Modernist Features in Heart of Darkness

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Heart of Darkness, a novella written by Joseph Conrad, was first published as three installments in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 following his journey into the Belgian Congo. The work is revered for its examination into the frightening depths of human corruption, and social disdain under the guise of a metaphor of a journey to the heart of Africa. The following articles are literary criticisms addressing colonialistic bias, atmosphere and the narrative frame, and mimesis in the story.

In Frances Singh’s criticism, “The Colonialistic Bias of Heart of Darkness,” he aimed to explore the connotation of the metaphor “heart of darkness.” He argues that, although Joseph Conrad meant to indict the entire colonial enterprise, the figurative expression ultimately reproduces an ethnocentric world view, which characterizes Africans as morally inferior people. The question the author intended to address was, to what extent are Marlow’s attitudes Conrad’s? Singh noted that in 1902, Conrad said that the story was “mainly a vehicle for conveying a batch of personal impressions,” and he described it as “experience pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case (Singh). Conrad does not directly tell the story; a character named Marlow narrates it. Singh begins providing evidence and support for his assertion by separating Marlow’s views of colonialism into three classes and quoting text.

The first —a direct criticism— is illustrated by his description of the Roman colonization of the ancient English Isles, “ The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much,” (Singh). This point was made to underscore Marlow’s ability to recognize injustice when it came to the conquering of his homeland. The second is paradoxical, in the sense that he references colonialism as the “noble cause” and “the pioneers of progress,” (Singh). The third is the use of metaphor to attack the subjugation. He likens Brussels to a whitewashed tomb and the offices of the trading company to a house in a city of the dead. The most suggestive of all comparisons is the title itself. Singh suggests that on one level, it indicates the geographical location of the Belgian Congo and the color of its inhabitants. On another, it refers to the unethical practices of the colonizers, their exploitation of the natives, and suggests that the real darkness is not in Africa but Europe. Singh states that “Marlow’s sympathy for the oppressed blacks is only superficial,” (Singh).

Marlow feels sorry for them when he sees them dying, but when he sees them healthy, practicing their customs, he feels nothing but loathing. Such as, when he saw Kurtz participating in tribal ceremonies. The problem with Kurtz is not that Kurtz “went native,” but that Kurtz perverted the customs of the tribe. Thus, the appropriation of the natives’ way of life is the wrong symbol for Kurtz’s depravity. Marlow chooses it because he does not separate tribal customs and corrupt practices. If Conrad shares Marlow’s prejudices, then Heart of Darkness was written, consciously or unconsciously, from a colonialistic point of view. Singh also notes Conrad’s subsequent writings that support that Marlow reflects Conrad’s attitude. The author concluded, “I do not wish to suggest that Conrad intended Heart of Darkness as a vindication of colonialistic policies or that the story should be removed from the canon of works indicting colonialism,” but that Conrad was a man of his times, and Marlow reflected that (Singh).

In Anna Abramson’s criticism, “Joseph Conrad’s Atmospheric Modernism: Enveloping Fog, Narrative Frames, and Affective Attunement,” she argues that for Conrad, the atmosphere is a way of gesturing at something larger than any individual experience. The striking persistence of meteorological and affective atmospheres throughout the story—the “brooding gloom” that recurs across narrative frames, and geographical locations—reveals atmosphere to be fundamental to the setting (Abramson). Abramson argues that it is not the text’s “impressionistic descriptions” that contribute most directly to the construction of the atmosphere, but rather the particular way that Conrad experiments with narrative framing (Abramson). The author further explains that the outer frame narrative sets a striking atmospheric tone for the setting of the Thames, by allowing descriptions of mood and the weather to bleed into each other: “the air was dark above Gravesend… a mournful gloom brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth,” (Abramson).

The embedded story of Marlow’s trip along the Congo uses similar language such as, “stillness of an implacable force brooding”, “mournful stillness”, and “greenish gloom,” (Abramson). Conventionally, the reader expects frames to erect a sort of partition between components of a narrative, yet Conrad’s atmosphere overflows all such divisions, rolling slowly through the text, much like literal fog. The author suggests that because the narrative sections divide while still also remaining permeable, these frames provide a structural “model of attunement,” (Abramson). She furthers this idea by using an analogy of tuning a musical instrument, which gives one a way to think about how the atmosphere of each section strikes a chord with the others in full harmony. Abramson proposes that attunement can be applied to “reading atmospherically,” a practice that seeks to replace “epistemological” decoding with affective attunement (Abramson). However, these discoveries introduce distinct ethical problems: because Conrad’s colonial violence is embedded in the environment rather than events —an all-encompassing fog— it is difficult to see how one could ever step outside of it.

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Modernist Features in Heart of Darkness. (2021, Jul 05). Retrieved from

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