Heart of Darkness and Modernism
In 1899 a Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad wrote a novel called Heart of Darkness. This novel is a narrated voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State in the so-called heart of Africa. Charles Marlow, the narrator, tells his story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the River Thames. Throughout this book we can see how this can be considered a Modernist novel because of its use of language and general “darkness” that is portrayed throughout the novel. In the eyes of many people Joseph Conrad can be looked at as one of the innovators of Modernism in fiction and we can see why through many examples in Heart of Darkness.
To fully understand how we see Modernism in this novel we have to know how it started. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, some rebellious human beings came up the real crazy idea that you can break away from traditional ideas and rules and do things how you want to do them. One of the biggest being the idea of “God” being the reason for life. Instead, people began to create their own meaning for certain things which brought a sort of meaning into there lives. This then began to challenge the idea of normality and that even made its way into books and changed the way people wrote. In words that relate to literature Modernism is a style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms. Modernist writers like Conrad played with the conventional ideas of literature, expression and really looked at how it could be written. They tried to stay away from the regular fundamentals of literature. They tried hard to explore fragmented styles and tried to play with the complexity of the characters. They really focused on analyzing characters and the characters individuality which is very different from romantic and realistic literature.
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We can see how this is Modernist novel right from the start, the language that is used to describe the setting and some very important scenes are some what thick and unclear. Throughout the novel there is a profound usage of words such as inconceivable, inscrutable, gloom, etc. Rather then just using black and white terms to define characters like black and white, the entire novel feels like its in different shades of gray. They way the events unfold in the book, takes the reader through many events that can be read as unclear. We can even see that the actions just like the language echoes tones of gray. We can also see light come into play, but it is somewhat always associated with darkness and how the light gives way to the darkness as Marlow says, “Sunlight can be made to lie.” By this Marlow has learned from his experience on the Congo River that is as black and white as it seems. Marlow knows now that he can’t trust the sunlight at all, like he would before this journey because it might mislead him.
Through out the text repeatedly we can see light giving way to darkness, like how when the sun sets sane people go crazy, and how the white ivory introduces a brutal trade. We also get several different examples of black and white merging, Brussels as a “white sepulcher”, the ivory deep in the black jungle, the white capped women knitting with black wool, and the “pale head” dressed in “all black”. We also see this when Marlow compares white men to black men and stops with saying that these men are all the same. Another example of light and dark is when Kurtz thinks he is in pure darkness because he can’t tell the difference between light and dark anymore. ““I am lying here in the dark waiting for death”. The light was within a foot of his eyes.” To Kurtz light and dark are the same because he will forever remain in perpetual darkness whether it is in the Congo or when he dies.
In an article written by Pericles Lewis about Heart of Darkness they state that “Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is an early and important example of modernist experimentation in English fiction. In the voice of his frame narrator, Conrad provides a crucial image for understanding the symbolism of modern literature when he explains that the stories of Marlow, the narrator of most of the novella, differ from those of other sailors: “The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut… [But to Marlow,] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” Heart of Darkness does not reveal its meaning in digestible morsels, like the kernel of a nut. Rather, its meanings evade the interpreter; they are larger than the story itself.”
This piece from the article shows that Conrad wasn’t just sticking to the regular way of writing he was looking for different ways to write and for different ways to portray a message. In a nut shell this the epidemy of what modernism is and through various ways Conrad does a very good job in showing that. In Pericles Lewis’s article it states “ One reason for the centrality of Heart of Darkness to the history of modernism is its openness to interpretation: Marlow’s journey to central Africa to confront the power-mad Kurtz can be interpreted as a political statement about imperialism and race, a critique of bureaucracy, a journey to the center of the self, a descent into Hell, or a voyage up the birth canal. No single interpretation exhausts its meaning.” This is a very true statement because there are so many ways at looking at this and so many ways at looking at each interpretation like the article says and the novel didn’t stick to the mold of traditional writing at that time.
There are also many different characteristics that you must look at that play a very profound part in Modernism that we also see come into play in Heart of Darkness. The characteristics that we can look at are juxtaposition, irony, the work is often written in first person, the body of work feels more like a rant than a story line with a beginning, middle and end. Also, Modernist writing is more interested in getting the writers ideas, opinions and thoughts out to the reader. We see how juxtaposition plays a role in the novel because even though evil is Conrad’s subject, Africa isn’t merely representative of that whole theme. Contrasted with the so called “dark” continent of Africa, is the light of the cities of Western Europe. This juxtaposition shows that Africa isn’t necessarily bad or that western Europe is good. We see irony in the novel when Marlow needs his aunt to secure him an appointment seeing that women in the novel are ineffectual. In the novel they don’t really do anything which have very little effect on Marlow and gets to the point where he has no respect for them at all but is ironic because it takes a woman to get him a job.
We also have to take into account the time period that the novel was written and the historical information about the writer, this all helps put some of the events of the novel into a historical perspective. It doesn’t state the exact time the novel is being written but people have suspected around the 1890’s. This assumption is based on the fact that Marlow, the main character is based on Conrad himself, who was a steamboat captain in the interior Congo during the early 1890’s, and this book was written right after his return. During this time period the British Empire was very heavily focused on African colonization and the trade. In this novel the center of it is based on the ivory trade along the Congo River. The novel also clearly states that the British thought the Africans were savages who need to control themselves, which we can see through the attitudes of the white men.
All of this is relevant to Modernism because these are all very big issues but instead of doing the same cookie cutter writing that was common in this type of era Conrad decided to break the mold and try a different approach and we can see this through his use of language through the whole novel comparing everything from light and dark, we can see that other people have noticed this and can clearly state how he does this, and by looking at the different characteristics and the time period in which the book was written we can clearly see how there is a Modernism approach to the novel.