Conrad’s Use of Language in Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.

In his critical text The Great Tradition F.R. Leavis is interested in Conrad’s use of the English language, in light of it being his third, possibly fourth language, after Polish, French and Russian. He recounts a conversation on the subject:

‘I remember remarking to Andre Chevrillon how surprising a choice it was on Conrad’s part to write in English, especially seeing he was so clearly a student of the French masters. And I remember the reply, to the effect that it wasn’t at all surprising, since Conrad’s work couldn’t have been written in French. M. Chevrillon, with the authority of a perfect bilingual, went on to explain in terms of the characteristics of the two languages why it had to be English. Conrad’s themes and interests demanded the concreteness and action – the dramatic energy – of English.’

This is true so far as it goes, but in reading Heart of Darkness, it soon becomes evident that there is another aspect of the English language that fascinates Conrad, which is quite opposite to ‘the concreteness and action’ described by Chevrillon. This is its capacity for ambiguity. Indeed, one strong theme of Heart of Darkness is how language can deceive, and how inadequate it can be for expressing ‘the significantly unfamiliar’.

When Leavis comes to tackle Heart of Darkness in the chapter on Conrad in The Great Tradition, he concedes that this novella is ‘by common consent one of Conrad’s best things’, but then spends a great part of his discussion criticising its use of language.

His criticism of Heart of Darkness is consistent with his earlier characterisation of English as a language of action. After quoting at length some passages that demonstrate ‘Conrad’s art at its best’ (passages that describe action), he then goes on to focus on a perceived weakness of the text:

‘There are, however, places in Heart of Darkness where we become aware of comment as an interposition, and worse, as an intrusion, at times an exasperating one. Hadn’t he, we find ourselves asking, overworked “inscrutable”, “inconceivable”, “unspeakable” and that kind of word already? – yet still they recur. Is anything added to the oppressive mysteriousness of the Congo by such sentences as: “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” -?’

Leavis insists that the ‘effect is not to magnify but rather to muffle’. But here he misses the point. For it seems to me clear that Conrad’s intention is exactly that – to make us aware of the inadequacy of these type of words. The intrusion is deliberate, and is not meant to clarify his meaning, but the opposite – to expose the impotence of language. It’s at the points where Conrad most wants to drive home the hollowness at the core of language itself that he uses this refined and sophisticated language, four- and five-syllable words such as those given as examples by Leavis: ‘inscrutable’, ‘inexorable’, inconceivable’, ‘implacable’.

Poetic Language in Heart of Darkness

We must also be aware of Conrad’s use of reptition. Whenever the language in Heart of Darkness becomes at once more sophisticated and ambiguous, the phrases he uses resound and act as a kind of ‘motif’ throughout the text. This is a genuinely poetic use of language, not in the sense of poetic evocation, but in the sense that language is made to draw attention to itself. The repetition, much like the function of rhyme, allieration, assonance, and so on, brings our attention to the words themselves, and gives us a heightened sensitivity to their function. In Heart of Darkness, the really radical point of this is to expose their lack of meaning.

For example, take the fact that in the first three pages he reiterates the word ‘brooding’ five times, sometimes in succeeding paragraphs, and always related to the word ‘gloom’, with which it creates a resounding poetic assonance:

  • ‘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.’
  • ‘It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom’.
  • ‘Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.’
  • ‘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 out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.’
  • ‘And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.’

We have all, I’m sure, had the experience of repeating the same word incessantly to the point where we lose its meaning and it becomes merely a sound, and this is part of Conrad’s intention here.

Language and Deception

The theme of the capacity of language to deceive has been commented on by many critics. Kurtz was ‘just a word to me’, says Marlow. He talks of his disappointment when he believes he will not meet Kurtz, and says:

‘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’”, or “Now I will never shake him by the hand,” but, “Now I will never hear him.” The man presented himself as a voice.’

