plan; indeed it is presented as almost entirely false. Marlow becomes dissatisfied with imperialist ideology, and he finds the obvious abuses of the Congolese, those ‘abominable terrors’ (101), particularly hypocritical and distressing. He also recounts meeting the various officials in the Congo, men who are surrounded by such scenes every day, but who have adjusted themselves to the ‘horror’ (101). It is implied by Conrad that though it is morally reprehensible, it is perfectly possible and indeed human, to maintain an attempt at order within this chaos. Marlow himself visits an office ‘to be out of the chaos’ (26) where though much is ‘in a muddle’ (26), all the books are arranged ‘in apple-pie order’ (26), the comforting homemade ring to the phrase lending it an additional, sickening baseness when one considers the crimes outside. Similarly the exclamation ‘what I really wanted was rivets’ (40) expresses the desire of the colonialists for something binding together the work they are doing with their own society’s values – something to give them meaning. The upkeep of menial tasks allows the chief accountant and other characters to feel linked to the civilised world, but as we are shown throughout the novella, it is entirely illusory.
In Homer, gods act both as figures that reinforce order and unity, and figures that further the chaos, and which of the two they perform seems to depend on their whims or their personal preferences with regard to the heroes. TS Eliot, recalling the first time he read The Iliad, wrote ‘the gods were as irresponsible, as much a prey to their passions, as devoid of public spirit and the sense of fair play, as the heroes. This was shocking’[5]. Athena acts to restrain Achilles’ anger during the debate, urging ‘give up this strife’ (28), but later aids Achilles in killing Hector. Hera acts to stop the plague but later ‘bemuse[s] the wits of aegis-bearing Zeus’ (261) to distract him while Ajax massacres the Trojans. Despite the fact that we are emphatically told ‘the gods are greater than men’ (386), they appear slaves to the same desires and the same whims as the chaotic human characters. As the King of the Olympians, Zeus imposes order on the universe; but the order he imposes seems little more than ‘constant aimless alternations of glory and misery’[6]. He does not rationalise what he does, and many men who are ‘gallant’ (107), ‘highborn’ (212) or ‘great’ (309) are killed irrespective of their merit. This is best expressed in Book XXIV, in which Achilles eloquently describes the two jars of Zeus, the one containing goodness and blessings and the other containing evil and miseries, the one balancing the effects of the other. That Zeus’ inscrutable fancy can determine the ‘varying fortunes’ (451) of humanity assures all characters feel at certain points both satisfaction and surety but also the horror of chaos. This fact leads Achilles to conclude, addressing Priam, ‘you must endure…lamenting for your son [Hector] will do no good at all’ (452). The sense of hopelessness in this response to a world enslaved to the mood of a vengeful Olympian leads Shivone to state ‘it is not surprising that some have called Achilles the first nihilist’[7].
Certainly, to a degree, order is presented as an illusory dream in The Franklin’s Tale. Aurelius, with his constant ‘search for fulfilment and happiness’[8], is ignoring the real world of the ‘grisly feendly rokkes blake’ (868). This is shown in his fantasy, with its ‘forestes, parkes ful of wilde deer’ (1190), ‘knyghtes justyng in a plain’ (1198). It is only a dream, as we can tell in the lines ‘that he hym shewed his lady on a daunce, on which hymself he daunced, as hym thoughte’ (1200-1201). Such a belief is entirely illusory; he even prays to many of the gods represented in The Iliad – including Apollo and Neptune – and he is described as ‘servant to Venus’ (937), a phrase which conveys both his lusty demeanour and his enslaved state to ‘the gods of one’s own desires’[9]. For Dorigen, too, order is ‘the dream of man’, since she aims to remove the rocks which were a blot on ‘creacion’, and in so doing dreams she will find herself in a ‘verray paradys’ (912). As we know, to entirely remove such concrete objects is impossible – she herself admits ‘it shal never bityde’ (1001).
