Heart of Darkness – Narrative Ambiguity and Imperialist Anxieties in the Joseph Conrad Novel

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 of the underlying fears, such as hidden facets of the individual psyche, which, to a varying degree, appear to have informed its narrative. The article also considers genre issues and narrative structure, revealing some of the literary influences and stylistic techniques which characterize the novel.

Perhaps one of the greatest changes to fiction of the 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 certain Gothic techniques. Perhaps most notable of these being the exotic settings: the Congo and African jungle. Whereas in 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 of 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 have a more distant literary antecedent in that of the medieval quest-romance. The figure of Marlow travelling upriver in search of Kurtz echoes the tales of knights and their chivalrous adventures. However 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; however his renunciation of civilized codes of behaviour has subsequently led him to committing unspeakable atrocities.

A pervasive romantic theme in the novel is that of the double, or doppelganger. Whereas many novels of the late nineteenth-century utilized fantasy in their depiction of characters with dual personalities, such as 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 life, yet in the prospect of an imperial adventure, he is able to discard his official identity and indulge his rebellious side. For the European colonial, transformation and transgression were easily accommodated in the wilds of the ‘dark continent’ during the nineteenth-century. However it is critical to realise that Conrad doesn’t endorse this view, for his novel actually subverts the imperialist discourse of much adventure fiction of the day.

Kurtz could be considered a degenerated individual, as although he isn’t clinically insane, he would appear to be ‘morally insane’; as evinced by Marlow’s grisly encounter with the severed heads of the man’s victims, and the reflection “They only showed that Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various 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 more awful than any manifestation of evil, a vacuum where there can be no comparators, where nothing matters: “It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core” (III, p.164-165). Kurtz’s dying utterance of “The horror. The horror” (III, p.178) is one of the novel’s great ambiguities as 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 and the linguistic and narrative forms in which they can be represented. The tale itself is framed as if it is 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 of the intensity and unity of effect associated with a short story. The nature of the tale is profoundly complex, the prolonged overlapping between outer and inner narrator distinguishing the narrative from more generic adventure tales, for example, there are 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 of the ‘telling’ as to the tale itself.

Heart of Darkness employs a richly orchestrated visual structure. Even the forest which flanks the Congo is not mere vegetation: it is given a face, lungs and thoughts: “vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings” (II, p.136), and the river itself is likened to a snake that can ‘fascinate’ and ‘charm’ in true exotic fashion. This subtle anthropomorphism is also apparent 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 as the breath is drawn in a long aspiration” (III, p.167).

There are two sets of horrors which confront Marlow, the first being his acceding to the greed of the company, the second being his acceding to the incomprehensible power of the wilderness, a power to which Kurtz has already succumbed. One of the many ways in which Conrad integrates these horrors is through the recurrent imagery of dark and light, black and white. The blank space on the map that so fascinated the child Marlow has changed into a ‘place of darkness’, and it is 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, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” (III, p.187).

The formal structure and narrative content of Heart of Darkness is ultimately distanced from the realist aesthetic of much nineteenth-century literature. However, it is 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 of the effect of alien and exotic environments on European explorers.

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