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Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | Modernism


Conrad is considered one of the innovators of modernism in fiction. Modernist works demand careful attention by readers, calling on them to construct meaning from the text rather than having the author make points more explicitly. Representing a sharp break from traditional Victorian fiction, these works use techniques such as stream-of-consciousness narration, repetition, nonlinear time, and interior monologue. As described by former Yale professor Pericles Lewis, Heart of Darkness "does not reveal its meaning in digestible morsels. ... Rather, its meanings ... are larger than the story itself." Readers first receive the impressions of an event as related by Marlow, but "Marlow's arrival at an explanation" comes later, with the result that the narrated event and the reflection on it are sometimes not connected. Through this and other modernist techniques, readers must work to gain meaning from the story.

In this vein Conrad composed Heart of Darkness as an organic or living text that echoes Marlow's state of mind. The narrative sequence is not linear but instead moves readers jerkily back and forth in time, much as the boat has stops and starts in its journey on the river. The central narrative represents a spiral downward into darkness. The frame story provides a more reassuring narrative as Marlow has escaped with his sanity to tell the tale.

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