What's in a symbol? Darkness in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Student thesis: Master thesis (including HD thesis)

  • Chris Morten Fosnæs-Hart
4. term, English, Master (Master Programme)
In this Master´s thesis I examine what makes contemporary literary criticism political and why and how we must instead look to Northrop Frye as he offers a relevant, universal and unique approach to literature that politicized literary criticism pay less or no attention to.
In line with this I examine to which degree it is possible to compare the readings of selected politicized literary criticisms of Joseph Conrad´s Heart of Darkness to one offered by Northrop Frye.
The first section of the paper works towards an understanding of how and why contemporary literary criticism is seen as being political and how Northrop Frye is to be viewed as a middle-ground, as in-between the two opposite camps of the political spectrum as understood by left-wing and right-wing.
In order to analyse Conrad´s text, I use Northrop Frye´s second essay of his Anatomy of Criticism titled Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols. This essay enables an approach that sheds light on what Frye terms five phases of literary symbolism. The five phases of literary symbolism work toward a systematization of literary symbolism and explores the symbol of darkness in Conrad’s literary text in terms of all its possible and ambiguous meanings.
When I analyse the symbol of darkness in the literal phase I look at the symbol in terms of its internal references, as what Frye terms motif. This phase allows me to scrutinize the selected politicized readings of Conrad’s text and to see if their statements can be verified through the specific literary situations. In turn the descriptive phase allows me to analyse the statements of the politicized readings that lean towards external references as well as uncovering the outward properties of the symbol of darkness as what Frye terms sign and as found in the literary text.
The formal phase analysis deals with the symbol of darkness as what Frye terms image. This phase unifies the literal and the descriptive phase and allows me to make out a value judgement out of the symbols of darkness found in Conrad’s text.
Lastly, I analyse the mythical and the anagogic phase that becomes a reading embodying what we can understand as universal meaning by way that the symbol of darkness in the former is read as an archetype and the latter as a monad. The last two phases enable me to make a modern or contemporary parallel in my understanding of the symbol of darkness in Heart of Darkness.
Based on my analysis whereby I compare selected politicized readings of Heart of Darkness to an approach offered by Northrop Frye and as operated by me, I find that the politicized readings are to an extent more interested in making a political rather than literary meaning out of Heart of Darkness. At the same time, many of the findings do compare which I do not find surprising with the primary text in mind. Heart of Darkness deals with many aspects which we can consider political, namely imperialism. I find that the politicized readings tend to point to the same areas of interest in Conrad’s text but that their readings differ greatly.
For example, Chinua Achebe reads Conrad as being racist in his portrayal of the natives in his fictional text. I find that Conrad is more overtly critical towards the Europeans. More so, Edward Said invokes his own private person to assert that his view is more valid than others and that Conrad is not able to speak for what he terms as the other. I find that Conrad can speak for the other as seen in his implicit and explicit critique of imperialism. In terms of feminist readings of Conrad’s text, I find that I agree with most of their statements broadly speaking but that I locate the source of their statements elsewhere.
LanguageEnglish
Publication date2 Jun 2020
Number of pages79
ID: 333230981