Language and Style in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)

The Author: Joseph Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857. He died in 1924. He was a Polish-British writer. He is often described as one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language. He is usually considered a modernist writer though his works also reflect the 19th century realism. He makes use of anti-heroic characters in his works. His works are not only futuristic and prophetic, they are also timeless and universal. Most of Conrad’s works deal with the incident of colonialism, with a conscious attempt to depict the psychological motivations of human actions. Some of Conrad’s works are The Nigger of the Narcissus, Nostromo, Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness.

Background: The background of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is colonialism, a system of administration whereby one nation takes over the political control of another nation so as to exploit it economically. Specifically, Heart of Darkness graphically depicts the Belgian colonisation of the Congo Free State in the 19th century. The atrocities of Leopold II and his agents in the Congo have been well documented, including the mindless killings of the natives to further the economic interest of the West. Heart of Darkness can also be described as an autobiographical novel since it depicts the author’s firsthand experience of the highhandedness of the colonial masters in the Congo.

Subject Matter and Organisation: The subject matter of Heart of Darkness is the depiction of the inhumanity of the Belgian colonisers in the Congo. This is achieved through the story told mostly by Charlie Marlow aboard the Nellie, a ship. The story is about his experiences in the Congo where he had gone to replace Fresleven, the late captain of a steamboat that was heading to the interior part of the Congo and was killed by the son of a local chief whose father Fresleven had assaulted over the price of a hen. Marlow’s story takes us into one of the heinous theatres of human atrocities during colonialism. It depicts the racism that characterised the colonial ideology, the dangers of colonial politics and the ironic texture of the colonial project itself which was founded on the idea of civilising the natives but whose real motive was the economic enrichment of the West. Heart of Darkness is organised in three stories: Youth, Heart of Darkness and The End of the Tether. The interest of this essay is centered on Heart of Darkness, its language and style.

Plot: The plot of Heart of Darkness is non-chronological. The story begins from the present when Charlie Marlow narrates a story to his companions aboard the Nellie anchored on the Thames River. The story then takes us into the past when Marlow once voyaged into the heart of darkness, which is a metaphor for Africa. Through Marlow’s story, we are let into the dark secrets of the colonial project, its heinous deeds in terms of the destabilisation of the African continent, thrown into war by the scramble for Africa and the instigation of internal strives that turned citizens into slaves in their own country.

Marlow’s first impressions of the African continent is one of damaged peoples, decaying structures and destroyed landscapes as a result of colonialist exploration and violent exploitation. Everywhere one goes, there are wars being fought, people being displaced and enslaved, sounds of guns and explosions, diseases and deaths. The atrocities of colonialism are captured by Conrad in the following words: ‘They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, – nothing but the black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom’ (44).  

At the first station, Marlow meets the Company’s chief accountant who had managed to keep himself clean and unaffected by the African environment: ‘When I neared the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision’ (45). Marlow refers to the man as a miracle and this is in sharp contrast to how he has been depicting the natives and the African landscape: ‘. . . but in the great demoralisation of the land he had kept up his appearance’ (45). It is the accountant who first mentions Mr Kurtz to Charlie Marlow: ‘In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr Kurtz’ (46), whom he refers to as a first-class agent and a remarkable man. He equally informs Marlow that Mr Kurtz ‘sends in as much ivory as all the others put together’ (46). Marlow observes the white man at the station who is sick to the point of death.

Marlow leaves the station the next day ‘with a caravan of sixty men, for a two-hundred-mile tramp’ to the Central station. This trip is eventful as a chubby white man constantly faints on the way perhaps due to the heat of the tropics. Some of the black men with Marlow disappear with their loads while others mutiny. Marlow finally arrives at the Central Station on the fifteenth day of his journey. Marlow learns that his boat had sunk and had to be retrieved from the sea and repaired. This means that Marlow’s journey to the inner station to retrieve Fresleven’s remains will be delayed for months during which the boat will be repaired. Marlow soon has an interaction with the station manager whom Marlow portrays as ‘a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts – nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness’ (49). It is with the station manager that Marlow comes face-to-face with colonial politics. The station manager is depicted as being immune to the diseases that kill the other Europeans in Africa: ‘Once when various diseases had laid low almost every agent in the station, he was heard to say, “Men who come out here should have no entrails” (49).

