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Great White Males: Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Garry Gillard

H237 Narrative Fiction 2
Lecture 3 1995

As you know, the University Handbook proclaims that this unit 'deals with a range of significant modern and postmodern novels,' and I'm continuing in this lecture to meditate on what might be meant by 'modernism and postmodernism' in the context of the set text Heart of Darkness (Conrad 1983 [1902]) and, briefly, in that of the ideas of Sigmund Freud, because it's possible to think of today's discussion as bringing together two Great Modernists and two Great White Males: Joseph Conrad and Sigmund Freud.

As members of our society, Joseph Conrad and Sigmund Freud were intensely interested in discovering what it was they belonged to. Both were especially concerned with the ills of our society. They were contemporaries, Freud the elder by a year and a half. Conrad received his Master's Certificate and captaincy in the British Maritime Service at approximately the same time that Freud received his M. D. In 1897 Freud began his heroic [sic] effort to explore his own unconscious. In 1898 Conrad wrote an impressive story about his personal self-discovery in the heart of Africa. The decades of their most original work coincide. (Hollingsworth: 78-9)

There seem to me to be two senses of modern and modernism which are not necessarily distinguished in the Humanities, but which might usefully be separated. Firstly, in literary studies, modernism is a periodising concept and refers to the period from just before the turn of this century to the outbreak of the First World War. The writing of this period is characterised by Brian McHale in this way: the modernist tries 'to get a better bearing on the meaning of a complex but nevertheless singular reality.' (Harvey: 41) Writers like Joseph Conrad are working in a context in which the world is becoming increasingly hard to understand, but yet are still attempting to maintain their unified attitude to it. Although they are beginning to have a fragmented sense of self, they still have an abiding interest in a centred sense of personal identity which their work struggles to maintain. (Harvey: 53)

Modernists in the other sense, in cultural studies more generally, and in the sense in which Sigmund Freud is an example, are builders of unified systems of ideas. What the two have in common, according to the way Jean-François Lyotard (1984) deals with modernism, is an interest in narrative. But whereas novelists who are Modernists in the literary sense overtly write narratives about people going up rivers in search of other people, Modernists in the broader cultural studies sense are covertly informed by narratives of the kind that Lyotard calls 'grand narratives' or 'metanarratives.' Perhaps the briefest way to sum up a 'metanarrative' is to repeat Lyotard's definition of postmodernism: he 'define[s the] postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.' (xxiv) Such metanarratives, writes David Harvey 'includ[e] Marxism, Freudianism, and all forms of Enlightenment reason.' (42)

So the Conrad I'm talking about today is one who in the midst of a period of great change and fragmentation is struggling to maintain his singular sense of meaning. Whereas later, in Week 9, with Camus, I'll be talking about a writer who I shall argue has given up this struggle, and instead of attempting to maintain the illusion of a singular sense is writing instead about some of the multiple selves which we find ourselves inhabiting.

Well, that will be my main theme in this lecture, but before I circle back and develop that I want to refer to something that Claire Colebrook said in a lecture for this course in connexion with our text for today. She said that Marlow was an 'unreliable narrator,' probably referring implicitly to the original development of this notion by Wayne C. Booth. Of Booth, it is probably still true to say, as Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan wrote in 1983, that his Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) is 'the most systematic Anglo-American contribution to questions of point of view, types of narrators, the norms of the text, the notion of the implied author.' (148)

To understand what is meant by 'reliable narration,' it is probably most effective simply to give one of Booth's instances, that of Eliot's narrator in Middlemarch, who—or should I say 'which': 'generaliz[es] the significance of the whole work.' (197-8) Such a narrator will be read as being identifiable, in this theoretical mode, with the implied author who creates him, her or it. And Booth in fact writes of Marlow that 'Though Marlow is often himself a victim of Conrad's ironies, he is generally a reliable reflector of the clarities and ambiguities of the implied author.' (154 n) Elsewhere he calls Marlow a 'responsible spokesman.' (197)

At the same time, Marlow is of the type that Booth calls a 'dramatized narrator,' because he is involved in the action. Of narratives with this mode of narrative, among which he specifically includes Heart of Darkness, Booth writes: 'In such works the narrator is often radically different from the implied author who creates him.' (152) In addition he is also a 'narrator-agent,' that is, one who is not only in the diegesis, in the story, but who also 'produce[s] some measurable effect on the course of events.' (153, 154) So, despite his dramatisation, and despite his additional agency, it is claimed that Marlow is nevertheless a relatively reliable narrator—he is a complex and ambiguous narrative figure. Well, as it happens, I don't have a problem with this at all, and I shall unfold the reason for my position in a moment.

