Heart of Darkness in the Light of Psychoanalytic Theories
Psychoanalytic criticism originated in the work of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who pioneered the technique of psychoanalysis. Freud developed a language that described, a model that explained, and a theory that encompassed human psychology. His theories are directly and indirectly concerned with the nature of the unconscious mind. Through his multiple case studies, Freud managed to find convincing evidence that most of our actions are motivated by psychological forces over which we have very limited control (Guerin 127).
One of Freud’s most important contributions to the study of the psyche is his theory of repression: the unconscious mind is a repository of repressed desires, feelings, memories, wishes and instinctual drives; many of which have to do with sexuality and violence.
These unconscious wishes, according to Freud, can find expression in dreams because dreams distort the unconscious material and make it appear different from itself and more acceptable to consciousness. They may also appear in other disguised forms, like in language (sometimes called the Freudian slips), in creative art and in neurotic behavior.
One of the unconscious desires Freud believed that all human beings supposedly suppress is the childhood desire to displace the parent of the same sex and to take his or her place in the affections of the parent of the opposite sex. This so-called “Oedipus Complex,” which all children experience as a rite of passage to adult gender identity, lies at the core of Freud’s sexual theory (Murfin 114-5). A principal element in Freud’s theory is his assignment of the mental processes to three psychic zones: the id, the ego and the superego.
The id is the passional, irrational, and unconscious part of the psyche. It is the site of the energy of the mind, energy that Freud characterized as a combination of sexual libido and other instincts, such as aggression, that propel the human organism through life, moving it to grow, develop and eventually to die. That primary process of life is completely irrational, and it cannot distinguish reasonable objects and unreasonable or socially unacceptable ones. Here comes the secondary processes of the mind, lodged in the ego and the superego.
The ego, or “I,” was Freud’s term for the predominantly rational, logical, orderly and conscious part of the psyche; it works on repressing and inhibiting the drives of the id so that they may be released in sane behavioral patterns. And though a large part of the ego is unconscious, it nevertheless includes what we think of as the conscious mind. The superego is a projection of the ego. It is the moral censoring agency; the part that makes moral judgments and the repository of conscience and pride.
It brings reason, order and social acceptability to the otherwise uncontrolled and potentially harmful realm of biological impulses (Guerin 128-31). Freud’s theories have launched what is now known as the psychoanalytic approach to literature. Freud was interested in writers, especially those who depended largely on symbols. Such writers tend to tinge their ideas and figures with mystery or ambiguity that only make sense once interpreted, just as the analyst tries to figure out the dreams and bizarre actions that the unconscious mind of a neurotic releases out of repression.
A work of literature is thus treated as a fantasy or a dream that Freudian analysis comes to explain the nature of the mind that produced it. The purpose of a work of art is what psychoanalysis has found to be the purpose of the dream: the secret gratification of an infantile and forbidden wish that has been repressed into the unconscious (Wright 765). The literal surface of a work of literature is sometimes called the “manifest content” and treated as “manifest dream” or “dream story.
” The psychoanalytic literary critic tries to analyze the latent, underlying content of the work, or the “dream thought” hidden in the dream story. Freud used the terms “condensation” and “displacement” to explain the mental processes that result in the disguise of the wishes and fears in dream stories. In condensation, several wishes, anxieties or persons may be condensed into a single manifestation or image in dream story; in displacement, a thought or a person may be displaced onto the image of another with which or whom there is an extremely loose and arbitrary association that only an analyst can decode.
Psychoanalytic critics treat metaphors as if they were dream condensations; they treat metonyms- figures of speech based on weak connections- as if they were dream displacements. Thus, figures of speech in general are treated as aspects that see the light when the writer’s conscious mind resists what the unconscious asks it to depict or describe. Psychoanalytic criticism written before 1950 tended to study the psyche of the individual author.
Poems, novels and plays were treated as fantasies that allowed authors to release curbed desires, or to protect themselves from deep- rooted fears, or both. Later, psychoanalytic critics stopped assuming that artists are borderline neurotics or that the characters they fabricate and the figurative language they use can be analyzed to figure out the dark, hidden fancies in the authors’ minds. So they moved their focus toward the psychology of the reader, and came to understand that artists are skilled creators of works that appeal to the readers’ repressed wishes.
As such, psychoanalytic criticism typically attempts to do at least one of the following tasks: study the psychological traits of a writer; provide an analysis of the creative process; or explore the psychological impacts of literature on its readers (Murfin 115-20). Not all psychoanalytic critics, however, are Freudian. Many of them are persuaded by the writings of Carl Gustav Jung whose “analytical psychology” is different from Freud’s psychoanalysis.
