The Transformation Of Realistic Conventions In Heart Of Darkness By Joseph Conrad And A Passage To India By E. M. Forster

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

The main purpose of this academic essay is to provide an overview of the modernist transformation of realistic conventions in two modernist novels. In order for it to convince the readers, there will be presented not only some characteristics of both of the periods, main differences and similarities between them, but the essay will also include short summaries and analysis of the novels chosen.

One of the most important differences between Realism and Modernism, the two forms of thinking or philosophy, is that it represents the conflict between old traditional values, beliefs and new logical, rational views. In strict sense, modernism meant a refusal to accept conservative theories, ideologies and theories of realism. It was revolutionary because it created problems that led to the blocking of human progress. It focused very much on human efforts, their self-consciousness to correct the errors and mistakes inevitably made, and to examine all aspects of human life. Even from commerce and exchanges to philosophy, modernism has questioned and encouraged people to have critical thinking, to find answers to questions through profound thinking, knowledge and experiments. During the realistic period, which preceded Modernism, the main idea was that what was happening in everyday life constituted the absolute truth. That was independent of the critical thinking of observers, so it must have been appreciated as it was in art and literature. Modernism has challenged the other movement, as it has focused more on inner self-consciousness and on the power of scientific experiments to try and ultimately change reality.

As a literary current, Realism is defined by the following features: reference is made to the daily life of middle-class people; literature focuses on the quality of an individual’s life and their work, that is why the characters are always more important than the plot. No poetic, romantic language is used. The narrative voice represents an average person, so it was easy to read and understand, but the tone could conceal a little irony and satire. The narrated events are real, true, there is no emphasis on sensitivity and psychological analysis. Last but not least, a unique feature of realism is the lack of ornamentation of language. Everything is presented in a simple, clear light without literary artifices.

Comparatively, modernist works contain a pessimistic tone about certain subjects. What is similar to the realistic period is that the reality of life is presented, without romance or too much optimism, as in Victorian times or romantic literature. The variety and complexity of the novels made modernist literature difficult to be understood. Many topics of modern literature contain the inner dilemma that the individual faces, a lot of psychological analysis, questions about the existence of divinity and God in the modern world, the difficulty with which man adapts to urban life and overwhelming technological changes.

Both modernism and realism have had significant effects on literature, culture, music and contemporary arts. For art lovers and scientists, the debate between modernism and realism has always existed. While some believe that now realism is but a body weight, for many other people modernism has long been taken over by post-modernist tendencies. Not only has Modernism abandoned a traditional concept of characterization, but it also gave up on one of the most important, basic but also problematic types of characters – the hero. The main characters of modernist literature have lost religion, belief in society and the environment and seem to have lost any claim to heroic action or stature.

In order to define and exemplify some literary realistic conventions that have become modernist, I have chosen two novels, ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad and “A Passage to India” by E. M. Forster. The texts were written at a different time and in a different size, considering that ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a story, a “novela”, while ‘A Passage to India’ a detailed novel. Forster’s novel is considered a social document too. Both stories exploit the attitudes and behaviors of the British in exotic places of the imperial frontiers. In both works, the characters face in different ways the fundamental contradiction between systematic dehumanization for economic gain and ideological justification in the civilization of natives. For example, in “Heart of Darkness” the dehumanization is taking place when indigenous people are considered wild and become slaves and starved, following the conditions caused by imperialism. In E. M. Forster’s novel, Ronny dehumanizes natives, proclaims himself god only to keep the nation under control by force. Both of them portray imperialism in Congo and India. Also, in both texts the human relationships differ. In the first story, relations are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet, while “A Passage to India” defines the relationship between natives and the British through cruelty.

“Heart of Darkness” is written in modernist style, its structure is of frame narrative, story in a story (the first narrator introduces Marlow to the story and intervenes at the end when Marlow falls silent; in Marlow’s story there is Kurtz’s story, which is never clearly spoken). The narrative’s purpose is to recapture Kurtz’s story through Marlow. There is a juxtaposition between order, civilization and an opposing external reality, Marlow’s capacity to see both the admirable and the absurd in all attempts to enforce the orders: the construction of railways that follow a path that does not lead anywhere, the image of the French vessel heading for an imperceptible coast. Marlow’s narrative contains many interruptions to help the reader keep in contact with the actual world. The plot of Marlow’s story is fairly simple and moves slowly, but is very detailed. The part of the story that Marlow narrates takes place over 8 months – one year, and the ends of the story take place several years later.

An argument that demonstrates the transition from realistic to modernist conventions in the novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ is the tendency towards the disappearance of the narrator: in “Marlow” novels, Marlow is a kind of speaker for the author himself (maybe too talkative and rhetoric, a person who interprets the characters and events and is aware, at the same time, of his own changes). In the realistic period, the story was often narrated in the third person by an objective narrator. Since the narrator tends to disappear, the views change regularly. The action is narrated subjectively, but most of the novel is related by Marlow. This narration style makes the reader feel slightly removed from the action that Marlow describes, and allows Conrad to show how Marlow’s revelations are received by people from the outside world who did not directly experience them. This highlights the themes of alienation, emotional negligence, and inability to understand the thoughts and actions of others that are prevalent throughout the novel. Readers may have doubts about the veracity of the story, as the character recalls events that have happened a long time ago and which he does not fully understand. Besides, he has strong opinions about his experiences and is probably biased in his recounting of them. Given that he has already relived the entire action, it is possible that what he says did not happen in chronological order. The consciousness of the different characters reflects the action in a variety of interpretations that give the possibility of one truth. In both situations, Conrad anticipates the modernist novel. The speech styles are adapted to the personality of the characters, there is a transition from present to past and to future, his language borrows words and expressions from the tradition of romanticism, gothic and psychological realism.

