Why is it said that Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, can be seen in many ways as the first twentieth-century novel?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Conrad's Heart of Darkness may be seen as the first 20th Century novel for several reasons—perhaps primarily for its reflection of the changing world around him in 1902. Colonization by the major powers (England, Portugal, etc.) had been at the forefront of the world for a long time. Now it provided materials that were considered necessities for the wealthy (e.g., ivory for piano keys, rubber, antiquities from Egypt and Greece, etc.). But now, more importantly, came the truth about the cost of human life exacted by the supply of said items. 

Conrad exposed the savagery of colonization of the Congo—not just the subjugation of human life, but the brutalization and murder of Africa's indigenous people. Leopold II of Belgium had declared that his entrance into the Congo was to bring Christianity to the natives, and...

...to end slavery in the Congo...

However, Leopold promoted the enslavement of the natives, and was motivated only by greed. The few missionaries he allowed into the Congo reported the atrocities they witnessed. This awareness ignited an uproar from the public, along with efforts to provide aid to the African nation. Leopold was eventually forced to release his hold on the Congo...but only after he had—at a conservative estimate—made more than $1.1 billion dollars (based on the monetary equivalent of this century).

One reviewer was...

...taken with Conrad's keen observations of the collapse of the white man's morality when he is released from the restraints of European law and order and set down in the heart of Africa, given free reign...

There was another thing that would greatly influence the reception this once-serialized novel would ultimately receive. It was the author's ability to look not just into the depth of unexplored territory, but into the blackness of one's mind and one's soul—in the character of Kurtz, who Marlowe had traveled into the Inner Station to bring home. This insight into the madness that had enveloped Kurtz was perhaps especially captivating because Sigmund Freud was publishing his theories of psychoanalysis. These studies looked into:

  • human behavior
  • the unconscious
  • understanding the hidden unconscious
  • personality determined by early childhood experiences
  • the conflict between the conscious and the unconscious
  • the ability of the conscious mind to reign over the unconscious, and,
  • understanding and controlling anxiety, depression, neurosis, etc.

With these theories, people became much more aware of the hidden recesses of the mind of human beings. In a review published the same year as the novel...

...Garnett went on to call Heart of Darkness a book that 'enriches English literature' and a 'psychological masterpiece.'

The concept of "psychology" was new and fascinating, as were advancements in science, medicine, inventions (electricity) no so long before. The world was intrigued with the study and understanding of the human psyche that Freud's work promised.

Conrad conveyed with brutal honesty "the views and attitudes of his time," studied "moral ambiguity" within the context of the novel (and society), and provided the form of the modern novel that was willing to report—but not take a side. The reader had to make his own decision. The novel was also praised for its documentary style regarding the life of "merchant marine sailing."

With Conrad's style and content, Heart of Darkness was exciting and...

...considered a forerunner of modern literary technique. 

kuollutlintu | Student

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Heart of Darkness

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