How can Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness not be viewed as a text that emphasizes the hypocrisy of imperialism?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An effective way to avoid analyzing Conrad's Heart of Darkness as emphasizing the hypocrisy of imperialism is to look at it from a Formalist frame of reference.

Seeing that there is some level of advanced degree work at play here, it might be best to find a literary theory that avoids political, social, or historical considerations when analyzing a literary work. If this is the case, then the best approach to analyzing Heart of Darkness would be to engage in a Formalist analysis of the text. 

Formalism is a literary theory that looks at a work on its own literary merits. When using Formalism, political and historical contexts attached to a literature are devalued.  If Heart of Darkness is analyzed from a Formalist point of view, there would not be an emphasis on Conrad's imperialist opinions. In Formalism, such considerations are not a part of the work's literary condition. Rather, the focus is on a close reading of the text. Formalism's emphasis lies in the analysis of elements such as sentence structure and character development. It looks at the literary forces that help "form" the work as a whole. As a result, Conrad's work can be viewed as a text that does not emphasize the hypocrisy of imperialism. 

An example of a Formalist approach to analyzing Conrad's work and avoiding his stand on the hypocrisy of imperialism would be to look at the literary elements in specific passages. One such passage takes place early in the story:

What saves us [the British] is efficiency — the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps [the Romans] were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conqueror, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.

The Formalist literary theory would examine the polarities established in the passage. The idea of "strength" and "weakness" represents opposing forces, entities that exert influence on the individual. This exertion is a significant part of the novel's characterizations. In the Formalist approach, techniques such as word choice, point of view, and/ or character development would be emphasized. The Formalist approach would avoid Conrad's perceived beliefs on imperialism because such considerations are not focused on the "form" of the work itself. The driving force of the Formalist approach is about the work, not implications arising outside of it. Accordingly, Formalism would allow Conrad's Heart of Darkness to be seen as a work that does not emphasize the hypocrisy of imperialism.

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Heart of Darkness

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