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Heart of Darkness, written by Polish-British author Joseph Conrad was published in Blackwood’s magazine in three parts and was released in February, March, and April of 1899. The novel follows Marlow a sailor, who embarks on a journey up the Congo River to see Kurtz, a reputed ivory trader. As Marlow journeys through the Congo, he is confronted by widespread inefficiency and brutality in the Company’s stations. The region’s natives have been forced into the Company’s service, and they suffer as a result of excessive workload and harsh treatment. The literature of modernism has been described as when writers, “liberate themselves from the constraints and polite conventions of Victorianism.” Victorianism refers to a period of writing in England during the reign of Queen Victoria. Victorianism focuses on themes like the struggle of the working class and the triumph of right over wrong. In comparison, modernist literature began in the late 1800s mainly in Europe and North America and is typically characterized by a break with traditional ways of writing, in both poetry and prose. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is well-deserving of its place within modernist literature due to Conrad’s stylistic choices such as the large use of symbolism throughout the novel, his use of a first-person narrative point of view, the use of very few major characters and the nonlinear plot of the novel. Additionally, Heart of Darkness represents modernist literature due to the ideas it conveys such as a focus on the inner workings of characters, as well as the reoccurring themes of absurdism throughout the novel.
Modernist writers incorporated symbolism within their texts as they believed that reality was multi-layered and that everyday items had hidden meanings and representations. Conrad’s frequent stylistic use of symbolism aligns with this feature of modernist literature. Before leaving for the Congo Marlow notes that the city, he is in reminds him of a, “whited sepulchre”, which is a structure or monument in which a person is buried. The phrase, ‘whited sepulchre’ is a reference to the Book of Matthew from the Bible within which Matthew describes whited sepulchres as a structure that is beautiful on the outside but contains horrors on the inside. Therefore, this image is symbolic and represents the deceitful Belgium imperial project which presented a front of peaceful expansion for the betterment of the colonized whereas in reality the colonized were hunted, enslaved, and tortured for years. Symbolism is again implemented by Conrad when Marlow arrives at the offices of the company there, he encounters two elderly women knitting: “Two women, one fat and the other slim sat on straw bottomed chairs, knitting black wool.” These two women symbolise the mythological Greek Moirai who spun, measured, and cut the thread of someone’s life. These women being at the company’s headquarters represents how the company is now measuring out Marlow’s life and can cut it at any moment; they have a mystical and sinister control over his life as he travels to the Congo. Marlow also describes the women as, “guarding the door of darkness” as well as including the phrase, “Morituri te salutant.” This translates literally to, we who are about to die salute you. This phrase in combination with the symbolic imagery of the door of darkness foreshadows the danger, both physical and emotional that Marlow may encounter in Africa. Another key symbol in the novel is the river that Marlow travels along as he journeys further into the jungle toward Kurtz. The journey down the Congo River represents the descent into hell archetype similar to that of Dante’s inferno symbolises the transition from Western civilization into the unknown of the jungle as well as representing Marlow’s difficult transition from naivety to knowledge about the truth of the imperial project and its effects on both the colonizer and the colonized. This effect is furthered by the fact that the river is difficult to traverse upriver towards the inner station and towards Kurtz: “But the snags were thick, the water was treacherous and shallow.” This difficulty when traveling toward Kurtz symbolises Marlow’s difficulty to understand the situation around him. This is contrasted by the relative ease at which he journeys back downriver as he has now reached an understanding of the events he has experienced after meeting Kurtz. This is demonstrated in the way Marlow now resembles, what the frame narrator describes as Buddha: “Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha.” This shows Marlow has reached an understanding of his experiences in the Congo and the imperial project as the word Buddha means enlightened one or awakened one. Conrad’s frequent implementation of symbolism throughout his novel is a stylistic feature that is also common within the subgenre of modernist literature which shows Conrad’s novel is of a similar nature to modernist writing.
