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Exploring the Interpretations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

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Exploring the Interpretations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novella that has the ability to summon numerous commentaries and interpretations. Considered by many as a fictional version of Conrad’s Congo experience as a sailor, it echoed his criticism of European imperialism over Africa. However, the obscure stance of Heart of Darkness — its curious referential indefiniteness which inevitably universalized its appeal– immortalized the cost of its final coherence. This is why, over the years, the interpretations of critics varied from being hailed as a brutally honest portrayal of the exploitation and destruction wielded by the Belgians in Africa to acquiring pot-shots as an outright racist and sexist propaganda in the guise of criticism to colonialism.

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Thus, this paper will try to delve beyond the development of ideas sent out by literary critics on their interpretations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Probably the most perceptive early criticism of Heart of Darkness is Edward Garnett’s anonymous review in Academy and Literature called Conrad’s novel “a consurnate piece of artistic diablerie” and “the high-water mark of the author’s talent”.

[1] To Garnett, Conrad’s close literary friend, the artistry of Heart of Darkness lies in “the acutest analysis of the deterioration of the white man’s morale, when he is let loose from European restraint, and planted down in the tropics as an ’emissary of light’ armed to the teeth, to make trade profits out of the subject races”. [2] Other reviewers preferred to deny Conrad’s assault upon imperialism by situating the novel firmly within the adventure tale genre or else associating Heart of Darkness with Kipling’s fiction, a comparison that particularly infuriated Conrad, in part because Kipling was the chief literary propagandist for colonial expansion. In psychological terms, Conrad seemed to have been selling himself to the British public in a form they would recognize; by masquerading as a native English speaker he bids to assuage any lingering doubts about his own fluency. However, rather than viewing Marlow as a symptom of Conrad’s faltering self-confidence, he is seen as a transitional persona: he functions as Conrad’s passport to the mainstream of British literary culture, but also as a “Trojan Horse” figure, smuggling an outlandish literary voice into the conservative pages of Blackwood’s Magazine.[3]

No doubt, Conrad’s novella is quite difficult to read that British reviewers were a little daunted at the thought of assessing the essence of Conrad’s novel, for Heart of Darkness is, to this day, decidedly not reader-friendly. Its jumbled chronological structure, its distancing narrative framework, its domination by the obtrusive voice of Marlow as interior narrator, and its insistence on vague, superlative adjectives makes it hard for readers to clearly understand what Conrad describes, particularly the elusive phantom of Kurtz — the object of Marlow’s nightmarish quest, who is buried deep in the recesses of the narrative.[4]

Another writer, Baker deemed that The Heart of Darkness is obviously symbolic. It is another of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences.[5] Baker suggested it to be inconclusive in the sense that it is perhaps finally “impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s experience-that which makes its truth, its meaning”. It is also inconclusive because we are made to feel, in the more important  sense that it embodies a central problem  which all men must face and which is  therefore never concluded. The journey is, of course, not merely into the heart  Africa but into the mind of man, which  “is capable of everything-because everything is in it, all the past as well  as all the future.” The problem is the relation and the disparity between appearance and hence the nature, the need, and the value of illusion. It is first stated in the commonplace terms of the conquest of savagery by civilization.

According to Dean, the conclusion of The Heart of Darkness produced a far different effect, although the intention is the same.[6] The symbolism is melodramatic. There are numerous lapses that can be explained in part by reference to limitations in Conrad’s artistic resources. The conclusion of the story, unlike the Congo experiences, was probably invented. Conrad’s weakness in invention has often been noticed. It is implied by his preoccupation with the importance of reading symbolic meaning into actual experience. A wider explanation, however, is to be reached through a study of his use of Marlow. This fictitious narrator is usually explained as a device for securing aesthetic distance between the reader and the plot, thus reducing the impact of Conrad’s romantic material. In The Heart of Darkness, Marlow does serve to interest readers in meaning rather than in brute action, but he also prevents Conrad and the reader from fully experiencing the final tragic effect. It is Marlow rather than Kurtz who returns to affirm his faith. This is unsatisfactory because Marlow has only observed Kurtz’s horror. His somewhat parallel sickness is an inadequate substitute for Kurtz’s complete disillusionment. In fact, Marlow’s moral insight appears to be nearly as penetrating at the beginning of his journey as at the end. It was perhaps inevitable, given his artistic function, that he should be a static character.

