The Role of Dialogue in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

By: Elianne Neuman

Published as a serial for Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 and then as part of anthology in 1902, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a semi-autobiographical novella that traces the journey of Charles Marlow, a captain of a river-steamboat, through the Belgian Congo to retrieve Mr. Kurtz, the most successful ivory trader in the region who had fallen ill with ‘jungle fever’. Considered to be one of the great works of modernist literature, the novella diverges from traditional literary forms by concealing the author’s personal opinion in layers of narration. While Conrad’s adoption of this modernist technique makes it almost impossible to draw definitive conclusions from the narrative, examining which characters he affords with a voice ultimately reveals whom he privileges and whom he disregards. Indeed, the hierarchy established by Conrad through this appropriation of dialogue is indicative of his disdain for both African natives and women, and his veneration of Kurtz and Marlow, two company agents who vacillate between conservative and liberal notions of imperialism.

Consistent with literary modernism, Conrad shields his personal views regarding imperialism, in general, and the situation in the Congo, in particular, through a layered narrative. Indeed, because Marlow’s story is embedded within the framework of an anonymous, first person narrator, it is that much more difficult to attribute any of the opinions expressed to Conrad himself. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of how Conrad capitalizes on these layers of narration to hide his perspective is when Marlow describes the map of Africa hanging on the wall of the company office: “There was a vast amount of red—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there…and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer” (1959). While Marlow’s sarcasm towards the Germans—the ‘purple patch’—is unmistakable, it is unclear whether this critique also extends to the ‘red’ British imperialists and it is certainly impossible to determine whether Conrad agrees with his assessment of the English, let alone the Belgians. By concealing his own opinions in layers of narration, Conrad ultimately creates a sense of ambiguity and leaves the reader struggling to draw definitive conclusions.

Although Conrad shields his views in the layered narrative, the fact that he barely provides the African natives with a voice is suggestive of his disdain for them. In his article, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Chinua Achebe, a popular novelist and respected academic, criticizes Conrad for not only affording the African natives with just two short pieces of dialogue in the entire novella, but also for the fact that both of those statements emphasize the savagery of the Africans, not their humanity (253). The first instance in which an African native speaks in the novella is when Marlow’s headman expresses his cannibalistic inclinations, saying “Catch ‘im…catch ‘im, give ‘im to us…eat ‘im!” (1982). Then, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead”, is the native boatman’s gleeful announcement of the death of the company agent (2005). In Achebe’s estimation, because the capacity for speech is the key distinguishing factor between humans and animals, the paucity and the savagery of the dialogue attributed to the African natives ultimately illustrate Conrad’s systematic attempt to dehumanize them.

In a similar vein, the women featured in the novella are barely afforded a voice, and whatever opinions they do express are almost always discredited. Indeed, the women who Marlow encounters in the company office are not entitled to dialogue, and he also acknowledges that he has omitted part of his conversation with Kurtz’s fiancée from his narrative (1958; 2009). The portion of the fiancée’s statements that are included in the novella are tinged with irony, as it is clear that she was not privy to Kurtz’s inner turmoil, despite her claim that “I had all his noble confidence. I knew him best” (2009). Even Marlow’s aunt, whose connections secured him a position in the company, is allowed only one opportunity to express her opinions—and Marlow immediately dismisses them because she advocates for an enlightened, not opportunistic, vision of imperialism:

She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit. ‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,’ she said brightly. It’s queer how out of touch women are. They live in a world of their own (1961).

By discrediting virtually all of the statements attributed to female characters, Conrad exhibits both a misogynistic attitude and a disregard for liberal notions of imperialism.

While Kurtz does not have much opportunity to personally voice his opinions, his colleagues and his writings speak for him. By the time Marlow finally reaches Kurtz in the heart of the Congo, he is unhinged by ‘jungle fever’ and is largely incoherent, especially as he cries out “The horror! The horror!” just before his death (2005). While it is unclear whether this ‘horror’ refers to Kurtz’s own wrongdoings, his impending death, Africa, or the kinship between the natives and the Europeans, Marlow, in stark contrast to his dismissal of his aunt, clings to Kurtz’s every word despite the fact that he is evidently mentally unstable: “This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it” (2005). In fact, not only does Marlow admire the content of Kurtz’s statements, but he is also amazed by the voice in which they are expressed: “The volume of tone he emitted without effort, almost without the trouble of moving his lips, amazed me. A voice! It was grave, profound, vibrating” (1998). Indeed, Kurtz has a strong voice both literally and metaphorically: although he does not have much opportunity to express himself directly, his influence is apparent throughout the entire novella. Kurtz’s reputation as being worthy of respect is established from the very first time he is mentioned, when the company’s chief accountant describes him as a “remarkable person”, and it is reinforced by the brick maker’s referring to him as a “prodigy” and the Russian trader’s expression of admiration for him (1965; 1971; 1994). Moreover, Kurtz’s voice is not only articulated by his colleagues—it is also expressed through his writings. Shortly before their highly anticipated encounter, Marlow stumbles upon an “eloquent” essay written by Kurtz in defense of liberal imperialism, which ends with a disturbing, and seemingly inconsistent, postscript scrawled in Kurtz’s handwriting: “Exterminate all the brutes!” (1990). The juxtaposition of these opposing visions of imperialism, of enlightenment and plunder, illustrates Kurtz’s inner tension attributable to his experiences in Africa. By allowing his voice to permeate the entire novella through both the statements of others and his own writings, Conrad clearly demonstrates his sympathy for Kurtz’s struggle.

Marlow’s character is undoubtedly afforded with the clearest and most direct voice in the Heart of Darkness, as practically the whole of the novella is written from his perspective. As noted, Marlow’s narrative is embedded within the framework of an anonymous, first person narrator, who interrupts the story a handful of times so as to remind the reader that the novella itself is essentially Marlow’s dialogue. Indeed, because Marlow introduces virtually every other character in the novella, their presentation is skewed by his personal prejudices. Despite the fact that Marlow’s voice is so resounding, his message is often hesitant: like Kurtz, he also vacillates between enlightened and opportunistic visions of imperialism, as he asserts that “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it” (1956). Given that the novella is written almost exclusively in Marlow’s voice, it is reasonable to assume that Conrad not only held his character in high regard, but also identified with his struggle between two notions of imperialism.

Although Conrad adopts the modernist technique of shielding his personal opinion in layers of narrative, his appropriation of dialogue ultimately reveals which characters he respected and which he held in contempt. Indeed, by withholding the privilege of speech from African natives and disregarding the opinions expressed by women, Conrad makes it clear that he rejects a purely liberal, enlightened view of imperialism. On the other hand, by affording both Kurtz and Marlow with consistently strong voices in the narrative, Conrad demonstrates his sympathy for their struggle between liberal and conservative notions of imperialism. In fact, it may very well be that Conrad’s choice of modernist literary technique was deliberately intended to convey his own moral ambiguity, his personal struggles attributable to his own experiences as an ivory trader in the Belgian Congo.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative

Text, Background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1988. 251-261. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed.

Vol. F. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012. 1951-2011. Print.


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