Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Modernism
But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within
itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had for my sins, I
suppose, to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself.
Joseph Conrads short novel, Heart of Darkness, a terrifying psychological investigation into the nature of evil in both the individual and society in general, can in many ways be seen as a bridge between the traditional structures of nineteenth century novels, and the new experimental styles of novel writing that were to become popular during the Modernist period of the early twentieth century. According to several commentaries on the history of the English novel, Conrad should be placed in the same category as writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, all of whom experimented with daring new narrative techniques, previously unseen methods of character accessibility, and revolutionary uses of language in their works. However, although Conrad shared Woolf and Joyces opinion concerning the necessity of looking within the minds of characters in order to access life and truth, the stylistic experimentation found in Conrads work is far less obvious than that of other high modernist novelists. Indeed, Conrad seemed to be aware of the availability of modernist techniques in presentation, yet unwilling to employ the bold new stylistic methods to a great extent in his fiction.
Much has been written about Virginia Woolfs theories concerning the focus of novels and the way in which the modern novelist should attempt to access truth and bring characters to life. Woolf herself outlined her ideas in her 1925 essay Modern Fiction. According to Woolf, novelists should focus on the impressions received by the mind of ordinary characters on an ordinary day, and the novel itself should be an attempt to present these impressions, using any style deemed necessary by the author. Joseph Conrads views on the role of the artist are less well known. As Conrads work precedes that of Woolf by a few decades, it is unsurprising that the stream of consciousness technique of presentation, first discussed with reference to the work of Dorothy Richardson in 1918, is entirely absent from his discussions of novel writing and art in general. However, Conrad, like Woolf and Joyce, was also an experimentalist, willing to break the rules and conventions that had dominated novel writing for almost two centuries.
Conrads Aims as an Artist
As Conrad spent most of his early years at sea working for the French and the English fleet, he was able to experience life in various parts of the world. These exotic locations, particularly the Malay Peninsula (the setting for both Victory and Lord Jim) and the Congo jungle, (the setting for Heart of Darkness) became the settings for his numerous novels. The importance of the geographical location of these settings is of less importance than the use to which Conrad was able to put these unknown parts of the world. By taking characters out of the known world of western Europe, Conrad was able to create laboratory conditions in which he could make his investigations into the nature of man Heart of Darkness, by exposing first Mr Kurtz, and then later Captain Marlow to the savage world of central Africa, therefore serves as a perfect example of Conrads aims as an artist.
Stylistically, Conrad placed great emphasis on the appeal of the artist to the senses of the reader. An artist, if he or she is attempting to reveal the true meaning of a particular event or person, can only reach the secret spring of responsive emotions of the reader, if he or she can appeal directly or indirectly to the readers senses. Conrad therefore, placed great emphasis on the importance of careful sentence construction in giving words their ability to affect the reader. Indeed, the suggestiveness of words can only be brought into play by the unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences
By appealing to the senses of the reader on an aesthetic level, Conrad was attempting to reveal moments of truth that could be discovered in certain events and actions. Despite his deep analysis of the psychological effects of events and places on character, Conrad is still classed primarily as a moralist. The truth was out there to be found and it was the novelists task to reveal to the reader this hidden truth. However, despite their belief in the universal nature of the moral values that they are espousing, moralists still need to focus on certain events, characters and places. Ford Maddox Ford pointed out that Conrads attitude to fiction was that a subject needed to be seized by the throat until the last drop of dramatic possibility was squeezed out of itA novel was to be the rendering of an affair: of one embroilment, one set of embarrassments, one human coil, one psychological progression.
Conrad, stressing that the selection of the subject, despite its importance, was only the beginning of the task, explained that when dealing with the chosen subject, the aim of the novelist was to show its vibration, its color, its form; and through its movement, its form, and its color, reveal the substance of its truth disclose its inspiring secret Furthermore, Conrad not only attempts to reveal the truth to the reader, but also on occasions, places characters in the same situation as the reader. Marlow himself, the narrator of Heart of Darkness, claims that the story that he is about to tell seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me and into my thoughts. The story therefore, working on two levels, not only reveals the truth about Mr. Kurtz, Africa and European society to the reader, but also to a character in the novel; truths about whom are consequently revealed to both the character himself and the reader.