Another writer, Ian Watt, claimed that “Marlow’s story can be considered as an abortive quest to escape from the breakdown in society’s modes of reciprocity”.[7] It is a compendium of breakdowns: from the ignominious collapse of Enlightenment values in the Dark Continent and the wreckage of imperial dreams of progress in the luxuriant Congolese wilderness, to the mental breakdowns of Fresleven and Kurtz and the scuttling of Marlow’s steamer by his own colleagues in a shabby plot to destroy Kurtz. Marlow, our first-hand witness on the scene of this devastation, is professionally committed to the colonial system even as he sees only too clearly the horrors perpetrated in its name. Ultimately, this contradiction caused Marlow’s own storytelling procedures to break down. Writing cedes authority to speech — Marlow is postulated as an originating voice of which the texts are mere transcripts — yet that very speech exhibits many of the flaws and imperfections commonly imputed to writing. Marlow’s presence is no guarantee of determinate meaning; he proves to be, as it were, an obscure, ambiguous, illegible speaker whose narrative “seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river”.[8]

 Moreover, when published in book form in 1902 as the Boer war was ending, the novella imbibed a semblance to criticize the imperialist intervention. As time went on, it was published by Penguin and was reprinted twenty-seven times between 1973 and 1987, no doubt encouraged by Coppola’s version of it as Apocalypse Now in 1979; it is widely reproduced as part of the English literature canon in higher education. Written at the turn of the century just as the high culture/popular culture split was achieving its modern institutionalisation, Heart of Darkness represented a highly cultural novel caught in the act of defining itself against popular culture. It is influenced by H. Rider Haggard’s African novels, especially King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887).[9]

In the movie Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola used the hard-boiled detective formula as a means for transforming the river journey of Heart of Darkness into an investigation of both American society (represented by the army) and American idealism (represented by Colonel Kurtz [ Marlon Brando]) in Vietnam. The river journey in Apocalypse Now is full of allusions to southern California, the usual setting of the hard-boiled genre, with the major episodes of this trip through Vietnam centring around the surfing, rock music, go-go dancing, and drug taking associated with the west coast culture of the time. As a result, the river journey drawn from Heart of Darkness takes the detective and viewer, not through Vietnam as a separate culture, but through Vietnam as the resisting object of a hallucinatory self-projection of the American culture. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen, like Marlow in Conrad’s novella) undergone a river journey, which is both external investigation of that culture and internal pursuit of his idealism. Willard is a hard-boiled detective hero who in the Vietnam setting becomes traumatized by the apparent decadence of his society and so searches for the grail of its lost purposeful idealism. Kurtz represented that idealism and finally the horrific self-awareness of its hollowness. If the hard-boiled detective, denied by his pervasive society even the refuges of nature and friendship with a “natural man” available to the western hero, is forced by his investigation of a corrupt society to retreat into his own ruthlessly strict moral idealism, Apocalypse Now forced the detective into a quest for that idealism itself.[10]

However, as time went on, writers have tagged Conrad as a “racist”. Todorov defined “racism” as “a type of behaviour which consisted the display of contempt or aggressiveness toward other people on account of physical differences” (in Jaffe 1992, p. 76). According to Phil Jaffe, Racist behaviour “exhibits a tendency to dehumanise and objectify that other so that dissimilarity is read as inferiority”.[11] Although Achebe regarded Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist” who saw and condemned the evil of colonial exploitation without being aware of the racism on which it fastened itself, Heart of Darkness through Marlow’s tale refuted these racist imperatives to a great extent, and aimed to deconstruct the imperialist mode of thought, which characterizes the language of race. In fact, there is plenty of evidence of Conrad’s dislike of a condescending attitude toward the natives can be found in his fiction.[12] However, due to the fact that Conrad’s Africa is still exotically conceived and his understanding is governed by contemporary stereotypes, this led him to use some derogatory racial terms and to withhold language from the blacks. Thus, he is condemned as a racist by some postcolonial writers. Although the darkness is European, Africa is presented within the understanding of Conrad’s day, including the brooding jungle, the magnificent black woman, and cannibalism. This contradiction between Marlow’s humane and advanced views as a liberal and his depersonalization of the Africans he meets can be accounted for by Conrad’s own ambivalence on the issue of colonialism.

