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Heart Of Darkness - Narrative Ambiguity And Imperialist Anxieties

Author : Bart Nortonn


Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a novel preoccupied with the concept of 'empire'. It also has a rather problematic relationship with the realist aesthetic which was the predominant nineteenth-century literary mode. This article aims to place Conrad's novel within an imperialist context, assessing some in the underlying fears, which include hidden facets of your individual psyche, which, to a varying degree, appear to have informed its narrative. The article also considers genre issues and narrative framework, revealing some of your literary influences and stylistic techniques which characterize the novel.

Perhaps one on the greatest changes to fiction of your late nineteenth-century was the emergence of narrative ambiguity. This is apparent in Heart of Darkness with the outcome of Marlow's quest for Kurtz being anticlimactic and ambiguous.

In terms of genre, Conrad's novel could be regarded as adopting selected Gothic techniques. Perhaps most notable of these being the exotic settings: the Congo and African jungle. Whereas from the late eighteenth-century, Southern Europe was regarded as an alien and exotic region by most English readers, by the following century, the nation's literary gaze had shifted to Africa - the 'dark continent'.

A superficial reading from the novel might regard it as belonging to the popular boy's own adventures and imperialist tales with the author's maritime experiences providing authentic narrative detail. Heart of Darkness could also be thought to possess a much more distant literary antecedent in that with the medieval quest-romance. The figure of Marlow travelling upriver in search of Kurtz echoes the tales of knights and their chivalrous adventures. On the other hand where the heroes of quest-romances and adventure fiction return from their travels essentially unchanged, but having rescued and changed other people, in Heart of Darkness this pattern is reversed, thus indicating a far deeper psychological narrative.

The theme of transgression is apparent in Heart of Darkness, especially if we examine Conrad's text in relation to the Faust legend. Kurtz would appear to have traded his 'moral sanity' in favour of power; nonetheless his renunciation of civilized codes of behaviour has subsequently led him to committing unspeakable atrocities.

A pervasive romantic theme from the novel is that with the double, or doppelganger. Whereas a lot of novels on the late nineteenth-century utilized fantasy in their depiction of characters with dual personalities, for instance Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Conrad's geographically remote setting allowed him to portray a character with antithetical tendencies but in an outwardly realist narrative. Kurtz's behaviour is obviously incompatible with the restraints of European lifestyle, yet from the prospect of an imperial adventure, he is able to discard his official identity and indulge his rebellious facet. For your European colonial, transformation and transgression had been easily accommodated inside wilds from the 'dark continent' during the nineteenth-century. Nonetheless it's critical to realise that Conrad doesn't endorse this view, for his novel actually subverts the imperialist discourse of much adventure fiction with the day.

Kurtz could be considered a degenerated individual, as although he isn't clinically insane, he would appear to become 'morally insane'; as evinced by Marlow's grisly encounter with the severed heads of your man's victims, and also the reflection "They only showed that Mr Kurtz lacked restraint within the gratification of his different lusts, that there was something wanting in him - some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence" (III, p.164). When Marlow follows Kurtz ashore in order to avert the latter's return to 'his' tribe, he realises that the object of his quest has managed to create a moral vacuum far more awful than any manifestation of evil, a vacuum where there can be no comparators, where nothing matters: "It echoed loudly within him since he was hollow at the core" (III, p.164-165). Kurtz's dying utterance of "The horror. The horror" (III, p.178) is one from the novel's great ambiguities because the reader is left unsure as to what the man is actually referring to.

One of Heart of Darkness's most crucial elements is a tension between Marlow's colonial experiences plus the linguistic and narrative forms in which they can be represented. The tale itself is framed as if it's being told, as opposed to written, to a group of listeners within an outer frame, one of whom functions as a sort of secondary narrator. A major effect of this is to provide distance between Marlow and Conrad himself. Being an unusually brief narrative, Heart of Darkness also has something in the intensity and unity of effect associated with a brief story. The nature from the tale is profoundly complex, the prolonged overlapping between outer and inner narrator distinguishing the narrative from extra generic adventure tales, for example, there are actually no clear signals as to where the frame ends and Marlow's story actually begins. The reader needs to pay as much attention to the manner on the 'telling' as to the tale itself.

Heart of Darkness employs a richly orchestrated visual framework. Even the forest which flanks the Congo is not mere vegetation: it will be offered a face, lungs and thoughts: "vegetation rioted to the earth plus the big trees had been kings" (II, p.136), along with the river itself is likened to a snake that can 'fascinate' and 'charm' in true exotic fashion. This subtle anthropomorphism can be apparent while in the scenes with Kurtz, where the natives are described as "vanishing without any signs of perceptible movement or retreat, as if the forest that had ejected these beings so suddenly had drawn them in again since the breath is drawn in a long aspiration" (III, p.167).

There are actually two sets of horrors which confront Marlow, the initial being his acceding to the greed with the company, the second being his acceding to the incomprehensible power in the wilderness, a power to which Kurtz has already succumbed. One in the numerous ways in which Conrad integrates these horrors is through the recurrent imagery of dark and light, black and white. The blank space to the map that so fascinated the child Marlow has changed into a 'place of darkness', and it will be this 'darkness' which now descends upon the adult Marlow and his audience at the novel's end: "The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, as well as the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of your earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky - seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness" (III, p.187).

The formal framework and narrative content of Heart of Darkness is ultimately distanced from your realist aesthetic of much nineteenth-century literature. Nonetheless, it can be important to acknowledge that the novel still draws on longstanding literary conventions and myths. Through the characters of Kurtz and Marlow, Heart of Darkness is consistently preoccupied with notions on the effect of alien and exotic environments on European explorers.


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To find out more about this topic, visit Heart Of Darkness Sparknotes

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Submitted : 2010-12-10    Word Count : 870    Times Viewed: 617