Joseph Conrad on the Cusp of Modernism

Joseph Conrad first published Heart of Darkness in 1899, on the cusp of both a new century and at the very beginning of a new literary period that later became known as “modernism.” Although literary modernism would not fully develop in Britain until after World War I, Conrad’s novella predicted many of the stylistic and formal preoccupations that would emerge in the postwar era. The postwar era in Europe was a period of profound change. In addition to being wracked by the shockwaves of global violence, the postwar world also reeled from new developments that dramatically shifted our understanding of the universe and ourselves. For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity challenged the principles of Newtonian physics, resulting in a radically new view of the material universe. Likewise, Freud’s theory of the unconscious undermined the notion that we humans are in full control of our thoughts and desires. These and other developments threatened the Victorian worldview of the nineteenth century, which had been dominated by old-fashioned ideas about civility and moral virtue. What resulted in the literary imagination of the postwar period was a desire to stage a radical break with Victorian values and find new ways to represent a shattered world.

It may seem odd to situate Heart of Darkness in relation to a literary period that would not fully emerge for another twenty years after its publication. However, Conrad’s novella predicts both the critical mood and the formal experimentation that would characterize literary modernism at its height. For example, Heart of Darkness very clearly exemplifies modernist negativity about Victorian society, particularly through its critique of imperialism. The British Empire achieved its global reach in the nineteenth century, thus initiating Britain’s “imperial century” (1815–1914). Queen Victoria presided over the empire for the majority of this period, from her coronation in 1838 to her death in 1901. During Victoria’s reign, Britain accumulated a tremendous amount of wealth from its colonies, and for this reason, the Victorian culture that flourished under her rule must be understood in part as a result of imperialism. Even though Heart of Darkness focuses its critique of imperialism on the Belgian Congo, this critique extends to all of European imperialism. Thus, Conrad’s novella contains a proto-modernist rejection of Victorian society and the empire that sustained it.

In addition to foreshadowing later modernists’ repudiation of the Victorian period, Conrad also anticipated the type of formal experimentation that would drive many postwar writers. His use of a frame narrative in Heart of Darkness provides a good example of such experimentation. The novella’s nested narrative structure has complex effects on how readers perceive Marlow and his tale. Simply by adding a frame narrative, Conrad distances the reader from Marlow’s first-person account and creates subtle tensions and ironies that amplify the reader’s skepticism. Conrad’s use of narrative form to inspire doubt in his readers represented a significant break from conventional Victorian novels. For Conrad, as for later modernists, Victorian novels proved inadequate because they failed to account for the psychological complexity of the modern individual. Thus, whereas Victorian writers used the novel to explore the workings of society at large, modernist writers sought to examine the workings of the individual psyche. Alongside Freud’s innovations in the field of psychology, Conrad’s experimentation in Heart of Darkness influenced later modernists’ interest in the representation of consciousness.

The formal experimentation that characterized Conrad’s writing around the turn of the century had a significant impact on other writers, both in England and abroad. In particular, Heart of Darkness drew admirers like British novelist Ford Madox Ford, with whom Conrad actually collaborated on several novels. Ford’s experience collaborating with Conrad deeply influenced his later writing. This influence is perhaps most clearly visible in Ford’s novel The Good Soldier (1915), which features an unreliable narrator who, like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, tells his story through a series of flashbacks. Unlike in Conrad’s novella, however, Ford exaggerates his narrator’s unreliability by providing an introduction that includes a very different account of the events than the one presented by the narrator. Ford described his technique in The Good Soldier as “literary impressionism,” and the way the narrative structure generates “false impressions” for its readers recalls how Heart of Darkness inspires doubts about Marlow.

Ford Madox Ford is not the only writer whose work bears the mark of Conrad’s influence. Just as Conrad’s use of an unreliable narrator inspired Ford to develop his literary impressionism, his early experiments with first-person narration prefigured what is known as the “stream-of-consciousness” technique. This technique evokes the complexity of the individual psyche by presenting a character’s thoughts, perceptions, and reactions as they unfold in a continuous flow. In the postwar period, the stream-of-consciousness technique became a trademark of numerous modernist novelists, most famously Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. These writers, along with poets like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, have since become most closely associated with literary modernism in English. Although Conrad frequently appears on lists of modernist writers, it must be remembered that he is best understood as having stood on the cusp of the modernist period. His work should therefore be understood not just in the context of modernism, but also as a part of the transition from the Victorian to the modern period around the turn of the century.