Jung had broken with Freud’s emphasis on libidinal drives and had developed a theory of the collective unconscious; although, like Freud, he believed in a personal unconscious as a repository of repressed feelings (Wright 767). The processes of the unconscious psyche, according to Jung, produce images, symbols and myths that belong to the large human culture. He refers to the manifestations of the “myth-forming” elements as “motifs,” “primordial images,” or “archetypes. ” Jung indicated further that the dreams, myths and art all serve as media through which archetypes become accessible to the consciousness.
One major contribution is Jung’s theory of individuation which is the process of discovering those aspects of one’s self that make one an individual different from other people. It is, according to Jung, an absolutely essential process if one is to become a balanced individual; he detected an intimate relationship between neurosis and the person’s failure to accept some archetypal features of his unconscious. Individuation is related to three archetypes designated as shadow, persona and anima. These are structural components that human beings have inherited.
We encounter their symbolic projections throughout the myths and literatures of humankind. The shadow is the darker side of our unconscious self, the inferior and less pleasing aspects of the personality. The anima is the “soul-image;” the source of a man’s life force. Jung gives it a feminine designation in the man’s psyche; it is the contra-sexual part that a man carries in his personal and collective unconscious.
The persona is the opposite of the anima; it is our social personality and the mediator between our ego and the external world. A balanced man has a flexible persona that is in harmony with the other components of his psychic makeup (Guerin 178-83). Through the lenses of Jungian psychoanalysis, the literary text is no longer seen as a site where the quelled impulses get through in disguise. Instead, Jung maintains that “both the individual in dreams and the artist at work will produce archetypal images to compensate for any psychic impoverishment in man and society. “
He untangles texts of literature by a method he calls ?amplification’: the images of the collective unconscious are derived from those of the personal (Wright 767). Despite its monotonous rehearsing of a number of themes, psychoanalytic theory has led to a better understanding of the complexities of the relation between the human being and the artistic creativity. Heart of Darkness in the light of Psychoanalytic theories. Heart of Darkness explores something truer, more fundamental, and distinctly less material than just a personal narrative. It is a night journey into the unconscious, and a confrontation of an entity within the self.
Certain circumstances of Marlow’s voyage, looked at in these terms, take on a new importance. The true night journey can occur only in sleep or in a walking dream of a profoundly intuitive mind. Marlow insists on the dreamlike quality of his narrative. “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vein attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation” (Conrad 38). Even before leaving Brussels, Marlow felt as though he “was about to set off for center of the earth,” not the center of a continent (16).
The introspective voyager leaves his familiar rational world, is “cut off from the comprehension” of his surroundings, his steamer toils “along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy” (52). As the crisis approaches, the dreamer and his ship moves through a silence that “seemed unnatural, like a state of trance; then enter a deep fog” (57). The novel penetrates to those areas of darkness and dream – indeed nightmare ? with which Conrad tried to define the substance of the world. It asks questions, destabilizes orthodox assumptions, and sketches an existentially absurd experience.
It involves us in dramatic, crucially difficult moral decisions which parallel those of the two central characters, Marlow and Kurtz. Although it was a coincidence that Freud and Conrad were contemporaries, coincidence is reduced when we perceive the “extraordinary parallelism of their achievements” (Karl 785). At the time when Conrad was developing his concepts about the Congo and political, personal and universal involvement in a nightmarish existence, Freud was fermenting his theories on dreams and the unconscious.
Conrad’s novel appeared in 1900, only months before Freud’s book Interpretation of Dreams which formed the manifesto of the psychoanalytic assumptions. Both Conrad and Freud were pioneers in their emphasis over the irrational aspects of man’s behavioral conduct which questioned the traditional analyses. Conrad insightfully stressed the irrationality of politics and its nightmarish character which rests on the neurotic symptoms of the leader, as well as on the collective neurosis of the masses.
He also believed in a human behavior that answers the call of inner desires, while justifying itself with accuracy. Both he and Freud dived into the darkness: the darkness enters the human soul when his conscience sleeps or when he is free to yield to the unconscious desires and needs, whether through dreams, as Freud argues, or in actuality through the character of Kurtz and his likes. Dreams become the wish-fulfillments of the masked self. This applies to Marlow; the very qualities in Kurtz that horrify him are those he finds hidden in himself.
