Heart of Darkness

by

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness: Irony 3 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—Invisible Marlow:

When Marlow tells his fellow sailors about how difficult it is to fully capture the truth through storytelling, Conrad reinforces his point through dramatic irony. Marlow says:

“I do not see [Kurtz] in the name any more than you do. Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—”

[...]

“Of course in this you fellows see more than I could then. You see me, whom you know....”

Then, the sailor who narrates the novella continues:

It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice. There was not a word from anybody.

This situation is ironic because Marlow thinks that the other sailors can see him in the dark—which is a metaphor for them understanding his story—but they really can’t. Through this dramatic irony, Conrad suggests that Marlow’s message isn’t getting across: his audience (and the reader) misunderstands the true point of his story, even though he thinks they grasp at least part of it. This is significant because Marlow has just discussed Kurtz for the first time in his story. At this stage, the sailors (and readers) likely expect that Kurtz will live up to all the praise that others are offering him, and thus redeem European colonialism in the process. But he doesn’t, and when reality dashes Marlow’s expectations at the end of the novella, Marlow also dashes those of his audience. Thus, the subject of Marlow’s monologue adds another layer of irony to the situation: he thinks his audience is taking the hint about Kurtz being a disappointment, but they don’t—which sets them up for a far greater disappointment at the novella’s conclusion.

Because Marlow calls Kurtz an enigma at the same time as he is literally invisible to his audience, this dramatic irony also draws a direct parallel between Marlow and Kurtz. By describing Marlow as “no more to us than a voice,” the Narrator also foreshadows Marlow and Kurtz’s meeting, when Marlow encounters the dying, maniacal Kurtz as nothing more than a disembodied, invisible voice. In turn, this parallel suggests that Marlow plays a similar role for the other sailors as Kurtz played for him: he’s an enigma, a purveyor of tall tales so unusual that he becomes a mythical figure in his own right. This scene therefore suggests that the other sailors may not believe Marlow—and perhaps that the reader shouldn’t believe Conrad, either. In particular, readers should question the assumption that Marlow’s story accurately reflects Conrad’s real-life experiences in the Congo.

Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—Contradictory Kurtz:

Kurtz’s lifestyle and condition in the novella are examples of situational irony. He is supposed to represent the glorious height of European civilization, but actually, he is a megalomaniacal brute who lives a miserable, isolated life in a hut in the jungle—which is exactly how Europeans imagine the so-called African “savages” whom men like Kurtz are supposed to “civilize” through colonialism. This irony underscores Conrad’s conclusion that there is no essential difference between “civilization” and “savagery” at all—instead, he views “civilization” as a set of cultural coping mechanisms that societies develop to hide the brutality, violence, and corruption that lie at their heart.

In the first half of the book, numerous acquaintances tell Marlow that the legendary Kurtz represents (European) humanity’s greatest qualities. Marlow starts idolizing Kurtz and looking forward to meeting him. But, as he approaches the Inner Station, Marlow also starts to see the irony in Kurtz’s situation and very identity. For instance, when he finds Kurtz’s well-regarded support about the “suppression of savage customs” in Part 2, he notes:

This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’

Kurtz ends a pamphlet “of burning noble words” with a famous, heartless call to “exterminate all the brutes”—or the same native Congolese he originally planned to “civilize.” This sentiment shows how eloquence and altruism can coexist with unthinking, callous greed in the same person. Indeed, ironically enough, Kurtz’s words make him sound precisely like a brute (the kind of people he wants to exterminate). Marlow confirms his suspicions about Kurtz in Part 3, when he approaches Kurtz’s hut and notices the unusual decorations:

These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing—food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house.

Again, this suggests to Marlow that Kurtz is not the most principled, peaceful, and selfless man in the Congo, but rather just the opposite. In Western culture, practices like headhunting (killing one’s rivals and collecting their heads) are often assumed to belong primarily to so-called “savage” non-European cultures—and then viewed as evidence that these other cultures are inferior to European cultures. In this way, European ideas about practices like headhunting helped justify Europe’s overseas imperialism as a “civilizing mission.” But by showing the righteous European colonizer engaging in headhunting, Conrad suggests that European culture is just as cruel and immoral as the cultures Europeans look down on as “savage.”

It’s important to note that Conrad is also factually correct: historically, putting heads on stakes is a primarily European tradition, and even into the 20th century, Europeans have frequently collected enemies’ heads as trophies. For instance, a few decades after Conrad published this book, booming European demand for shrunken heads led to a substantial increase in headhunting in the Amazon. And later, during World War II Americans frequently collected Japanese soldiers’ skulls as trophies.

Finally, the fact that the heads are turned toward Kurtz’s hut adds to the situational irony. Ordinarily, heads on stakes are turned outwards to serve as threats, but Kurtz seems to want to look at the skulls of the people he has killed, as though to admire his own unmatched abilities as a murderer.

By the time he actually meets Kurtz, Marlow is completely disillusioned: he recognizes that the real-life Kurtz could not be more different from the legendary man that others have told him about. In Part 3, he sums up his disappointment by bitterly pointing out that even Kurtz’s name seems to be a lie:

Kurtz—Kurtz—that means short in German—don’t it? Well, the name was as true as everything else in his life—and death. He looked at least seven feet long.

Ultimately, the situational irony surrounding Kurtz’s life and death is the novella’s central plot point. Conrad uses it as an allegory for the situational irony he saw at the heart of colonialism itself: Europeans view non-Europeans as culturally inferior, prone to violence, and lacking reason, and then use these assumptions to justify some of the greatest atrocities the world has ever seen.