Conrads role as a moralist and his emphasis on the revelation of the truth in all matters would hardly class him as a modernist in terms of artistic approach. The most famous English novelists of the eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, were after all, basically moralists, writing in an attempt to reveal the truth about the society in which they were living. Artistically, it is not Conrads focus which connects him to Modernism, but the structure of the novels in which he chose to reveal his hidden truths.
By placing such emphasis on the necessary focus of the artist (Conrads revelation of the truth and Woolfs analysis of the consciousness), both Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf came to the same conclusion. The consequence of this increased importance of content proved to be the sacrifice of traditional structure. Woolf, criticizing stylistically traditional contemporary novelists such as H.G Wells, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy, called for an abandonment of the traditional structure of the novel.
Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved
off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we
provide. Nevertheless, we go on perseveringly, conscientiously constructing our
two and thirty chapters after a design which more and more ceases to resemble the
vision of our minds..The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but
by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot,
to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability
Woolf therefore, felt free to dispense with the conventions of plot, traditional character analysis and the necessity of events in the novel being probable (see Orlando) in order to focus on the life and spirit of characters that she was trying to recreate in her fiction.
Conrad, despite differing substantially from Woolf in methods of presentation, actually agreed with Woolfs proclamation (quoted above) wholeheartedly. Although unwilling to experiment in his writing to the extent that Woolf would later, Conrad was still aware of the necessity of breaking away from the traditional conventions of novel writing if one was to be a sincere writer. In the preface to his novel, The Nigger of the Narcissus, Conrad explained that,
It is evident that he who, rightly or wrongly, holds by the convictions expressed
above (i.e. the authors duty to reveal the truth) cannot be faithful to any one of the
temporary formulas of his craft. The enduring part of them the truth which each only imperfectly veils should abide with him as the most precious of his possessions, but they all: Realism, Romanticism, Naturalism, even the unofficial sentimentalism, all these gods must, after a short period of fellowship, abandon him even on the
very threshold of the temple to the stammerings of his conscience and to the
outspoken consciousness of the difficulties of his work.
By refusing to be faithful to these temporary formulas, Conrad was able to experiment particularly with new forms of narrative technique and plot structure, as well as focusing to a greater extent on the inner world of characters as opposed to the questionable objective reality.
These experiments in narrative forms are what make Conrad at base, a great story- teller. The importance of the subjective narrator will be analyzed later in relation to Heart of Darkness itself however, the success of the modern non-linear plot structure can best be seen in his masterpiece Nostromo. The plot of Heart of Darkness, despite occasionally leaping forward a few pages to explain the consequence of the events that the reader is about to be presented with, is basically linear in structure. Nostromo and other great novels such as Lord Jim and Victory, are however, evidence of Conrads genius in developing complex and intriguing plot structure. The plot of Nostromo is so complex in its structure that critic Walter Allen, writing in 1954, praised the book as, the most highly organized novel in English apart from perhaps the late James and Joyces Ulysses. The remarkable effects of depth and recession obtained are a result of its organization
The use of flashbacks, different points of view in the narrative, subjective narrators and probing psychological analysis all connect Joseph Conrad with the Modernist movement. Conrads conservatism in his employment of these techniques however, allows fans of both traditional novels and modernist experimentation to admire his work at a stylistic level. Conrad seemed able to experiment with his fiction, while retaining the readability that much of the fictional works of high modernism seem to have sacrificed. Furthermore, the subjects he chose to analyze, while retaining the morality of the traditional Victorian novels, allowed Conrad to appeal to readers living in what historian Eric Hobsbaum proclaimed, the age of extremes in which old values were questioned and the destructive nature of European practices throughout the world began to receive criticism.