When Dr Colebrook says that Marlow is an unreliable narrator I think it's not unhelpful to suggest that she is using what is apparently the same term but in order to talk about something subtly different. Back in the 1950s when Booth was writing his book, it was possible to assume that one knew what the position of the 'implied author' was. One learnt about her or his life, read her or his letters, read her or his corpus, and made a judgement. It then became possible to situate any of the writer's characters as being closer to or further away from the writer's own position, which in any given work was said to be that of the 'implied author.' Now what Wayne C. Booth means when he says Marlow is a reliable narrator is that he is close to what he thinks he perceives to be Joseph Conrad's own views on the matters canvassed in the text. There is evidence to support that position in the kinds of sources I mentioned before; in addition there is evidence that Conrad did have what we now call a Modernist position in that he did think there was something that could be called 'the truth,' and that it was possible to convey it, even in a fictional narrative. 'Though it is never described as a truth that could be stated discursively,' Booth suggests that 'the authors of some works have thought of themselves, like Conrad, as in some way rivaling the philosopher and scientist, "bringing to light the truth."' (286) And this is actually a quotation from Joseph Conrad himself, from the opening paragraph of the Preface to The Nigger of the "Narcissus".

I think Dr Colebrook is mainly thinking of what I would call Marlow's irony, but which you might want to express in stronger terms, as sarcasm, or cynicism. Clearly, Marlow does not always mean exactly what he seems to be saying on the surface. When he says, for example, '"There was a vast amount of red—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there ..."' (36) it is difficult to know exactly how literally we are meant to take this, but when he retells the story of Fresleven and the two black hens, it seems clearer that he being ironic; when he says, for example, 'he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause,' or 'The supernatural being had not been touched after he fell.' (34) In this sense, Marlow is unreliable (though I don't think that's what Booth meant).

It might also be possible to speak of Marlow's unreliability in the context of a postmodernist or postcolonialist reading. Much of what he has to say about colonialism, directly and indirectly, we now have to take with bags of salt. I'll give you some examples in a moment or two.

The fiction of the Modernist period seems to have found its ideal interpreters in the literary critics of the 1950s and 1960s who were particularly interested in the structure of the quest. These critics, who were blissfully unaware of the great waves of poststructuralism and postmodernism that were about to come crashing down over the comfortable world of Lit Crit, were delighted to reread texts like this one of Conrad's as representing the profound human desire for 'The Truth' and the overpowering impulse to go and seek it out. Stories such as Heart of Darkness were seen as telling of the '… quest for an important truth, and in all of them the reader's own concern for the truth is made to play a heavy role.' (286) Nowadays we tend to see Truth as being a rather more complex and troublesome issue, and if not completely illusory and elusive, then at least multiple.

And it is multiplicity that I want to bring to your attention in returning to this question of the reliability of the narrator of Heart of Darkness, and I want to point out that there is more than one 'narrator.' Indeed, I am quite surprised—although I admit I have the benefit of hindsight—that Wayne Booth only ever mentions one narrator, when it is so clear and so essential that there is at least one more, and one who even has some claim the be regarded as The Narrator. For the voice which commences the telling of the story is of course not that of Marlow, but that of an unnamed other member of the group of men on the deck of the Nellie. And I want to suggest that one way to read the narrative is to see it as a contestation between the views of these two main narrators, the one whom I'll call the frame-narrator, and the principal one, Marlow—though there are, of course, others in addition.

I've called this a contestation, and of course I mean this in a sort of philosophical sense, but one still might pause to ask: Do these two narrators address each other? And if so, with what result?

