Most of us can relate to film, television, or literary characters. Many of us are like Wonder Woman–professional, successful, and heroic all at once. Others are mild-mannered reporters (or other professionals) by day and like Superman by night, saving the planet from evil.
If you’ve just finished reading Heart of Darkness, though, it might be pretty darn hard to feel a connection with imperialists or cannibals.
But even if you don’t have much in common with these characters and are struggling to write about the novella, you might certainly feel like Marlow. You’re sailing through uncharted territory, lost in a sea of fog, and trying to find your way through the darkness of essay writing.
If that’s the case, I’m here to help clear the fog and offer you three ways to approach your Heart of Darkness essay.
A Quick Literary Analysis Review
If you’re writing an essay about any piece of literature, chances are your prof doesn’t want you to simply summarize the plot. After all, that’s why it’s called literary analysis and not literary summary.
Thus, after you’ve read and taken notes on whatever it is you’re analyzing, try to figure out what everything means and how it all fits together.
In other words, look past the plot and identify the underlying meaning.
In need of more in-depth literary analysis advice? Check out these posts:
- 8 Components of a Smart Literary Analysis
- How to Write a Literary Analysis That Works
- Literary Analysis Tips from a Kibin Editor
Now that you’ve refreshed your memory on the basics of literary analysis, let’s get down to the business of analyzing the novella so that you’re ready to tackle your Heart of Darkness essay.
3 Ways to Approach Your Heart of Darkness Essay
There’s a lot going on in this story, so there’s absolutely no way I can cover every type of literary analysis paper you might write about Heart of Darkness. I am, however, going to discuss three strategies to help you write a solid literary analysis.
Point of view
In academic writing, you’re often told to avoid using first person point of view, but literature uses first person all the time. Narrators tell their stories and hope to intrigue the audience through the fantastic tales they spin.
Heart of Darkness uses two different first-person narrators. The novella begins and ends with narration from an unnamed traveler who sits and listens (along with four other passengers) to Marlow’s tale. (This person narrates using the first-person pronoun “we.”)
This narration frames the story as readers hear the traveler’s voice only at the beginning and end of the novella. That means the bulk of narration comes from Marlow. Marlow tells his amazing tale to the traveler and, of course, to readers using the first person “I.”
Why does Conrad use this framing technique as narration, rather than one traditional first-person narrator? How does the use of a second unnamed narrator change readers’ interpretations of Marlow’s story?
Framing allows the reader to see two different perspectives of the story, two different points of view about things such as imperialism, and two different interpretations of characters.
Consider, for instance, how the use of two different narrators allows readers to learn more about Marlow, his actions, his feelings, and his character.
Reliable or unreliable narrator
Is Marlow a reliable narrator? What evidence is there to prove that his story is real?
Think about stories you’ve heard your friends tell. I bet that on more than one occasion they’ve embellished a few details here and there. Is Marlow doing the same thing?
If you’re writing about whether Marlow is reliable, look for any inconsistencies in his story or for places when the unnamed narrator comments on Marlow’s tale. This might give you hints as to places where the story could be embellished or simply made up.
Consider, also, the instances where Marlow seems confused or sometimes forgets his story. Is he struggling to remember the story itself, or is he trying to remember what lies he’s already told?
You might also question whether the unnamed traveler is reliable. After all, he’s telling the tale as he remembers it. Has he forgotten information? Has he made up stories or embellished the tale in any way?
Looking for a finished Heart of Darkness essay example focused on the narration in the novella? Read The Framing Narrative in Heart of Darkness, A Novel by Joseph Conrad.
In literature, a symbol is something (such as a character, object, or place) that represents something else. For instance, if a poem contains doves, those doves might symbolize peace.
There’s a ton of symbolism in Heart of Darkness, and though I haven’t included every symbol from the novella, here are two you might want to write about.
Marlow travels through dense fog on his journey up the Congo. The fog is more than just a nuisance. Consider how fog can become a barrier, how it makes it difficult to see, and how everything seems to slip into the shadows in the fog.
Fog might symbolize the uncertainty of Marlow’s journey and of his quest to find Kurtz. Fog might also symbolize Marlow’s mental state and his confusion about his travels.
When analyzing a character, examine the character’s personality, profession, acquaintances, and of course, actions.
Kurtz is greedy and overbearing. His goal is to be successful in the ivory trade, and he lets nothing stop him. He makes friends (and enemies) with the native Africans. They view him as God-like in some ways, but he also raids villages and ultimately falls into madness.
Thus, Kurtz might be seen as a symbol of a false God because of his willingness to simply overpower those whom he rules.
He might also symbolize corporate greed and obsession with domination, wealth and power seemingly his only goals.
To read an example essay about symbolism in Heart of Darkness, take a look at A Literary Analysis of the Symbolism in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
The theme of a piece of literature is the underlying meaning of the work. The subject is what the piece of literature is about. Don’t confuse theme with subject.
For example, a poem might be about a fish trying to escape a fisherman. The subject of the poem is a fish trying to escape. The theme of the poem, however, might be man vs. nature or the fragility of the environment.
If you’re writing about the themes in your Heart of Darkness essay, you might write about good vs. evil or hypocrisy.
Good vs. evil
Images of light and dark abound in this novella, with light often symbolizing good and darkness symbolizing evil. The title even includes the image of darkness in one’s self.
Marlow appears to want to do the right thing. But he’s uncertain of his path and struggles to make the right decisions in a world where good and evil don’t seem that cut and dry.
Kurtz wishes to be successful, and his ambitions may make him, at first, seem more good than evil. It’s quickly revealed, however, that his goals aren’t so admirable as he’s willing to stop at nothing to obtain them.
The novella focuses on imperialism and the Europeans’ desire to “civilize” the Africans and, at the same time, bring additional power and wealth to Europe. The results aren’t exactly what the Europeans hoped for.
Consider that no one really wins in imperialism, and that’s exactly the point that Conrad is making. The natives face brutality and destruction. And while Europeans seem to achieve their goal, they claim they are involved in an ivory “trade,” but it really just amounts to theft.
Kurtz is less hypocritical about his involvement and overtly states that his goal is to exterminate. His honesty threatens to expose the true intentions of the company and the hypocrisy of imperialism.
Looking for an example essay about themes in Heart of Darkness? Read The Madness and Sanity in Heart of Darkness.
The Final Destination
At the end of your voyage, you’ve hopefully found the perfect approach for your Heart of Darkness essay. If, however, you just can’t get into writing about point of view, symbolism, or theme, review these two posts for additional ideas:
- How to Analyze Imagery in Literature the Smart Way
- 15 Literary Terms You Need to Know to Write Better Essays
You might also find inspiration in these example essays:
- A Story of Life and Death in Heart of Darkness, a Novella by Joseph Conrad
- The Portrayal of Women in Joseph Conrad’s Novella Heart of Darkness
- The Characterization of Setting in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Still struggling? Still lost in a fog of topics, literary terms, and essay writing? Get help from the team of experts at Kibin.