Modernist literature is also largely written in the first-person narrative point of view, and it was also common practice to write a story in the first-person with multiple characters to add further meaning to a story by offering a variety of viewpoints. Conrad adheres to this stylistic choice in Heart of Darkness by also using two first-person narrators, Marlow who tells the story from the Nellie, and the Frame narrator who recounts the story told by Marlow to the reader. All first-person narration is unreliable in its nature because the first-person narrator speaks solely from their subjective point of view. Because of this, Marlow as a narrator is unreliable however the reader is inclined to believe most of the things that he describes to them because Marlow does not add excessive details or farfetched occurrences to his story and also Marlow admits to the frame narrator that he lied to Kurtz’s intended about Kurtz’s last words: “I pulled myself together and spoke slowly. ‘The last word he pronounced was – your name.’” This confession to the frame narrator adds credibility to Marlow as a narrator as he has previously said how much he dislikes lies and liars: “You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me.” Although it appears that Marlow is truthful in the retelling of his story he as a narrator is also unreliable in the fact that he does not seem to understand what he experienced in the Congo and as he retells the story to the frame narrator it seems he is still trying to make sense of what he saw there. In the first narratorial digression to the Nellie Marlow asks the frame narrator, “Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?” In this quote, Marlow has a yearning tone and seems to be asking his listeners to help him understand and is asking them if they can make any sense of what happened in the Congo as he seemingly cannot, this effect is furthered by the triad of rhetorical questions that Marlow asks. The frame narrator also recounts the story in the first person, however, because he only retells Marlow’s story with very few sections of his own voice and opinion there is no reason to believe he is not telling the truth or is unreliable as a narrator. The choice by Conrad to use a first-person narrative point of view for both his narrators makes them slightly unreliable by nature however the reader is inclined to believe Marlow and the frame narrator due to Marlow’s inclusion of his lie and he does not add unlikely events to his recount.
Another feature of modernist literature was experimentation with several new writing techniques such as the implementation of nonlinear and disrupted narratives. Conrad uses a disrupted nonlinear narrative structure as a stylistic feature within Heart of Darkness which is created by the use of narratorial omissions and narratorial digressions. The first narratorial omission occurs when Marlow hikes two hundred miles upriver to the central station: “On the fifteenth day I came in sight of the big river again and hobbled into the Central Station.” In the retelling of his story Marlow has shortened a fifteen-day hike into a few short descriptions and has admitted a large period of time. Another narratorial omission occurs when Marlow arrives at the central station and has to spend approximately three months rebuilding and fixing the boat: “That, and the repairs when I brought the pieces to the station, took some months.” These narratorial omissions disrupt the narrative and contribute to a dream-like aesthetic within the novel which can confuse the reader by disregarding large periods of time and also creating a feeling of general obscurity in the narrative which is another feature of modernist literature. Another contributor to the nonlinear plot is the narratorial digressions from Marlow’s story back to the Nellie. Heart of Darkness was released in three parts over three months in Blackwood’s magazine which is possibly the reason for the narratorial digressions which would help readers to remember what had occurred in the previous section of the narrative. The narratorial digressions within the novel are both jumps in time and place as they are digressions from the past in the Congo to the present on the Nellie in London which disrupts the flow of the narrative and contributes to the nonlinear plot of the narrative. A stylistic feature of modern literature can be the use of a disrupted or nonlinear plot, Conrad follows this format in the novel by including narratorial omissions and digressions that work to create jumps in the novel’s time and location as well as contribute to the overall obscurity and dreamlike aesthetic.
