Impressionistic Approach In Literature

What is Impressionism and is Joseph Conrad an impressionist? Give textual evidence from Heart of Darkness.

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Impressionism was originally an artistic rather than a literary movement. It was based on the nature of perception, specifically the knowledge that we do not actually see objects, but rather see light falling on objects that is reflected to our eyes. Thus impressionists focused on portraying the light that impresses itself on our eyes rather than reconstructing the object per se. The symbolist poets sometimes were described as impressionists because, in opposition to the realist movement, they believed that we do not experience external events directly but instead as mediated through our senses and sensibilities. Thus poets such as Rimbaud were concerned with the nature of sensation, of trying to describe emotional impressions, rather than to create vivid approximations of an external world. 

Perhaps the most prototypically impressionist novelist, in the strict sense of the term, was Huysman, whose A Rebours focuses on an aesthete concerned with this specific problem of maximizing certain types of sensation in his life. While certain recent genre theorists have discussed Heart of Darkness as an impressionistic novel, stylistically it is far closer to German Expressionist work than to the refined urban sensibilities of the French fin de siecle poets and their imitators (such as Arthur Symons, whose poetry and criticism were seminal in the use of "impressionism" as a literary term). In some ways, Heart of Darkness has almost Gothic characteristics in its exotic locale and atmosphere of horror. Simply expressing the interior thoughts of characters does not make a writer an impressionist, as that is a feature common to almost all novelists. 

Ian Watts's position that Conrad was an impressionistic writer uses the term somewhat ahistorically, not referencing Impressionism within its literary or artistic context, but rather referring to Hume's philosophical concept of impressions and labeling works focused on the interior states of characters, such as those of Conrad and Virginia Wolfe, as impressionistic, as opposed to realistic novels that focused on the external world.

copelmat eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Impressionistic literature can be defined as a work created by an author that centers on the thinking and feelings of the characters and allows the reader to draw his or her own interpretations and conclusions about their meaning.

Absolutely, Heart of Darkness is often cited as one of the preeminent examples of Impressionistic literature. Throughout the novella, we witness the inner workings of Marlow's thoughts and emotions as he journeys up the Congo River toward the Inner Station and his encounter with Kurtz. In fact, it is Kurtz who presents the major focus on Marlow's attention. However, Marlow never comes out and explicitly tells us what he thinks and believes about Kurtz; instead, Conrad leaves us to draw our own conclusions.

Kurtz, too, is much the same. He also shares his thoughts and feelings about his job and his role in the African jungle and the reader is left to "read between the lines" to interpret his exact meaning. No example could better exemplify the element of Impressionism with the novella than Kurtz's final words: "the horror, the horror." A readers we do not know exactly what "the horror" is and instead are left to devise our own interpretation.