Conrads Subject Matter
The nineteenth century is often viewed as a time of extreme confidence in science and the ability to know and understand the objective reality of the world. Englands material success and worldwide economic and military domination inspired great confidence (or arrogance) in the nation and the English people. As a consequence of material success, there was no need to question whether or not the Christian faith was indeed the true faith; the results of Christian worship were there for all to see. The end of the strictly moral Victorian period, coinciding with the embarrassment of the difficulties in subjecting a few African farmers to English control in the Boer War, resulted in a reappraisal of the values of English society that had previously been taken for granted as being moral and right.
Modernist writers therefore, not only experimented with style in novel writing, but also attempted to introduce a new, critical way of looking at society and moral values. Writers were now confronted with a shattering of confidence in the great old certainties about the deity and the Christian faith, about the person, knowledge, materialism, history, the old Grand Narratives The discovery of psycho-analysis by Sigmund Freud and the anti-capitalist theoretical writings of Karl Marx during the second half of the nineteenth century naturally played a very important role in this new value-questioning era.
Thematically speaking, Conrads Heart of Darkness calls into question the necessity and logic of Europes imperialism in Africa. During the previous centuries, writers such as Daniel Defoe had defended British imperialism in popular novels such as Robinson Crusoe, focusing on the benefits that spreading the Christian gospel would bring to the natives of the colonized country. Conrad, universally acknowledged as a pessimist, chose instead to focus on the negative consequences of imperialism on the African people and nation. Although not a Marxist, Conrad seems to be highly critical of western exploitation in Africa, particularly the treatment of the native Africans at the hand of the capitalist Europeans.
In place of blatant moralizing, Conrad generally chooses to paint the picture of Africa in a kind of journalistic style, emphasizing horrific visions of native Africans reduced to slavery or animal-like existences. Africans are often referred to as shadows or shapes, rarely as human beings. The unnecessarily aggressive behavior of the imperialists is frequently criticized as Marlow makes his journey to Africa. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasnt even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. Pointing out that it was possible to see the rib cages of the Africans, and that these natives would often head off into the forest in search of a place to die, requires no moral commentary. The images described speak for themselves and the reader is left questioning the truth concerning European colonization.
However, juxtaposed with these observations are occasional moralistic comments, criticizing the values of the Victorian age. Marlow is neither a teacher, nor a philosopher really. He is simply a good story-telling sailor. He rarely aims to instruct the listener directly, but prefers to show us the reality of the situation and allow us to see for ourselves. Although pure moral lessons are rarely found in Conrads prose (adding in my view to the readability of the novels), there is still the occasional glimpse of Conrad trying to get across the moral lesson in a more direct style. Early in the novel, Marlow explains to his audience that, 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. This sentence is in fact, the moral of the story in a nutshell, but the horror of this taking away of the earth from others can only be revealed through Conrads detailed portrait of Africa and the African people.
Conrad therefore, bares similarities with other modernist writers in his criticism of accepted values and beliefs. The Victorian world was shown to be full of contradictions and with the onset of World War One a decade later, confidence in the positive nature of humanity and the world would be shattered. Where Conrad differs from Woolf and Joyce is his focus not on the every day, but on extreme situations. It was not his intention to present the myriad of thoughts that pass through the mind of normal characters in normal every-day situations. Indeed, Conrads characters, keeping Mr. Kurtz in mind, are far from normal. However, despite his more traditional methods of presentation, Conrad was not entirely alien to theories stressing the importance of consciousness and the unreliability of the external world.
The Analysis of Consciousness
Virginia Woolf criticized eighteenth and nineteenth century novelists for their failure to give their characters life. Life, she and others pointed out, is not to be found in descriptions of characters physical features or analyses of actions and movements, but in the careful analysis and presentation of the stream of consciousness. This focus and subsequently developed technique had become necessary as a consequence of the modernists distrust of the unreliable objective reality of the world. Movements in the art world such as impressionism strongly affected the modernist writers, and led them to focus more on the inner world of characters, and less on the external world.
