"Heart of Darkness" and the ambivalence of imperialism

by Silvia Gert (Author)

Term Paper 2013 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Postcolonial reception of Heart of Darkness
1.2 Guiding question

2. Ambivalences resulting from narrative aspects
2.1 Characteristics of narrative form
2.2 Marlow - an unreliable narrator?

3. Ambivalences through imagery
3.1 Symbolism in landscape portrayal
3.2 Visual and aural ambiguities

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1 Primary Literature
5.2 Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

1.1 Postcolonial reception of Heart of Darkness

Set at the turn of the last century and consequently at the peak of imperialism, Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, is up to today still one of the most critically and controversially treated works about English colonial history in Africa. The research concerning this novella has been carried out in many directions; it has been compared to Dante’s Inferno (Goonetilleke 2007, 12) and is said to have anticipated Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis (ibid. 14), it is discussed whether its main intention is to portray an image of Africa (as envisioned in Europe), the decay of European imperialism or - on a more individual level - the development and inner conflict of a subject, namely Marlow, the latter leading to the novella even being viewed as a Bildungsroman (Cahir 2004, 183). A further point of inquiry deals with the portrayal of Africa and Africans in Conrad’s work; here, Chinua Achebe’s essay has been of particular interest, as he, firstly and most prominently, questions the legitimacy of Heart of Darkness being part of the literary canon and accuses Conrad of being a xenophobe (1988, 269) and a “thoroughgoing racist“ (ibid. 267). To him the novella is “offensive and deplorable“ and not worthy of being titled one of the greatest works in the English language (ibid. 268). While Achebe’s ideas have also met criticism, through their provocative nature they have nevertheless forced readers to address the issue of racism and imperialism in Heart of Darkness critically.

1.2 Guiding question

Despite this extensive and controversial postcolonial reception of Heart of Darkness, it is still questionable whether the novella can provide an answer to the question of how imperialism and colonial domination is portrayed and evaluated in the text itself. To determine its attitude towards imperialism, the characters and the background of the author himself have most often been taken as a basis for analysis. The aim of this paper is therefore to address this question from a different angle and to show, that the image of imperialism Heart of Darkness conveys is already portrayed as ambivalent through the narrative form and the symbolism it contains. Hence, I will focus on the level of narrative discourse rather than the story. To substantiate this statement, the narrative form and situation with regard to a few selected narrative techniques will be analyzed and the ambiguity resulting from the main narrator Marlow being a somewhat ‘unreliable narrator‘ will be shown. In chapter three, the equivocal impression regarding imperialism will be proven through an analysis of how imagery functions. For this purpose, I will especially focus on the portrayal of landscapes in the novella and the ambiguities resulting from contrasting visual and aural impressions. The examination of these points will also demonstrate how Conrad’s work has been justly titled the ‘first modern novel’, as it portrays the awareness of standing on a threshold of times, a turning point in history, where the negative effects of imperialism are already visible, yet the question, what will follow instead of it, still remains and how - to use Marlow’s words - the time after imperialism is the actual ‘blank space’.

2. Ambivalences resulting from narrative aspects

2.1 Characteristics of narrative form

The ambivalence of imperialism and the uncertainty of its aftermath in Heart of Darkness are already mirrored in the narrative form of the novella. Brooks emphasizes the importance of the structure by arguing that the novella must be read “as act of narration even more than as narrative or a story” (1984, 261). Marlow’s narrative is framed by the narration of the anonymous narrator on board of the Nellie, while Marlow himself retells the story of Kurtz. Yet speaking of a clear framing in the novella is misleading, as neither the first narrator’s nor Marlow’s narrative are logically structured and wholly concluded. The typical framed story would, according to Brooks, “present a set of nested boxes, a set of brackets within brackets”, wherefore every narrative would enclose the following one (ibid. 351). In Heart of Darkness however, neither Kurtz’s narrative nor - as a result - Marlow’s or the first narrator’s fulfil this pattern, hence the respective frames remain open (ibid. 351). This can already be seen at the beginning of Marlow’s narration, as he interrupts the prior narrative of his fellow seaman: “’And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth’”[1]. Marlow’s first abrupt remark disrupts the clear frame of a first narrator introducing the narrative of a second narrator and leaves an impression of incoherence. Taking into account the story of the anonymous narrator here, it is peculiar that Marlow interrupts him at a point where he muses about “all the men of whom the nation is proud […], knights all, titled and untitled - the great knights-errant of the sea” (HD 4) who sailed on the Thames, hence about all the men who performed imperialistic acts. Pallua also claims that the unnamed narrator obtains an imperialistic point of view at the beginning (2004, 31). Marlow’s insertion - in which he seems to read the mind of his fellow seaman and follow his train of thoughts - is then not just an interruption of his narrative but also constitutes a semantic break, as he then titles the origin of these glorious triumphs ‘one of the dark places of the earth’. The fact that Marlow interrupts this imperialistic view of the unnamed narrator both on the level of discourse and story already casts a doubt on the justification of imperialism.

