Writing Style of Heart of Darkness

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What has come to be known as the sublime is an awe inspiring experience, caused by an equilibrium between aesthetic gratification and negative pleasure that one receives from witnessing raw power. What causes this awe is not solely a mere sense of beauty, but a much more magnitudinal force. Using the ocean as an example, one may relish in the allure of its reflective surface or even the methodicality of the waves seeming to endlessly rush onto the beach. However, what makes such an experience sublime is the recognition of danger, or terror that it incites, that, for the ocean, could be the power of the waves crashing against rocks or the mystery of what lays below the surface. These experiences are so appealing to humans as a result of a certain negative pleasure that comes with the aesthetically pleasing aspect. It is through this mysteriousness and magnitude of power that leads humans to constantly seek these experiences in nature through adventure and exploration. Overall, the paragonal point of the sublime is its ability to “[produce] the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke). In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, sublime experiences are not only used to enrich the inner philosophies of characters, but also to give insight into what makes the story such a literary masterpiece. First, Marlow comes into contact with the sublime when interacting with both the natural world and Kurtz, allowing him to initially communicate messages of disquietude. Second, Kurtz experiences himself as the sublime, skewing his morality, and therefore being able to convey this experience to other characters. Third, parallels between Kurtz and Heart of Darkness are drawn, reinforcing the book itself as a sublime experience and ultimately creating a powerful message of moral confusion. Collectively, it is the intertwinement of the sublime into characters in Heart of Darkness that allows the book to convey such strong moral messages.

The sublime encountered by Marlow spins his moral compass and inspires a sense of both adventure and disquietude. First, aboard the Nellie, the meditative yet restless tone inspires emotion “fit for nothing but placid staring” (Conrad 4). Doing this creates a sublime experience within the characters on the boat where they feel the ominous presence that Marlow’s story will bring, despite the aesthetically peaceful atmosphere. Automatically, Marlow is described as “a Buddha preaching in European clothes” (Conrad 7), differentiating his being as one that is more enlightened and fit to take the other characters on his journey. By portraying Marlow as a Buddha, he is given the role of being a guide into the soul. In addition to this, this initial boat setting is revisited at the end of the book. Throughout the story, the characters on the boat never actually move, only time passes, turning dusk into night. By combining Marlow’s role as a guide into the soul and creating a common setting between the beginning and end of the book, Conrad reinforces the notion that this journey down the Congo is one purely of the internal sense and never anything physical. This embarkment on the Nellie reinforces sublime nature through the notion that the sublime is “always internal [and] takes place within the spectator” (Fuery 150). Overall, Conrad uses Marlow atop the Nellie as a ship captain and Buddha, acting to sail the rest of the characters into his story and subsequently into a completely internal exploration of the sublime. Second, the Congo is portrayed initially as “a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over” (Conrad 9), but is later morphed into “an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land” (Conrad 9). By noting that this snake “had charmed [him]” (Conrad 9), an experience is created for Marlow where he feels a delicate balance between the thrill of adventure and dark mystery surrounding this immense area. Relating to the example of the ocean, the initial experience that Marlow has with the Congo is given through a map, conveying solely the message of an innocent adventure, similar to the aesthetic beauty that the surface of the ocean holds. However, this spectator-like view of the Congo masks the dark reality of a deafeningly quiet jungle that forces visitors to look into the darkness of their souls, much like the mysterious dangers of what lies under the surface of the ocean. This contrast between the fierce spirit of adventure and mysterious disquietude creates a sublime experience for Marlow that essentially pulls him into the Congo. The sublime experience from the Nellie serves to pull the reader into Marlow’s story, while the Congo as a sublime experience enraptures Marlow, later enabling the start of a tenebrous adventure tale. It is the tandem of these two sublime experiences that inspires the initial unease that one feels when preparing to embark on this adventure both into the Congo and into their own souls.

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Marlow and Kurtz both act to give deeper insight into each others characters, through the sharing of common moral understanding after experiencing Kurtz’s soul as the sublime. First, Kurtz’s character is forced to look within himself and be immersed in his dark soul. This sense of solitude results from the deafeningly quiet jungle “[whispering] to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude” (Conrad 72), subsequently stripping Kurtz of the eloquence that draws humans to him so naturally. These layers of eloquence serve to immerse him naturally within society and to mask the dark intensity in his soul that would otherwise be seen as disquieting. As these layers are stripped away, Kurtz experiences a sublime sort of reflexivity, causing his soul to “ [look] within itself… [and go] mad” (Conrad 83), enabling him to break connections with the company and to pursue his own selfish desires. Through this sublime experience, Kurtz’s being is described as a “ soul that [knows] no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet [struggles] blindly with itself” (Conrad 83). Within Kurtz, this lack of restraint serves to be the strongest of his emotions, finally being unveiled through the reflexivity he experiences through isolation. This is significant because Kurtz looking within his own soul, “his intelligence [being] perfectly clear—concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity” (Conrad 83) cements his role as one that exceeds moral understanding. Second, Kurtz, essentially as a sublime experience, acts to convey the sublime to other characters in the story. To the Russian, “[Kurtz] has enlarged [his] mind.” (Conrad 67) as a result of being able to also look upon Kurtz as a sublime experience. It is the masking of Kurtz's erratic ideas with eloquence that causes them to presented in an inspirational way. In comparison to the sublime, Kurtz's eloquence presents the exterior beauty, while his deeper ideals cause the mystery and disquietude that contributes to Kurtz's sublime existence. For the Russian, being around Kurtz is a sublime experience as he is able to immerse himself in the beauty that is Kurtz’s humanity as a well-rounded and eloquent ‘superhuman’, but also the danger that such a man with his dark morals brings, shown when Kurtz suddenly decides “he [wants] to shoot [the Russian]” (Conrad 70). This is significant because the Russian, having already beared witness to Kurtz as the sublime, is able to convey the remarkability of Kurtz to Marlow, ultimately urging Marlow into a position where he is able to fully experience Kurtz. By placing Kurtz at this paragonal standing, and eventually succumbing him to death, Marlow also experiences a Kurtz-esque reflexivity, morally separating him from the rest of society and rendering “his world… less secure and fixed” (Fuery 153). Once Marlow states that he believes “Mr. Kurtz is a remarkable man” (Conrad 77), he displays the mutual respect to the sublime he has experienced, causing him to be alienated from the rest of society. It is through his succumbing to Kurtz as the sublime that Marlow has been given the purpose to act as a narrative guide. What makes him such an effective guide in the story is his understanding of the wildness, pain, and sublime experiences that the Congo and Kurtz both offer. Kurtz and Marlow both act to give deeper insight and influence into each other’s characters ultimately creating the major sublime experience in Heart of Darkness.

