Comparative essay


In Heart of Darkness, Conrad writes that the meaning of the text sometimes lies “not inside like the kernel, but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze”. Examine the parallels in the mode of storytelling in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now (the movie), and evaluate the importance of this storytelling mode for each text.

Hint — you should start with the article on Impressionism in writing — it was reading homework a couple of weeks ago, and is available in the Classroom stream and folder.

Impressionistic Writing and Heart of Darkness

Authors are sometimes grouped together with other artists who share a similar vision or idea concerning how to approach their craft. The impressionist writers make up one of these groups. The most famous impressionists are perhaps painters, such as van Gogh and Renoir, whose works you’ve no doubt seen on posters and even coffee cups. Painters, however, aren’t the only artists whose work is impressionistic. There are several authors who also can be placed in this “school,” including Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Henry James.

In literature, impressionist writers exhibit some or all of these characteristics:

• They use a narrative style that is intentionally ambiguous, placing more responsibility on the reader to form his or her own conclusions about events within the novel, rather than relying on the narrator.

• They often describe the action through the eyes of the character while the events are occurring, rather than providing details after the character has already processed the action. The result is sometimes like being in an accident – where everything appears to be moving in slow motion. All of the details seem unclear.

• They’re concerned with the “emotional landscape” of the setting. They’re interested in the ways the setting evokes certain emotional responses from both the characters and the reader.

• They employ details in such a way that it’s sometimes difficult to see a clear picture of events if you focus on the details too closely. Much like an impressionistic painting, it’s only possible to get a full picture once you stand back from the novel and view it in its entirety.

• They often avoid a chronological telling of events. Instead, they give the reader information in a way that forces them to focus on how and why things happen, rather than on the order in which they occur.

The following passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness reflects the impressionist style of writing:

I saw a face amongst the leaves on the level with my own, looking at me very fierce and steady; and then suddenly, as though a veil had been removed from my eyes, I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes – the bush was swarming with human limbs in movement, glistening, of bronze colour. The twigs shook, swayed, and rustled, the arrows flew out of them, and then the shutter came to.(Conrad 57)

Notice how Conrad’s narrator reports things as they’re happening, before he’s had a chance to process the information. Notice also the attention to color and movement. It’s interesting to note that at this point, the speaker is actually under attack. Yet it takes him a few more lines before he realizes this, further enhancing the sense that the reader is experiencing the attack with the narrator.

Adapted from

Where did literary impressionism come from, and what is the philosophy behind it?

Literary impressionism falls between two schools of writing – realism, and modernism. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is described variously as modernist and impressionist. Accompanying this handout are handouts on realism and modernism, describing the trends preceding, following, and overlapping Heart of Darkness.

Some further considerations to be made when reading impressionism in literature are:

• Impressionism as a response to modernity

• The role of the visual, and the relation of Literary to pictorial Impressionism

• The relations between Impressionism, sexuality, and psychology

• Impressionism as a rejection of moralising narratives, and an expression of secularism


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