"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad as a Modernist Work. Literary Techniques Like Delayed Decoding, Stream of Consciousness, Irony, and Controversial Ending

Essay, 2019

7 Pages, Grade: B+


Table of Contents


Delayed Decoding

Stream of consciousness

Use of irony

Controversial Ending




Despite Conrad has given specific and concrete details throughout the novella, by using different literary techniques, such as delayed decoding, stream of consciousness, use of irony and controversial ending, fragmentation and defamiliarization are achieved, giving the readers a much larger space of imagination and interpretation than realist novellas. Such space helps the readers to depart from realism, and be able to appreciate art, as Shlovsky wrote, “the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known” (qtd. in Diepeveen 2013:118).

Delayed Decoding

Delayed decoding is a technique was first mentioned by Ian Watt (qtd. in Warodell 2015:1). In our daily practice we do not master a situation in several seconds, as in most realist novels, which gives you directly the vital information you need to follow the plot, but usually for a long period of time, after getting a grasp on different little details, coming across some doubts, before we make a conclusion on the situation. Delayed decoding reflects how we usually decode things and approach an unfamiliar situation. The following scene, in which Marlow’s crew, after taking some firewood and becoming surrounded by fog, are attacked by some natives on their steamer, is suggested by Warodell (2015) as a typical example of delayed decoding:

“I was looking down at the sounding-pole, and feeling much annoyed to see at each try a little more of it stick out of that river, when I saw my poleman give up the business suddenly, and stretch himself flat on the deck, without even taking the trouble to haul his pole in. He kept hold on it though, and it trailed in the water. At the same time the fireman, whom I could also see below me, sat down abruptly before his furnace and ducked his head. I was amazed. Then I had to look at the river mighty quick, because there was a snag in the fairway. Sticks, little sticks, were flying about—thick: they were whizzing before my nose, dropping below me, striking behind me against my pilot-house. All this time the river, the shore, the woods, were very quiet—perfectly quiet. I could only hear the heavy splashing thump of the stern-wheel and the patter of these things. We cleared the snag clumsily. Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at!” (Conrad 2002:149)

We do not know that the steamer is being shot at in until you get to the very end of the excerpt which says “Arrows!”. (Conrad 2002:149) The reader follows the angle of Marlow on discovering what is really happening after noticing some little details from his limited view first, including the fact that the poleman suddenly abandons his duty and lies on the deck, and the ducking of the fireman. No reasons are given on why these acts are conducted at this point, apparently Marlow has not figured out the reason yet. Readers are then told that sticks were flying about. Instead using the word ‘arrows’ directly, the word ‘sticks’ is used. Some straightforward-thinking readers may think that sticks imply arrows and they are being attacked, but Conrad still leaves some space for imagination here and it is possible that the sticks be harmless paper sticks, for example, and the ducking and lying can be some kind of unknown rituals for the natives. The tranquility that comes after the sticks adds further doubt to Marlow, whether this is really an attack or not, and it is not until the end of the excerpt that Marlow realizes that the steamer is really under attack: “Arrows, by Jove!” (Conrad 2002:149). In contrast with realist fictions, in which probably readers will first know the attack, and after which the ducking, lying and the tranquility may be vividly described, realist fictions seem somehow illogical and non-real as there is no point of knowing an attack without noticing the omens initially. By using delayed decoding to achieve fragmentation (presenting the event in fragments before telling the vital parts), Conrad made the novella an art that is difficult to understand, but closer to reality that realist fictions can get.

Stream of consciousness

Besides delayed decoding, another important technique used in this novella is called ‘stream of conciousness’ (Ali and Ali). Stream of consciousness refers to how we usually think, not in a direct manner, but most of the time considering different things in a random manner (the example in the previous section is not a typical example of stream of consciousness as we can still see a step-by-step approach in figuring out the happening of the attack, and we will present a typically illogical one in this section). Although logically-presented thoughts are easier to be understood and therefore we usually present this kind of thinking in public through various means, in fact they are processed and rearranged random thoughts and not that ‘realist’. The modernist movement uses random thinking to express the truth on how we really think, especially in the becoming-more-complicated modernized world. The following is a typical example mentioned by Watt (2012) using the illogical ‘stream of conciousness’ technique:

“ “The other shoe went flying unto the devil-god of that river. I thought, By Jove! it’s all over. We are too late; he has vanished—the gift has vanished, by means of some spear, arrow, or club. I will never hear that chap speak after all, —and my sorrow had a startling extravagance of emotion, even such as I had noticed in the howling sorrow of these savages in the bush. I couldn’t have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life. . . . Why do you sigh in this beastly way, somebody? Absurd? Well, absurd. Good Lord! mustn’t a man ever——Here, give me some tobacco. . . . 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.” (Conrad 2002:152)

