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Heart of Darkness

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1
Discuss the relation between narrative style and mo ral judgement in Joseph
Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness.
The relation between narrative style and moral judg ement in literature is an issue in aesthetic philosophy that stretches back to Plato.
‘Narrative style’, I define as those formal literary aspects employed by the writer, in order to construct a narrative that is unique. By ‘moral judgement’, I refer to the messag e conveyed by a given text when referring to objects beyond itself. The above quest ion presupposes a relation between narrative style and moral judgement, and as such, part of my analysis will be to determine whether such a presupposition is wa rranted. Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness has been celebrated for its detailed examination o f European values and conduct. Ian Watt argues that ‘
Heart of Darkness embodies more thoroughly than any previous fiction the postu re of uncertainty and doubt.’
1
But is this reading accurate? And if so, what stylistic devices does Conrad use in order to convey this position of ‘uncertainty’?
Heart of Darkness uses an oblique narrative style, that is to say, t hat an unnamed narrator relates the narrative as it is in turn rel ated to him by Marlow, Conrad’s main protagonist in the novella. It is thus we can be to ld that for Marlow:
‘the meaning of an episode was not inside like a ke rnel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos t hat are sometimes made visible by the spectral illumination of moonsh ine.’ 2
1
Ian Watt,
Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness in Robert Kimbrough, ed.
Heart of Darkness: A Norton
Critical Edition
, 3 rd ed. (New York: Norton, 1988) p. 316
2
Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness
, ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 1995) p. 18.
All quotations are from this edition. 2
This recalls a comment made some years later by Vir ginia Woolf. She wrote ‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; b ut a luminous halo, a semi- transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginn ing of consciousness to the end.’ 3 For both Marlow and Woolf, meaning is not somethin g ‘arranged’ or concrete, rather, it is a ‘halo’, made visible by the preconc eptions of the subject, and as such, the narrative of
Heart of Darkness is directed towards Marlow’s efforts to define thi s ‘halo’, by directing attention inward, towards the actions performed by the subject that endow the world with meaning.
This style of narrative, then, is consistent with the process Edmund Husserl termed the ‘epoch ē ’, a suspension of normal assumptions about the wor ld in order to focus upon how the subject constitutes their experi ence, and thus, Conrad’s literary style was acquiescent with the philosophical develo pments of his time. Bruce
Johnson notes that ‘The epoch ē is to be found elsewhere in impressionism and earl y modernism, and represents a generosity about subjec tive experience’
4
. In
Heart of
Darkness
, this emphasis on subjective experience is found i n the difficulties Marlow has in expressing his perceptions accurately and ma king fair judgements. He can be an unreliable narrator, on several occasions provid ing the reader with information which later transpires to be false. Watt defines th is ‘delayed decoding’
5
as the method by which the author gives ‘direct narrative expression to the way in which consciousness elicits meaning from its perceptions’
6
. This meaning may be inaccurate, for example, when the steamer is attack ed: 3 Virginia Woolf,
Modern Fiction in Michael McKeon, ed,
Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach (Baltimore: The
John Hopkins University Press, 2000) p. 741
4
Bruce Johnson,
Conrad’s Impressionism and Watt’s “Delayed Decoding

in Ross C. Murfin, ed,
Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties (Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1985) p
. 68
5
Ian Watt,
Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness in Robert Kimbrough, ed.
Heart of Darkness: A Norton
Critical Edition
, 3 rd ed. (New York: Norton, 1988) p. 317
6
Ian Watt,
Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness in Robert Kimbrough, ed.
Heart of Darkness: A Norton
Critical Edition
, 3 rd ed. (New York: Norton, 1988) p. 316
3
‘I saw my poleman give up the business suddenly, an d stretch himself flat on the deck, without even taking the trouble t o haul his pole in. He kept hold on it though, and it trailed in the water
. At the same time the fireman, whom I could also see below me, sat down a bruptly before his furnace and ducked his head....Sticks, little sticks, were flying about’
7
It is not until a few lines later that Marlow conc eptualises his perceptions, exclaiming ‘Arrows, by Jove!’
8
Instances like this highlight how the perceptions of the subject are constituted by their preconceptions. In the above passage, for example, the phrases ‘give up the business’ and ‘without eve n taking the trouble to haul his pole in’ imply that Marlow assumes his crew are inc ompetent or lazy, when, as it later transpires, they are under attack. As Johnson comments, ‘it is vital to Conrad’s moral sense that he reveal again and again the valu e of this phenomenological perceiving...and...that he show his readers how percept ion usually depends on the preconceptions’ 9
.
So what is this ‘moral sense’? In placing such emp hasis upon the sensory impressions of his narrator, and in so doing highli ghting the distinction between perception and cognition, Conrad inferred an episte mological relativism that anticipated much of the literature of the twentieth century. As Johnson notes, ‘In the awareness that there is no “realist” alternative to impressionism...Conrad had not jumped but dove head first into the twentieth centu ry.’ 10 In turn, epistemological relativism implies a moral relativism, as individua ls base decisions of conduct upon preconceived knowledge. Marlow’s narrative, as Watt argues, ‘aligns
Heart of
7
Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness
, ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 1995) p. 75
8
Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness
, ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 1995) p. 75
9
Bruce Johnson,
Conrad’s Impressionism and Watt’s “Delayed Decoding

in Ross C. Murfin, ed.
Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties (Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1985) p
. 62
10
Bruce Johnson,
Conrad’s Impressionism and Watt’s “Delayed Decoding

in Ross C. Murfin, ed.
Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties (Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1985) p
. 52
4
Darkness with the subjective relativism of the impressionis t attitude.’
11
Did Conrad then deny the possibility of any secure moral posit ion? At the very least, the novella expresses ‘doubt’, writes Caryl Phillips, ‘doubt ab out the supremacy of European humanity, and the ability of this supposed humanity to maintain its imagined status beyond the high streets of Europe.’
12
Conrad’s clearest expression of this doubt in
Heart of Darkness is through the character of Kurtz. He ascribes to Kurtz the philan thropic ideals of European civilization, with Marlow saying that ‘All Europe c ontributed to the making of Kurtz’
13
.
We are told that he is ‘an emissary of pity, and sc ience, and progress’
14
, and that he
‘had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sor t’ 15
. Yet, despite the constant references to Kurtz, for most of the novella he is notable only by his absence.
Marlow concedes that ‘He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do.’
16
The frequent references to Kurtz, coupled with the extended deferral of his eventual appearance, compr ise the most significant use of delayed decoding in
Heart of Darkness
. The discrepancy between Marlow’s preconceptions of Kurtz and the reality of his appe arance is the foundation upon which Conrad’s moral ambivalence lies.
This is why Conrad builds such intense anticipatio n around Kurtz. As Robert
Hampson comments, ‘there is a deliberate anti-clima x in relation to Kurtz that expresses the story’s radical scepticism about ulti mate values and the possibility of
11
Ian Watt,
Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness in Robert Kimbrough, ed.
Heart of Darkness: A Norton
Critical Edition
, 3 rd ed. (New York: Norton, 1988) p. 319
12
Caryl Phillips, 2003,
Out of Africa from
Guardian Unlimited
,
http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/classics/story/0
,,900335,00.html
(accessed 11/02/08)
13
Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness
, ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 1995) p. 83
14
Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness
, ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 1995) p. 47
15
Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness
, ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 1995) p. 55
16
Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness
, ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 1995) p. 50

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