As Marlow continues to explore this disappointment, the same stretching of language we’ve seen earlier is used to heighten our awareness of its emptiness – polysyllabic words like ‘inestimable’ and ‘impalpable’ return – while Marlow’s own language staggers before falling into impotence:

‘I was cut to the quick at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz. Of course I was wrong. The privilege was waiting for me. Oh yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right too. A voice. He was very little more than a voice. And I heard – him – it – this voice – other voices – all of them were so little more than voices – and the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense. Voices, voices – even the girl herself – now -‘

Conrad has deliberately forced the reader to share Marlow’s frustrations with the ‘immense jabber’, and the ‘silly’ words. Indeed, F.R. Leavis’s frustrations with the language are exactly of the sort intended by the author. The use of the word ‘impalpable’ in this very sentence is not there for its meaning – it’s there because it exposes its own lack of meaning. We have, as Leavis points out, already had a great deal of this word at certain points throughout the story, and when it reappears, the repitition strikes us and its emptiness is reinforced.

There are many examples of this use of language to elaborate the themes of the novella, but perhaps the most germane to its most dominant theme is the nature of Kurtz’s report for the International Society for the Supression of Savage Customs. Marlow tells us that Kurtz’s paper was ‘vibrating with eloquence’, and ‘the peroration was magnificent’ – sophisticated language to describe sophisticated language. But the striking thing is the hurried scrawl at the end: “Exterminate all the brutes!” Quite apart from the sentiment behind this scrawl, there is its choice of words. ‘Exterminate’ is itself one of those polysyllabic, sophisticated  words, and its use here suggests the ultimate horror that Conrad has to impart to us; which is that, far from reverting to savagery, Kurtz has embraced it. Marlow has told us this horrifying truth about humanity in direct words earlier in Heart of Darkness:

‘It was unearthly and the men were… No they were not inhuman. Well you know, that was the worst of it – the suspicion of their not being inhuman.’

As Thomas Osborne says in his excellent essay ‘Conrad’s Darkness’:

‘Barbarism is not a lapsed state or a state that is, in an evolutionary sense, prior to civilization. It is not the product of degeneration. It is rather that civilization seems to be only the name we give to our temporary, fragile sheltering from barbarism and darkness – a fragility that is protected only in the most mundane of things, in work, in collective life.’

And, we might add, in words. If Kurtz was in a lapsed state of barbarism he would have scrawled ‘Kill all the brutes’ at the foot of his paper – if he remained capable of writing at all. The word ‘exterminate’ is a chilling reminder that the civilizing impulse, and the language that accompanies it, is still very much a part of the transformed Kurtz. This is the real horror, the real darkness at the heart of this story.


Since writing this post, I read an essay entitled The Failure of the Imagination (1965) by James Guetti (published in Casebook Series: Heart of Darkness, Nostromo and Under Western Eyes). Although coming at the novel from a different angle, parts of the essay cover similar ground to that covered in my post above, and (I think) helps to support its case. Here’s a quote:

Language has meaning, in Heart of Darkness, in terms of the exteriors of experience – the coast of a wilderness, the surface of a river, a man’s appearance and his voice – and this meaning can exist as a reality so long as one remains ignorant, deliberately or otherwise, of all that lies beyond these exteriors, of what language cannot penetrate. For with the intimation that there is something beyond verbal and, indeed, the intellectual capacities, comes the realisation that language is fiction. And if we desire to discover a reality greater than that of words, we are confronted not with the truth within, but with the real disparity between the gimmickry of the human mind and this truth. Because Marlow wishes to know more than surfaces, the reality of surfaces is destroyed. His knowledge of reality may now exist only as his knowledge of the unbridgeable separation between the world of man’s disciplined imagination and that something or nothing to which this world is assumed to relate.

3 responses to “Conrad’s Use of Language in Heart of Darkness”

  1. Interesting ruminations. The phrase “Conrad’s darkness” perhaps begs the question. Is the darkness altogether that of the sinister benighted Congo, or is it not in part within Conrad himself? One would like to know more of what kind of a person Conrad was – and what his psychology, his inner landscape was like. Pretty sombre, at a guess – though not remotely hinted at in Jessie’s memoir Conrad as I Knew Him.

  2. Great points, thanks for sharing. I get the feeling that the broader existential boundaries of Conrad’s work are neglected in favor of a more thematic approach that tends only to look at him through some psychological or political lens. I find those kinds of approaches bothersome because they seem more like an attempt to tease something back into rational domesticity, to put something back in its box when the non-existence of the box has already been demonstrated non-existent. Thanks again!

  3. Linguisticaly speaking, I think that approaching this literary masterpiece can be a rewarding task.

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