It is at the Central station that Marlow first learns of Mr Kurtz’s illness but as a rumour. Mr Kurtz’s station is described as important and Kurtz himself described as ‘an exceptional man’ and ‘of greatest importance to the company’ (50). What is disturbing here is that the station manager describes Mr Kurtz’s abilities in the past tense. This rather foreshadows the sinister revelations that will be made later in the novella about the manager’s perception of Mr Kurtz and his move to destroy him. Apparently Mr Kurtz is valuable to the Company because he brings in ivory in large quantities; in fact he brings in more ivory compared to all the other agents put together. It is then seen that ivory is the most prized commodity of the colonial trade depicted in the novella: ‘The word “ivory” rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it’ (50, 51). Notice how ivory is portrayed using religious imagery. Little wonder then why those who pursue it are termed ‘pilgrims’ in the novella.

It is estimated that it will take three months to repair the damaged steamboat. A number of interesting and revealing events occur at this station during this period and are reported to us by the ever observant Marlow. One of the events is the fire incident: ‘One evening a grass shed full of calico, cotton prints, beads, . . . burst into a blaze so suddenly that you would have thought the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash’ (51). We are also introduced to a first-class agent whose duty is to make bricks ‘but there wasn’t a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station’ (51, 52). Yet the man has been at the station for over a year. The depiction of this man who waited for over a year for straw in order to make bricks describes the mismanagement of human and non-human resources that characterised the colonial project. It is the wasteful first-class agent who could not make bricks who gives Marlow more information about Mr Kurtz. For instance, he tells Marlow that Mr Kurtz painted the sketch that attracts Marlow’s attention in the room. He also tells Marlow that Mr Kurtz is the chief of the Inner Station. He equally observes to Marlow the rapid promotion of Mr Kurtz and his promising future in the Company: ‘. . . Today he is chief of the best station, next year he will be assistant manager, two more years and . . .’ (53).

It is also obvious from these conversations that the people at the station fear Mr Kurtz, as can be seen in the first-class agent’s attempt to mend his speech about Mr Kurtz to Marlow so as not to be misrepresented to Mr Kurtz when Marlow gets to the inner station. In an attempt to do this, the agent reveals the colonial power play and competitions among European agents in Africa. It is seen that the man had wanted to be assistant manager, only for Mr Kurtz to come along and upset his plans alongside those of the station manager. All these make Marlow to be curious and eager to meet Mr Kurtz to know what manner of a man he is. But to get to Mr Kurtz, Marlow has to repair the boat, and to repair the boat, Marlow would need rivets – short metal pins or bolts for holding metal plates together.

Marlow devotes more time and attention to the repair of the steamboat, which has now become his friend: ‘It was a great comfort to turn from that chap [first-class agent] to my influential friend, the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat’ (56). Yet Marlow sees himself as someone who does not like work except that it offers an opportunity for self-authentication. To repair the boat, Marlow works with the foreman, whom he describes as ‘a boiler-maker’, a ‘good worker’, ‘an enthusiast’ and ‘a connoisseur’ (57). Marlow further describes the foreman as ‘a lank, bony, yellow-faced man, with intense eyes’ (57). He is widowed and has eight children that had been left with a sister. The man also loves pigeons, just like the sister.

While Marlow is still at the central station, more white men arrive. They call themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, at the head of which rides a white man on a donkey. They arrive in about five groups with the mission ‘to tear treasure out of the bowels of the land’ (58). They go into the wilderness for their mission but it fails: ‘In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver’ (61).  

It is also portrayed how Mr Kurtz becomes the object of the novel’s suspense, as Marlow is obsessed with the idea of meeting him. It is at this time that Marlow overhears a sinister conversation between the station manager and his uncle who had recently arrived from Europe. The conversation is about Mr Kurtz and how the two men detest his activities at the Inner Station, describing his influence as frightful. It is reported that Mr Kurtz had once wanted to leave the Inner Station but changed his mind along the way and went back. The conversation also reveals the manager’s concern about the Russian who appears to be competing with Mr Kurtz for ivory at the Inner Station: ‘We will not be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged for an example’ (60). This statement also suggests the politics of the scramble for Africa. The essence of the colonial mission is captured in the statement by the manager’s uncle: ‘Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanising, improving, instructing’ (60).