Another semblance of racism could be analysed as Conrad portrayed the British and American imperialists as progressive. Those who hold the land and dislike the coming of the railway over their lands are seen as adversaries who retard progress. Lord (1998) argued that in choosing the most sensitive member of the ruling class to acknowledge exploitation while simultaneously discrediting the political movements that arise in response to this injustice, Conrad circumvented the very point of view that would have the greatest credibility in relating not only the history of the mine but also the history of the insurrection of the indigenous people.[13]  The nationalist government is cast in the role of villain though its program to nationalize the mine and to get rid of foreign speculators is both justifiable and reasonable, and endorses liberal principles. Conrad reproduces only a fragment of the document. Montero’s victory speech is full of ellipses and descriptive comments. It is never reported. Instead, we are given descriptions of the orator’s gestures, the crowd’s roar of approval, and the narrator’s depreciatory comments.

For Bergenholtz, she indicated that much of the recent criticism has focused upon the role that women play in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For some critics, the work is antifeminist, and both Marlow and Conrad are guilty of sexism. She said that it is not clear “whether or not Heart of Darkness is a critique of male heroism or is in complex complicity with it.”[14] But as Jeremy Hawthorn had noted, many critics have simply “ignore[d] the fact that it is Marlow rather than Conrad who argues that women should be kept in that ‘world of their own’”.[15] Although a great deal of critical attention has been focused upon the three “main” women in the novella— the Intended, the African woman, and Marlow’s aunt—far too little attention has been paid to the “Two women, one fat and the other slim,” who “[sit] on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool” in the waiting room of the Company’s Brussels office.

Despite the skewed views emanated by Conrad in Heart of Darkness and the negative reviews that the novel got in the recent years, the novella is still worth reading because of its universal theme. Until now, the world still contains so many dark places that “darkness” might be considered a kind of common denominator, the underlying basis of all our identifications for elements found in Conrad’s novel. For Conrad, he translated his journey as an unmitigated disaster. He was disgusted by the ill-treatment of the natives, by the vile scramble for loot. In his notebook, he recorded a series of unsavory details¸ the horrid smell from a dead body lying by the trail, arguments with carriers, the lack of water, the heat, mosquitoes, the shouts and drumming, a skeleton tied to a post. What this means is that we share with all humans not just a capacity for savagery, but a common vulnerability of people to become called savage.


[1] Karl, Frederick R. and Davies, Laurence (eds.). The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad 1898- 1902. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 417.
[2] Ibid. p. 132.
[3] Greaney, Michael. Conrad, Language, and Narrative. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 60.
[4] Orr, Leonard and Ted Billy, eds. A Joseph Conrad Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999, p. 66.
[5] Baker, E.A. The History of the English Novel, London, 1939, p.  42-43.
[6] Dean, Leonard F. Tragic Pattern in Conrad’s “the Heart of Darkness”, College English, 6, no. 2. (Nov., 1944): 100-104.
[7] Watt, Ian. Joseph Conrad: Alienation and Commitment, in The English Mind: Studies in the English Moralists Presented to Basil Wiley, ed. Hugh Sykes Davies and George Watson Cambridge University Press, 1964, p. 245.
[8] Ibid., p. 83.
[9] Easthope, Antony. Literary into Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1991, p. 82.
[10] Anderegg, Michael, ed. Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991, p. 70.
[11] Jaffe, Phil. Africa and Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’ Conrad’s Literary Career, ed. Keith Carabine, Owen Knowles, and Wieslaw Krajka. East European Monographs, no. CCCLIII. Lublin: Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, 1992. p. 75-90.
[12] Achebe, Chinua. An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’ A Practical Reader in Co,temporary Literary Theory. Eds. Peter Brooker and Peter Widdowson. London: Prentice Hall, 1996, p. 261-71.
[13] Lord, Ursula. Solitude versus Solidarity in the Novels of Joseph Conrad. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998, p. 258.
[14] Bergenholtz, Rita A. “Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Explicator 53, no. 2 (1995), p. 102-106.
[15] Hawthorn, Jeremy. Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment. London: Edward Arnold, 1990, p. 191.

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Exploring the Interpretations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (2016, Aug 27). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/exploring-the-interpretations-of-conrads-heart-of-darkness/

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