What are some examples of Joseph Conrad's effective use of stylistic techniques in Heart of Darkness?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Joseph Conrad’s skillful use of stylistic techniques in his novel Heart of Darkness is already apparent even in the opening two paragraphs of the book:

The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.

   The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

These paragraphs are stylistically effective for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • Conrad uses precise language, thus implying that his narrator is knowledgeable and reliable, as when the narrator refers to “a crusing yawl” rather than merely to “a ship” or “a boat.”
  • The narrator is skilled at juxtaposing sentences of different lengths and different structures, as in the first two sentences here.
  • The narrator is skilled in using lists and parallelism to organize sentences, as in the second sentence quoted here.
  • The narrator is skilled at using alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds), as in the phrase “turn of the tide.”
  • The narrator is skilled at using similes (comparisons using “like” or “as”), as in the first sentence of the second paragraph.
  • The narrator is skilled in using metaphors (comparisons not involving “like” or “as”), as in  the reference to sea and sky being welded together.
  • The narrator is skilled in using vivid imagery, as in the references to the “tanned sails” and “red clusters of canvas.”
  • The narrator is skilled in using assonance (repetition of the same vowel sounds), as in the juxtaposition (placing side-by-side) of “gloom” and “brooding.”
  • The narrator shows that he is alert to important distinctions, as when he calls London both the “biggest” and the “greatest” town on earth. The word “biggest” refers merely to London’s physical size; the word “greatest” refers to its vitality and power.

 In short, even in two brief paragraphs, Conrad already shows his command of the English language and of effective phrasing in that language.

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