Right and Wrong Not Defined: Impressionism in Heart of Darkness to Illustrate Ambiguity of Justice

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Impressionism is a genre of creation which expresses impressions rather than its distinct figure. Impression, defined as “the effect produced by external force or influence on the senses or mind” (Watt 352), relies completely on senses. Since human sense is unreliable, impression is ambiguous. Thus, an impressionist artist would accept the ambiguity surrounding its object and also focus on the equivocal nature of reality. Joseph Conrad, as a literary impressionist, expresses obscurity of situations and characters to claim that justice is equivocal.

Conrad creates ambiguity like how impressionist painters illustrate illusions in their painting: by illustrating what the observer perceives. In art, impressionism is a style that expresses what the spectator sees instead of what the object actually is. Claude Monet, an impressionist painter, exclaimed “Poor blind idiots. They want to see everything clearly, even through the fog!” (Watt 351). Despite the criticisms belittling his artistic style, Monet firmly established his path of expressing the fog that divides his perception from the definitive object. Monet’s representative painting, Impression Sunrise, clearly demonstrates the use of vague human perception to create ambiguity. The painting portrays a lake coloured with dim sunrise where several boats cast their ripple across the fog covered water. Unlike a realist painter who would have described every single detail of the scenery including the steamboats and the horizon, Monet chose to express only the sun and the small boat because it was what stood out to himself through the thick morning fog. Of course, some may argue that the bigger boats may have stood out more due to their gigantic size. However, that Monet chose to perceive the small boat and the sunrise shows that the object of painting and its qualities solely depends on how the painter is looking at it. Perceptions vary for all observers. Since views differ and the scene is painted in the eyes of an individual, the reality of the scenery is distorted, creating ambiguity. Conrad uses a similar technique in literature to create ambivalence. Watt comments that “Conrad’s main objective is to put [the readers] into intense sensory contact with the events… which normally distort human perception” (357). Before Marlow introduces his story about Kurtz and his journey to Congo, the unnamed first-person narrator introduces Marlow’s story as “a glow [brought] out [out of] a haze… misty halos that… are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonlight” (Conrad 5). Like how Monet used morning fog over the lake to create distance between the perceiver and the perceived, Conrad explains that Marlow’s story is faded with “misty halos” (5). This device of ambiguity allows Marlow to freely express his personal opinions involved in the story. When Marlow and the Russian Harlequin have a discussion about Kurtz, Marlow independently articulates his strong if somewhat vulgar opinion about Kurtz: that he “hadn’t heard any of [the] splendid monologues [made by Kurtz] on… love, justice” (58) and that “crawling before… Kurtz” (58) makes the Harlequin “as the veriest savage of them all” (58). This shows that Conrad, through the misty stipulation of the narrator, incorporates strong assertions of personal opinions to distance reality from the perceiver, creating ambiguity.

Conrad also creates vagueness by the means of capturing moments in time, also similar to impressionist artists. Monet in his Camille Monet on Her Deathbed portrays his wife, Camille, dies due to tuberculosis. However, Monet describes the scene with blurred figures and dimmed colours. This gives its audience the observer’s impression rather than a definitive description of the situation. Monet chooses to describe the scene with a hazy impression in order to condense his own temporary emotions at the moment of creating the artwork. Any person, at his or her loved one’s death bed, would feel a rush of emotion. Monet being an emotional person himself would have flooded with feelings at that moment as well, perhaps tear drops blocking his eyesight. Thus, the impression that the scene of his wife would have been much darker and muddy than it actually was. All material object is subject to change. Similarly, the perceivers of the material world are subject to change as well. Their emotion and situation at a particular time affect how they view and portray the world. Thus, it is inevitable that perspective change as the perceiver and the object change. Given this change, impressionist techniques do not consider the reality of the object. As a result of not incorporating actuality of the object, impressionist form of expression creates vagueness. Similarly, Conrad describes Kurtz through perspectives of many other distinct characters who saw him at different moments of his life. To quote Watt’s words, “Conrad’s main objective is to… delay [human perception’s] recognition of what is most relevant and important” (Watt 357). Conrad captures moments of a character’s life in order to diversify the characterizations of the character. A character being described in multiple perspectives creates ambivalence. For example, Kurtz’s cousin claims that Kurtz “had been essentially a great musician… making of an immense success” (Conrad 71) and more so, his Intended states that “It was impossible not to… love [Kurtz]” (74). However, Marlow perceived Kurtz differently. Although Marlow realizes that Kurtz was a “universal genius” (72) and “a remarkable man” (69) after Kurtz’s death, he describes Kurtz to be “weirdly voracious” (59), “[wanting] to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men” (59), and “[lacking] restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” (57). This shows that although Kurtz had been a talented and admirable man prior to venturing off to Africa, his journey changed him to be a hungry, greedy and lustful man pleading for “lot of ivory” (73) even after death. As discussed above, images of captured moments create ambiguity due to the inevitable property of human perspective and of material world to change. In Heart of Darkness, by suggesting contrary perspectives of a character created by different observers at different times, Conrad deliberately confuses his audience of who “the original Mr. Kurtz” (49) is. The character’s susceptibility to change thus surrounds the character with ambivalence. Given no definite characterization of a particular character, and indeed a multiple possible characterizations of a character leads to creating as many interpretations of what the particular character believes in. Thus, if values stipulated in the character perspective is vaguely defined, those values contribute to creating obscurity.

