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Heart of darkness: a freudian analysis

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Heart of darkness: a freudian analysis


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Sigmund Freud created the exact technique of analyzing the human psyche, or the mind, which we now call psychoanalysis. In 1926, Freud emphasized the value of using the method when he stated in his book that

“As a depth psychology, a theory of the mental unconscious, it can become indispensable to all the sciences which are concerned with the evolution of human civilization and its major institutions such as art, religion and social order” (Roberts, on Freud).

            In view of this necessity of using Freudian concepts in analyzing art and social order, we take the cue of the value of using these concepts in analyzing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Human Darkness as the Id

            Throughout the book, the theme of darkness innate to all members of the human race is given emphasis to. This theme is exemplified through Kurtz as a character, through the cruelty and greed of the “civilized” Belgian people as embodied by the Company, and through Marlow himself when his sense of understanding to the plight of the Africans eventually ebbed away (Wikipedia, Themes and Motifs).

            Taking Freud’s concept of the id as that part of the human psyche which represents the innate desires and impulses of people without the awareness of restraint in accordance to what is moral, we can view what is considered as “darkness” in the novella as the “id.” The darkness which is innate to mankind are specified in the novella as greediness and cruelty, which are manifested through the abusive nature of the Belgian colonizers towards the colonized Africans. We can say that the desire to dominate at the expense of cruelty and the desire to own which can extend to greediness are both basic human instincts. We are only aware that it is not proper to pursue the realization of both desires through the moral concepts fed to us by the society. This then translates to the superego concept, which the ego considers along with the id. In these respects, we could view Conrad’s concept of the human darkness as the id.

Primitive Honour as the Superego

            In his novella, Conrad injects the concept of existentialism by expounding the idea that when people do not apply some measure of restraint to their innate darkness, they will be too absorbed by the “destructive cycle” in time, and this will cause their lives to become dissolved into nonsense. Throughout the book, he highlights the concept of people’s “primitive honour,” which is that part of the human psyche that must act as a restriction to their basic and dark impulses (Wikipedia, Themes and Motifs).

            Taking into account Freud’s concept of the “superego” as that part of the human psyche that looks into the decisions of the ego and asserts restrictions with its function as a judge of actions and intentions or as a “conscience” (Roberts, par 9.2), we can view Conrad’s concept of primitive honour as the superego. Both the concepts of primitive honour and superego act as the other end  of the human darkness and the id, respectively. Both also acts as restrictions to the innately dark human impulses. However, both concept are shown as absent in the colonial world which is the setting of Conrad’s novel. And this absence results to “madness,” for the world and the characters.

Ego: Darkness vs. Light

In the same way that the theme of darkness is ever present throughout the novella, it is also contrasted to “the light.” Deducing these symbolic terms into layman’s terms arrives at the constant struggle between the evil and the good. Though this is partly exemplified through conflicts between people who may symbolize good and evil, it is much more manifested in the conflicts between the innate intentions of the major characters.

            Meanwhile, Freud’s concepts imply that the id and the superego are in the same constant battle as the darkness and the light. While the id is subjected to restrictions, the superego becomes the factor of control (Roberts, Notes). Between the conflicting factors in the novella is the morality or the soul of the characters, which serves as the deciding factor. So is the role of the ego between the id and the superego. It is what the human psyche arrives at after balancing the influences of the two extremes.

Madness: Ego without the Superego

In the novella, both the characters Marlow and Kurtz find themselves faced with the antagonism of the “civilized” portion of themselves versus the yearning to forget all about the morality concept of the “civilized” society when they leave that society and stay at the African society (Spark Notes, Key Facts).

Though the “civilized’ society is also viewed as “darkness” in the novella, it still functions as a superego in the context that it restricts individual impulses to the boundaries acceptable to the social mores. When the characters are allowed to follow their impulses alone as a result of being isolated form the society that dictates the norms, the power becomes too big for them to handle. Absorbed by it, they arrive at a state which Conrad terms as “madness.” Thus, madness is tightly connected with the event of imperialism (Spark Notes, Themes, Motifs & Symbols).  Therefore, we can view madness in Freudian terms as a result of the absence of ego and the overwhelming influence of the id over the ego.

The Characters as Freudian Concepts
Aside from the prevailing themes and concepts in the novella, the characters themselves that Conrad has created can be viewed in the likeness of Freud’s concepts. Marlow can be the embodiment of Ego, Kurtz the Id, and the people of Company as the Superego.

As explained in the preceding section, the “civilized society” can be viewed as the superego. And as the people of the Company are an extension of the “civilized” society, we can attribute the superego character of the civilized society to the people of the Company, in one way. They inject the social mores of the colonizing country in the story to the other characters. On the other hand, Kurtz can be viewed as the id since he represents the abandonment of social mores and the pursuant of impulses to the extent of what the civilized society calls as “barbarism.”

 Between these two extremes, the major character of the novella serves as an intermediary. Marlow is shown to have identified with both extremes, yet to have balanced them both. Through his character, the readers are guided to the view of both ends (Spark Notes, Character Analysis). Therefore, the character Marlow can well be viewed as an ego in the story, the deciding persona which takes both the experiences with the Company and Kurtz with him to his last days.