Marlow is now heading towards Mr Kurtz’s station after repairing the boat: ‘It was two months from the day we left the creek when we came to the bank below Kurtz’s station’ (61). In this story, Africa is depicted as a geographic that is behind the times: ‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings’ (61). Africans are described as cannibals and barely humans. This is clearly a racist depiction of Africans by Conrad which Chinua Achebe has extensively studied in one of his articles entitled, ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ published in 1988. Conrad also refers to Africa as ‘heart of darkness’ from which the title of the novel is drawn (63).

Africa is also depicted as a continent that has no history, perhaps, before the arrival of the white men; hence all Africans who existed at the time are termed ‘pre-historic’: ‘The pre-historic man was cursing us, praying, welcoming us – who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings. . . We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were travelling in the night of the ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign – and no memories’ (63).

 It is instructive to note that the journey motif is a major narrative device in the novel as the narrator uses the voyage to make statements about humanity’s journey through time, whereby Africa is seen as humanity’s dark past which Europe had long emerged from.

One of the significant points of the journey is the discovery of the Russian’s now deserted dwelling ‘some fifty miles below the inner station’ (65). Marlow finds a book entitled, An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship by Towson. The attempt by the narrative voice to remember the name of the author as seen in the expression ‘Tower, Towson’ is indicative of the fact that the novella is narrated from memory. Marlow picks up this book and will later in the journey give it to the Russian who would be very grateful to have it back.

As they get within eight miles of Mr Kurtz’s station, Marlow’s party encounters hostile natives. The theme of cannibalism is raised again as Marlow describes how some of the Africans in the boat, out of hunger, desire to capture and eat enemy tribesmen who are the hostile natives. This provides a literary allusion to the depiction of cannibalism in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. However, a counter discourse would depict colonialism as a metaphoric cannibalism, whereby the white race eats up the black race. Part of the racist depiction of blacks in the novella is seen in how the narrator portrays them in parts, not as a whole: ‘I saw a face among the leaves on the level with my own, looking at me very fierce and steady; and then suddenly, as though a veil had been removed from my eyes, I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes, – the bush was swarming with human limbs in the movement, glistening, of bronze colour’ (73).

In the conflict between the natives and invaders, the blacks attack with arrows while the whites use their Winchesters, a metonym for rifles. The helmsman is wounded and killed in the attack. Marlow soon throws the body overboard.

Soon another narrator takes over the telling of the story. This is seen in the following expressions: ‘There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow’s lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids. . .’ (75). This narrator remarks on the abundance of ivory at Mr Kurtz’s station: ‘Ivory? I should think so. Heaps of it, sacks of it. The old mud shanty was bursting with it. . . We filled the steamboat with it, and had to pile a lot on the deck’ (76).

By the time we get to meet Mr Kurtz, he has assumed two identities; a divided self and a double. This, perhaps, prompts the narrator to state thus: ‘The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England. . . His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz’ (77). Hence, Mr Kurtz is a personified representation of all the colonial forces in Europe. This explains why his actions are not surprising to the reader.

It is also reported that a fictional society, Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had tasked Mr Kurtz with the writing of a report for its future guidance. Mr Kurtz was able to write a 17-page report in which he emphasised the superiority of the white Europeans to black Africans, ending with a commanding phrase: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ (78). The report itself speaks of the lack of psychological wellness of its writer, for Mr Kurtz must have lost his mind to make such declarations.

The arriving crew meet the Russian who gives them information about Mr Kurtz. The manager and his armed men follow the Russian to his house. The Russian casts Mr Kurtz in the image of a dictator: ‘You don’t talk with that man – you listen to him’ (81). The Russian is depicted as someone who likes running away: ‘I made out that he had run away from school, had gone to sea in a Russian ship; ran away again’ (81) until he met Mr Kurtz in the bush. He describes himself as a man of 25 years. He is grateful to one Van Shuyten, an old Dutchman who believed in him and whose kindness he had repaid by sending him some ivory a year before (82). Marlow at this point hands the Russian his lost but prized book. The Russian explains to Marlow that the earlier attack by the natives was because they did not want Mr Kurtz to leave the station.

The relationship between Mr Kurtz and the Russian is narrated: ‘They had come together unavoidably, like two ships becalmed near each other, and lay rubbing sides at last’ (83). This is an instance of analogy through simile to discourse the nature of the duo’s meeting and relationship. The Russian, apart from enjoying an unequal fellowship with Mr Kurtz, has also helped Kurtz through two previous illnesses. He talks of Kurtz’s extraordinary deeds of discovering villages and a lake, his craze for ivory which almost made him to shoot the Russian one day.

