setting for a book is as important, if not more important, than the depiction of characters. A detailed depiction of the architecture in a scene often adds to the credibility of the story. In the books Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, architecture is used not only as a scene setter but also as a testament to socio-economic values and cultural beliefs.
Robinson Crusoe, Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart all deal with so called “primitive” conditions as their subject matter. The stories do not take place in a thriving modern metropolis, but in areas well removed from the western eye. This being the case, much of the architecture described belongs to the indigenous people of the stories or the Caucasians who were forced to act as if they were natives because of the lack of “modern” conveniences.
In Robinson Crusoe the main character finds himself shipwrecked on an island he calls “The Island of Despair.” (Chpt 2 p. 1) Once he ascertains that he is going to be responsible for his own survival he begins to fulfill his most basic needs food, clothing, and shelter..” I walk’d about the Shore almost all Day to find out a place to fix my Habitation, greatly concern’d to secure my self from an Attack in the Night, either from wild Beasts or Men. (Chpt2 p. 1) This shows the reader that the primary purpose of the place of shelter is not just a convenience but a fortress as well, directly reflecting the European attitude of the main character.
The architecture (of the habitat) is described because of the importance placed upon it and the safety it would provide. Defoe describes in detail the measures taken by Crusoe to protect himself. Crusoe creates a wall around his dwelling not unlike a castle, with trapdoors and spikes in front of it as a further barrier. (Chpt 5 p. 7) In fact Crusoe takes to calling his home “The Castle” for the rest of the book. Towards Night I fix’d upon a proper Place under a Rock, and mark’d out a Semi-Circle for my Encampment, which I resolv’d to strengthen with a Work, Wall, or Fortification made of double Piles, lin’d within with Cables, and without with Turf. (Chpt 2 p. 1) The fact that Crusoe feels it necessary to fortify himself against the unknown is a reflection of the culture Crusoe brought with him, that of seventeenth century England and its fortification against invaders. Unable to completely give up his culture, Crusoe also builds western comforts such as tables and chairs to accommodate his more aesthetic needs. (Chpt 2 p. 2) Once Crusoe is joined by a cannibal native named Friday he does little to try and learn about the culture of the man, instead he assimilates him into the life of the Castle, creating a little “tent” for him inside the fortress. (Chpt 6 p. 5) Again this reflects the socio economic values of the writer and Crusoe by mirroring the colonialist “manifest destiny” ideology of the time. The case is the same in Heart of Darkness.
In Heart of Darkness, it is interesting to note that the characters use architecture to define “civilized” vs. “non civilized” attributes. “The dwelling was dismantled; but we could see a white man had lived there not very long ago. There remained a rude table – a plank on two posts; a heap of rubbish… And by the door I picked up a book.” (Chpt. 2 p. 4) The story centers around a quest for a lost white man, Kurtz, in the jungles of Africa. Once he is found it is noted that he has lost Kurtz fully assimilated himself into the native culture, lining the western fence around his compound with human heads just like the cannibal natives. This is looked upon with disdain by the rescuers, who feel as if Kurtz has lost his mind. (p. 24) The axiom “when in Rome…” obviously was a foreign concept to the Caucasian party sent to retrieve Kurtz. They attempted to return him to “civilization” as soon as possible. And get him out of his “savage” conditions and dwelling. The author of this story is definitely bringing his own view towards assimilation out in this story by categorizing the “underdeveloped” natives socio-economic systems and culture as savage or uncivilized. Other authors have differing views on what constitutes a civilized society.
Things Fall Apart is different in its depiction of primitive architecture. Things Fall Apart celebrates the accomplishments of the native people, and illustrates the similarities between African and western society.
The Igbo of Africa and their subsequent contact with whites is the basis for the story. The agrarian culture is designed around a system of huts, farms, sacred forests and shrines. Their huts are not described as quaint or rudimentary but as serving a useful purpose, just as important as a western socio-economic system of dwelling. The thatched huts are arranged in an orderly manner within nine villages, with centralized recreation and government areas. Wealthy members of the Igbo are accorded more housing than those of lesser status. (p. 5) A complex communication system was also in place. (p. 7) When the white settlers reached the village with Christendom they cleared a section of the sacred forest and built a thatched church to further their goals. (p. 130) This was a symbolic gesture because it desecrated the sacred land of the Igbo and built a structure that represented the incoming power of the whites on it.
Robinson Crusoe, Heart of Darkness, and Things Fall Apart are all literary works that illustrate the importance of architecture in society. Without the mention of the architecture in the readings the stories would not have been as compelling and the underlying messages provided by the description of the architecture would also remain unseen. The authors are able to clearly state their views towards other cultures simply by the way they portray their dwellings The authors either demean the native cultures (Robinson Crusoe, Heart of Darkness) or present them with a proper sense of respect. (Things Fall Apart)
Architecture is shown to be not only a means to provide shelter from the elements but also as a barometer for wealth, a source of security, a symbol of power, and as a tool for remaining close to ones particular culture or not.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/17/31/frameset.html- retrieved March 10, 2002
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/17/31/frameset.html- retrieved March 10, 2002
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958
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