Heart of Darkness

by Pericles Lewis

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is an early and important example of modernist experimentation in English fiction. In the voice of his frame narrator, Conrad provides a crucial image for understanding the symbolism of modern literature when he explains that the stories of Marlow, the narrator of most of the novella, differ from those of other sailors: “The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut… [But to Marlow,] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” Heart of Darkness does not reveal its meaning in digestible morsels, like the kernel of a nut. Rather, its meanings evade the interpreter; they are larger than the story itself.

Conrad, a Pole who had worked as a sailor and then captain on French and British ships before becoming a naturalized British subject, admired Flaubert and knew French literature well. While not aligning himself specifically with French symbolism, he wrote that “a work of art is very seldom limited to one exclusive meaning and not necessarily tending to a definite conclusion. And this for the reason that the nearer it approaches art, the more it acquires a symbolic character.”[1] One reason for the centrality of Heart of Darkness to the history of modernism is its openness to interpretation: Marlow’s journey to central Africa to confront the power-mad Kurtz can be interpreted as a political statement about imperialism and race, a critique of bureaucracy, a journey to the center of the self, a descent into Hell, or a voyage up the birth canal. No single interpretation exhausts its meaning.

“Oh! The horror!”: page 285 of the original manuscript of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (click to enlarge). Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Bibliographic Record Number: 39002036137827.


Conrad’s use of polyvalent symbols like the knitters of black wool, the grove of death, or Kurtz himself, suggests his connection to symbolist tendencies, but his famously hazy literary technique owed more to impressionism. As Conrad’s interpreter, Ian Watt, has observed, “the abstract geometry of the [nut] metaphor is symbolist because the meaning of the story, represented by the shell of a nut or the haze around the glow, is larger than its narrative vehicle, the kernel or the glow; but the sensory quality of the metaphor, the mist and haze, is essentially impressionist.”[2] Most of the story is told from the perspective of Marlow, and much of the time he seems unsure what is happening to him. Through the narrative device that Watt has defined as “delayed decoding,” Conrad records first the impressions that an event makes on Marlow and only later Marlow’s arrival at an explanation of the event. Thus, when his boat is suddenly attacked by natives loyal to Kurtz, Marlow is unable to explain why his helmsman suddenly falls down:

“…the end of what appeared a long cane clattered round and knocked over a little camp-stool…. my feet felt so warm and wet that I had to look down. The man had rolled on his back and stared straight up at me; both his hands clutched that cane. It was the shaft of a spear… my shoes were full; a pool of blood lay very still gleaming dark-red under the wheel.”

The reader realizes only gradually what has happened and thus shares in the experience of Marlow’s perplexity. A similar structure dominates the narrative on a larger scale, as Marlow continually jumps around in the telling of his story, layering impressions from various times in his attempt to make sense of his experience. This resulted in breaking up the temporal continuity associated with the nineteenth-century novel. His use of multiple narrators undermines the nineteenth-century convention of narrative omniscience. The literary critic F. R. Leavis complained that Conrad frequently seemed “intent on making a virtue out of not knowing what he means.” Yet, this technique for forcing the reader to share the impressions of the characters became central to modernist fiction.[3]

  1. ↑ Letter to Barrett H. Clark, May 4, 1918, in Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, ed. Laurence Davies, Frederick Karl, and Owen Knowles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), vol. VI, pp. 210-211.
  2. ↑ Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), p. 169.
  3. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 60-61.