Kurtz’s insatiable, Nietzchean fascination with power mirrors Marlow’s as well. Kurtz’s ruthless career is every man’s wish-fulfillment (Karl 785-6). In the novel, Conrad draws an image of Africa as the “other world,” the antithesis of a civilized Europe, a site where man’s accumulated years of education and sophistication are confronted by a striking savagery. The story opens on the River Thames, calm and peaceful. It then moves to the very opposite of the Thames, and takes place on the River Congo.
However, It’s not the flagrant difference between the two that perplexes Conrad but the underlying allusion of intimate relationship, of “common ancestry,” since the Thames was itself a dark place, but one that has managed to civilize, to enlighten itself and the world, and is now living in the light. The peaceful Thames, however, runs the terrible risk of being stirred by its encounter with its “primordial relative, the Congo;” it would witness the reflection of its own forsaken darkness and would hear the sounds that echo its remote gloomy history.
The Thames would fall victim to the ghastly reminiscences of the irrational frenzy of the primitive times (Achebe 262-3). It would be very helpful to quote one of the most interesting and most revealing passages in Heart of Darkness when representatives of Europe in a steamer going down the Congo encounter the denizens of Africa: We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth. [? ] We glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. [? ] They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity ?like yours ? the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.
Ugly. [? ] but if you were man enough you would admit that there was in you just the faintest trace of response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you ? you so remote from the night of first ages ? could comprehend (51-2). Here in lies the meaning of Heart of Darkness that takes us on a journey into the unconscious world of the human beings through the psychoanalytic features inherent in the novel’s “dream story.
” Marlow, a man of discipline and justice, was expecting such values to exist elsewhere. They became a kind of psychological expectations. His great revelation takes place when he discovers that not all men share his belief in an orderly, fundamentally good society. His journey from Brussels to the Congo is full of elements of the absurd, elements that hint at a world that is suddenly irrational and out of focus. In the Congo, the jungle is surrounded by a dangerous feminine aura; the long river is described in “treacherous, serpentine terms;” everything about the nature conveys a sense of a mysterious and terrifying reality (Karl 786).
Marlow is fascinated by the jungle woman – Kurtz’s savage mistress – and her demanding display of sex, by her provocative measured walk. He is also drawn by her surprising sense of reality and her full acceptance of Kurtz with all the savagery he embodies. Her image contradicts with his ideal of womanhood he had known all his life: the girl back in Brussels, his aunt, the naive woman who believed in the Europeans’ grand mission in Africa. Marlow tries to resist the seductive aspect of the nature, much as he shies away from the attraction of power.
Sex lies heavily on the story, although Marlow never directly talks about it. The temptation is clear in his fears, in the jungle that conceals the terrors and the calls for orgiastic, uncontrollable sex. In the novel, Kurtz represents Europe; maneuvering for power, searching for advantages; he chose the route of ivory looting. His unquenchable hunger for possession is overwhelming. In Africa, he is free of all human barriers; civilized taboos are down. He is able to gratify all his forbidden desires and dwells on ultimate corruption, debarred of all restraints.
This lies at the heart of Marlow’s secret attraction to Kurtz; the latter’s will to brutal, superhuman power. Kurtz has “risen above the masses ? of natives, station managers, even of directors back in Brussels. He must continue to assert himself, a megalomaniac in search of further power. Marlow has never met anyone like him, [? ]” (Karl 787). One telling part in the novel comes with Kurtz’s death and his double scream “The horror! The horror! ” (Conrad 105). Marlow, out of his deep fascination with Kurtz and his need to believe in a good human nature, attributes a “Christian” reading to these words.
He understands the shriek as a moral victory: at the time of his death, Kurtz has reviewed his life and the corrupt part of him has repented. It’s arguable, though, that Kurtz’s cry might be one of anguish and despair, because he has to die with his work incomplete. In other words, he laments a fate which frustrates his plans. However, Marlow has explained the horror of this experience in human terms necessary to guarantee the flow of life. He protects the lie of Kurtz’s existence in order to preserve his own illusions (Karl 788-9).
Hence, we notice that Marlow, throughout his journey, has concealed from himself the reality of his own as well as others’ needs. The jungle is the mask that bars the light of sun and sky. The landscape becomes the repository of our anxieties and the vast protective camouflage that hides our inner fears. It bars the light of our conscience and rational capacities and becomes “part of the psychological as well as physical landscape” (Karl 788). It runs parallel to our unconscious mind where our repressed desires are hidden.
