Comparative Analysis Of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness And James Joyce’s The Dead

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Darkness, the absence of light, or perhaps the absence of moral and core values. The Heart of Darkness, with such an ominous title, uses darkness as the main theme. The Heart of Darkness is dense, like the jungles in the Congo, where the story is mostly taking place. In this dense, dark, and riveting novel, Conrad uses light and dark contrasts to display the pure cynical act of English Imperialism in Africa. The following essay will include a comparison to The Dead by James Joyce as well as a close reading into Conrad’s use of literary devices, theme of imperialism, and the opposing view of another scholar.

When reading Heart of Darkness, the reader is immediately introduced into the theme of darkness. The narrator, Marlow begins to tell the unsettling story. “And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.” Conrad has set the scene, the mood is gloomy and the reader can only expect to read a gloomy, motifying story. When reading this, the reader should know more into Conrad’s background to understand why he uses the writing style and literary devices that he does. Conrad spent his childhood in a dreary wasteland, northern Russia. At the age of seven his mother passed, at eleven his father died, and at seventeen his ties to his homeland were broken by voluntary exile. Conrad became so severely depressed, not wanting to live anymore, he attempted suicide at twenty, by shooting himself in the chest. The chest, though not meaning anything specifically to the story, leads me to believe that the title, Heart of Darkness, has a deeper connection than just Africa. Conrad’s fiction was more subtle and balanced than than most other writers of this time period. “In London, while waiting for clearance to visit Poland and finding it impossible to get work, he began writing Almayer’s Folly. The novel, however, was interrupted by the most improbable of adventures. The British press was giving the African continent and its explorers extensive coverage, and Conrad, envisaging the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy – “When I grow up I shall go there” (pointing smack at the center of the continent).” Conrad’s own personal connection with Africa, even at such a young age is key to understanding the main aspect of imperialism throughout Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness becomes a reexamination of Conrad’s past and what he experienced and partook in while working for the British company. Along with Conrad’s past, knowing about Africa’s own history, and the time period are both participating factors to the story. Between June and December of 1980, when Conrad is working for the company, he was experiencing cynical predispositions while exploiting rubber and ivory in the Congo. In this time, the nineteenth century, it was an age of national/ imperialistic rivalry among European powers in the “scramble for Africa,” but it seems that Conrad may have been more in favor to the climate of the English imperialism and national pride when writing Heart of Darkness. Conrad is sure to place the novel right in the middle of the imperialism, which is why the publication in 1899 is so important. For Africa, it wasn’t wanted by European powers, but when the idea sprouts that Africa has gold, diamonds, and ivory, British colonies start to explore the continent. Unaware of what Africa will hold, British companies send out “colonizers” into the deep, dark abyss of Africa.

Conrad uses language, repetition, and contradictions to convey his past relations to Africa, exposing true imperialism. Conrad uses a repetition of words, maybe because he had such a strong love for certain words in the English language, since it was his third or possibly fourth language. Conrad even goes to admit that English was the most dramatic language he knew and created a larger impact than French, since that was his second option. It’s important that Conrad wrote in another language, because it shows that even in Heart of Darkness that language can deceive and be inadequate. Conrad uses repetition of the word brooding, using it five times just in the first three pages and following it with gloom. “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.” Repetition also occurs when Conrad refers to the Africans as savages and his use of the word exterminate.

Conrad uses contradictions of words to give the opposite effect and give more meaning to them. The use of the word exterminate is of great value because Kurtz is believed to be in a state of barbarism, but in the words of Marlow, Kurtz’s writing was “vibrating and eloquent” but had this been true, Kurtz wouldn’t have scribbled “kill all the brutes” at the bottom of the paper. The word exterminate in itself shows that it’s just a suggestion that Conrad and Kurtz had both embraced the savagery that came with the exploration of Africa. Conrad also uses horror as a defining word, using them not very often, but giving them the ultimate meaning of devastation. Conrad makes Kurtz’s last words “The horror, the horror” giving a chilling meaning to the real darkness at the heart of Kurtz. The language that Kurtz uses shows the transformation he has gone through from the imperialism of Africa. Since Kurtz is writing for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, he describes the natives as savages, brutes, and negatively describes them. Kurtz doesn’t make note in his diary so his memory wouldn’t have to be refreshed by the “civilizing” he was seeing and the mistreatment of the natives. Civilizing these people was seen as noble at the time, so Kurtz remains silent and writes more about how intellectual he was in comparison and how imperialism wasn’t seen as an evil act. The main idea of deception happens between Kurtz and Marlow, seeing as Marlow views Kurtz as a high and mighty power, often wondering how anyone could dislike Kurtz. However, Marlow says “Kurtz was just a word to me.” When Marlow thinks he will not meet Kurtz, he talks about how he’s disappointed saying “I made the strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing. I didn’t say to myself, now I will never see him. The man presented himself as a voice.” Marlow continues to explore his disappointment and Marlow’s own language staggers before it falls into impotence. Marlow believed that it would be a privilege to meet Kurtz, but then compares Kurtz to just a voice. The voice that doesn’t matter anymore, Marlow becomes frustrated and Conrad uses this to reinforce the idea of emptiness and the deception of people and their language. In a similar way, language is like the impenetrable forests of Africa, language becomes the same. Language becomes impenetrable to those unless they are oblivious, since the exterior is just the appearance of an ignorant man, much like the forests are impenetrable to those unless they are what the colonies would call ignorant or savage. This creates a desire to want to understand more than what meets the eye, only to come to the realization that language is fiction and is beyond being verbal.

