Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "The Nature of London and the Congo: Joseph Conrad’s Use and Exploitation of Romanticism in Heart of Darkness" by Gabriella S. (Spring 2014)

"The Nature of London and the Congo: Joseph Conrad’s Use and Exploitation of Romanticism in Heart of Darkness" by Gabriella S. (Spring 2014)

Joseph Conrad, known most notably for his 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness, masterfully describes natural settings in which his scenes take place in the literary technique of romanticism. Romanticism utilizes the environment to create vivid images and convey an emotional message that spoken words or motions by characters cannot. Instead of an honest use of descriptive romanticism, however, many stylistic critics have analyzed Conrad’s fluid descriptions as a multi-layered method of satirizing Great Britain. This romanticism introduces Conrad’s writing in both the genres of realism and modernism, regaling him as an innovative writer and genius of his time.

Conrad’s writing utilizes eloquent romanticism to create a mood or setting in which his scenes take place. One of the most notable descriptions in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness lies in chapter one, in which the narrator sets the scene with a naturalistic description of the departure of Marlow and his crew’s from London on the Thames:

“Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth…The tidal current runs to and fro its unceasing service crowded with memories of men and ships it has borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea” (4).

This dramatic imagery captures the natural immensity and ceaselessness of the Thames, the men’s heightened excitement for their voyage, and the antiquity of British colonialism. Upon initial reading of this passage, Conrad’s use of romanticism can be assumed to only convey the wonder and awe associated with Great Britain’s conquests in the late nineteenth century. This reasonable phenomenon is best described by Charles Schug in his The Romantic Genesis of the Modern Novel. Schug contributes notes on other romantic writers of Conrad’s time, but remarks that Conrad especially used “literature closely resembling in its formal and structural attributes the great Romantic poems of the early nineteenth century” to continue the romanticism prevalent in other contemporary British writing.

Schug’s analysis provides a typical surface-deep consideration of Conrad’s romanticism, without a further inspection of further meaning. A collection of critics, however, consider Conrad’s romantic stylistic descriptions as a direct attack on and mockery of Great Britain’s classic romanticism. The correlation Schug makes between Conrad and his British contemporaries captures how Conrad exploits the classic romantic writing style of his time to create deeper symbols that point to the flaws of British ideologies. The source which exhibits the strongest support of this theory is Linda Dryden in her book, Joseph Conrad and the Imperial Romance. Dryden remarks how Conrad utilizes his writing to attack the imperialist values of Conrad’s time:

“The codes and ideals that govern behaviour in the imperial romance, the very notion of the English gentleman, are scrutinized in Conrad’s tales and found wanting. The durability and unassailability of the values of the nineteenth century are called into question; at the century’s end Conrad undertakes a serious reassessment of their worth. Many of these values, including the ‘rightness’ of the English imperial enterprise, are revealed through Conrad’s fictions to be questionable ideals” (Dryden, 8).

Dryden discusses Conrad’s thorough comprehension of the British Empire, and his scrutiny of its classic romanticism.

Dryden reveals that Conrad innovatively uses his romanticism as a satire on the “questionable ideals” in the imperial literature of his time, to further criticize Great Britain for its destructive choices in the nineteenth century.

Dryden effectively exhibits how Conrad’s writing questions British Romanticism in his writing, but does not explain why Conrad felt the need for satire. Critic Katherine Baxter writes in her work, Joseph Conrad and the Swan Song of Romance, that the reason for Conrad’s unconventional use of romanticism is to turn British ideologies, like ruthless colonialism, upside down, and through narration, question the seemingly infallible British Empire. Baxter explains that in Heart of Darkness,

“Conrad [explores] the extent to which he could turn narration, and in a particular romance narrative, back upon itself. In the process of exploring the nature of narration Conrad shows up the fictive aspects of ideologies, whether personal or social or cultural. He uses specific romance tropes and themes to uncover the ideologies that underpin romance and the romanticism that underpins much that presents itself as ideology” (Baxter, n.p).

