Heart of Darkness: A Postmodern Reading
“When you have to attend to […] the mere incidents of the surface, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades” (Conrad 1978). Published for the first time in 1899, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness explores themes and attitudes towards reality which will be further developed and investigated by modernist writers, twenty years later, and by postmodernist critics, approximately one century later. De facto, modernism and postmodernism share an important feature, a strong sense of fragmentation. However, while modernists mourn fragmentation and lament the loss of fullness and meaning, the postmodernists find it “an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of [an] escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief” (Barry 81). Marlow seems to make his way through perceptions and representations of reality, which he builds in what could be said to be, from a postmodernist point of view, a modernist approach and which he transcends in what could be said to be a postmodernist approach.
Literary theorist and philosopher Lyotard defines postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Barry 83): this attitude is indicative of the postmodernist celebration of fragmentation as opposed to the modernist nostalgia for lost truth and wholeness. In fact metanarratives, consisting of an “overreaching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experience” (“Metanarrative”), represent the modernist tendency to lament present fragmentation implying a lost, transcendent truth or, as Barry defines it, a “desired comprehensive reassurance” (89). Heart of Darkness can be said to present elements of metanarration: the symbolism which pervades the novel – most prominently present in the jungle as representing the inner and darker nature of humankind – is indicative of an attempt to find an overarching explanation and meaning in the experience recounted. Postmodernists consider metanarratives as totalising illusions which conceal the internal contradictions and plurality intrinsic in reality, and contrast them with “mininarratives”. These are preferred over the former because they are “provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative” (Barry 83) and do not wish to look for or provide a unifying meaning, a “totalising metadiscourse” (89) in the reality of fragmentation.
Another major concept in the postmodernist critic is that of hyperreality, which is the result of a process in which representation has been substituted by simulation. Thus, the sign becomes a simulacrum, a “truth which conceals that there is none” (Baudrillard 1556). Frame narratives like Heart of Darkness, in which the main narration reproduces the reality a protagonist creates recounting past events, present themselves as good devices to illustrate games of realities. The use of symbolism in the novel leaves room for postmodernist considerations regarding the creation of simulacra concealing a hypothetical absence of reality. Baudrillard elucidates this action of disguising, the “third-order simulation”, with the example of Disneyland, a defined place in which everything is presented to be imaginary so that, by contrast, what is outside of it results real: it conceals “the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus [it saves] the reality principle” (Baudrillard 1565). Analysing Heart of Darkness with this approach, the question becomes whether the jungle, symbol of the most mysterious, dark and wild facets of human nature, implies by contrast that what is not the jungle – what at the time was considered to be civilised life – contains light rather than darkness and is thus associated to what in humanity is simple, rational and good. Considering the fact that Heart of Darkness contains a distinct critic towards imperialism and the British economic exploitation of the colonies, and that the Victorian era was all but immune from evils and social injustice, the novel seems to transcend this idea and to unmask the simulacrum in the depiction of it itself. In fact, Marlow’s journey could be said to represent the exploration of moral darkness in all aspects of the human experience. The contrast with civilised life that could be created by the localisation of darkness in the jungle is eluded by the symbolism which associates the jungle to an integral and constant aspect of human nature.
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can be said to present both modernist and postmodernist attitudes in its creation and elusion of realities throughout the novel. These two are so strictly intertwined that contrasting elements are abundant, but some observations can be made about its elements of metanarrative and hyperrealism. On the one hand, the symbolism in the jungle points to a search for an overarching, universal meaning or truth which represents the modernist nostalgic lament for a lost wholeness in a time of fragmentation. On the other hand, the jungle might appear to be a simulacrum, concealing the absence of “light” in human nature outside of the place in which the “darkness” is located. However, it might also be the key to unmasking the simulacrum because of its universal, absolute nature.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.
Baudrillard, Jean. From “The Precession of Simulacra”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2010. 1556-1566. Print.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 1951-2011. Print.
“Metanarrative”. Oxford Dictionary of English. 3rd ed. 2015. Web.
Did her BA in English Language and Culture in Groningen, and is currently doing her MA in English and American Modern Literature in Cork. Particularly interested in the Beats and in all sorts of poetry. Believes in travelling, practical art, daydreaming, and dark chocolate.