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Irony in Heart of Darkness

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Irony is a very common and interesting literary device. In this lesson you'll learn about irony and how it is used in Joseph Conrad's novel 'Heart of Darkness.'

Irony

Sometimes you will find literary devices that are also common in everyday life. One of these is irony. Irony is when what you expect is the opposite of what happens. You've probably seen it most often in the form of sarcasm, where what you say is actually the opposite of what you mean. In literature, irony typically takes a different form than sarcasm, since that's harder to show in writing, but it is still a very common literary device. One novel where we see irony used a number of times is in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Marlow's Commentary

One place we see several examples of irony is in the commentary of Marlow, the main character. Sometimes what he says at one point in the story doesn't match up with what we see at later points. For example, at the very beginning of his narrative, Marlow compares the British colonization to the old Roman conquerors, saying, 'What saves us is efficiency--the devotion to efficiency.' 'Us' here is the British Empire.

The irony of this statement shows up later, when Marlow is at Central Station. His claim was that the British are devoted to efficiency, yet this British-run post is the exact opposite of that. Marlow's steamboat was sunk before he even arrived, and despite the abundance of supplies at an earlier station, he can't get what he needs to repair it. Even the general population there is inefficient, as shown by a man who tries to put out a fire using a bucket with holes in it. The reality of Central Station is highly ironic in comparison with Marlow's statement.

We also see irony within Marlow's statements themselves. When describing how he got his appointment on the steamboat, he says 'It appears the Company had received news that one of their captains had been killed in a scuffle with the natives. This was my chance, and it made me the more anxious to go.' This is ironic because you would expect the death of a previous captain to make Marlow less anxious to go, not more. The emotion Marlow has here is contradictory to what he describes.

The Company Clerk

We also see irony in the beginning of the narrative with the Company clerk. Marlow goes to see him to sign all his paperwork for becoming captain. Marlow describes the meeting, saying ''As we sat over our vermouths he glorified the Company's business, and by and by I expressed casually my surprise at him not going out there. He became very cool and collected all at once. 'I am not such a fool as I look, quoth Plato to his disciples,' he said sententiously.''

The clerk spends the conversation praising the Company and the work they're doing in the Congo, so you would expect that he would say that he wished he could go, or at least pretend to be sorry he isn't there. Instead, he tells Marlow that, essentially, he believes the people going over there are stupid or foolish. It is certainly an ironic statement when contrasted with all his Company praises.

Kurtz

The most pervasive irony we see in the novel surrounds Kurtz, and it lasts throughout most of the novel. It starts with the descriptions of Kurtz that Marlow gets through his conversations with various Company employees.

The manager at Central Station tells Marlow that 'Mr. Kurtz was the best agent he had, an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the Company.' Later, the brick maker at Central Station talks to Marlow about Kurtz as well.''He is a prodigy,' he said at last. 'He is an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else.''

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