The explorer in English fiction

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Although there have been a number of critical works on the novel given over to topics such as adventure, colonization or the politics of the frontier, a comparative study of novels in which an encounter with unknown territory holds central importance has till now been lacking. My aim in this thesis is to analyse and relate a variety of texts which show representatives of a home culture in confrontation with terra incognita or unfamiliar peoples. There is, as it turns out, a strong family resemblance between the novels that fall into this category whether they belong, like Robinson Crusoe, Coral Island or Lord of the Flies, to the "desert island" tradition where castaways have exploration thrust upon them or present, as in the case of Moby Dick, The Lost World or Voss, ventures deliberately undertaken. There are frequent indications, too, that many of the novelists in question are aware of working within a particular, subsidiary genre. This means, in sum, even when it comes to texts as culturally remote as, say, Captain Singleton and Heart of Darkness that there is firm ground for comparison. The emphasis of this study is, in consequence, historical as well as critical. In order to show that many conventions which are recurrent in the fiction inhere in the actual business of coming to grips with the unknown, I begin with a theoretical introduction illustrated chiefly from the writings of explorers. Travelogues reveal how large a part projection plays in every rendering of unvisited places. So much is imported that one might hypothesize, for the sake of a model, a single locality returning a stream of widely divergent images over the lapse of years. In effect it is possible to demonstrate a shift of cultural assumptions by juxtaposing, for example, a passage that tricks out a primeval forest in all the iconography of Eden with one written three centuries later in which - from essentially the same scene - the author paints a picture of Malthusian struggle and survival of the fittest. And since the explorer is not only inclined to embody his image of the natural man in the people he meets beyond the frontiers of his own culture, but is likely also to read his own emancipation from the constraints of polity in terms of a return to an underlying nature, the concern with genesis is one that recurs with particular persistence in texts dealing with exploration. With varying degrees of awareness novelists have responded, ever since Defoe, to the idea that the encounter with the unfamiliar mirrors the identity of the explorer. Their presentations of terra incognita register the crucial phases of social history - the institution of mercantilism, the rise and fall of empire - but generally in relation to psychological and metaphysical questions of a perennial kind. The nature of man is a theme that proves, indeed, remarkably tenacious in these works, for a reason Lawrence notes in Kangaroo: "There is always something outside our universe. And it is always at the doors of the innermost, sentient soul".