The Russian also explains how Kurtz has become a cult figure, worshipped and obeyed by the natives. He recalls Kurtz’s recent reappearance with the armed men of the lake tribe and how his hunger for more ivory through raiding the surrounding tribes was impeded by illness, this very illness that will finally destroy him (85). Reference is made about the skulls on the poles which suggests Kurtz’s highhandedness, cruelty and unorthodox method of ivory collection that must have displeased the manager of the Central station. This is also part of the reason that the manager and his uncle’s cruel colonial politics was used to destroy Kurtz through a systematic abandonment. This is observed by the Russian: ‘I’ve been doing my best to keep him alive, and that’s enough. I had no hand in all this. I have no abilities. There hasn’t been a drop of medicine or a mouthful of invalid food for months here. He was shamefully abandoned’ (86, 87). This urges us to recall that the manner in which the steamboat was sunk and abandoned was an act of sabotage occasioned by the need to destroy Mr Kurtz.

Mr Kurtz is brought to the ship on a stretcher. The narrator writes: ‘I saw the man on the stretcher sit up, lank and with an uplifted arm, above the shoulders of the bearers’ (87). The sight of Mr Kurtz like this is nothing but a disappointing climax for the novella. Once on the ship, Kurtz is happy to see Marlow, acknowledging the letters he had received about Marlow by saying ‘I am glad’ (88). These are the first words heard from Kurtz by Marlow.

Shortly after Kurtz had been put on the boat, his mistress, a native woman, comes to the shore to signal her farewell. She is described as ‘a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman’ (88) who ‘walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments’ (88). Kurtz’s mistress leaves after dramatising her anguish and farewell at the tragic departure of her man. The Russian’s words that follow Kurtz’s mistress’s departure demonstrate that he had a difficult relationship with her, apart from suggesting that Mr Kurtz could speak the language of the natives.

In the novella, Kurtz is heard asking the Central station manager to save him while in the boat. The manager’s nonchalance to Kurtz’s plight is seen in his responses: ‘Save the ivory, you mean. Don’t tell me’ (89). Kurtz is heard saying that he will return and that he will carry out his ideas. Of course, this is never to be as Kurtz will die during the voyage back.

When the manager comes out of the room where Kurtz is, he tells Marlow that Kurtz had done more harm than good to the Company’s reputation by his activities in the colony. When he tells Marlow that Kurtz is ‘very low, very low’, this is an epizeuxis which foreshadows Kurtz’s death (90). When Marlow says to the manager that Kurtz was a remarkable man, the manager replies, ‘he was’, meaning that he no longer holds Kurtz in the same esteem anymore. The italicisation of ‘was’ in the manager’s statement is a sign of emphasis. It is also reported at this point that Marlow loses the favour of the manager by insisting that Mr Kurtz was remarkable. The Russian informs the narrator that Kurtz had ordered the attack on the steamer earlier on because he ‘hated sometimes the idea of being taken away’ (91).

Kurtz’s eventual death is foreshadowed in the analogy of the journey’s leitmotif: ‘The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly too, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time’ (98).

Kurtz knows that he will die the moment the steamer breaks down on the return journey and has to be repaired for days. This might be another act of sabotage to delay the journey and ensure Kurtz’s destruction. But this is not stated in any explicit way in the novella. It is at this time that Kurtz hands over the important documents in his possession to Marlow for safe keeping. Another instance that foreshadows Kurtz’s death is when he says: ‘I am lying here in the dark waiting for death’ (97). This statement tallies with the narrative voice’s assertion that Kurtz’s darkness, which for me is psychological, is impenetrable. Kurtz’s last words are: ‘The horror! The horror!’ which reinforce the idea that he was undergoing severe psychological torment at that point. His dark deeds in the colony have finally caught up with him and consumed him.

Kurtz dies shortly after. His death is announced by the manager’s boy: ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’ (98). Kurtz is buried the next day: ‘But I am of course aware that next day the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole’ (98).

