Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness narrates how Kurtz, an intrepid explorer who entered the jungle in search of untold riches, succumbed to debilitating diseases before descending into madness. Throughout the nineteenth century, concerns about the deleterious effect of tropical environments on the health and sanity of Europeans were commonplace in both medicine and popular culture. During the era of exploration, colonization, and empire building, physicians observed [End Page 358] high mortality rates from what we now know were nutritional deficiencies. Prior to the turn of the twentieth century, they had witnessed how disease regularly decimated colonial settlements and noted that most new arrivals would be dead within a few years. At the time, physicians ascribed these high mortality rates to the incompatibility of the tropical environment and white, European bodies, which originated in temperate zones. After a number of breakthroughs in tropical medicine around the turn of the twentieth century, these concerns were replaced by fears about pathogens that caused malaria, dysentery, yellow fever, and other debilitating illnesses. Even though physicians in the twentieth century were no longer concerned about the climate per se, they continued to ascribe mental illness, in particular tropical neurasthenia, to climactic factors. Popular concerns about the dangers of tropical living continued unabated.
Medical apprehensions about life in the tropics had been present in medical writings for over a century when Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published in 1899. Following Conrad’s example, novelists frequently elaborated on the intricate relationship between the tropical environment, disease, and madness. In Jungle Fever, Charlotte Rogers explores how medical understandings of health, disease, and mental illness in the tropics were reflected in literary works. Nineteenth-century romantic novels valorized the powers of nature and bucolic environments to restore disordered minds; these narratives of tropical madness emphasized the sinister powers of pristine nature on the European mind and included elaborate references to medical and psychiatric theories. In her innovative study, Rogers analyzes how medical theories have informed novels from a variety of national contexts. She details how the bountiful nature of tropical forests represented the opposite of civilized society, how inhabitants of these forests were imagined as humans in their most primitive form. These novels portrayed the tropics as sites of disease, decay, degeneration, and madness that overwhelmed and ravaged European explorers.
After an extensive analysis of Conrad’s novel, Rogers explores these themes in four additional novels from four different national contexts: France, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba. To supplement her literary analysis, she explores the interests the authors of these novels had in medical matters, their exposure to medical theories, their experiences with illness, and their interactions with physicians. The strength of her work lies in her detailed attention to both medical and literary works by tracing the influence of the former on the latter. Progressive Latin American intellectuals generally sought to domesticate the landscape and its peoples, leading to tentatively positive appraisals of both. South American physicians were more optimistic about the viability of civilization in the tropics. Instead of narrating an irreversible descent into madness and death, the Latin American novels analyzed by Rogers detail the transformative experiences of explorers in tropical forests who all return to tell the tale.
Rogers’s analysis of common literary tropes of intrepid explorers descending into madness in the jungle provides a welcome addition to the psychiatric thought in non-Western contexts and furthers recent work on the history of tropical neurasthenia. Rogers adroitly analyzes how medical and broader concerns about the [End Page 359] dangers of living in the tropics—epitomized by the experiences of white bodies in tropical forests—were common among physicians and the wider public but were articulated in different ways in different national contexts. By focusing her attention on South American novels, she successfully expands her analysis beyond Europe and North America.