Well, I think there are two ways in which it might be meaningful to answer 'yes' to the first of my two questions. The more trivial of these has to do with the word 'knights.' You'll remember that there is a stirring passage near the very beginning of the story, on the third page (page 29 in the 1983 Penguin edition), a passage in which the Romantic frame-narrator waxes eloquent about the Great River and the Great Dead White Males who have gone forth upon it.

The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service [he raves, almost], crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen's Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith—the adventurers and the settlers; kings' ships and the ships of men on 'Change; captains, admirals, the dark "interlopers" of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned "generals" of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires. (28-29)

Almost immediately following this overblown passage Marlow drops his remark about London: '"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth."' The remark, we are told, 'was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even …' So Marlow continues, but after only three lines appears to respond to something someone else has just said: 'you say Knights?' (30) The illogical but nonetheless inexorable inference is that the frame-narrator has 'said Knights' and Marlow is responding cynically to the suggestion that the frame-narrator is speaking from a position within a long established civilization.

Whether you find you can read the narrative at this point in this naturalistic way or not, nevertheless it is the case that the two views of the colonialist 'knights'—the Roman and the English—are juxtaposed and therefore contrasted by their close association in the text. So I suggest that these two narrators do 'address' each other, in one sense or the other, literally or figuratively, with the result of putting the issue of colonialism in play.

But I believe there is a much more subtle sense in which Marlow and the frame-narrator speak to each other's condition, and I find it in a consideration of tone; and in the subtle distinction between the two voices and between the tone of the opening and closing paragraphs. I see these as being two of the keys for an understanding of what is in the Heart of Darkness. I have already quoted the frame-narrator's affirmation of his belief in the good people from Sword and Torch Incorporated, those 'bearers of a spark from the sacred fire,' the Company that was maintaining outposts of civilization and insuring all those parts of the map that were coloured red. Marlow has a more complex response to the idea of colonialism. In speaking of the Company's agents, for example, he implies that there can be a positive value to colonisation, but that it readily succumbs to opportunism. He says: '"... They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze ..."' (31)

The negative value given to the actual administration (that is a 'squeeze') implies a simple positive value for 'proper' colonisation. A moment later, though, the irony that is the hallmark of the classic novel begins to creep into the expression of Marlow's view.

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; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to … (32; elision in original)

'Setting-up' already anticipates at least artificiality, but when it becomes a question of the idolatry in the rest of the sentence, we are allowed to see that the 'idea' of colonisation is potentially a very dangerous one. This image clearly anticipates what the narrative will slowly reveal in its full 'horror' only much later.

The next reference to colonisation is perhaps in relation to the political map of Africa that Marlow looks at in a convenient shop window, to which he responds with the cultural stereotypes with which he is equipped. Of those sections annexed by the British Empire he has this to say (as I've already mentioned before): '"There was a vast amount of red—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there ..."' (36) I suppose a Kiplingesque jingoist might be able to read this straight, but anyone aware of the tropic world of literature would be aware of the breadth of the irony in this memorable phrase. And anyone not so aware is given a clear lesson a few pages further on when Marlow indicates the spelling of the word that indicates his status under capitalism. He says: '"It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital—like a lower sort of apostle."' (38-9)

I find this a particularly telling point in the work's texture. 'Worker' and 'capital' are associated, but with the normal value of the terms reversed. Whereas 'Capital' (with a capital C) is the really important term (in a story about colonialism), it is 'Worker' that it is specifically given the capital letter. And colonisation is clearly (if you're looking for it) allowed to be seen as sublimation (in the Freudian sense)—as the 'diversion' of 'instinctual forces' to aims that are 'socially higher': (Freud 1974: 47-8) the workers are not merely labourers in the vineyard—they are apostles of a religion, whose god is Mammon. (Of course, the sense of the word 'capital' that is denoted in this passage is not the one to which I am referring—and this may be seen as the unconscious at work, an example of displacement.)

Well, all this and much more occurs in those pages of the narrative between 30 and 121 when we at last hear again the voice of the frame-narrator. He is allowed just the one final paragraph which, after such a long break, it is easy to forget comes from the same source as the opening pages, and so it is easy to miss the change in tone that has occurred, which I suggest is crucial.

