Impressionism in Heart of Darkness: Theme & Quotes

Instructor: Melissa Rohen

Melissa has taught college English and has a master's degree in English and Composition.

In this lesson we will explore the novel ''Heart of Darkness,'' written by Joseph Conrad, and look for instances of impressionism. We will discuss what impressionism is and use specific quotations as examples.


Impressionism is best explained by using a picture. Let's look at Monet's painting The Rose Walk.

Impression of a Rose Garden
Rose Garden by Monet

Notice how there are no clear lines in this painting, but we can tell it is a walkway through a tunnel of trees.

Impressionism is taking the visual interpretation, or impression, of a specific moment in time. In art, this is done by emphasizing light, color, and shadow. Instead of painting clear lines, Monet uses blurry brush strokes to blend colors, giving us the feeling of walking through a tunnel of trees, rather than clearly painting a realistic image. He paints an impression and leaves the interpretation up to us.

Impressionism and Literature

What does this have to do with books? The concepts of impressionism in art can be applied to writing. Instead of using blurry paint strokes like the artist, the writer uses descriptions of how the character sees the world around them. For example, instead of clearly stating the character is walking through a garden, the writer might have them describe how the sun looks falling through the leaves and how the flowers smell.

The writer creates an emotional landscape - a descriptive response of the character, and thereby the reader, to a specific setting or event in the story. The writer tells us the character's impression of the world, rather than giving clear details of reality, leaving it up to the reader to interpret it.

This type of writing is intentionally ambiguous, or vague, in the same way impressionistic paintings are. It's all kind of blurry so the reader can interpret meanings and feelings for themselves. Typically, the stories are told 'in the moment' - again, like impressionistic paintings. The reader experiences the actions and emotions of the characters as they are happening.

Impressionism in Heart of Darkness

Marlow's story in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is an example of impressionism. He describes the events in that 'in the moment' approach, as though they are happening right then. We see the world through Marlow's eyes. He never clearly defines the events he experiences - he leaves that up to us based on his descriptions. He creates the impression; we have to determine the meaning ourselves.


The primary theme in this novel is also an example of impressionism - the idea of light and darkness. Throughout the story, Marlow describes the landscapes he travels through. The Thames is described using words like bright, brilliant, peaceful. When Marlow gets to Africa, he uses words like gloomy, grim, and evil to describe what he sees. We experience the landscape through these descriptions - through Marlowe's eyes, so to speak.

As Marlow describes the light, brilliant landscape of the Thames and the dark, dangerous landscape of the Congo, we are meant to interpret it for ourselves - usually as the comparison between the civilized and uncivilized.


Let's look at some specific quotes as examples of impressionism.


Impression of Mist
Monet Mist

Marlow describes his experiences floating on the river in the mist on his steamboat 'To me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed...from all sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise. It culminated in a hurried outbreak of almost intolerably excessive shrieking, which stopped short...'

What is happening here? Marlow only describes what he sees - the mist - and what he hears - loud shrieking and then silence. Notice how he doesn't actually describe what is happening. Instead, he tells us how he is experiencing the event, leaving the interpretation up to us. We can tell, by his description of the sights and noises, that his boat is surrounded by screaming people he can't quite see.

Attack in the Jungle

Impression of the Jungle
Van Gogh Forresl

Marlow again describes his experience: 'I saw a face amongst the leaves...looking at me... I made out, deep in the tangled gloom...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....'

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