Literary Modernism & Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Spring 2007 ENG 109 handout
See also:
"The 20th Century: The Modern Age & Emerging World Culture" (Davis et al. pp. 1345-1363)

Many Western European and American writers and artists of the late 19th and early 20th century, seriously questioned or lost altogether their faith in Western civilization: its traditional structures and beliefs in religion, science, technology, progress, political and social systems seemed little more than convenient and bankrupted fictions.  The increasingly dominant urban middle classes seemed obsessed with materialistic ambitions (e.g. acquiring wealth, power, social status), caring little for other (e.g. spiritual, humanitarian, or artistic) values. Works such as Heart of Darkness exposed the realities of European imperialism in the non-Western world, revealing the rhetoric of the “white man’s burden” and “civilizing mission” to be largely empty rationalizations for brutal military conquest and economic exploitation.  To such Western writers, the modern world emerging at the beginning of the 20th century, seemed alien and senseless, a frightening new world filled with widespread hypocrisy and random violence, devoid of meaning or reason.  No longer sustained by traditional beliefs and institutions and certainties, writers faced the challenge of trying to create some order and value for themselves.

A pessimistic and jaded mood dominated many writers and artists confronted by a world that seemed a sterile, hollow materialistic waste land, and seeking to "liberate themselves from the constraints and polite conventions" of Victorianism (Murfin and Ray 268) and tell the truths revealed by their understanding and experience of the world.  As the world changed, so too was literature being transformed to reflect and express change.  The literary period that emerged was a "revolutionary movement encompassing all the creative arts" we now call "Modernism" (Murfin and Ray 268). 

Note: the commonly used term modern, which refers to "that which is contemporary" and "pertains to the present day," should not be confused with specialized literary term Modernism, which refers the literary movement that "flourished in Europe and America throughout the 1920s and 1930s" (Murfin and Ray 268-269).

"Modernism" refers to the "the subjects, forms, concepts, and style of literature and other arts in the early decades of the [twentieth] century, but especially after World War I (1914-1918)"; expressing "a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases not only of Western art, but of Western culture in general.  Important intellectual precursors of modernism . . . are thinkers who had questioned the certainties that supported traditional modes of social organization, religion, and morality, and also traditional ways of conceiving the human self--thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and James G. Frazer, whose The Golden Bough (1890-1915) stressed the correspondence between central Christian tenets and pagan, often barbaric myths and rituals" (Abrams 118-119). Modernist writers were influenced by "the new psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung," and Modernist works "reflected the sense of loss, disillusionment, and even despair in the wake of the Great War [i.e. World War I]" (Murfin and Ray 268). 

 If faith in the superiority and continuity of Western civilization, its traditional beliefs, its social and moral systems, its technological advances and notions of progress, became increasingly difficult to sustain in the later 19th and early 20th centuries; this faith was shaken to its roots by World War I.  World War I -- called at the time the "Great War to End All Wars" (which of course seems particularly ironic to us now, for we know World War I did not end war) - was a devastating European catastrophe that nearly wiped out an entire generation of young men, left survivors permanently traumatized, and created a "lost generation" (to borrow the famous phrase of Gertrude Stein, a U.S. expatriate who lived out her life in Paris), feeling uprooted and cast adrift in a strange and alienating new world. 

Modernist literature and the arts also underwent a corresponding crisis of faith in "the adequacy of traditional literary modes to represent the harsh and dissonant realities of the postwar world. T. S. Eliot wrote in a review of [James] Joyce's Ulysses in 1923 that the inherited mode of organizing a literary work, which assumed a relatively coherent and stable social order, could not accord with 'the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history'" (qtd. in Abrams 119).  Modernist writers experimented with new literary forms and styles that "would render contemporary disorder, often contrasting it to a lost order and integration that had been based on the religion and myths of the cultural past" (Abrams 119), and often emphasizing the "historical discontinuity and the alienation of humanity" which Modernist writers felt expressed the truth of their present (Murfin and Ray 268).  Modernists expressed their sense of the disorder, discontinuity, alienation, anarchy, and fragmentation of the world, into their literature, by incorporating "fragmented utterances," by "a deliberate dislocation of parts, in which very diverse components are related by connections that are left to the reader to discover, or invent," by "breaking up the narrative continuity, departing from the standard ways of representing characters, and violating the traditional syntax [sentence structure] and coherence of narrative language by use of stream of consciousness and other innovative modes of narration" (Abrams 119).  

