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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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In Heart of Darkness, how does Conrad use language to create a threatening atmosphere?

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Marlowe is a good storyteller, or at least the narrator’s rendition of Marlowe is a good storyteller—it’s important to remember that all of Marlowe’s words reach us second hand. Part of the theme of the story is that wildness lurks everywhere in the world; Marlowe begins by saying that “this also” (meaning the Thames) “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” It is a matter of perception: most people would look at the Thames and see civilization, but Marlowe knows better.

Conrad reinforces this notion using point of view. In crucial moments of the story, the language limits our perception. Take, for instance, the moment when his pilot is killed:

Looking past that mad helmsman, who was shaking the empty rifle and yelling at the shore, I saw vague forms of men running bent double, leaping, gliding, distinct, incomplete, evanescent. Something big appeared in the air before the shutter, the rifle went overboard, and the man stepped back swiftly, looked at me over his shoulder in an extraordinary, profound, familiar manner, and fell upon my feet. The side of his head hit the wheel twice, and the end of what appeared a long cane clattered round and knocked over a little camp-stool. It looked as though after wrenching that thing from somebody ashore he had lost his balance in the effort. The thin smoke had blown away, we were clear of the snag, and looking ahead I could see that in another hundred yards or so I would be free to sheer off, away from the bank; but my feet felt so very warm and wet that I had to look down. The man had rolled on his back and stared straight up at me; both his hands clutched that cane. It was the shaft of a spear that, either thrown or lunged through the opening, had caught him in the side, just below the ribs; the blade had gone in out of sight, after making a frightful gash; my shoes were full; a pool of blood lay very still, gleaming dark-red under the wheel; his eyes shone with an amazing lustre.

Here, we share Marlowe’s point of view. With him, we see the “vague forms” of men running in the bush; we don’t know who these people are or what they are doing. “Something big appeared in the air,” but, with Marlowe, we don’t know what this thing is; he is reporting his perception, which was just to register an brief impression of “something,” neither good nor bad. Marlowe continues reporting just the facts: “the rifle went overboard,” the pilot looks at him in a “profound, familiar manner,” his head hits the wheel not once but twice. He sees “what appeared” to be “a long cane” knocking over a camp stool. It is only after he notices that his feet “felt so very warm and wet” that these details coalesce into the shocking truth of the pilot’s death from a thrown spear. It is a moment when the mundane is suddenly turned into the horrific.

I don’t think Conrad’s point in Heart of Darkness is to argue that the Congo is an alien, savage place, not fit for civilized people. I think the point is that savagery is always everywhere just underneath the surface, and that the notion of “civilization,” like Marlowe’s first impression that the spear is a cane is simply a delusion, or a misinterpretation, of the way things really are.

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Since Marlow is narrating the story himself, much of the narration is styled to sound like a running monologue; he stops, goes back, remembers disconnected information and repeats himself. One method the author uses to create a threatening atmosphere is the repeating of phrases and themes: the "heart of darkness" itself is one, and Marlow seems to become enamored with tangents of what he felt rather than what happened. Long paragraphs are spoken without pause for breath, creating a solid mass of text that feels difficult, and even imprisoning.

Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost...
(Conrad, Heart of Darkness, gutenberg.org)

Here, the repetition of "trees" and the descriptive words make the jungle feel claustrophobic and oppressive; the humans on the river are like "beetles" since they are so small in comparison with the enormous landscape. Their movement is in spite of the jungle, not in harmony with it, and at any moment those "massive, immense" structures -- trees or vines, or any other jungle feature -- might become overtly hostile.

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