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Heart of Darkness and The Use of Literary Genuis

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Studying a book as complicated as Heart of Darkness can leave one overwhelmed with choices. How to respond to the classism, racism, and psychosis in the book is just one of those choices. Another choice is what theory to use to figure out the deeper meaning in the book. The modern student looking at this book might be driven towards a Marxist or feminist response; the more discerning might decide psychoanalysis is best. Using any of these theories would be impossible without a clear understanding of the language used in the book and how it has changed over time, thus changing the way the book is interpreted through the other three theories studied in this class.

In looking at Heart of Darkness beyond what is simply said, language takes on a new aspect. The differences lie in the connotation and denotation of certain words in the text, which change over time. For example, the word “savage” is used in one form or another throughout the text. The denotation, the literal meaning of the word (Fromkin 473) is fierce, ferocious, cruel, untamed, uncivilized, etc. (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It comes from the Latin word “silva” and evolved over time into the Middle English word we know today (Harper). However, the connotation – the implied meaning of the word (Fromkin 473)- in Heart of Darkness is just the opposite. Conrad implies freedom an innocence in his use of the word “savage” in various places in the text.

In the first part of Heart of Darkness the word “savage” is primarily used to describe England as it must have seemed to the more “civilized” Romans when they invaded (Conrad). It implies a fearful, dark place that is full of violent customs and at the same time it is also used to describe mystery and wonder. “There it is before you – smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ‘come and find out.’” (Conrad 20). The word “savage” in this case is used to imply an untamed place, untouched and freeing; an innocence which harkens back to creation and how the world must have looked to early man as he moved from place to place.

Taken in context in several places in this book, the savage has an air of innocence, of freedom that the more civilized white man lacks. “at the same time I noticed that the crowd of savages was vanishing without any perceptible movement of retreat, as if the forest that had ejected these beings so suddenly had drawn them in again…” (Conrad 84). The natives were cruel, violent, untamed in the eyes of the company Marlow worked for, but Marlow saw them as a part of the world around them. Indeed, he saw a grace in them, an innocent stateliness and freedom that he, as a member of a civilized society, could not attain. Marlow mentions having to restrain himself from joining them in their dance and abandoning his post, he mentions their beauty and their emotional freedom, and he mentions the unnaturalness of the “civilized” clothing and mannerism that the company imposed upon native employees, stating that they are “improved savages” (Conrad 52)and yet manages to imply that improvement wasn’t needed in the first place . In fact, he almost expressed a desire to be able to reach the heights of savagery that these people had reached, and thus become free to express his true emotions without the constraints of civilization binding him.

Psychoanalysis of the same word in various forms repeated several times in the text would lead a student to believe that Conrad, through Marlow, was expressing a desire to return to the roots of humanity where the “simple savage” was the norm and civilization not even on the horizon. This return would allow him to act upon the repressed desires that a “civilized man” must keep well buried. Indeed, the very idea that man could act on the id in his personality, the basic needs (Brizee, Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism Psychoanalytic Criticism (1930’s-present)), with no regard for the rules that come with civilization is an appealing and freeing one. One must imagine Conrad feeling the constraints as he brought life to Marlow, and perhaps placing himself in the place of Marlow so that he could experience some of the savage freedom for himself.

While all four theories studied in this class clearly work well for this book, studying the language in Heart of Darkness with an eye for the changes of connotation and denotation from the day it was written to the present (Brizee, Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, Postmodernism (1966-present)) clearly provides a primary building block for all the other theories, particularly psychoanalysis, which would be lost without language.

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Heart of Darkness and the use of Literary Genuis. (2019, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from
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