Marlow’s embedded narrative in turn is then frequently punctuated with comments from the first narrator, whereby Marlow most often just breaks off in the middle of his narrative and even sentence[2]. According to Valdez Moses, the “shifting levels of interpolated and mediated narrative” as well as the “fragmentary and elliptic dialogue” moreover constitute highly innovative narrative techniques (2007, 55). These have been previously identified in Conrad’s work by Watt as manipulation of point of view, anachrony and progression d’effet (cf. 1981, 63, 300, 305 f.) The intertwining of narratives, the fractured image Marlow’s account therefore gains and the resulting absence of absolute coherence and conclusion are in stark contrast to the forceful, well-structured and organized acts of imperialism and are therefore all the more salient. It can be interpreted as a hint for the system dissolving itself from the inside and hence poses the question of what will follow after colonialism.

Not only can ambiguities be drawn from the relationship between the frame and Marlow’s narrative, but moreover Marlow’s narration itself emphasizes the ambivalent image imperialism has in Heart of Darkness. Constituting the major part of the novella, its power and domination of the text are indisputable. According to Said, imperialism itself is paralleled in Marlow’s narrative, with its “sheer historical momentum, the temporal forward movement” (1994, 25) and its “oppressive force” which “leaves us with a quite accurate sense that there is no way out of the sovereign historical force of imperialism” (ibid. 26). Yet on closer examination of Marlow’s narrative, this alleged imperial force to it is somewhat mitigated. While Marlow’s narrative indeed pushes the story forward, this does not always take place in a strictly orderly, logical fashion but is rather marked by a fractured, elliptic syntax and interrupted by many pauses. This is most prominently emphasized through the frequent use of dashes, which often function as a tool for Marlow to restrain himself and reformulate his utterances. Through these parentheses, Marlow’s account becomes less forceful; through their conveying of Marlow’s hesitation one is forced to question the content, too. When Marlow describes the effect his journey had on him to his narratees, the ineffability of his experiences is clearly visible through the use of dashes:[3]

It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me -- and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough, too -- and pitiful -- not extraordinary in any way -- not very clear either. (HD 8)

The dash here functions as a method to demonstrate Marlow’s troubles with articulating his encounters; he himself seems to lack understanding of the events in the Congo. As Marlow is the sole source of information, his somewhat incoherent account and his hesitation in the description also cast doubts on the imperial mission he narrates. Another use of the dash is made to introduce contrasting notions; this is visible in Marlow’s description of the early colonists, “[t]hey were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force - nothing to boast of, when you have it”, (HD 7) and the Congo River, “[a]nd the river was there - fascinating - deadly - like a snake”. (HD 11) The resulting hesitation on the one hand and the contradictory descriptions introduced by the dash on the other weaken the supposedly ‘oppressive force’ of Marlow’s monologue and leave a quite ambiguous impression of his tale. His narrative can therefore not be equated with the all-enveloping force of imperialism, but rather undermines it to some extent.

The open frames of the narratives, the missing clear-cut boundaries between the frame and the embedded narrative and not least Marlow’s account itself - coined by interruptions and incoherencies - bestow a somewhat ambiguous light upon the narrated imperialistic acts. How these ambivalences are further strengthened by Marlow’s status as a narrator will be analyzed in the next chapter.

2.2 Marlow - an unreliable narrator?

To further highlight the ambiguity of imperialism in Heart of Darkness through discrepancies in the narrative form, this chapter is concerned with Charlie Marlow in his function as narrator and the credibility of his account. As the story is presented mostly through his narrative and an omniscient narrator is missing in the novella altogether, his view, albeit limited, is the only one the reader depends on. To interpret the events Marlow recounts, it is crucial to determine his degree of reliability and if and to what extent he can be titled an ‘unreliable narrator’. Neumann/Nünning subsume under this term “those narrators[,] whose account or interpretation of events gives the reader cause for mistrust” (2008, 98) and outline a number of criteria which hint to the presence of an unreliable narrator. (ibid. 98‑99) This type of narration most often occurs with a homodiegetic narrator, (ibid. 98) and while the unnamed first narrator is - with respect to Marlow’s story - heterodiegetic, Marlow in his status as a homodiegetic narrator falls exactly in this category of potentially unreliable narrators. To which extent he actually fulfils the criteria will be examined in the following section.


[1] Conrad, Joseph. [1899] 2007. “Heart of Darkness”. Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary. Ed. Owen Knowles and Robert Hampson. London: Penguin, p. 5. In the text henceforth abbreviated as HD.

[2] Compare HD 33, 58, 59

[3] According to Goonetilleke, this effect is also achieved by Conrad’s use of adjectives that “describe the indescribable“, such as ineffable and incomprehensible. (2007, 41)


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LMU Munich – Englische Philologie
heart darkness


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    Silvia Gert (Author)


Title: "Heart of Darkness" and the ambivalence of imperialism