Romanticism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness
Although there is no precise definition of the term 'romanticism', it is taken as an artistic and literary movement that peaked in the earlier half of the nineteenth century. The characteristics are loosely defined as a movement in which art – particularly poetry and criticism – focused on a fascination with the exotic, unseen mystical world. This era in liberal arts, blooming mostly as a reaction to the French revolution, responded to the restrained style of classical forms of art, which was driven chiefly by an obedience to classical parameters and intellectualism rather than emotions and imagination as it was in Romantic era works. William Wordsworth, hailed as one of the greatest Romantic poets, said that romantic poetry should begin as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." A German painter, Caspar David Friedrich, also accurately paints the importance of emotion in the era by saying, "The artist's feeling is his law." Common concepts related to romanticism, therefore, are imagination, sensitivity, nature, adventure, feeling and instincts.
Conrad's Heart of Darkness is first and foremost a modern text, taken by many to be a deeply psychoanalytical piece of work, but the novella also carries a deeper subtext that brushes against romantic, metaphysical and absurdist notions and leaves them all justifiable. Conrad has heavy-handedly utilized the concept of presenting nature as a piece of art, with detailed descriptions of the surrounding nature and scenery throughout. From the very beginning of Heart of Darkness, where the blue stretch of horizon is described as “the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint” and the sunset as “the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat,” there is a constant description of the natural background. As the story progresses deeper into Africa, the natural imagery turns darker and more sinister. During the journey along the Congo to reach Kurtz, Marlow describes the experience as “(we) penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.” He also prescribes a dark, sinister air to the jungle surrounding them, relating it to a living, breathing protector of the local landscape and people. This prescribing of a supernatural, independent air to nature and casting it as a living object links chiefly to romanticism.
The principal protagonist and narrator Marlow is also a prime example of romanticism in the novel. Marlow's — and, in relation, Conrad's — thirst of exploration and need to travel for discovery and adventure are characteristic of the adventurous spirit of romanticism and the thirst for adventure and discovery that came with it. Conrad himself spoke of a thirst for travel and adventure since he was young, especially the uncharted ‘heart of darkness’ where the African land had yet to be mapped properly. He shared this characteristic with Marlow, adding to the character his own need to travel into the depths of Africa, leading to the Romantic thirst for adventure and discovery.
Moreover, as mentioned above, romanticism focuses on a fascination with the exotic, unseen mystical world. The entire novel is based on this premise; not only Marlow and his ragtag group of travellers wander to Africa from the civilized sights of developed London, but the entire premise of the British colonialism – while in actuality mostly about exploitation of the territorialized land – was hailed as an effort to find adventure and discover new lands. Discovery of the exotic unknown is entirely what the base of the foundation of Heart of Darkness is set upon.
Romanticism, as a movement, also prescribed a departure from intellectualism and a return to instinctual thought, feeling and expression. This plays a both positive and negative role on the character’s in the story. Kurtz, who exists for most of the novel mainly through other characters’ descriptions of his on Marlow and his crew’s journey towards him, has been described positively; as “a prodigy” and “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else.” His stay in the hostile environment of the African jungle and trials at the hands of nature lead him into becoming a different person altogether, one with not as strong a hold on his mental faculties as the Kurtz who originally came to Africa to explore and extract ivory. His descent from the esteemed Kurtz of fame to the faint shadow of a person Marlow eventually comes across shows a dark shadow of the romantic movement of anti-intellectualism. While the Romantic movement prescribed moving away from preset ideals and restrictions of classical forms of art and closer to basic natural instincts, Conrad has shown a dark aspect of this in Heart of Darkness. As Kurtz’s intended mourns to Marlow, “of all his promise, and of all his greatness, of his generous mind, of his noble heart, nothing remains -- nothing but a memory.”
Born as a result of severe political and social upheavals like the French revolution, the Romantic movement also opposed all forms of oppression and slavery and championed liberal causes like democracy, liberty and independence. Conrad could possibly have related this to Marlow’s ability to relate to the natives. Technically, there is no concrete information that provides proof of why Marlow is the unbiased outsider – it may be obvious why he clearly did not identify with the natives, but why he is not inclined to the European frame of mind is explained vaguely at best. His inclination to not revert to the prejudiced European view of events but rather baldly identify with the situation and report it with detachment is Conrad painting him in the light of the unbiased narrator, which may have basis in an equal, democratic view of humanity and the rejection of racism as an anti-humanitarian, unnatural and, therefore, unromantic notion.
- Heart of Darkness. 1899. Conrad, Joseph.