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Part 3
Explanation and Analysis—Contradictory Kurtz:

Kurtz’s lifestyle and condition in the novella are examples of situational irony. He is supposed to represent the glorious height of European civilization, but actually, he is a megalomaniacal brute who lives a miserable, isolated life in a hut in the jungle—which is exactly how Europeans imagine the so-called African “savages” whom men like Kurtz are supposed to “civilize” through colonialism. This irony underscores Conrad’s conclusion that there is no essential difference between “civilization” and “savagery” at all—instead, he views “civilization” as a set of cultural coping mechanisms that societies develop to hide the brutality, violence, and corruption that lie at their heart.

In the first half of the book, numerous acquaintances tell Marlow that the legendary Kurtz represents (European) humanity’s greatest qualities. Marlow starts idolizing Kurtz and looking forward to meeting him. But, as he approaches the Inner Station, Marlow also starts to see the irony in Kurtz’s situation and very identity. For instance, when he finds Kurtz’s well-regarded support about the “suppression of savage customs” in Part 2, he notes:

This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’

Kurtz ends a pamphlet “of burning noble words” with a famous, heartless call to “exterminate all the brutes”—or the same native Congolese he originally planned to “civilize.” This sentiment shows how eloquence and altruism can coexist with unthinking, callous greed in the same person. Indeed, ironically enough, Kurtz’s words make him sound precisely like a brute (the kind of people he wants to exterminate). Marlow confirms his suspicions about Kurtz in Part 3, when he approaches Kurtz’s hut and notices the unusual decorations:

These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing—food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house.

Again, this suggests to Marlow that Kurtz is not the most principled, peaceful, and selfless man in the Congo, but rather just the opposite. In Western culture, practices like headhunting (killing one’s rivals and collecting their heads) are often assumed to belong primarily to so-called “savage” non-European cultures—and then viewed as evidence that these other cultures are inferior to European cultures. In this way, European ideas about practices like headhunting helped justify Europe’s overseas imperialism as a “civilizing mission.” But by showing the righteous European colonizer engaging in headhunting, Conrad suggests that European culture is just as cruel and immoral as the cultures Europeans look down on as “savage.”

It’s important to note that Conrad is also factually correct: historically, putting heads on stakes is a primarily European tradition, and even into the 20th century, Europeans have frequently collected enemies’ heads as trophies. For instance, a few decades after Conrad published this book, booming European demand for shrunken heads led to a substantial increase in headhunting in the Amazon. And later, during World War II Americans frequently collected Japanese soldiers’ skulls as trophies.

Finally, the fact that the heads are turned toward Kurtz’s hut adds to the situational irony. Ordinarily, heads on stakes are turned outwards to serve as threats, but Kurtz seems to want to look at the skulls of the people he has killed, as though to admire his own unmatched abilities as a murderer.

By the time he actually meets Kurtz, Marlow is completely disillusioned: he recognizes that the real-life Kurtz could not be more different from the legendary man that others have told him about. In Part 3, he sums up his disappointment by bitterly pointing out that even Kurtz’s name seems to be a lie:

Kurtz—Kurtz—that means short in German—don’t it? Well, the name was as true as everything else in his life—and death. He looked at least seven feet long.

Ultimately, the situational irony surrounding Kurtz’s life and death is the novella’s central plot point. Conrad uses it as an allegory for the situational irony he saw at the heart of colonialism itself: Europeans view non-Europeans as culturally inferior, prone to violence, and lacking reason, and then use these assumptions to justify some of the greatest atrocities the world has ever seen.

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Explanation and Analysis—Remembering Kurtz:

After Kurtz’s pathetic, miserable death, Kurtz’s Intended (his fiancée) continues to believe that he was a great hero, and Marlow can’t work up the courage to tell her the truth. The contradiction between her beliefs and the reality about Kurtz creates dramatic irony:

“‘No!’ she cried. ‘It is impossible that all this should be lost—that such a life should be sacrificed to leave nothing—but sorrow. [...] Something must remain. His words, at least, have not died.’

“‘His words will remain,’ I said.

“‘And his example,’ she whispered to herself. ‘Men looked up to him—his goodness shone in every act. His example—’

“‘True,’ I said; ‘his example, too. Yes, his example. I forgot that.’

Whereas Marlow and the reader know the truth—Kurtz spent his last years murdering native people for ivory, undermining his coworkers in the Company, and slowly going insane—Kurtz’s Intended still thinks of him as an idealistic crusader for truth and justice. Like many of the colonial administrators that Marlow met at the beginning of his journey, Kurtz’s Intended thinks that Kurtz’s words (like his pamphlet about the “Suppression of Savage Customs”) represent the best of European charity toward the rest of the world, and that his actions (going into the heart of Africa to civilize native people) set a glorious example for other Europeans.

Of course, she couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, the Intended’s specific claims add another layer of irony to this scene, because Kurtz’s words and example do live on—they just mean the opposite of what she thinks. His last words (“The Horror! The Horror!”) and the well-known postscript to his pamphlet about the need to civilize native people (“Exterminate all the brutes!”) stay with Marlow forever. Today, they are still widely known as symbols of colonialism’s brutality and corruption. Thus, Conrad uses dramatic irony in this passage to highlight the glaring contradiction between European colonialism’s stated goal (civilizing the world) and its true purpose (profiting through theft and conquest). Most Europeans only learn about colonialism from a distance, he suggests, and therefore continue to wrongly believe in this civilizing mission.

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