Marlow: From Consciousness and Unconsciousness
The character Marlow is also discussed in the book to have shifting consciousness. At one point, he was conscious with the plight of the Africans. At another, he was not. This property of Marlow’s consciousness finds harmony with Freud’s concept of consciousness and unconsciousness. In His Outline of Psychoanalysis, Freud mentions that

“…consciousness is in general a highly fugitive state. What is conscious is conscious only for a moment… the conscious perception of our thought processes… may persist for some time, but they may just as well pass in a flash. Everything unconscious that… can thus easily exchange the unconscious state for the conscious one, is… described as ‘capable of becoming conscious’ or as preconscious…” (Roberts, par 4.6)

            Therefore, Marlow’s sense of understanding for the natives can be viewed as a sense of consciousness for that aspect, which is dictated by his ego. However, he loses that consciousness later on in the novella. His id then takes into action, as Marlow’s unconscious natural impulses surface and tempts him, proving itself “capable of becoming conscious” when he sees the world in Kurtz’s perspective. This then takes the form of preconsciousness.

Conrad vs. Freud: A View of Human Psyche

Throughout the above analysis, it has been shown that Joseph Conrad’s view of the human psyche is not very different from that of Sigmund Freud’s in some aspects. These are particularly shown in Freud’s concepts of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego, as well as Consciousness, Unconsciousness, and Preconsciousness. Though different in coinage, Conrad’s concepts of the Human Darkness, the “Primitive Honour,” and his characters affirms that the human mind or psyche is influenced by these concepts. And though the ideal state of the human psyche is the balance and harmony among these concepts, this balance can be failed to achieve in reality. If this happens, “madness” occurs as displayed in Conrad’s novella through the event of imperialism where the “primitive honour” has dissolved into nothingness. In the real world, Freud argues that the absence of this healthy balance between the id and the superego in the ego can result to anxieties or mental disorders in the extreme case.

Further, as Conrad’s view of the human psyche has been reflected by his writings, it can be said that he views the human psyche as a product of life’s processes. For him, this involves maturation through shedding the illusions of the youth, and then an actual “trial” that will bring about an individual to review his long held beliefs and identity. When an individual triumphs over the crisis, he will be able to rebuild his identity. Moreover, he will be able to acquire moral ideas which are based on recognizing his weaknesses, and those of the people around him. This will lead him to think that interdependence is necessary for man to live (Galloway, par 1).

In contrast to this, Freud explains the human psyche as a result of the development of the physical apparatus or the brain, and of the development of the innate impulses or the id in response to external factors. He argues that at birth, and throughout childhood, the id is the sole part of the human psyche (Roberts, par 1.3). The external world then causes biological and conceptual changes in the id, giving rise to the ego (Roberts, par 1.4). This developed part will then function for self-preservation, and will further develop through stored experiences or memory, flight from intense stimuli, adaptation to moderate stimuli, and active efforts to make the external world advantageous to the individual. Internally, the ego will preserve the individual by controlling the id (Roberts, par 1.5a). Similarly, the superego will cause developments through external moral influences (Roberts, par 1.7b).

 In view of all of these, it can be said that Freud’s perspective of the human psyche is different from that of Freud’s in the aspects of the processes that brings about the development of the human psyche. The biological aspect of this development is also a distinct difference of Freud’s view from that of Conrad’s. Conrad, however, views the development of the human psyche in romantic terms, and through an individual’s trials and experiences.

In addition, Conrad’s concept of a moral strengthening through “actual” trial can also be compared with Freudian concepts. For Freud, a moral strengthening and esteem reconstruction can be achieved when the ego triumphs in restraining the impulses of the id that are antagonistic to the superego (Roberts, par 9.3). This establishes a contrast between the externalistic concepts of Conrad versus the internalistic concepts of Freud. While for Conrad the development happens in the external environment through “actual” trials, the trial and achievement happens internal to the person for Freud, through battles between the id and the superego.

References Cited

Freud, S. 1926, The Question of Lay Analysis. Reprinted in two Penguin paperbacks: Two Short Accounts of Psychoanalysis (quote on pages 167 to 168) and The Essentials of Psychoanalysis (quote on pages 63 to 64).

Galloway, Shirley. “Joseph Conrad: The Sense of Self”. 1996. 13 Nov. 2006 < http://www.cyberpat.com/shirlsite/essays/conrad.html>.

Project Gutenberg. “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad”. EBook #526. 9 Jan. 2006. 13 Nov. 2006 <www.gutenberg.org>.

Roberts, Andrew. SHE13: SHE Document 13 on Freud. Containing extracts from Freud, S. 1938 “An Outline of Psychoanalysis”.  13 Nov. 2006 <http://www.mdx.ac.uk/www/study/SHE13.htm>

SparkNotes. “Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad”. Literature Study Guide. SparkNotes Online. 13 Nov. 2006 <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/heart/context.html>.


Cite this Heart of darkness: a freudian analysis

Heart of darkness: a freudian analysis. (2017, Jan 20). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/heart-of-darkness-a-freudian-analysis/

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