Conrads focus on descriptions of the African continent and its inhabitants would lead us to believe that he was not a member of this group of artists committed to finding the inner truth. It was in fact, the terrifying truth of the external world that was to allow Conrads art to have its desired effect. Conrads style of writing therefore, as opposed to Woolf and Joyces focus on consciousness, remained true to the traditional conventions of describing the external world. However, this is not to say that Conrad was uninterested in analyzing the inner world of his characters. Indeed, one reading of Heart of Darkness views the journey along the Congo river as a journey within, attempting to find the truth hidden deep inside mans heart and soul.
The blurring of the external world in Heart of Darkness becomes particularly clear towards the end of the novel with the introduction of Mr. Kurtz. Physically, at times Kurtz resembles a seven-foot tall giant, while at other times he resembles nothing more than a baby, lying helpless on a stretcher. The physical characteristics of Kurtz therefore become almost as unclear as the question of what exactly he represents. Marlow actually goes as far as to describe Kurtz as little more than a voice , and it is the power of Kurtz oration, not the power of the man himself, which allows him to gain control over those around him.
The reliability of the reality of the external world is also put into question on a number of other occasions throughout the novel. Traveling through a difficult section of the river looking for potential hazards, Marlow explains that, When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality the reality, I tell you fades. Later, the reality of the Russian harlequin living in the middle of the Congo jungle is rightly questioned. Sometimes I ask myself whether I had ever really seen him whether it was possible to meet such a phenomenon! Conrad therefore, despite relying heavily on the images of Africa witnessed by Marlow, seems to be aware of the dubious nature of this external world. However, despite being aware of the need for subjective interpretation of the outside world, Conrad does not seem to have been willing to go as far as later modernist novelists in this rejection of objective reality. Whereas modernists such as Woolf and Joyce were willing to completely abandon descriptions of the external world in their prose, Conrad, stylistically, was only brave enough to use negative adjectives such as invisible, unintelligible, inaudible and impossible in his descriptions of the (in his view) describable world.
It is arguable that one consequence of the destruction of traditional beliefs and values in English society was a condition of existential loneliness. Not only was the positive nature of the nations history and identity being brought into question, but at the same time societys reliance on traditional community-developing institutions such as religion and the Christian church was also being eroded. The existence of God was no longer definite, the external world was no longer knowable, and all of the values that the nation had relied on for centuries were no longer acceptable. One of the results of such enormous changes was the spiritual loneliness and forced individualism of characters in modernist fiction.
Woolfs Mrs. Dalloway, Joyces Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Lawrences Paul Morel and Birkin, Conrads Lord Jim, Mr. Kurtz, Axel Heyst and Nostromo are all examples of lonely, soul-searching individuals. Individualists have always played a major role in English novels from the early eighteenth century and the publication of Robinson Crusoe, but the extent to which most major modernist novels of the early twentieth century focused on the individual, lonely character can be no coincidence.
According to Walter Allen, most of Conrads best fiction occurs with stories of the solitary man fighting against what is outside him. Heart of Darkness not only introduces us to the ultimate loner Mr. Kurtz, but also uses a narrator suffering from the same kind of individualistic, non-attached lifestyle. Conrad says of Marlow that, He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer too, while most seaman lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Similar to Mr. Kurtz, Lord Jim is forced into exile from society, Nostromo prides himself on his non-commitment to either side in the diamond war, and Axel Heyst spends the pages of Victory attempting to live in solitude on a deserted island. Conrads main characters therefore, are clearly in the tradition of modernist fiction with their emphasis on individuality and loneliness, an aspect of modernist literature undoubtedly connected to the incomprehensible changes that were taking place in English society at the time.
The Narrative Style
One of the most groundbreaking developments of novel writing during the modernist years was the new focus on epistemology, and an analysis of how knowledge is actually obtained. Coupled with the rejection of a true external reality, modernists also rejected the idea of an omniscient God, and therefore an omniscient narrator of a story. Descriptions of the outside world became subjective, and knowledge was to be gained through sense perception, not through reason or from a higher omniscient power.