The “prehistoric earth,” that is still untouched by the hands of civilization, is but our rudimentary soul, in its raw, savage nature, unrefined and free of the conscious disguises. The “lurking hint of kinship” that the Europeans have felt at their encounter with the Africans is but a hint of deep connection existing between the rational and the irrational, the conscious and the unconscious. The “black and incomprehensible frenzy” of the strange bodies is a reminder of the uncontrollable libido.
This “wild and passionate uproar” is “ugly” because the wilderness and passion that nurture our disguised depths are a mass of animalistic drives, and our id that hosts all unfulfilled wishes carries the wildest of motivations. Yet, one cannot but heed “the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise” for one cannot fully resist the temptation to gratify his impulses and instinctual needs. In Freudian terms, our superego sometimes fails to have full control over its antithesis, the id. The boundaries that separate the unconscious from the conscious are blurred.
This terrible “frenzy” holds a meaning that, even the man who is “so remote from the night of first ages ? could comprehend”: the refined man is able to understand the noise because it communicates with an inherent ? although masked ? part of his soul. Thus, Africa has become a topology of the mind ? its location, its shape, its cultures, its textures, its rhythms, it hues, its wildness ? all calling forth something lost in the psychology of the white European. The darkness of the African continent, of its instinctual, shadowed, primeval underworld establishes a revealing context for an examination of the Jungian concepts in the novel.
Marlow’s journey, in Jungian terms, becomes a journey of individuation: a salvation realized through bringing the unconscious urges to consciousness ? a journey which can be contrasted to that of his diabolic double, Kurtz, who undergoes a psychological disintegration into his savage self and slips into “The horror! The horror! ” The shadow in Heart of Darkness is thus personified by Kurtz. Richard Hughs argues that Kurtz’s last words sum up the Jungian insight that “from the same root that produces wild, untamed, blind instinct there grow up the natural laws and cultural forms that tame and break its pristine power.
But when the animal in us is split off from consciousness by being repressed, it may easily burst out in full force, quite unregulated and uncontrolled. An outburst of this sort always ends in catastrophe ? the animal destroys itself” (21). Hughs adds that the novel is composed of two journeys into the hidden self, one is “horrifying, ending in personality destruction and death;” the other is “restorative, wisdom-producing, a gateway to wholeness [? ] Conrad has seized on the paradoxical quality of the descent into the unconscious [? ]” (58).
For Jung, the integration of the personality is not possible without a full descent into the unconscious and clearly the novel is about the descent into the depths, the underworld, into the very heart of darkness. “Jung’s awareness that the darkness is part of himself, that to deny the darkness would be self-mutilation, and the awareness is not erased but heightened by a recognition of that dark self: this is Marlow’s discovery” (Hughs 66). Marlow’s journey toward individuation and his encounter with the darkness of his own shadow are set against a backdrop of the personal and collective unconscious.
Kurtz is not only the personal shadow of Marlow, but the collective shadow of all Europe and of European imperialism. Throughout the novel there is a dense undergrowth of Congo unconsciousness, as Marlow succinctly states, “All of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (73). In the midst of this journey of individuation, we encounter Jung’s concept of the anima personified by Kurtz’s wild mistress. She is a reflection of the soul of the wilderness, “she stood looking at us with a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose” (Conrad 92).
She is the savagely magnificent consort of the underworld and the feminine part of every man’s psyche. Hughs calls her “the grand archetype of the unconscious, consort of the mad Kurtz and the goal of the inner search” (268-9). Conrad’s novel descends into the unknowable darkness at the heart of Africa, taking its narrator, Marlow, on an underworld journey of individuation, a modern Odyssey toward the center of the Self and the center of the Earth. Interestingly, the narrative technique and the inherent symbolism in Heart of Darkness all contribute to the overall dream-like and nightmarish mood of the story.
The use of first person narrative was essential so that Conrad could distance himself from the lived experience and for the reader could identify with a common man thrown into a bizarre situation. Lacking Marlow as the narrator, the story would lose its credibility and would appear too distant from the real experience. Through repetition, difference of tone, analogy, duplicating images, doubling of scenes and characters, Conrad could form a shape for the story. He “used heightening and foreshortening, contrast and comparison to give the novella form;” from the opening scene, when the ancient Romans on the Thames are
contrasted with the modern Europeans in the Congo (Karl 789). Marlow’s calm setting on the Nellie contrasts with the alarming Congo riverboat setting. Kurtz’s two fiancees represents two different sets of values, two contradictory cultures. The jungle, as death, is in conflict with the river, as possible relief. The natives’ savagery is set off against the backdrop of the apparently civilized Europeans. The contrast reaches the two central characters as well; Kurtz’s humanitarianism contradicts his own barbarism, Marlow’s middle class sense of English justice is contrasted with the Congo reality.
