Optimism in Heart of Darkness: an analysis of the Harlequin

1: Conrad’s Heart of darkness, startled me a couple of years ago when I first read it. At that time I did not have a lot of back ground knowledge to the topics adressed in the book. I wanted to read it again is because in this course we talked a lot about colonialism, about westerners being subject to influence of unknown territories, about natives being victimized by the colonialists and so on. These themes are also present in Heart of Darkness and since we read The island of Doctor Moreaux, Robinson Crusoe but also A Small Place and Blu’s Hanging I feel that I have a better understanding of (post) colonial texts.

As I will be focusing on the Harlequin, I will need to close-read Marlow’s encounter with him carefully. Also Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz and the role of The Company in the story will be of importance to my writings about the function of the Harlequin in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

2: However, at this point there are many things that I still don’t fully grasp. If a complex book as Heart of Darkness can ever be fully grasped. The following questions are important to my analysis:

1) How is the seemingly light character of the Harlequin to be seen in such a heavy and dark story?

2) How come that the wilderness and the darkness of the Congo have such a different impact on the Harlequin compared to the other characters?

3) Why did Conrad include this character in the story?

4) What does this character symbolize in the story?

5) What is according to previous research the general idea of the book?

3: The reason why I want to write about this book is because it seems to me the best example of estrangement. Not only in terms of the plot but perhaps even more so because of Conrad’s writing style. He totally estranges me as a reader from what happens in the story by his elaborate descriptions of the impenetrable wilderness. I’m also intrigued by Conrad’s tendency to mystify and abstract both his characters and their surroundings. Also,iIt is not at all a clear-cut idea that he puts forward. This book leaves me pondering. I hope through writing about it to enlarge my understanding of it tad more.



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17 responses to “Optimism in Heart of Darkness: an analysis of the Harlequin

  1. Although I am not familiar with the text, it seems like a perfect fit within the context of this course. Right now it appears that you have a lot of material so you might want to focus more on a specific idea or two. I think your idea of doing a close reading on a section of the book has a potential to shed light for the overall paper.
    #6 How Heart of Darkness fit into the realm of the post-colonial era? How is it similar and how is it different? Is the noel able to provide something that other works from this time frame can not?

  2. vrosengrant20

    I remember reading Heart of Darkness and being equally as puzzled, so I am happy that you are further exploring the characters within it. The question that I preferred was your second question since the wilderness and darkness are such a big part of the story and can be further explored by taking into account how it is described by the protagonist and who lives in the wilderness. Another question to ask is:
    7.) What was the author’s opinion on colonialism; did he have any experiences with it?

  3. I like that you picked a book outside of class, but are still able to relate it to what we have read. However, I have a hard time understanding exactly what it is that you will be arguing in your paper so you may want to work on this. I have not read this book so my question may not be relevant.
    8. What sort of mental impact does being colonized have on those who are victims of it?

  4. aeernst

    It has been a very long time since I have read Heart of Darkness, but I remember being as mystified as you are as I read it. My recommendation, however, is to formulate a clear thesis, because as of right now I am also confused about what you will be proving in your paper. Maybe you could consider:
    9) What were the perceptions of in the story about what Africa would be like versus the reality of what they found? What is the significance of that?

  5. autumncassidy

    I think a valid point that you may be able to bring up and utilize in comparison with other texts we have viewed in class is that of the blatant and permeating racism of /Heart of Darkness/. I know that as I read it, it was often-times difficult for me to view any piece of the work without the ever-present racism clouding my view. This could also be beneficial in connecting some works if you chose for them to interplay.

    Question: How is Kurtz similar/different to other characters we have studied in class?

  6. looloo14

    I have never read this novel, but from what I gather, a major theme in it is colonialism. It views colonialism and the negative impact it can have on a society. If you want to look at the Harlequin, perhaps you can consider:
    11. What is the significance of paralleling the serious and horrible nature of colonialism with a comic buffoon? Is is simply for comic relief in the novel or is there a deeper meaning to this dichotomy?

  7. I loved reading Heart of Darkness. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but I would recommend looking into it. There is a fool in it that behaves similarly, in that even though his purpose in the story is to be the silly comedian, what he is ironically saying good advice. Optimism is an interesting thing to examine from Heart of Darkness, since the book ends with Kurtz uttering the famous “The horror! The horror!”.