All that is left of Kurtz are the documents that he left with Marlow which the Company now struggles over. But Marlow knows what to give up and what not to. His refusal to hand over everything explains why the Company agents still stalk him around town. Their interest in the documents is economic because they want to know all the regions that Kurtz must have discovered which had natural resources in them. Marlow has also to deal with a man who calls himself Kurtz’s cousin. It is from the man that we learn that Kurtz had once been a musician.

Marlow eventually gives Kurtz’s famous report to a journalist for publication. He then decides to visit Kurtz’s betrothed to deliver the personal letters and her portrait. And this is when Marlow writes these memorable words: ‘All that had been Kurtz had passed out of my hands: his soul, his body, his station, his plans, his ivory, his career. There remained only his memory and his Intended. . .’ (101).

Marlow finds out that Kurtz’s mistress is still mourning the deceased even though Kurtz had died for more than a year. Marlow had learned that her engagement with Kurtz was not approved by the family of the lady.  Her state of mourning is seen in her all-black dress. For her, it is as if Kurtz had died the previous day. The memory she has of Kurtz is of one version, the earlier version – the original, pure and pristine Kurtz. Marlow wants the lady to hold on to that memory. And this explains why he lies that the last word spoken by Kurtz was her name instead of ‘The horror! The horror!’

The story ends where it began on the Thames: ‘Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time’ (105).

Setting: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has its main setting in Africa during the period of colonialism. However, the novel begins in England in the Thames River where the main narrator, Marlow, tells the story to the other members of the crew. Hence, the temporal setting of the novel can be the present English society and the past colonial period in Africa. Specifically, the novel engages the colonial practices in the Congo Free State of the 19th century.

Point of View: Heart of Darkness is told from the first person narrative point of view. There are two narrators in the novel. The main narrator is Marlow who uses the first person singular ‘I’ to tell the story. The second narrator is one of the members of the crew of the Nellie. He narrates the story using the first person plural ‘we’.

Humour: Humour is seen in the way the Company doctor conducts medical examination on Marlow before his voyage into the heart of darkness. For instance, when the doctor feels Marlow’s pulse, he comments, ‘Good, good for there’ (39), meaning that Marlow’s pulse is good for Africa. The way he requests to measure Marlow’s head is humorous because it makes the reader think the doctor wants to be sure if Marlow’s head is correct for wanting to go to Africa. The doctor darkly suggests the change in the head might not occur physically when the adventurers return from Africa; the change usually occurs inside, thus foreshadowing Kurtz’s mental illness later in the novel. It is also humorous how the doctor asks Marlow if there has ever been a case of madness in their family, probably suggesting that only mad people would attempt a voyage to the heart of darkness. He also asks Marlow if he is an alienist which means a psychiatrist (51).

Another instance of humour in the novel is seen in the laughable effort of the man trying to quench a fire with a bucket of water that he rushes to fetch at the river. The fire quickly razes the grass house as if mocking the man’s efforts (51). It is equally humorous how the white people instruct the natives using their religious imagery for the better understanding on how to run the boiler: ‘He was useful because he had been instructed; and what he knew was this – that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst and take a terrible vengeance’ (64, 65). This should keep the native alert to put enough water into the boiler to keep the engine running.

Allusion: Literary allusion is seen in the reference made when Marlow’s journey into Africa is compared to setting off ‘for the centre of the earth’ (40). This alludes to Jules Verne’s novel, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, published in 1864, five years before the publication of Heart of Darkness. This means that Conrad must have read Verne’s novel.

Heart of Darkness abounds in historical allusion. The novella itself is a response to the colonial history of European imperialism in Africa in the 19th century, especially as it relates to the experience of the Congo Free State. Another instance of historical allusion is seen in the reference to Francis Drake and Sir John Franklin, well-known historical figures in European maritime literature. Francis Drake was a pirate captain of the ship The Golden Hind known for returning with a bounty plundered from Spanish ships worth one million pound, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. Sir John Franklin fought in the Napoleonic Wars. Sadly, he perished in the Arctic region when his ships were trapped in the ice. We have religious allusion in the way the European explorers and exploiters are referred to as pilgrims in the story.