One of Conrad’s most notable stylistic choices in Heart of Darkness is his frequent use of minor characters, because of this Conrad has very few major characters which allows him to focus on the inner workings of these few major characters in more detail. The idea of focusing on the inner workings of the individual and the development of their subconscious instead of focusing on a large group of people within a society is a frequent idea within modernist literature. In Heart of Darkness only two characters are ever named which are Marlow and Kurtz all the other characters are named by occupation, culture, or family relation, all of these characters outside of Marlow and Kurtz are unnamed and act as minor characters, and include characters such as the Frame narrator, the Aunt, the General Manager, the Brickmaker, the Pilgrims, the Cannibals, The Savage Mistress and the Intended. Because Conrad only has two major characters, he focuses deeply on them and their internal and subconscious development as characters, he achieves this by comparing them. Marlow represents an intermediate between the extremes of Kurtz and the company and complete anti-colonialism as he as a character is still racially problematic in his values and beliefs. Marlow has classic Victorian values of hard work and independence and holds the belief that these values should be imparted to others. Marlow travels down the Congo river and experiences many horrors of imperialism however he does not allow them to corrupt him, this is evident in the fact that although Marlow falls ill after rescuing Kurtz he survives: “I have wrestled with death…it’s the most unexciting contest you can image…I found with humiliation that I’d nothing to say.’ The fact that Marlow survives shows that he has reached an understanding that the benevolent imperialism embodied by Kurtz is wrong however he is still deeply affected by what he has seen, and, in a way, his mind has been tainted and similar to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner Marlow is now inclined to repeat his story to all who will listen. Kurtz is contrasted to Marlow; he resembles the idea of benevolent colonialism and the idea that he and the company have been doing it for the betterment of the natives. Kurtz embodies the archetype of the evil genius similar to characters such as Faustus from the Elizabethan tragedy Doctor Faustus or Captain Ahab from Charles Dicken’s Moby Dick. While Marlow resists corruption Kurtz succumbs to it and like Marlow falls sick however Marlow survives his sickness because he realises what is happening in the Congo is wrong, Kurtz also reaches this conclusion right before he dies which is shown in his final words, “The horror, the horror’ however he has reached this conclusion to late and therefore dies as a result. Modernist literature is known for using few major characters to allow a focus on individual characters and their development. Conrad stylistically uses a large number of minor characters and focuses deeply on his main characters Marlow and Kurtz and evaluates their emotional and psychological development.
Modernist literature also uses absurdism to represent the strangeness and unpredictability of life. Conrad incorporates this idea of absurdism throughout Heart of Darkness to represent the ideocracy, and futility of the colonial effort. When Marlow is at the outer station, he meets the accountant who complains about the noise of dying natives distracting him: “’ The groans of this sick person,’ he said, ‘distract my attention.’” This comment from the accountant makes the reader revaluate the situation as the comment is so self-righteous and outrageous. To comment on the fact that the sounds of dying people are only distracting represents the whole imperial project and shows the cruelty of the colonization and how the colonizer believed that torture and death were a necessary evil and only a mere distraction in the end goal of getting richer and expanding territory. Another example of absurdism is the French warship that bombs the coastline: “There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts…In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water.” This ship is a prime example of the entire imperial framework which dealt in indiscriminate and unnecessary violence disguised as benevolent colonialism. The absurdism comes from the fact that the ship is firing into nothing and no one, “earth, sky, and water.” Both of these quotes establish the absurd idea of the indiscriminate and unfocused violence of the coloniser. Conrad’s frequent use of absurd scenarios that contribute to the idea that the entire imperial effort is absurd aligns with the conventional focus on absurdism within other modernist literature.
In conclusion, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness is appropriately recognized as a piece of early modernist literature. Modernist literature focuses on the individual and how they overcome difficulties and challenges throughout life and society and the genre allowed writers to express their ideas in more experimental ways than in the past. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness uses many stylistic features and ideas common with the conventions of modernist literature such as the frequent use of symbolism, the implementation of multiple first-person narrative points of view, nonlinear narrative, the use of many minor characters, a focus on very few major characters and their development and finally themes of absurdity. This clear relation between Heart of Darkness and other modernist literature demonstrates that the novel is well-deserving of its place in the prose sub-genre of modernism.
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