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“H ea rt o f Da rkne ss ”. Narrative Structure. Framed Narrative Narrator begins Marlow takes over Narrator breaks in occasionally Marlow is Conrad’s alter-ego, he shows up in some of Conrad’s other works including “Youth: A Narrative” and Lord Jim

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narrative structure
Narrative Structure
  • Framed Narrative
    • Narrator begins
    • Marlow takes over
    • Narrator breaks in occasionally
  • Marlow is Conrad’s alter-ego, he shows up in some of Conrad’s other works including “Youth: A Narrative” and Lord Jim
  • Marlow recounts his tale while he is on a small vessel on the Thames with some drinking buddies who are ex-merchant seamen. As he recounts his story the group sits in an all-encompassing darkness and passes around a bottle.
varied interpretations
Varied Interpretations
  • There are many different interpretations of this book:
  • Some see it as an attack on colonialism and a criticism of racial exploitation
  • Some see Kurtz as the embodiment of all the evil and horror of the capitalist society.
  • Others view it as a portrayal of one man’s journey into the primitive unconscious where the only means of escaping the blandness of everyday life is by self degradation.
themes motifs
Themes & Motifs
  • Darkness
    • Primitive Impulses (Kurtz, previous captain)
    • Cruelty of Man (Kurtz, the Company)
    • Immorality/Amorality (General Manager/Kurtz)
  • Lies/Hypocrisy (Marlow chooses Kurtz evil vs. Company’s hypocritical evil)
  • Imperialism/Colonialism (The Company)
    • Cruelty
    • Greed
    • Exploitation
themes motifs1
Themes & Motifs
  • Role of Women
    • Civilization exploitive of women
    • Civilization as a binding and self-perpetuating force
  • Physical / Psychological
  • Barriers (fog, thick forest, etc.)
  • Rivers (connection to past, parallels time and journey)

Paul O’Prey: "It is an irony that the 'failures' of Marlow and Kurtz are paralleled by a corresponding failure of Conrad's technique--brilliant though it is--as the vast abstract darkness he imagines exceeds his capacity to analyze and dramatize it, and the very inability to portray the story's central subject, the 'unimaginable', the 'impenetratable' (evil, emptiness, mystery or whatever) becomes a central theme."

James Guetti complains that Marlow "never gets below the surface," and is "denied the final self-knowledge that Kurtz had."

response to criticism
Response to Criticism

Conrad, writing in 1922, responds to similar criticism: "Explicitness, my dear fellow, is fatal to the glamour of all artistic work, robbing it of all suggestiveness, destroying all illusion. You seem to believe in literalness and explicitness, in facts and in expression. Yet nothing is more clear than the utter insignificance of explicit statement and also its power to call attention away from things that matter in the region of art."

Marlowe, the narrator, describes how difficult conveying a story is: "Do you see the story? Do you see anything? 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 the very essence of dream . . .No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning-- its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream--alone."


Ex: The way institutions/administrations work in the novel.

Who is the prole? Who is the bourgeoisie?

Idea that society is run by the bourgeoisie, who keep proletariats (workers) in line with propaganda at all levels of their institutions (church, school, government, media, business, etc.) repression

Socialism: A political theory that advocates a collective or government ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods and pay according to work done

  • A depiction of, and an attack upon, colonialism in general and, in particular, the brutality demonstrated in the Belgian Congo.
    • the mistreatment of the Africans
    • the greed of the so-called "pilgrims"
    • the broken idealism of Kurtz
    • the French man-of-war lobbing shells into the jungle
    • the grove of death upon which Marlow stumbles
    • the little note that Kurtz appends to his noble-minded essay on The Suppression of Savage Customs
    • the importance of ivory to the economics of the system.
new historical
New Historical

Stresses the relationship of literature to its historical period

Deals with background knowledge

Ex: What historical and cultural comments are being made through the telling of this story? Imperialism? African culture? Modernism?

new historical1
New Historical
  • Conrad pursues a sociological investigation into those who conquer, those who are conquered, and the complicated interplay between them.
    • Marlow's invocation of the Roman conquest of Britain
    • cultural ambiguity of those Africans who have taken on some of the ways of their Europeans
    • the ways in which the wilderness tends to strip away the civility of the Europeans and brutalize them
    • Conrad is not impartial and scientifically detached from these things, and he even has a bit of fun with such impartiality in his depiction the doctor who tells Marlow that people who go out to Africa become "scientifically interesting."
new historical regarding religion
New Historical regarding Religion
  • Heart of Darkness as an examination of various aspects of religion and religious practices.
    • Examine the way Conrad plays with the concept of pilgrims and pilgrimages.
    • The role of Christian missionary concepts as a justification for the violent and irresponsible actions of the colonialists.
    • The dark way in which Kurtz fulfills his own messianic ambitions by accepting the role of God.
feminist theory
Feminist Theory

Radical: superiority of female attributes; individual more important than the group

Liberal: Work within society for equality- reform, not revolt; minimize differences; individual more important

Materialist: Minimizes biological differences; stresses also history, race, class; group more important

Ex: Look at the women in Heart of Darkness through a feminist lens. How are they portrayed? Why?

psychoanalytical theory
Psychoanalytical Theory

Psychoanalysis: Sessions in which a patient is encouraged to talk about personal experiences; especially early childhood and dreams in an attempt to get at our hidden unconscious motives.