Sexist Language: Sexist language is biased against a particular gender, traditionally the female gender. It refers to a comment or a statement that disparages or excludes a particular gender, usually the woman. Marlow’s aunt is the one who recommends Marlow to the Company owners for the job in the Congo as a captain of a steamboat. When he is leaving for Africa, Marlow goes to the aunt’s to say farewell. When the aunt talks to Marlow about the need for him to help in the civilisation of the natives in Africa, Marlow tells her that the Company mostly cares about profit. The aunt, who is possibly a Christian, then says, ‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire’, a statement that constitutes biblical allusion in the story, as it is drawn from Luke 10:7. Marlow then makes the following gender disparaging remarks: ‘It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in the world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be’ (40). This statement means that Marlow’s aunt had believed in the highly publicised lie that the colonial project was basically about civilising the natives. In order words, she could not see beyond the painted surface of the colonial project.

Another instance of a disparaging remark against women is seen in the accountant’s words when he tells Marlow of how difficult it is to educate a native woman about the station, implying that she is not intelligent’ (46).

Analogy: Analogy is achieved through the use of similes in the novella. In fact, simile is a major figurative trope in the story. Africans are compared to ants in one of the racist expressions in the story: ‘A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants’ (42), stated as Marlow arrives at the first Company station in Africa. In describing the unproductive first-class agent at the Central Station, Marlow says: ‘His little eyes glittered like mica discs’ (52).

Synecdoche: Marlow uses the device of synecdoche in describing the Africans in parts, not as whole human beings. It is a way of Othering the African characters in the novella. A good example is seen when Marlow has given Swede’s biscuits to a dying African and then goes on to write that ‘The fingers closed slowly on it and held – there was no other movement and no other glance’ (45). Another instance of the use of synecdoche is in Marlow’s description of Africans watching the progress of their journey close to Kurtz’s enclave: ‘. . . I saw a face among the leaves on the level with my own, looking at me very fierce and steady’ (72, 73).

Irony: Heart of Darkness is a story of ironies at various levels. It is ironic that the Europeans who claimed to have brought civilisation to Africa are depicted committing all sorts of barbaric acts against Africans in the novel. These acts call their claim of civilisation into question. It is ironic that Kurtz who is described by all as gifted and efficient is capable of so much evil and, in the end, cannot save himself. While we know that the Kurtz who dies in Africa is a morally depraved person, his mistress in Europe still believes that he is the ideal man, worthy of being mourned for even after a year since his death. Irony is also seen in the observation by Marlow that he had seen rivets in abundance on his way to the central station, but now that he needs them to repair the boat, they are nowhere to be found: ‘Rivets I wanted. There were cases of them down at the coast – cases – piled up – burst – spilt! You kicked a loose rivet at every second step in that station yard on the hillside. Rivets had rolled into the grove of death. You could fill your pockets with rivets for the trouble of stooping down – and there wasn’t one rivet to be found where it was wanted’ (56). Verbal irony is seen when the manager of the central station refers to Kurtz to Marlow as a first-class agent and a remarkable man (46).

Suspense: Heart of Darkness is structured to be suspenseful. It is a novella that has a journey motif and as such everyone wants to see the outcome of Marlow’s journey into the heart of darkness. Kurtz’s characterisation also helps the novel to achieve its suspense. At a point in the novel, all that we want is to see Mr Kurtz though it is anticlimactic and quite disappointing when we finally meet him. Of course, Mr Kurtz represents, in a symbolic way, the irony of the colonial project that promised so much but failed woefully.

Personification: In the novella, there are instances of animism achieved through personification. A good example is seen in the expression: ‘The bush around said nothing, and would not let us look very far, either’ (65). Personification is also seen in the depiction of the damaged steamboat as a friend to Marlow: ‘It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to my influential friend, the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat’ (56). Personification is also reflected in the expression by Marlow: ‘Then I began to look for a ship – I should think the hardest work on earth. But ships wouldn’t even look at me’ (35). This statement refers to a time when Marlow desires desperately to return to the sea.

Periodic Sentences: As it is with most modern novels, Heart of Darkness is written mostly in periodic sentences. A good example is seen in the opening sentence of the story: ‘The Nellie, a crawling yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of sails, and was at rest’ (31). Another example is given thus: ‘The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth’ (32).

Hypotactic Style: This is seen in the expression, ‘I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here. . .’ (33).

Paratactic Style:  This style is seen in the excerpt: ‘. . . so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn’t surprise me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs’ (36). This statement expresses irony about the character of Fresleven.


Achebe, C.1988. ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness‘. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. Oxford: Heinemann.

Conrad, J. 1995. Heart of Darkness and Other Stories. Hertfordhsire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

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