Heart of Darkness Essays


Writing Heart of Darkness Essays

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Sample Essay on Heart of Darkness

What might it mean to speak of Heart of Darkness as parabolic in form? Here it is necessary to turn again to that definition by the primary narrator of Heart of Darkness of the difference between Marlow's tales and the tales of ordinary seamen. This passage has often been commented on, quite recently, for example, by Ian Watt in his magisterial Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Watt's discussion of Heart of Darkness seems also the definitive placing of that novel in the historical context of the parabolic story it tells. That context is nineteenth-century world-dominating European imperialism, specifically the conquest and exploitation of western Africa and the accompanying murder of large numbers of Africans. Watt's book, along with work by Frederick Karl, Norman Sherry, and other biographers, tells us all that is likely to be learned of Conrad's actual experience in the Congo, as well as of the historical originals of Kurtz, the particolored Harlequin-garbed Russian, and other characters in the novel. If parables are characteristically grounded in representations of realistic or historical truth, Heart of Darkness admirably fulfills this requirement of parable.

My contention is that Heart of Darkness fits, in its own way, the definitions of both parable and apocalypse, and that much illumination is shed on it by interpreting it in the light of these generic classifications. As Marlow says of his experience in the heart of darkness: "It was sombre enough, too— ... not very clear either. No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light." A narrative that sheds light, that penetrates darkness, that clarifies and illuminates—this is one definition of that mode of discourse called apocalyptic, but it might also serve to define the work of criticism or interpretation. All criticism claims to be enlightenment.

Conrad's narrator distinguishes between two different ways in which a narrative may be related to its meaning: The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside… (p. 5). The narrator's distinction is made in terms of two figures, two versions of the relation of inside to outside, outside to inside. The hermeneutics of parable is presented here parabolically, according to a deep and unavoidable necessity.

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