The major theme of intervals of light and darkness to contrast imperialism is used in the form of characters. Conrad uses Marlow as a symbol of someone who is taken advantage of, yet sees the acts of imperialism. Kurtz represents pure cynical acts of imperialism. Conrad tried to stifle his own despair into the creation of Marlow in the sense that Conrad is sure to prove that Marlow sees imperialism and the truth behind it.

In relations to The Dead by James Joyce, Heart of Darkness is written in a frame narrative style, including modernistic experiments and challenges for the reader. Conrad takes the frame narrative, gives the first narrator no name, and an underlying meaning the reader will have to watch for. The narrator gives a meaning to Marlow more than the story. The story may revolve around Marlow telling the story, but the narration is restricted. Conrad is sure to allow the first narrator to warn the reader that Marlow’s story is inclusive but is more a suggestion than the truth. Conrad gives Marlow an omniscient point of view, allowing no transition in narrators or other characters. The novel is written as an interpretation of all the events that Marlow has “experienced.” There are also slight shifts in the telling of the story, Marlow will flashforward to another part of the story and then go back to another time. The story does become slightly hard to follow, but demonstrates a steady stream of consciousness. Marlow even goes to say that he can’t fully explain or it’s hard to explain the story in a greater sense because it wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. Conrad is engaging readers, often leaving them more confused, but keeping them intrigued with the abrupt shifts between the unnamed narrator and Marlow. Many literary forms are demonstrated throughout the text, shocking readers out of their complacency.

In the article, Conrad’s critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness, the scholar who wrote it, Hunt Hawkins has a slightly different view on imperialism in the novel. “The title I am thinking is The Heart of Darkness but the narrative is not gloomy.” Immediately I did not want to read this article, due to the fact that the whole novel is gloomy. Continuing to read, Hawkins had viewed the novel as Conrad being too harsh on the idea of imperialism. “Conrad’s harsh judgement couldn’t show if it was favorable or unfavorable to British imperialism.” Intrigued by this view, it seems as though Hawkins favored imperialism himself, saying that “we need to be efficient.” The view of Hawkins is not similar to that of mine, as I believe Conrad displays imperialism and how brutal it truly was and continued to be on Africa and on himself. In defense, Hawkins states that “we should remember that anti-imperialism was much less common in his time than in our own.” Hawkins supports the idea of European imperialism in Africa and finally states “Africa was worth all the sacrifices.” With a different view, I could almost compare myself to Marlow and Kurtz, as Kurtz had been sucked into imperilaim not being so awful and Marlow seeing the true effects of imperialism. Feeling more like Marlow, Hawkins almost becomes Kurtz, making me wondering what the background of Hawkins and if he would feel the same if he were African instead.

In conclusion, Conrad developed a reinterpretation of his life showing imperialism and the negative effects on himself and those in Africa. These dense novels provided an understanding to imperialism in the time period and allowed for a deeper understanding of the struggles in other countries to be full of nationalism. All proving that European imperialism affected many in the nineteenth century. Seen through Heart of Darkness and The Dead, through the constant use of literary devices, characters, historical evidence, and the opposing view of a scholar, one can decide for themselves the true impenetrability of the darkness.


  1. Adelman, Gary. Heart of Darkness : Search for the Unconscious. Twayne, 1987.
  2. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 2d ed., 2d ed., Broadview Press, 1999. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019.
  3. Hawkins, Hunt. Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness. Modern Language Association, 1979.
  4. Firchow, Peter Edgerly. Envisioning Africa : Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019..
  5. Joyce, James. The Dead. Almqvist & Wiksell, 1968.
  6. Rabaté Jean-Michel. James Joyce and the Politics of Egoism. Cambridge University Press, 2001.


Read more