Both Kurtz and Heart of Darkness are essentially portrayed as examples of the anamorphic sublime. The anamorphic aspect states that the sublime is only able to be experienced by obtaining a certain point of view. As one who has achieved this anamorphic point of view, Marlow acts as a guide to give insight into the moral rollercoaster that he encounters in the Congo, eventually leading into Kurtz’s character. First, by denying Kurtz a major narrative role, Conrad creates the notion that Kurtz is beyond moral understanding and that one must take a certain vantage point to gather insight into his character. Marlow’s job as a metaphorical ship captain differentiates him as one that is able to navigate Kurtz’s character to obtain these certain vantage points. Second, Kurtz is able “to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence, the barren darkness of his heart” (Conrad 85) as a way to present his seemingly unethical ideas in influential ways. These folds of eloquence contribute to the beauteous aspect of the sublimity within Kurtz, and are also used to suppress the disquietude that his dangerous soul underneath brings. Similarly to the heart of darkness within Kurtz that merits the aspect of negative pleasure, Kurtz’s character, representing the complete embodiment of evil, is portrayed to be the book’s ultimate heart of darkness. The meaning behind Heart of Darkness itself is the presentation of negative pleasure, with Kurtz and the Congo as whirlwinds of moral confusion at its ‘heart’, all wrapped in the shell that is literary mastery. Thus, a paradox is created where Kurtz’s heart of darkness is the Congo, causing his sublime reflexivity, while the Congo’s heart of darkness, conversely, is Kurtz, portraying the embodiment of the jungle and all evil. This paradox is significant because Kurtz is essentially being portrayed as Heart of Darkness, creating a human vessel to illustrate the book’s messages of moral confusion. Through Marlow guidance, a vantage point is obtained where these moral messages are able to bloom out of Kurtz’s anamorphic soul into a realm that is understandable. The primary message of moral confusion that the book uses Kurtz to convey is that morality is solely a matter of perspective and that each person’s morals follow a pattern of anamorphosis when trying to be understood. Although one might question how this relates to the sublime, it is the transformation of the sublime experienced by Kurtz, harnessed by the book, and delivered to the reader that allows for a variety of moral outlooks when classifying what is right and wrong. What ultimately makes Heart of Darkness so appealing is the presence of the sublime through the utilization of a beautiful literary wildness to convey the disquietude found in disagreeable ethics. By writing with a sense of wildness, a sense of nature is induced that “excites the ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular discourses” (Kant 84). Heart of Darkness is able to combine the sublime from characters, causing anamorphic morality, with the convoluted, primal writing style, representative of the jungle, ultimately rendering the book itself, sublime.

Overall, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness uses the sublime to prove the anamorphic nature of morality in characters, ultimately contributing to the overall appeal of the book as a sublime experience in itself. First, Marlow gives an introduction into the sublime by preparing both the reader and those on the Nellie for a dangerously beautiful journey into the Congo. Second, the tandem of characterization between Kurtz and Marlow helps to give insight into each other’s character and to prove morality exists relativistically within the heart of darkness. Third, Kurtz is essentially the embodiment of Heart of Darkness, offering the disquietude and morals beyond comprehension that in addition to the wildly beautiful literary style, creates the sublime in the book itself. Apart from creating a literary masterpiece, Heart of Darkness employs the sublime to offer the message of self reflection to humanity. It aims to hold a metaphorical mirror up to society, in hopes to inspire a Kurtz-like reflexivity. By doing this, Conrad conveys his encouragement towards humanity to resolve their own mistakes, especially to an era infested with moral issues such as global warming and political dispute. He cautions humanity away from walking down the same path as Kurtz, resulting in a life of greed without restraint. Ultimately, he wishes that the world will never experience “the horror, the horror” (Conrad 92).

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Writing Style of Heart of Darkness. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/writing-style-of-heart-of-darkness/
“Writing Style of Heart of Darkness.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/writing-style-of-heart-of-darkness/
Writing Style of Heart of Darkness. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/writing-style-of-heart-of-darkness/> [Accessed 30 May 2024].
Writing Style of Heart of Darkness [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2024 May 30]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/writing-style-of-heart-of-darkness/
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