The linguistic style of Heart of Darkness is gloomy and foreboding. As Conrad announces with his title, the novella is dominated both by a sense of “darkness” and by the anticipation involved in going into darkness’s “heart.” This sense of an ominous journey is also suggested when Marlow begins to speak to the passengers onboard the Nellie. Without warning, Marlow suddenly makes a mysterious and sinister remark: “And this also . . . has been one of the dark places of the earth.” Although he does not immediately explain himself, his fellow passengers know that the story he wants to tell does not promise to be a happy one. Thus, from the beginning of the novella, and even before the beginning if you count the title, the linguistic style promotes a sense of obscurity, indicating that something unwelcome lies on the horizon.
Analyzing Conrad’s vocabulary in the novella reveals that he frequently uses a series of terms related to “darkness,” including “mournful,” “gloomy,” “brooding,” and “sombre.” Taken together, this rhetoric of darkness conjures an overwhelming sense of the unknown, and what is unknown in Heart of Darkness is always morally and spiritually threatening. Symbolically, darkness functions in opposition to light, and whereas light symbolizes goodness and moral uprightness, darkness symbolizes evil and moral depravity. Furthermore, without the illumination of light, darkness cannot be penetrated. In this sense, darkness becomes symbolically thick, much like “the great wall of vegetation” that borders each side of the river, which is so dense that Marlow cannot see into the jungle. By concealing things from view, darkness renders the world imperceptible, or as Conrad often writes, “inscrutable,” meaning impossible to understand or interpret. Conrad’s rhetoric of darkness, therefore, shrouds the world in obscurity, making it difficult if not impossible to make sense of anything.
A second, related series of terms that is threaded throughout the novella points to a distinction between appearance and reality. Starting on the very first page, Conrad frequently uses verbs such as “resemble,” “seem,” and “appear” to qualify observations and statements. For example, “the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still,” and the Director of Companies “resembled a pilot.” The use of qualifying verbs like these has a curious effect: by always pointing to how things appear and never to what they actually are, they dampen the sense of reality. The verb “appear” is slightly different, due to its close association with the term “apparition.” An apparition is an unexpected or strange sight, but it can also refer to a kind of barely visible, ghostly figure. Marlow encounters many such unexpected sights on his journey, and particularly Kurtz, whose body and mind have faded so profoundly that he seems little more than a ghost. Just like Conrad’s use of the rhetoric of darkness indicates the challenge of making sense of the world, his rhetoric of appearing indicates the challenge of seeing things as they really are.
Conrad’s use of language in Heart of Darkness can also be described as dense. He often writes sentences that compress a lot of information into a small amount of space. Take, for instance, this sentence referring to the River Thames: “The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service crowded with memories of men and ships it has borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea.” In this sentence, Conrad begins by referencing the river and its natural flow. However, in mid-sentence the natural river seamlessly transforms into a human instrument, something that can be used as a conduit for the passage of ships. But Conrad does not stop there. The last third of the sentence takes another turn, this time referencing not the river at all, but the men who have journeyed along this river, both on their way to battle and on their way home. Thus, Conrad successfully condenses multiple ideas into one sentence without the help of any internal punctuation
Elsewhere, however, Conrad’s language is more complex, in that he uses longer compound sentences. One example comes from Marlow’s description of the heads on poles that surround Kurtz’s hut: “These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing—food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole.” This sentence has a two-part structure, and each part links two different thoughts that are expressed in short clauses. In the first half of the sentence, Marlow reflects on what the ornaments mean and what kind of visual effect they have on the observer. The second half of the sentence turns away from meaning and appearance and instead considers the fact that the ornaments are made of flesh and may therefore attract carnivorous birds and insects. In more general terms, the first half of the sentence considers the poles in an abstract sense, whereas the second half of the sentence considers them in a concrete sense. Taken altogether, the sentence offers a complex but complete analysis of the poles’ startling impact.
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