Modernist literary and other creative arts were persistently experimental, led by an "avant-garde (a military metaphor: "advance guard"); that is, a small, self-conscious group of artists and authors who deliberately undertake, in Ezra Pound's phrase, to 'make it new.' By violating the accepted conventions and proprieties, not only of art but of social discourse, they set out to create ever-new artistic forms and styles and to introduce hitherto neglected, and sometimes forbidden, subject matters.  Frequently, avant-garde artists represent themselves as 'alienated' from the established order, against which they assert their own autonomy; a prominent aim is to shock the sensibilities of the conventional reader and to challenge the norms and pieties of the dominant bourgeois [middle class] culture" (Abrams 120; emphasis added)--trends for which later 19th-century aestheticism and "art for art's sake" prepared the way.  Indeed, no literary movement emerges without roots, which can be traced back to characteristics developing in earlier--in this case, later 19th and early 20th century--literature.

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is considered a work of "Early Modernism" by many literary critics.  Heart of Darkness can be read and interpreted in many different ways, because it tells many different stories--stories of its time and stories that still resonate in our own time.  Not only its content and themes, but also its literary experiments in narrative form and imagery, present distinctly Modernist challenges to its readers.  

On one level, Heart of Darkness can certainly be read as an unflinching critique of Western colonialism and a disturbingly realistic exposť of its evils, specifically the atrocities being perpetrated in the Belgium Congo to extract its wealth in the late 1890s, at which time this African colony was the personal and enormously remunerative possession of King Leopold II (r. Belgium 1865-1909).  Together with journalistic eye-witness reports and humanitarian reform movements, Heart of Darkness made its contribution to turning the tide of public opinion against the inhuman excesses and predatory exploitation of European colonialism at the turn of the century, although it would take another half century for European colonies in Africa and other parts of the so-called "Third World" to earn their independence. 

On another level, Heart of Darkness can be read as a "Psychological Novel," wherein the focus shifts from the story told to the mental life and perceptions of the story teller, wherein the importance lies in the act of story telling itself as a search for meaning and healing--ideas that many of us, living in a post-Freudian times, may more easily accept than did Conrad's readers at the time when Heart of Darkness was published. As you know from reading Davis and others’ introduction to Joseph Conrad, Conrad's novel is at least partly autobiographical, a fictionalized account based on his own 1889-90 journey to the Congo, captaining a river steamboat up the Congo River to retrieve an ill and wayward station agent named Klein--a journey which left Conrad ill and traumatized in ways that haunted him the rest of his life.  Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) pioneered the psycho-analytical method of healing through story-tellling, based on case studies wherein journeys back into one's past/childhood and into the unconscious (an irrational, uncontrollable world of dream and nightmare) revealed the keys to understanding human nature and behavior.

On yet other levels, Heart of Darkness can be read as a mythic journey to hell and back in search of an (un)holy grail, and/or as a dark Romantic quest into a hostile land of dangerous mysteries and forbidden wisdom, which yield unprecedented (often unwelcome and soul-threatening) insights into human nature and the human condition, and exact a great cost to the one who dares undertake such a quest.  At the time when Conrad wrote and published Heart of Darkness, also in circulation were the unsettling ideas of Frazer's Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Wisdom (i.e. that global correspondences existed among Christianity and pagan world myths and rituals) and of Carl Jung (1875-1961) (i.e. that all humans share a common spiritual/psychic heritage, a collective unconscious of shared racial memories and archetypes that emerge in dreams, myth, religion, art and literature).  Such influences become most apparent in Parts 2 and 3 of Heart of Darkness.