The transition from objectivism to subjectivism exists as well in “A Passage to India”, even if it is not so recurrent and obvious as in “Heart of Darkness”. E. M. Forster tells the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling the narrator to reveal the thoughts of the characters. In chapter 25, however, the narrator also uses second-person point of view when he addresses the reader directly while discussing the effect of the cave on Mrs. Moore. This switch is another characteristic of the modernist period and writings.

Going further, the presence of symbols and oppositions in this novel are another example of the modernist transformation of realistic conventions. Among oppositions (antitheses) there are: civilization vs. nature, Kurtz-Marlow (the double), darkness-lightness, black-white, The Congo vs. The Thames (apparently nature versus civilization, in fact both are dark places of the earth). The main symbols are: the jungle, the wilderness, the ivory, the fact that both Marlow and Kurtz are compared to ‘Buddha,’ Kurtz is often compared to a ‘voice.’ Another relevant symbol is the episode of the French ship of war. The adjectives are redundant, vague, gothic, ‘infernal’, oneiric, smoky, unmodifiable, elusive, evasive, impressionistic. The sea represents loneliness and isolation; arms are a repeated representation of Europe’s attempts to impose and maintain order in a world whose oppression they have no real control over. Boats signify mobility and a degree of autonomy that a person has when they can choose their destiny and path in life. The image of evil mirrors the image of the snake – which is the loss of innocence through the education of the external world. The appearance of symbols and the coded message is a change in modern literature, given the fact that the realistic novels contained a clear language without any other meanings, the words were used only in their denotative sense. The language used in “Heart of Darkness” is figurative.

In ‘A Passage to India’, the author used many symbols, thus creating a wider and deeper understanding than a simple story. The book is divided into three sections, each representing a symbolic meaning. The first section, ‘The Mosque,’ represents brotherhood and fraternity. Mrs. Moore meets Dr. Aziz in the mosque and treats him with affection, thus demonstrating a friendly relationship between two different nations, but after a short while the situation is straining. So the symbol of the mosque is very complex and shows the possibility of a personal relationship, but its impossibility on a racial level. The next symbol is Marabar Caves, pre-historic, older than Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. They represent chaos and darkness. If the mosque represented a relaxed and propitious atmosphere for a union, the cave shows man’s inability to live in harmony. The dark and empty caves show the hollowness of life. The episode in the cave indicates that evil defeats good, what Adela saw was not real. Suffering creates the intellect and the darkness reveals the beauty of life. If the caves represent failure, the third and last symbol, the temple, symbolizes the meeting together of different people for reconciliation. In the last section, the atmosphere of reconciliation is everywhere. They have passed from caves and expect harmony. The washing away of the letters of Ronny and Adela which had caused misunderstanding suggests that all causes of misunderstanding had vanished.

The third convention that demonstrates the modernity of the work is the specific theme of one text. Containing certain themes, motifs and symbols is a very important characteristic of modernist works. One of the main purposes of ‘Heart of Darkness’ is to give readers the possibility of penetrating into the deepest and darkest corners of the soul and earth globe. The word ‘heart’ can also mean the center of things, the deepest point. Marlow’s physical journey mirrors his psychological one, inner-self, as he penetrates deeper into the darkness, waiting for something great, powerful, or at least something worthwhile to believe. Instead, he discovers a giant void, an eternal physical and spiritual emptiness. In the center of the world and in the center of man there is no purpose, no reason, only the darkness of empty space.

An important idea is the parallel between individualism and group mentality. Both Marlow and Kurtz are extremely individualistic, but Kurtz is more distant from the rules of society than Marlow, being capable of doing more wrongs. Marlow is a respectable person, appreciates people with a strong sense of responsibility and motivation, such as Kurtz. However, Marlow has more internal constraints than Kurtz and understands the importance of not departing too far from the boundaries of society. So he is fascinated by Kurtz, but he never wants to be him. Another important concept is deliberate ignorance vs. unintended, and the role each plays in both individual life and society. Marlow begins his journey with naivety, but he gives it up gradually when he heads to the Congo. In the end, Marlow seems to come to the conclusion that becoming illuminated is a personal experience, and not something that should be imposed on others.

Such certain themes appear as well in ‘A Passage to India’, where readers are presented with a wealth of literary and social themes. The basic theme is the racial problem in India. However, accent is pun on the ‘Muddle’ of India as well. The author puts great emphasis on this word and it appears in opposition with the mystery, ‘muddle’ representing a dangerous disorder, while ‘mystery’ refers to a mystical plan created by a stronger force than the individual. In addition, the novel presents the difficulty of a friendship between the Indians and the British, another theme much exploited during imperialism. It was then considered that there was no possibility of friendship between the English leaders and the humble Indians. The greatness of the novel lies in this question, if there is any possible connection between the two nations. These relationships also present racial problems, given that Dr. Aziz is unfairly accused and humiliated by the English men. The incident of the presupposed assault brings in the forefront prejudices, injustice and unfairness.

In conclusion, Modernism represents nothing more than one of the stages of literature, a constantly changing stage which suffers many influences, both realistic and symbolic. Literature itself is not a fixed field, considering the fact that most writers create something new and innovative every day. This was precisely the purpose of this academic essay, to prove that there is a passage and a binder between each period and between each defining feature of them.

Works Cited

  1. Beer, John. A Passage to India: Essays in Interpretation. Palgrave Macmillan, 1985 edition
  2. Butler, Christopher. Modernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010
  3. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2007
  4. Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. Penguin Books, 2013
  5. Kimbrough, Robert. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness-text background essays in criticism. W. W. Norton, 1963


Read more