The problem that the modernist now faced was that if the omniscient narrator was to be exiled, how were the events in the novel to be presented. The most famous method, employed to a greater extent after Conrad died in 1925, was the stream of consciousness method in which the events are described as the impressions of the various characters. Woolfs The Waves is the ultimate attempt to remove the omniscient narrator entirely, a technique that can in many ways decrease the readability of a text. Joyces Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man use a combination of narration and stream of consciousness passages. Conrad, on the other hand, chose to rely on the use of the subjective narrator to distance himself (the omniscient narrator) from the text.
Heart of Darkness opens with a scene on a boat on the river Thames. A small number of sailors, with little else to do, have taken to relaxing for the evening. At this time, Marlow, a narrator who also appears in a number of Conrads other novels, begins to tell the other members of the crew a story. This story, told by Marlow, is in fact the plot of the novel. This method of using a narrator, as simple as it sounds, technically distances the author of the work from the text, (the consequences of which will be analyzed later). However, the story does not only rely on this second narrator (if we consider the author himself to be the first narrator). Instead, Marlow often repeats stories told to him by other characters in the novel, in order to describe events that he was unable to witness himself. For example, both Marlow and the reader are only able to learn of Kurtzs history from a Russian trader working together with Marlow.
What was he doing? Exploring or what? I asked. Oh yes, of course; he had
discovered lots of villages, a lake too he did not know exactly in what direction;
it was dangerous to enquire too much but mostly his expeditions had been for
ivory. But he had no goods to trade with me by that time, I objected. Theres a
good lot of cartridges left even yet, he answered
Technically speaking, when Kurtz informs the Russian trader that Theres a good lot of cartridges left even yet, we have reached the fourth level of narration. Kurtz is speaking to the Russian trader, who is relating an incident to Marlow, who is telling the listeners on the boat the story. One of these listeners is Conrad, and it is he who is telling the reader the story of Marlows adventure.
The consequence of using such complex narrative techniques is that the reader is presented with a subjective, sometimes unclear picture of the situation. If the narrator is not omnipresent, then certain gaps must remain in the narrative. The narrator, a human being, cannot tell us everything. He may indeed not want to reveal everything to the reader as in the case of Marlows visit to the offices of the trading company in France where he explains that, I believe I undertook amongst other things not to disclose any trade secrets. Well, I am not going to. On the other hand, it may be the case that the narrator is unable to reveal everything to the reader due to the fact that knowledge can only be obtained by the senses. These senses may not always be working at one hundred percent capacity and information can be misinterpreted. As Marlow is sleeping in the steamer, he overhears the station manager and his uncle talking outside. They both agreed it was frightful, then made several bizarre remarks: Make rain and fine weather one man the Council by the nose bits of absurd sentences that got the better of my drowsiness Whether or not anything important is meant by these broken sentences is left to the readers imagination; Marlow is unable to provide us with an interpretation.
The use of such narrative techniques during the twentieth century has been analyzed extensively; perhaps over-analyzed in many ways. The crucial question is of course whether or not the use of a subjective narrator really results in a distancing of the author from the text. After all, Marlow is a fictional character and can only speak when Conrad puts words into his mouth. Every word in the text therefore belongs to Conrad, a point that has been emphasized by critic Chinua Achebe in his essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrads Heart of Darkness. In Achebes opinion, although Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his storyif Conrads intention is to draw a cordon sanitaire between himself and the moral and psychological malaise of the narrator his care seems to me totally wasted This wasted effort has occurred due to the lack of an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters. Conrads objectivity is therefore brought into question, and the effect of using the complex narrative system is nullified.
Contrary to this cynical point of view, Walter Allen has defended the use of the narrator by Conrad as a shrewd artistic strategy. Allen claims that similar to Emily Brontes use of Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, Conrads use of Marlow enables him to dramatize the action and compels us to see it through his eyes; it provides an intense focus. Allens point is undoubtedly valid, however his claim that the device of Marlow does enable Conrad to make overt comments of a kind he otherwise could not seems a little nave. The use of the subjective narrator, although commendable in terms of stylistic experimentation, fails to distance the author from the text. The moral values and observations contained within the pages of Heart of Darkness belong to Joseph Conrad, not Captain Marlow. The language is Conrads, not Marlows, and it is entirely unjustifiable to claim that the use of a narrator allows the novelist to stand back from the text in total objectivity.