Look again for example at the words of the frame narrator which express his views about the enterprise of colonialism, near the beginning of the story. (29) His tone is enthusiastic, almost rhapsodic, as he eulogises past and present empire-builders. Perhaps his attitude may be seen as representative of conventional, educated, middle-class opinion in England at the turn of the century, and therefore of Conrad's contemporary readers' thinking on the subject. These are the ideas which are implicitly brought under critical scrutiny by the context which is established by Marlow. Instead of the vague honorific terms of the frame-narrator, he uses an incisive language which evokes and also mocks the pragmatic nature of conquest. Despite, or because even because of the disclaimer '"Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this,"' (31) the reader is led to perceive the similarities between Roman, Renaissance and Victorian imperialism. Marlow suggests that it is possible to hold the opinion that the pious ideals of the later variety tend to redeem it, thus setting up a context in which the nature of such ideals must be examined. Kurtz is the highest embodiment of such notions at the outset: 'Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing,' (65; this is the frame-narrator quoting Marlow quoting the Manager of the Central Station quoting Kurtz, by the way) but the narrative reveals that these ideals turn into 'horror'.

Now consider the frame-narrator's brief conclusion to the story, and compare it with the opening setting, where 'The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.' (28) At the end of the narrative some of the words used to describe the river are exactly the same (we again have 'tranquil waterway' and 'uttermost ends of the earth'—thus making the connexion between beginning and end—but the context and the tone have changed completely: 'The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.' (121, emphasis added) Readers may be persuaded to conclude that a change has occurred in the narrator as a result of hearing Marlow's story—a change that is in some ways analogous to that which may have occurred in the readers themselves?

Well, I promised earlier to talk about Freud, so I'd better give you a brief burst on that subject. Heart of Darkness is obviously a text for psychoanalysis par excellence, having a number of 'Freudian' characteristics: including its title. This is probably no accident. Although Conrad (1857-1924) may never have read Freud (1856-1939), it is easy to think of the same period producing both The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and Heart of Darkness (1902). It's very striking, anyway, to notice that Freud was only a year or so older than Conrad, as I pointed out earlier, and that he produced what is arguably still his magnum opus only a couple of years before Conrad published Heart of Darkness.

Conrad actually inserts a reference to the practice of psychoanalysis early on in his text—as if to sanction such an analysis of his narrative—when he has Marlow ask the doctor who examines him on behalf of the Company if he is an analyst—or 'alienist' as they were then called because of their use of hypnosis.

"It would be," [the doctor] said, without taking notice of my irritation, "interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot, but ..." "Are you an alienist?" I interrupted. "Every doctor should be—a little," answered that original, imperturbable. (38)

This clearly signals, or permits even, a psychoanalytical reading as a distinct possibility.

Before he had published his theory of infantile sexuality, Freud published his Interpretation of Dreams, just at the turn of the century, and this theorisation of dreaming has been perhaps the most fruitful area in psychoanalysis for researchers considering the nature of the literary work of art.

Conrad also seems to support an interest of this kind in having Marlow refer to his story as an account of a dream.

"It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams ..." (57; elision in original)

The dream scenario is often indicated by an excess of atmosphere over meaning, as Conrad's text itself suggests in Marlow's phrases conveying '"the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares"' (108); and in this particular narrative, as in so many of Edgar Allan Poe's stories, and in some of Henry James's (such as The Turn of the Screw), there is powerful suggestiveness in the affective or emotional dimension of the narrative. "The general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me," says Marlow. "It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares." (41)

This 'suggestiveness,' it should also be said however, is not only a kind of mystery that has to be explicated by a psychoanalytic reading; it is also just a simple technical matter of style. I've already raised the question of tone, which, as I've said, is of special interest in this story; quite a lot of criticism has concentrated on this aspect, and some critics (notably F. R. Leavis) have felt that Conrad has strained too much in his melodramatic use of an excessively emotional tone to create an impressive effect. But it should not be thought that Conrad did not know what he was doing. The author himself has commented on the special use of tone in Heart of Darkness (in his Preface to 'Youth'): 'That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck'.