Yet in Chaucer’s ordered universe, the rocks are removed, and paradise is regained. Order is restored by the end of the story. The central characters’ selfish impositions of order, which for their conditionality and self-interest Whittock calls ‘inflexible’[10], are only possessive and distasteful, as we see in Aurelius’ threatening ‘ye woot right wel why ye bihighten me’ (1327); they are shown by Arveragus (the symbol of true order) that through Christian charitas all obstacles can be overcome. Critics such as Gaylord, Huppé and Hodge have suggested that the Franklin’s representation of ‘gentillesse’ (1527) and order is ultimately exposed by Chaucer as shallow, but it could be argued this is a modernist perception of his intent rather than a fair literary judgment; elsewhere in the work the Franklin is compared to ‘Seint Julian’ (340) and Chaucer’s usually reliable narrator declares that there ‘was nowher swich a worthy vavasour’ (360).
Heart of Darkness debunks the notion that humans have created a meaningful order. Conrad persistently undermines the notion that a colonial mission brings order to a chaotic world. From the beginning Marlow feels that the Congo River, ‘resembling an immense snake uncoiled’ (12), has been tempting him. The sentence ‘the snake had charmed me’ (12) makes clear the link between this colonial enterprise and the temptation in Genesis. The initial impression is that Africa, the Dark Continent, is something primitive and barbarous, demeaning the noble Europeans. The offended Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe certainly thought this the central message of the novella, claiming the book advises, ‘Keep away from Africa, or else!’[11] For a white man to find himself in the Congo is, we sense, the prelude to a kind of disaster of identity. Cut off from social mores he recognises, he is literally in the ‘midst of the incomprehensible’ (9): his atavistic, chaotic surroundings make no sense to him.
The central figure of Kurtz is the personification of the chaos in the Congo: this is ‘beyond contention’[12]. He is presented to us as a degenerate and dehumanised being – taken by the ‘awakening of forgotten brutal instincts…the memory of gratified and monstrous passions’ (94). Marlow’s expectations are heightened before meeting him, to the extent that Kurtz ‘was just a word for me’ (39): he is a blank template on which Marlow projects all his hopes of a figure who can lend stability to the chaos. Even when he discovers what Kurtz has done, Marlow is not truly able to criticise him. Indeed he emphatically states of the crimes ‘that was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried it with a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words’ (67-8). Conrad is fully aware of the status as words as vital tools for man to communicate with man, to avoid the chaos of mythical tales such as the Tower of Babel. Kurtz has the enviable gift of being able to write and speak well, to persuade others – and Marlow is so impressed that he is able to forget the same man’s words: ‘exterminate all the brutes!’ (72).
Marlow’s ultimate sense that Kurtz remains an admirable figure amid his chaos is perhaps the most crucial element of the work, for it exposes to us the central delusion even of the figure who recounts the story. He appreciates Kurtz because the latter ‘had summed up. He had judged’ (101) – because Kurtz has been able to recognise the hypocrisy of European colonialism, and the chaos it upholds, by crying the words ‘the horror! The horror!’ (100). Marlow believes this is a ‘moral victory’ (101) but even within this interpretation of events he sees Kurtz’s carnal, base impulses merely as ‘pure, uncomplicated savagery’ (84). It is easier for him to see Kurtz as a fallen man, a great man who Africa corrupted: indeed he needs this vision for his own sanity.
In fact, many critics refer to Kurtz’s perception of the essential formlessness of the world, and of his own insignificance. This moment of clarity allows Kurtz to perceive what eludes Marlow: that anarchy rules human beings and that society is only a temporary, easily shaken attempt at mitigating disorder – ‘the dream of man’. Gilbert claims Kurtz ‘sees the world as a formless place devoid of inherent meaning’[13]. Conrad agreed with Nietzschean, Schopenhauerian philosophies that reality is nothing but our perceptions and the individual projects himself onto an entirely blank canvas. Since, as Raval points out, ‘there is no such thing as the ‘self’ beyond culture’[14], the Congo awakens in the Europeans a feeling that they are unable to understand the world beyond the meaning they create for themselves: they are forced to accept anarchy. In such a context, Kurtz’s eloquence is meaningless, his thoughts rendered ‘unspeakable’ (89): language, the tool which humanity uses to create meaning, is itself inadequate. Conrad is suggesting that the narratives we assign to our lives are entirely false, yet paradoxically they are essential for our continued existence. The order he criticises is meaningless yet necessary, defined by Gilbert as ‘frustration regarding the self-sustaining nature of ideology’[15]. That this is a universal phenomenon is something acknowledged by Conrad; Henthorne points out the similarity between the opening and closing sections describing London at dusk. Little has changed despite Marlowe’s experiences, save that he has recognised what he does not want to admit: that ‘this also has been one of the dark places of the Earth’ (7). Even London is ‘ominous’ (7) and swathed in ‘brooding gloom’ (7), and in the final words of the novel, the narrator feels that even this bulwark of civilisation, the centre of Empire, ‘seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness’ (111). The Congo is no more chaotic and meaningless than the colonialists’ own civilisation, but it takes the cultural dislocation for them to perceive a fiercely unknowable truth which they are ultimately incapable of embracing. The truth in question, in Conrad’s world view, is that society, which Gilbert calls a ‘savage imposition of order’[16], is fundamentally an artificial construct we fall back on to distract us from our ultimately meaningless, barbaric existence.