It is also clear in their fluctuating love-hate relationship that pervades the story. The abundance of mechanical and metallic images suggests a sense of human waste and indicates that tough objects have gone beyond flexibility and softness in order to resist the passing of time, so humanity itself must become an object in order to survive. This strong sense of an absurd existence is best represented by the ivory itself. Ivory, the purest demonstration of the color white, stands in stark juxtaposition to the darkness of the jungle.
It draws the white men to Africa then turns their minds from building commerce and civilization, to exploitation and madness. Wherever ivory is present, white men plunder, kill, and turn on each other. Conrad uses symbolism to suggest meanings rather than spelling them out directly. The technicalities of his style include a frequent use of alliteration, a reliance on adjectives which emphasize the unfamiliar aspects of Marlow’s experience. Words like “inscrutable,” “inconceivable,” “unspeakable” that describe the oppressive mysteriousness of the Congo are recurrent throughout the novel.
The same vocabulary is used to evoke the human depths and the unspeakable potentialities of the man’s soul and to magnify the sense of spiritual horrors (Leavis 246-7). The words and adjectives Conrad applies “beat upon us, creating drum-like rhythms, entirely appropriate to the thick texture of the jungle” (Karl 789). The darkness of the jungle goes hand in hand with darkness everywhere, alluding at “the blackness of Conrad’s humor, the despair of his irony” (Karl 789).
It is the nightmare’s color: the darkness surrounding Kurtz’s death, his last words, the report by the manager’s boy, the delirious escape from the jungle, the encounter with Kurtz’s fiancee; all such incidents constitute the elements of a nightmarish dream. Even the Russian follower of Kurtz who is dressed in motley seems as a figure from another world. In his ridiculous appearance, he is a perfect symbol of Marlow’s Congo experience (Karl 788-9). In this passage, F. R.
Leavis argues that Conrad makes almost every aspect of his novel contribute to its overwhelming impression, one of a strangely insane world and a nightmarish existence: [? ] in terms of things seen and incidents experienced by a main agent in the narrative, and particular contacts and exchanges with other human agents, the overwhelming sinister and fantastic ? atmosphere’ is engendered. Ordinary greed, stupidity, and moral squalor are made to look like behaviour in a lunatic asylum against the vast and oppressive mystery of the surroundings, rendered potently in terms of sensation.
This means lunacy, which we are made to feel as at the same time normal and insane, is brought out by contrast with the fantastically secure innocence of the young harlequin-costumed Russian [? ] (246) Using his renowned artistic and literary craftsmanship, Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness that has become, since its publication in 1899, one of the most widely read books written in English. It has also been one of the most analyzed: scores of literary critics, ranging from feminists to Marxists to New Critics, have all tried to construct their own meanings from the pages of the book.
The novel does seem to invite a wide variety of interpretations. Looking at it through the lenses of psychoanalytic theories, Heart of Darkness has proven to be a “masterpiece of concealment” and a metaphor for the theory of the unconscious as a repository of all irrational and repressed wishes. (Karl 788). The journey into the heart of the continent can also be seen as Marlow’s own journey of individuation, self-discovery and self-enlightenment. Bibiography Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. ” A Practical Reader in Contemporary Literary Theory.
London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1996. 262-4 Conrad, Joseph. Heart Of Darkness. Beirut: Librairie Du Liban Publishers SAL, 1994. Guerin, Wilfred L. , et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Hewitt, Douglas. “Conrad: A Reassessment. ” World Literature Criticism. Ed. Polly Vedder. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 1992. 789-92. Hughs, Richard E. The Lively Image: Four Myths in Literature. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop Publishers, 1975. Karl, Frederick R. “A Reader’s Guide To Joseph Conrad. ” World Literature Criticism. Ed. Polly Vedder. Vol.
4. Detroit: Gale, 1992. 785-9. Leavis, F. R. “From The Great Tradition. ” A Practical Reader in Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1996. 246-7 Mudrick, Marvin. “The Originality of Conrad. ” World Literature Criticism. Ed. PollyVedder. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 1992. 782-5. Murfin, Ross C. Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1979. Wright, Elizabeth. “Psychoanalytic Criticism. ” Encyclopedia Of Literature And Criticism. 1991 ed. 765-7.
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