Heart Of Darkness As Early Modernist Literature Essay

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Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness was first published in 1899, and can be seen as an early example of modernist literature because it represents some of the moral ambiguity that characterized the modern world at turn of the 20th century. Conrads narrative centers on a kind of existential foray into the darkest depths of human nature, under the shadow of colonialism, and the horror that can be found within the human heart when humanity loses its spiritual purpose.

At its core, Heart of Darkness is an examination of a societynot just a man (Kurtz)that has lost its way. Of course, Kurtz is the focal point eventuallybut the story is a dissection of a Western culture that has given over its honor, integrity, decency, pride, purpose, and spirituality for an ugly, grimy, sordid materialistic conquest that yields up nothing but phantoms and goblins. To portray this symbolically, Conrad sets his character Marlowe on a voyage into the African jungle. Through the eyes, voice and experience of Marlow, Conrad presents a disqueting critique of the brutality and greed that characterized European colonial enterprises. Marlows quest to find Kurtz, who is an ivory trader who has become an almost mythical figure in the Congo, becomes the vehicle for the author to swipe at the inherent hypocrisy of the civilizing mission of European powers and to question the very empty nature of modern civilization itself. This all comes to a head at the end when Marlowe returns to civilization and reports to Kurtzs lost love his last words. Instead of telling the truth about what Kurtz uttered in his final breatheThe horror! The horror!Marlowe spins a romantic yarn to try to satisfy her feelings: The last word he pronounced wasyour name.[footnoteRef:1] Marlowe does not want to shatter her fine sensibilitiesbut he has no problem shattering them of the reader, his audience, and conveying the whole truth to us. The fact is that Marlowe, too, is shattered by Kurtzwho sees Hell before him as he goes to the other side. The horror of Kurtzs soul was laid bare for Marlowe, and it haunts him. [1: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (Elegant Books), 127.]

Conrads thesis seems to revolve around the idea that there is a fundamental darkness at the heart of modern, materialistic humanity, represented by a society that will give up its humanity in its search for things like ivorythingsmaterial possessions. What Marlowe sees in Kurtz is a man who has traded over his immortal soul for a moments worth of material possession for the company: Kurtz has handed himself over to demons and realizes too late the horror of this trade. Marlowe sees it up closethe lawless environment of the...…is destruction and oppression. Couple with this is the theme of existentialism, which is also central to the novella and a center idea in modernist literature: what is life about? Is life even bearable? Why live like this? These are typical existentialist questions that hint at a kind of despair just below the surface of civilized society. Marlows journey is thus a metaphorical one into the human condition. The darkness of the title refers not only to the African wilderness but also to the possibly nihilistic nature of existenceif one has no spiritual or moral compass, that is. Marlows encounter with Kurtz forces him to confront life without such a compass.

In conclusion, Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness is an important work of modernist literature that reflects modern societys spiritual and moral decline. It has certainly contributed much to our understanding of history and literature, and this is due to its willingness to reflect the darkness that can accumulate in a man and in a society that has lost its way. As an early modernist text, it reflects the moral ambiguities of an era on the brink of profound change. The themes of power, colonialism, and existentialism are woven throughout, and together they make the novella into a work that is at once disturbing and difficult to bearmuch like the world Conrad sought to represent.


Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness.…

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