While Conrad's use of a narrative "frame-story" in Heart of Darkness is not new, other aspects of the narrative structure of Conrad's novel represent distinctly Modernist experiments and challenges to readers. The unnamed first narrator suggests early on that readers should look for the meaning of the story not in the story itself but in its impact on and meaning for Marlow, but the unnamed narrator also warns us early on that Marlow's stories tend to be "inclusive."  After Marlow begins his story his auditors and readers quickly learn that Marlow suggests rather than explains his story.  Marlow's first-person narration is limited to what he himself  has witnessed and perceives.  Thus, Marlow, the participant-narrator of the main story, is restricted by Conrad, the author, to limited omniscience--for example, we never get inside the heads, feelings, and perceptions, nor hear any parts of Marlow's main story from the points of view of Kurtz or any other character--we must rely on Marlow's version, point of view and interpretation of the main story's events.  But more than once Marlow proclaims either that he does not fully understand his story or that the story is impossible to tell or explain to anyone else. To further complicate matters for the reader, Marlow does not tell his story in strictly chronological order, i.e. in time order of events from beginning to end.  His story telling method seems to be structured by the flow of his memory: for example, when an event Marlow is narrating triggers an association or connection with a later event in the main story, Marlow inserts abrupt and unexplained flashforwards that foreshadow later events well ahead of his story.  Marlow's story telling is also interrupted by occasional shifts to the narrative present either when Marlow himself  recalls and addresses his Nellie listeners, or when Marlow is interrupted and recalled to the narrative present by the unnamed narrator.  Typically, the reader is given little or no preparation for these abrupt shifts in narrative time and situation.

When we read Heart of Darkness, we are engaged in a new kind of story telling with many distinctly Modernist elements, including:

bullet New and often previously forbidden subjects are addressed, meant to shock readers out of their complacency;
bullet Experimentation with new literary forms and techniques are meant to unsettle and upset readers' expectations
bullet Narrator is introspective and uncertain about the meaning of his narrative (e.g. Marlow's 1st-person participant narration presents a limited point-of-view: Marlow does not know, and does not pretend to know, all the answers in his increasingly uncertain and demoralized world);
bullet Narrator/author suggests and evokes, but does not explain
bullet Theme and meaning are often conveyed indirectly--e.g. by imagery and symbolism--rather than by direct, explicit explanation (especially by an uncertain narrator who cannot access the meaning of his narration logically and directly, but only through a-rational, unconscious means)
bullet Meanings of imagery and symbolism are often untraditional and individual to the literary work, and patterns must be worked out by the reader (e.g. traditional meanings of  light and dark, white and black are reversed in Heart of Darkness)
bullet Narrative structure is untraditional, often a-chronological, sometimes discontinuous and fragmented;
bullet Emphasis is placed not on the story’s plot, but on the narrator's perceptions
bullet Narrator's flow of consciousness (e.g. interior monologue, "steam of consciousness") or associative memory intertwining the past (flashbacks), the present, and the future (flashforwards), rather than a traditional linear (i.e. chronological beginning-middle-end) logic, structure the narrative.
bullet Meaning is open-ended, ironic, multi-layered and "inconclusive"
bullet Process, search, journey may be meaningful itself (even if goal is never reached)
bullet Readers must meet unusual challenges/demands of the work, and engage actively in figuring out and co-creating the work's meaning

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H.  A Glossary of Literary Terms.  6th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers- Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1993.

Agatucci, Cora. "Literary Modernism and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness." [Handout]  English 109: Western World Literature: Modern. Central Oregon Community College, Spring 2007.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899; 1902. Rpt. in Western Literature in a World Context. Vol. 2. Ed. Paul Davis and others. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 1367-1421.

Davis, Paul, and others, ed. Western Literature in a World Context. Vol. 2. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin's, 2003.

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