Can analyze characters, or the author and the artistic process

What are the hidden motives that cause a character’s behavior and speech? How much background does the author reveal about a character (esp. childhood)?

psychoanalytical theory four models
Psychoanalytical Theory: Four Models
  • Freud: id (libido; unconscious), ego (rational, logical) and superego (moral judgments) – what the ego and superego tell us not to do is repressed in the unconscious mind and emerges in other forms: dreams, language (Freudian slips), creative activity; neurotic behavior
    • Oedipal Theories: Oedipus complex – males love mother, father as rival until son fears castration by father, so he pulls away from mother and identifies with father
    • Importance of Dreams: Repressed desires and fears; displacement; replacement of actual object in life with a symbol in a dream; condensation: anger consolidated into a single sentence; neurosis
psychoanalytical theory four models1
Psychoanalytical Theory: Four Models

Jung: Personal conscious (waking state); personal unconscious (storage and memory); collective unconscious (cumulative knowledge of the human race; genetically inherited)

Northrop Frye: There is an overall “monomyth” to all literature – archetypes

psychoanalytical theory four models2
Psychoanalytical Theory: Four Models

Jacques Lacan: Imaginary (birth to 6 months: wishes fantasies, we see ourselves in our mother’s image); Symbolic (we learn we are separate from our mother, we learn language, differentiate between male and female); Real (the physical world and everything in it, as well as that which we lack)

Example: How is Kurtz a form of Freud’s id? Whatdreamlike qualities does the journey down the river have? How can these be interpreted considering the message of the novel?

Example: Consider the archetypal journey/quest Marlowe takes.

psychological psychoanalytical
Psychological / Psychoanalytical:
  • Conrad suggests that Marlow's journey is like a dream or a return to the primitive past - an exploration of the dark recesses of the human mind.
    • Similarities to the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung: Dreams offer clues to hidden areas of the individual and collective unconsciousness.
    • Humans are primitive savages, capable of appalling and horrifying impulses. (the Id)
    • Note that Marlow refers to Kurtz as a voice which seems to speak to him from the heart of the immense darkness.
new critical theory
New Critical Theory
  • Detailed examination and explanation of a text
    • Goal: single, best and most unified interpretation of the text
  • POV, plot, tone, character and structure are discussed with regard to artistic quality of the works and writers
  • Tries to find a reading that explains the facts of the text
  • Structure and meaning should not be analyzed separately because they are intimately connected
  • IGNORES history/author’s background
new critical theory regarding moral philosophical ideas
New Critical Theory regarding Moral-Philosophical Ideas
  • Heart of Darkness is preoccupied with general questions about the nature of good and evil, civilization and savagery
    • What saves Marlow from becoming evil?
    • Is Kurtz more or less evil than the pilgrims?
    • Why does Marlow associate lies with mortality?

This approach regards literature as “a unique form of human knowledge that needs to be examined on its own terms.” All the elements necessary for understanding the work are contained within the work itself. Of particular interest to the formalist critic are the elements of form—style, structure, tone, imagery, etc.—that are found within the text. A primary goal for formalist critics is to determine how such elements work together with the text’s content to shape its effects upon readers.


Threes: There are three parts to the story, three breaks in the story (1 in pt. 1 and 2 in pt. 2), and three central characters: the outside narrator, Marlow and Kurtz

Contrasting Images (light and dark, open and closed, civilized and savage)

Center to Periphery: Kurtz – Marlow – Narrator – Reader

Are the answers to be found in the center or the periphery?

  • “An interpretation is misinterpretation.”
  • Stresses ambiguity and contradiction
  • Truth is unknowable because circumstances and time are changeable and arbitrary
    • Only absolute is that there is no absolute; Infinite meanings
    • No closure; no ultimate truth
  • Ambivalence, indecision, discrepancies, etc.
    • Language is arbitrary; it doesn’t match reality
  • Look for binaries; reverse them to allow text to be undecided
    • Binaries: a pair of related terms or concepts that are opposite in meaning
    • accept the possibility of various perspectives or levels of meaning in a text based on the new binary inversions.
deconstruction binaries
Deconstruction: Binaries

Ex: Isolation/Silence vs. Noise

Ex: Good vs. Evil

Ex: Truth vs. Lies

Ex: Reality vs. Perception

Ex: Natives vs. Civilized

  • “An interpretation is misinterpretation.”
  • Stresses ambiguity and contradiction
  • Truth is unknowable because circumstances and time are changeable and arbitrary
  • Ambivalence, indecision, discrepancies, etc.

A distrust of abstractions as a way of delineating truth,

A desire for transcendence mingled with a feeling that transcendence cannot be achieved,

An awareness of primitivism and savagery as the condition upon which civilization is built, and a corresponding interest in non-European peoples,

A skepticism that emerges from the notion that human ideas about the world seldom fit the complexity of the world itself, and thus a sense that multiplicity, ambiguity, and irony – in life and in art – are the necessary responses of the intelligent mind to the human condition.