Conrad and Modernism


"On or about December 1910 human nature changed" (Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. III, 421)

"one of the features of the age we are talking about is that it is remarkably historicist, disposed to apocalyptic, crisis-centred views of history" (Modernism 20)

In the course of centuries the naive self-love of men has had to submit to two major blows at the hands of science. The first was when they learnt that our earth was not the centre of the universe but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness. This is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, though something similar had already been asserted by Alexandrian science. The second blow fell when biological research destroyed man's supposedly privileged place in creation and proved his descent from the animal kingdom and his ineradicable animal nature. This revaluation has been accomplished in our own days by Darwin, Wallace and their predecessors, though not without the most violent contemporary opposition. But human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind. We psycho-analysts were not the first and not the only ones to utter this call to introspection; but it seems to be our fate to give it its most forcible expression and to support it with empirical material which affects every individual. (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916-17), Standard Edition, Vol. XVI, 284-5)


Modernism: not realism (19th C) but psychological realism (early 20th C).

Within this pervasive shift in the modern Weltbild, the dream came to enjoy a novel and special status. [Freud's Interpretation of Dreams is 1899] . . . The apparent incongruence and incoherence of the dream was . . . recognized as the mind's way of communicating the most complex and subtle things, often with a most admirable economy and elegance -- things which the mind had perhaps never consciously or supraliminally perceived. (Modernism 85)

Heart: "Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream -- making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment . . . " (Norton 2347)

Ian Watt. "For Conrad, the world of the senses is not a picture but a presence, a presence so intense, unconditional, and unanswerable that it loses the fugitive, hypothetical, subjective, and primarily aesthetic qualities which it usually has in the impressionist tradition." Cites Fernandez: Conrad's art "does not trace the reality before the man, but the man before the reality; it evokes experiences in their subjective entirety because the impression is the equivalent of the entire perception, and because the whole man experiences it with all the powers of his being." (Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, 1979)

Conrad: "a point of view from which the very shadows of life appear endowed with an internal glow"

Heart: "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze" (Norton 2331)

Woolf: "Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." (Norton 2432)

Something big appeared in the air before the shutter, the rifle went overboard, and the man stepped back swiftly, looked at me over his shoulder in an extraordinary, profound, familiar manner, and fell upon my feet. The side of his head hit the wheel twice, and the end of what appeared a long cane clattered round and knocked over a little camp-stool. It looked as though after wrenching that thing from somebody ashore he had lost his balance in the effort. (Heart of Darkness, Norton 2361-2)

Watt: "This narrative device may be termed delayed decoding, since it combines the forward temporal progression of the mind, as it receives messages from the outside world, with the much slower reflexive process of making out their meaning. Through this device . . . the reader participates in the instantaneous sensations, and is 'made to see' . . ."


London: "a monstrous town more populous than some continents, . . . a cruel devourer of the world's light" (Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907), Modernism 182)

The tribal other: cf. Gaugin (Tahiti from 1891), Picasso ("Negro period" 1906-07); Stravinsky, Rite of Spring (1913).

Chinua Achebe: "Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as 'the other world,' the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality."

Achebe: "Whatever Conrad's problems were, you might say he is now safely dead. Quite true. Unfortunately, his heart of darkness plagues us still. Which is why an offensive and totally deplorable book can be described by a serious scholar as 'among the half dozen greatest short novels in the English language.' And why it is today perhaps the most commonly prescribed novel in twentieth-century literature courses . . ."


Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane. Modernism. Penguin, 1976.

For other references, see Conrad2.htm

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Document prepared October 2nd 2006