    12. How does Kurtz feel about these colonies? Does he find them to be beneficial or futile?

  8. smboehm

    I personally have never read this book, and like other contributors, I feel that you need to create a compact thesis. I think the easiest way for you to do this is it pick a passage that you will close read and pick a corresponding passage in a work we have read in class to close read for support of your thesis. As I said I’m not very familiar, so my question is broad:

    13) Are there any similarities between characters in the Heart of Darkness and a story that we have read in class? I know the person above my comment mentioned something about The Tempest– it might be interesting to compare the languages of these two characters and how colonization effected them.

  9. Sophi

    I am not very familiar with this novel, but it seems that you have so many different perspectives you can take that you may want to take this opportunity to fine-tune your thesis to include a couple topics that will allow you to tie everything together with detailed evidence from the text. However, having never read this text, my question may not be incredibly specific, but i feel that something you should consider is:
    14.) How does the title of the book match with the content of the story? Perhaps by drawing parallels between the title and the story you’ll be able to discover a few very significant themes that may help you narrow down your thesis.

  10. Edit: I’m so sorry, I completely mixed up The Tempest with King Lear. Both involve a storm.

  11. ashleighbarraca

    I’m not familiar with the novel or any of Conrad’s writings either, but from what you’ve written you seem to have a very good grasp on what you want to write about.

    15) You mention feeling estranged as a reader; do you think Conrad did this on purpose? How did it make you feel – helpless, or did it drive you to learn more?

  12. Although I am not familiar with this text at all, it sounds as if it will fit right in to what we have been discussing in this course! It also seems as if you have a lot of things you could possibly talk about! Focusing on a few of these great ideas will produce an interesting paper, I’m sure.

    16) Where exactly does this fit in to what we have read so far in class? What texts does it directly relate to, and just how does it?

  13. Samantha Cooke

    Like the other respondents, I don’t really see what you plan on arguing.
    It has been a couple years since I read that novel, and I cannot say I remember a Harlequin in it at all. I do remember it being a complex tale for so short a book, but the teacher who assigned it to us was able to explain it so I understood it. One thing she had us look at was light and dark imagery in the book (especially black and white), and I think, regardless of what direction you choose to take your paper, it could provide some additional insight for your paper.

    17. How does Conrad use light and dark imagery to comment on and develop characters and circumstances? Does he ever use it ironically?

  14. siegvald

    18. You said that you didn’t grasp many things in the story and as a result, it seems that you want to cover a broad range of topics from your points 1-5. My advice would be to narrow it down even more: find an interpretation of an aspect of the story that you firmly believe in and develop it from there.

  15. 626reader

    I too am writing a paper on the heart of darkness, and in constructing and brainstorming my argument, I tried to grasp what exactly the Harlequin in the story symbolizes. In my research it seems his character isn’t of much importance overall, but he represents the effect of Kurtz “speeches” and acts almost as a jester to Kurts corrupted Camelot.

    Other things i thing are important to understand is that Conrad is not a racist. Yes, he does convey racist terms and adjectives commonly used with animals to describe the Africans, but by reading closely you can notice that conrad dehumanizes all characters in the book. Think of all the characters that came up in the book, but how many actual names were given. By not giving names Conrad is dehumanizing everyone, and offering questions about who really is the savage.

    Part of the reason I love the book so much is because of its ending. It concludes unresolved, but asks a question that makes you think about who the savages are, and what acts are moral and immoral. Marlowe’s speech on the Romans conquering Britannia earlier in the book reminds the men on the boat with Marlowe, that the british were once the so called “savages” being saved and humanized by the Romans.

    Ps. sorry for the late comment.
    I also recomend watching Apocalypse now if you’ve read The Heart of Darkness.

  16. 626reader

    ^ sorry for the terrible grammar and spelling too

  17. Patricia

    Earlier, before Marlow meets Harlequin, he says something about the fool never sells his soul to the devil. Harlequin is the fool. He’s still a good guy, perhaps the only white good guy that Marlow meets. Kurtz has put aside all of his good intentions — his good intentions in regard to the people of Africa, who he exploits for ivory, and his Intended — and goes for the gold and the power. Harlequin admires the gifts and talents of Kurtz, his speaking abilities, but doesn’t buy into the evil. In fact, it makes him uncomfortable. He’s still himself in spite of his years there, uncorrupted. He leaves firewood for Marlow, and perhaps a warning.

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