Conrad uses the aforementioned impressionist style expressions to support his claim that justice is ambiguous in nature and thus cannot be defined subjectively. First, he uses perspectives and visual imagery to claim that justice is innately equivocal. Marlow visits Kurtz’s Intended’s house to give her what Kurtz has left for her. As he enters the house, “[Kurtz’s] vision seemed to enter the house with [him]… [he] had heard [Kurtz] say afar there… I want no more than justice… while [he] waited [Kurtz] seemed to stare at [him] out of the glassy panel” (Conrad 73). As demonstrated earlier, Conrad manipulates with visual imagery and senses to create ambiguity. When Marlow enters the house, he encounters Kurtz’s vision, not his real figure; what Marlow is actually staring at is a glass panel in the Intended’s house. This distance that Conrad creates between the reality, and the narrator thus the glass panel and the Kurtz’s vision as perceived by the observer, can be interpreted as an impressionist form of expression leading to ambiguity. Conrad uses this obscurity to comment on the nature of justice. Given that at this moment of abstruseness, Kurtz’s vision reminds Marlow of what justice is, the reality of justice is perceived with a distorted and blurred image. Through this contortion, Conrad implies that although the truth may be defined, a human can neither understand what justice is nor observe the absolute form of it. The fact that an impression, covered with haze and surreality was used to describe justice, advance to argue that justice in nature is abstract.

Secondly, Conrad uses different moments of time and ambiguity embedded in a character to proclaim that justice is ambivalent. As soon as Kurtz gets in the boat, he gets sick, and eventually dies muttering “The horror! The horror” (Conrad 69). Soon after, Marlow gives Kurtz another thought and comes to a conclusion that Kurtz’s last statement is a “judgement upon the adventures of [Kurtz’s] soul on this earth” (69). As discussed above, Kurtz is loosely defined thus is a highly equivocal character. Depending on when in his life an observer wishes to describe and through whose eyes the observer speculates, narratives on Kurtz illustrate totally different people. Marlow speculates that at his death, Kurtz evaluated his own righteousness. This scene almost sounds ironical for the most undefined character defines his own actions and its integrity. Given that Kurtz justifies himself, Conrad postulates that justice is vaguely defined and that nothing can actually define what justice is. Also, as Marlow’s meeting with the Intended closes to a conclusion, the Intended asked for “[Kurtz’s] last word” (76). Marlow, afraid that “it [might be] too dark” (76), tells her that “the last word [Kurtz] pronounced was – [her] name” (76) although what Kurtz actually said was nothing close: “The horror! The horror” (69). After telling the Intended a lie, Marlow exclaims that “[Kurtz] said he wanted only justice… but… I could not tell her…” (76). Kurtz is an ambiguous character because Kurtz is characterised by different individuals who observed him for a short period of time compared to his dynamic life. Thus, as the Intended and Marlow converse, their impression of Kurtz would have been different. Intended perceived Kurtz as a person who “was impossible to know… and not to admire him” (74) filled with “love, justice, conduct of life” (58) when Marlow thought him to be a “remarkable man” (70) yet, driven by “monstrous passion” (65) and “various lusts” (57). These conflicting views of Kurtz show that his values will depend on which watch glass he is perceived through. Since there exist many watch glasses, such as Marlow, Kurtz’s Intended, Kurtz’s cousin and the Trading company, there also exist many Kurtzs. As Marlow consistently exclaims, Kurtz “wanted no more than justice – no more than justice” (73). The duplication of Kurtz simultaneous to his desire for justice complicates the very nature of justice by questioning the audience on which Kurtz out of many, they should rely on when interpreting his own values. Later Marlow directly expresses that although he tried “[to render] Kurtz [and his] justice… [he] couldn’t” (77). This explicitly shows that because of the creation of many Kurtzs due to the diverse perspective, the justice that Kurtz wanted also diverged according to in which perspective Kurtz was assessed in. For example, in Marlow’s viewpoint, Kurtz’s justice would be calculative in order to bring punishment to the Europeans who have illegally stolen his ivory. On the contrary, in the Intended’s belief, Kurtz’s justice would have been to care for his loved ones and to achieve virtues of life for she “was sure” (77) that Kurtz would obviously say that the priority of his life was his lover. As manifested earlier, if a character is ambiguously defined by his observer, all his values are blurred as well. Similarly, justice is understood differently depending on the perceiver of justice. This shows that justice is vaguely defined and even more so, misleading.

To conclude, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is an impressionist literature for it uses impressions to describe situations and takes snapshots of a scene regardless of the temporary nature of the material world. These styles of impressionism all contribute to creating ambiguity because of innate obscurities within human sense that cannot detect reality but only its impression and nature’s vulnerability to time. Through the portrayal of vagueness, Conrad comments on the vagueness of justice, that it cannot be defined but is interpreted by its perceivers to suit their personal interests.


Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph, and Paul B. Armstrong. Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.

Monet, Claude. Camille Monet Sur Son Lit De Mort. 1879. Oil on Canvas. Musée D’Orsay, Paris.

Monet, Claude. Impression Sunrise. 1872. Oil on Canvas. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris.

Watt, Ian. “Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness.” Joseph Conrad (1976): 37-53. Print.


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