In conclusion, the texts all present the world as wholly or partially chaotic. In The Franklin’s Tale, chaos is overcome despite temptations and human desires; there is never doubt that problems are temporary and simply overcome. In The Iliad, it is human actions which perpetuate the cycle of chaos, although some hope remains of an ultimate redemption and restoration of order. Heart of Darkness exposes feeble attempts at maintaining order as mere play-acting, and reveals the chaos inherent in humanity. Neither The Iliad nor The Franklin’s Tale conclude so pessimistically, but maintain that the tribulations of life, though drastically different in the two works, do not prevent order being eventually achievable.


1.      Achebe, Chinua, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's ‘Heart of Darkness’, Massachusetts Review #18, 1977.
2.      Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Franklin’s Tale,
3.      Chesterton, G.K., Chaucer, Faber and Faber, 1949.
4.      Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness,
5.      Eliot, T.S., Virgil and the Christian World, in ‘The Sewanee Review’, Vol.61, No.1, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953.
6.      Gilbert, Geoff, Narratives of Deception: Confronting Disorder in Heart of Darkness, Emory University, 2012.
7.      Homer, The Iliad, translation by E.V. Rieu,
8.      Kearney, Daniel, The Nature of Love and Marriage in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, St Austin Review, July/Aug 2012.
9.      Lewis, C.S., Preface to Paradise Lost, Oxford University Press, 1961.
10.  Merchant, Paul, The Epic, Routledge, 1971.
11.  Pearsall, D.A., Chapter ‘The Canterbury Tales’ from The Penguin History of Literature: The Middle Ages (edited by W.F. Bolton), Penguin, 1993.
12.  Raval, Suresh, The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction, Routledge, 1986.
13.  Shivone, Stephen, Signs of Order in the Iliad, University of Dallas, 2009.
14.  Thompson, Diane P., ‘Achilles’ Wrath and the Plan of Zeus’, adapted from Ch 1 of Human Responsibility and the Fall of Troy, Diss. CUNY, 1981.
15.  Whittock, Trevor, An Introduction to Chaucer, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

[1] Whittock, Trevor, An Introduction to Chaucer, Cambridge University Press, 1984.
[2] Thompson, Diane P., ‘Achilles’ Wrath and the Plan of Zeus’, adapted from Ch 1 of Human Responsibility and the Fall of Troy, Diss. CUNY, 1981.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Eliot, T.S., Virgil and the Christian World, in ‘The Sewanee Review’, Vol.61, No.1, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953.
[6] Lewis, C.S., Preface to Paradise Lost, Oxford University Press, 1961.
[7] Shivone, Stephen, Signs of Order in the Iliad, University of Dallas, 2009.
[8] Kearney, Daniel, The Nature of Love and Marriage in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, St Austin Review, July/Aug 2012.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Whittock, Trevor, An Introduction to Chaucer, Cambridge University Press, 1984.
[11] Achebe, Chinua, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's ‘Heart of Darkness’, Massachusetts Review #18, 1977.
[12] Gilbert, Geoff, Narratives of Deception: Confronting Disorder in Heart of Darkness, Emory University, 2012.
[13] Gilbert, Geoff, Narratives of Deception: Confronting Disorder in Heart of Darkness, Emory University, 2012.
[14] Raval, Suresh, The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction, Routledge, 1986.
[15] Gilbert, Geoff, Narratives of Deception: Confronting Disorder in Heart of Darkness, Emory University, 2012.
[16] Ibid.

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