Literary Devices in Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is often hailed as the precursor to modernism, a literary movement that came to prominence in the early 1900’s. Compared to other writing of his time, Conrad’s prose would have seemed extremely experimental. Throughout the text, Conrad utilizes sentence fragments to better mirror the reality of spoken dialogue and invokes a stream-of-consciousness style. Conrad emulates London’s fog and Africa’s darkness with his deliberately mystifying and dense prose. Heavily laden symbolic imagery and metaphor also contribute to a mystical element, which heightens as Marlow makes his way deeper into the heart of the Congo.

Literary Devices Examples in Heart of Darkness:

Chapter 1 4

"Had to start without me...."   (Chapter 1)

Notice how this short and clipped sentence is actually a sentence fragment. Conrad mimics natural human speech, as verbal communication is often less formal than written communication. Heart of Darkness is regarded as a precursor to literary modernism, a movement known for its similar stylistic features that represent reality differently than in past literary traditions. Conrad continues this naturalistic style of writing through the paragraph.

"(I heard the men..."   (Chapter 1)

Conrad’s use of parentheses, as well as dashes in the previous paragraph, are more indicators of his somewhat stream-of-consciousness writing style. Take note of what kind of information is presented in these sorts of asides, as the punctuation is indicative of what is important to Marlow and what is not. The deaths of men are delivered as extra, unnecessary information, suggesting that Europeans were not concerned with the implications of colonization on even their own people.

"slipped through one of these cracks..."   (Chapter 1)

To “slip through the cracks” is an idiom that means to pass through unnoticed, perhaps wrongfully so. Conrad plays with this, suggesting that Marlow should not have been hired as a captain. However, “cracks” connotes a sense of disintegration. Conrad may be commenting on how European imperialism was founded on inhumane premises, that despite all its elaborate decoration, there are “cracks” in its reasoning.

"a kind of light..."   (Chapter 1)

While Heart of Darkness predates Modernism, Conrad’s literary style influenced many Modernist writers. This paragraph marks the beginning of Marlow’s backstory, and the narrator quotes his entire monologue. This produces a stream-of-consciousness effect, as if the reader has direct access to Marlow’s mind. It is enhanced by the repetition of the phrase “a kind of light.” It suggests this story hasn’t been perfectly formed, but rather that the narrative is moving at the same pace as Marlow’s memory. This style can be seen in Modern novels such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

"—just like Kurtz—..."   (Chapter 2)

Kurtz has so much power of Marlow’s thoughts that he injects himself into the narrative at a point when he isn’t even relevant. Marlow’s speech is interrupted by Kurtz, as emphasized by the (—) em dashes in this selection.

"My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—..."   (Chapter 2)

Notice Kurtz’s repetition of the word “my.” It reflects his intense greed and gluttony, as well as his large, subsuming presence. Kurtz is sometimes considered the eponymous “Heart of Darkness” because his greed is representative of European colonial greed in general. Kurtz’s personal connection to his work, however, distances him from the other Europeans so that his malevolence is more ambiguous.

"the form of apathy . . ...."   (Chapter 2)

Conrad suggests that people don’t act on “great human passion” such as “extreme grief,” and that this passivity is no better than violence. Perhaps those who are silent about the corruption of colonialism are at just as much fault as those performing the act. Also note how the form of this sentence matches its content. Marlow discusses apathy and then trails off with ellipses, too apathetic to finish his thought.