In the attack, Marlow was busy throwing his shoe away because it has soaked the blood of the helmsman. But suddenly he laments over the fact that he may die eventually in the attack, and he may not be able to see Kurtz. His thought then turned to Nellie, back in London, after noticing the sorrow of the black people, which have also missed their destiny in life due to the hardship imposed by colonialism, and he responded to the question of absurdity raised by his fellow Englishmen in empathizing with the black people (Watt, 2012:25). Marlow then jumped to the future by reviewing the incident, and laughing himself of fearing death at that moment. As a reader reading this passage, we were originally in the plot, and then somehow jumped into Marlow’s thought of prediction, followed by a review in the past and jumping forward to the future reviewing the present. In real life, we may have tried reviewing ourselves in the past, in which the past us at some point of their present was reviewing their past. Modernist fiction has demonstrated how our brain really work, not in a linear fashion, but an illogical one. By using stream of consciousness to achieve fragmentation (presenting the thinking in fragments in an illogical order), Conrad made the novella an art that is difficult to understand, but closer to reality that realist fictions can get, once again.

Use of irony

Besides fragmentation, defamiliarization is also achieved through various techniques, such as irony and controversial ending. Paul A. Bové (1982:245) claims that “irony is essentially the modern attitude of mind, the "vision" of the twentieth century's industrial”, and Alan Wilde sees it as “transcendental mode of consciousness” (qtd. In Bové 1982:245). The modern use of irony is a great way to condemn the premodern traditions that we have, such as the absurdity of religion and White Man’s Burden. By defamiliarizing subjects and concepts in the novella using the irony technique, Conrad attempts to reverse our original thought that we commonly have in mind, and helps us to embrace modernity. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz once wrote a report as future guidance for International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, in which it says:

“we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might as of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded’” (Conrad 2002:155)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten(2010) finds this ironic as at the end of the report Kurtz wrote “exterminate all the brutes” (Conrad 2002:155), because Kurtz himself is inhumane and certainly a brute by saying the black people are brutes. The irony, however, seems to be more complicated. First, it is uncertain whether the brutes are referring to the black people of Congo or the white men who colonizes Congo. If it is the former, by saying that the brutes does not worth living because they only worship blindly something that has greater power, the whites themselves are equally lost as they worship Christianity (or even more lost because the power of Jesus is not physically seen as in the case of black people seeing the power of whites carrying guns). If it is the latter, the Belgian government would punish Kurtz as Kurtz punish the black, so the fact who is a brute depends on who has less power, but not exactly a matter of morality. From this example we can see how defamiliarization is achieved by just adding the ironic short phrase “exterminate all the brutes”. By adding dilemma of simultaneously civilizing and exterminating, the question of who are brutes is triggered, and the difficulty to comprehend the passage due to abstraction and uncertainty amounts to what is called, (modernist) arts, by Shlovsky (Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten 2011:90).

Controversial Ending

Besides irony, controversial ending is also used as a technique for achieving defamiliarization. The novella ends with a lie. Whether this lie signifies a good ending is a matter of controversy. Jan Verleun (1983) wrote “Marlow's lie is a threefold lie. It is a lie to the fiancee, to Woman, and a lie to the pure essence of moral hope which the Intended also is.” Marlow not only deprived of the Intended of knowing the most important words her lover had to say in his life, which she definitely had the right to know, by hiding the horror which happened in Congo, as if it has never happened, Marlow secured his position as the suppressor (man over woman), and the whites’ suppression over the non-whites. But for some, especially utilitarians, the ending is definitely a good thing, for the Intended may be even more depressed if told the fact of what Kurtz really said.

Another controversy is on the meaning of Kurtz’s last words ‘The horror! The horror!’. Marlow interprets the words in four ways: 1. Kurtz condemning his own actions as horror and realizing what he has done is wrong, 2. Kurtz realizing the mixing of desire and hate inside a person as horror, in which people are brought under the control of them, 3. Kurtz realizing the horror that the nature of a person is innately evil, 4. Kurtz realizing that the universe in itself is horror, and as well as anything contained by it. (Conrad 2002:215) There may also be other explanations that Marlow has overlooked on what horror may actually mean, such as the horror of colonialism, the horror of the Congo brutes, or the horror of the readers not being able to understand the novella (Kurtz breaking the fourth wall announcing the horror caution that the readers has experienced), or the horror of the ambiguous ending of this novella, after having read so hard through so many pages of fragments. With so many controversies there is no definite answer on whether this is a happy ending or a sad ending. The defamiliarization effect comes to a climax at the end as one has finished reading the story, one is trapped in the difficulty of interpreting the novel in its entirety as well as the ending in particular.


Literary techniques such as delayed decoding and stream of consciousness are employed in Heart of Darkness in order to achieve fragmentation, while use of irony and controversial ending are employed to achieve defamiliarization. These contribute to modernist’s departure from realism, as the facts described are either put in an illogical order or left much space for interpretation.

(2115 words)


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"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad as a Modernist Work. Literary Techniques Like Delayed Decoding, Stream of Consciousness, Irony, and Controversial Ending
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
ENGE5330 Modernist Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
conrad, darkness, heart, joseph, literary
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Kwan Lung Chan (Author), 2019, "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad as a Modernist Work. Literary Techniques Like Delayed Decoding, Stream of Consciousness, Irony, and Controversial Ending, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/906423


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