The theory that Conrad’s purpose of romanticism is to criticize the British ideologies is a profound concept, since as Schug remarks above, contemporary authors of Conrad’s time used romanticism as an honest and revered expression of British literature. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad introduces an imaginatively ingenious style of writing that begins to mock not only the use of romanticism in British culture, but the ideologies of the British Empire on a whole.

As Schug reveals, Conrad’s use of romanticism is a method of challenging the British Empire, but this idea itself digs deeper: Conrad’s revolutionary writing and ideas are considered by some as an early expression of literary realism. As Ruth Stauffer remarks in her work, Joseph Conrad; His Romantic-realism, that in Heart of Darkness, “the unmerciful glare of the African sun, the impenetrable blackness of the jungle, the dank smell of decayed vegetation, the mysterious lure of the impassivity of nature” (Stauffer, n.p.) that Conrad describes of the African Congo create a setting that allows the reader to perceive the scene through a vividly clear lens. Stauffer considers Conrad’s realism as a method through which his romanticism exposes the cruel ideologies and practices of the British Empire in Africa. The fact that Conrad blatantly depicts the unimaginable conditions of African enslavement by English colonialists reveals not only the events the occurred, but the fallibility in a power as dominant as the British Empire. Conrad’s realism adds a further dimension to his romanticism, his criticism of England, and to further trigger human sympathy for the victims of colonialism, a concept never questioned before.

Stauffer’s theory of Conrad’s realistic romanticism is relayed in a different perspective by critic David Thorburn, who considers this method as a further transition into modernism writing. Thorburn, remarks in his work, Conrad’s Romanticism, that Conrad can be considered a modernist writer due to his “fondness for profoundly self-conscious and self-dramatizing narrators…one of his clearest links with the self-absorption that characterizes so much twentieth-century fiction” (105). Conrad’s transition from definitive romanticism to innovative modernism adds the final dimension to Conrad’s goal of spotlighting the flaws in the British Empire; by using its own classic literary style of romanticism against itself, Conrad achieves the ultimate attack tactic on Great Britain and its legacy as the ultimate superpower.

Due to Conrad’s masterfully crafted and layered messages against the British Empire in Heart of Darkness, he earns the regard as one of literature’s most profound authors and writers of all time. As the stylistic authors above remark, Conrad was an authentic romantic, solemn realist, and ingenious modernist, and most of all, a writer who could skillfully find both the beauty and destruction—the light and the dark—in the complexities of the world.


Annotated Bibliography

Baxter, Katherine Isobel. Joseph Conrad and the Swan Song of Romance. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2010. Print.

• Baxter’s work analyzes Conrad’s often unconventional use of romanticism and romantic themes –such as his philosophical romance—in his books. This source acts as a background source due to its overall analysis of Conrad’s works.

Dryden, Linda. Joseph Conrad and the Imperial Romance. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000. Print.

• Dryden’s article discusses Conrad’s early understanding of the British Empire and sarcastic belittlement of its classic romanticism. This piece is useful for argument because it explains Conrad’s use of romanticism as a satire on the imperial fiction of his time.

Schug, Charles. The Romantic Genesis of the Modern Novel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1979. Print.

The Romantic Genesis of the Modern Novel contributes notes on other romantic writers of Conrad’s time, and remarks on Conrad’s break into Modernism. Schug provides analysis on style, tone, and structure of romantic writing, and is therefore useful for theory of Conrad’s use of romanticism. Stauffer,

Ruth M. Joseph Conrad; His Romantic-realism. New York: Haskell House, 1969. Print.

• Joseph Conrad; His Romantic-realism claims that Conrad was both a romantic and a realist. It can be useful as an argument source as it provides a distinct theory about why Conrad used romanticized writing in his works.

Thorburn, David. Conrad's Romanticism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974. Print.

• Thorburn’s analysis contributes intriguing remarks on Conrad’s use of both romanticism and modernism in his works, most specifically in Heart of Darkness. This is useful for exhibition because it provides complex considerations on Conrad’s use of romanticism.