Well, that was my Freud digression. Now I must return briefly to my two narrators, because I want to try to show them as not only providing one of the keys to understanding or interpreting or reading the narrative, but also as being emblematic of the status of this text in the interstices of Post/modernism. I suspect this will be the first of several such insertions of a text in this uncomfortable locus. So, if we were going to carry out this exercise in the case of Heart of Darkness, I suspect that one effective way of getting leverage on it would be to look at these two narrators and I suggest that we could consider the frame-narrator to be the Modernist of the two while Marlow is the Pomo of the pair. The frame-narrator himself suggests something of the sort when he comments:

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, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine. (30)

I just want to put that idea into your minds and leave it there for later, because there is just one last matter I want to mention before you go.

In whatever time I have left I'd like to refer briefly to two other texts, both films, with which I hope you may be familiar. One is Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's reworking of Conrad's story. (Zoetrope, USA, 1979) The second is the film that was partly a record of the making of that film by Francis Coppola's wife, Eleanor Coppola: Hearts [with an S] of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. (USA, 1991) (I understand there is a third filmic text—called Heart of Darkness—now also to be considered: a made-for-TV movie directed by the great Nicholas Roeg and released as long ago as 1994, with John Malkovich as Kurtz and Tim Roth as Marlow—but I haven't as yet had an opportunity to view that.)

One of my reasons for mentioning these films is that it gives me an opportunity to return for the last time to my original topic in this lecture: the change from Modernism and Postmodernism. If you've seen Apocalypse Now, or more especially Hearts of Darkness, you will seen texts which are much more open, fluid, confusing, open to interpretation than Conrad's. One of the key characteristics—if not the key characteristic—of Pomo is self-consciousness. And a film about the making of a film will obviously lend itself to this kind of interior view, and all the more so when it not merely shows the machinery of film-making—in the way that backstage films do (Truffaut's Day for Night, for example; Les Films du Carrosse PECF PIC, 1973)—but also attempts to give some account of the inwardness of the filmmaker(s).

Apocalypse Now, as the Lumiere (cinema) poster said,

had one of the most troubled shoots in cinematic history. A typhoon wiped out the production, the leading man (Harvey Keitel) was replaced during filming, his replacement (Martin Sheen) had a heart attack; all whilst the budget soared from 12 million to 30 million dollars and almost the entire script was rewritten during production. Hearts of Darkness is a behind-the-scenes, insiders [sic] view of the making of Apocalypse. The film includes interviews from the original Phillipine [sic] set as well as current day interviews, never before seen Coppola footage and some unique Marlon Brando improvisations.

In Hearts of Darkness we see Martin Sheen having something like a nervous breakdown, bleeding all over the set, we see Coppola wandering around worrying about what the film is about, comparing himself to Kurtz; and we see Marlon Brando, who has not read the book, talking endlessly to Coppola about who his character is, why he is where he is, and what he is to say—some of his material was actually improvised during shooting, which is pretty amazing for a movie that cost millions to make. In other words, we are in the presence of the postmodern.


Booth, Wayne C. 1961, The Rhetoric of Fiction, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Conrad, Joseph 1983 [1902], Heart of Darkness, Penguin, Introduction by Paul O'Prey.

Coppola, Eleanor (dir.) 1991, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, USA.

Coppola, Francis Ford (dir.) 1979, Apocalypse Now, Zoetrope, USA.

Freud, Sigmund 1974, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis [1916-7], tr. James Strachey, Penguin (Standard Edition, 15-16, 1963).

Harvey, David 1989, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Conditions of Cultural Change, Blackwell, Oxford.

Hollingsworth Alan M. , 'Freud, Conrad, and the future of an illusion,' Literature and Psychology, 5: 78-82; this quotation 78-79.

Lyotard, Jean-François 1984a, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, tr. Geoff Bennington & Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

McHale, Brian 1987, Postmodernist Fiction, Methuen, New York & London.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith 1983, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, Methuen, London & New York.

Roeg, Nicholas (dir.) 1994, Heart of Darkness, USA, (TV).

Truffaut, Jacques (dir.) 1973, La nuit américaine, Les Films du Carrosse PECF PIC.

Garry Gillard | New: 4 February, 2018 | Now: 4 February, 2018