Much has been made of Conrads remarkable command of the English language, especially when it is considered that he didnt begin to learn English until he reached his mid twenties. Conrads prose is indeed elegant and the reader finds himself swept along on a wave of exaggerated descriptions, designed primarily to heighten character. Occasionally, the desire to heighten the prose-style has a negative effect and in the words of Walter Allen, Conrad becomes, intoxicated by the exuberance of his own gorgeous verbosity. Nevertheless, it is not the elegance or the magnificence of prose that are important in a discussion of modernist fiction, but rather the experimental nature of his writing.
James Joyce would be a particularly useful point of reference for a discussion on modernist prose styles. In an effort to present the impressions of the mind, Joyce chose to abandon traditional syntax and vocabulary rules in favor of a more experimental approach. Consequently, in his major work Ulysses, sentences can contain only a single word, vocabulary is invented when existing words do not serve the purpose, and whole sections of the novel are written without punctuation marks. Conrads prose certainly does not experiment with language to this extent, however, there are various passages in the novel in which the writer abandons grammatical rules, the best example being a report of the trek to the main station along the river.
Day after day, with the stamp and shuffle of sixty pair of bare feet behind me,
each pair under a 60-lb load. Camp, cook, sleep, strike, camp, march. Now and
then a carrier dead in harness, at rest in the long grass near the path, with an
empty water-gourd and his long staff lying by his side. A great silence around
and above. Perhaps on some quite night the tremor of far-off drums, sinking,
swelling, a tremor vast, faint; a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild
and perhaps with as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian
Experimental syntax cannot be claimed to be one of the main aspects of Conrads prose, however, the existence of such long grammatically subjectless passages reveals that Conrad was willing to experiment with presentational techniques, albeit in a conservative way. Although one perhaps too frequently encounters the use of indeterminate adjectives such as invisible, impossible and unimaginable, Conrads prose is structured along traditional lines. Experimental passages are few and far between and the use of language resembles that of traditional nineteenth century novels more than that of the high modernist period.
Perhaps the best way to view Joseph Conrads position in the history of the English novel is as a stepping-stone between the more traditional nineteenth century novelists, and the more experimental early twentieth century modernist writers. Of course, the boundaries between such categories are always blurred and open to interpretation. However, using the traditional definitions of modernism as a literary movement, it seems that Conrad, while being aware of the possibilities of experimentation in narrative style, language, characterization and artistic focus, preferred to keep at least one foot in the stylistically more conservative Victorian period.
Conrad certainly shared Virginia Woolfs belief that art could no longer be contained in traditional writing structures, however his willingness to experiment with his prose is questionable. There is evidence of linguistic experimentation and investigation into the consciousness of characters in Heart of Darkness, but only to a certain extent. Passages written in a modernist style are few and far between, the vast proportion of the narrative being written in traditional, grammatically correct prose.
However, this is not to say the position of Conrads fiction in the cannon of modernist literature is undeserved. Conrad experimented to a great extent with various narrative techniques using subjective narrators to tell the story, while at the same time, breaking away from linear-plot structures. The revolutionary impact of using a narrator is questionable, however, the development of highly complex plot structures certainly shows a break with nineteenth century novel writing techniques. Finally, Conrads rejection of accepted values and beliefs and his focus on the soul-searching lonely character, certainly allow his fiction to claim affinity with the works of other novelists of the modernist period.
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Achebe, Chinua. An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrads Heart of Darkness (Abrams and Greenblatt 2035-2041)
Woolf, Virginia. Modern Fiction (Abrams and Greenblatt 2148-2153)
Conrad, Joseph. Victory (London: Penguin, 1994)
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