The Meaning of Irony
Irony always arises from a contrast of some kind. The contrast may be between things, as they appear to be, and as they actually are. A man may say something and mean just the opposite. When that happens, we say that he has made an ironical remark. Then we may expect something to happen, but find that just the opposite has happened. In such a case there would be irony in what we had expected.Similarly, we may expect a man to behave in a particular way, and we may then find that he has behaved in just the opposite way. In such a case, there would be irony in our expectation of that man’s behaviour. Ironies of this kind are frequent in literature. Irony heightens the effect. In a humorous context, irony heightens the comic effect; and, in a serious or sombre context, irony heightens the tragic effect. Irony is one of the most common, and one of the most effective, weapons in the hands of a writer. Conrad was an adept in the use of irony. Indeed, irony is as pervasive in his novels as it is in the novels of Jane Austen. But all Jane Austen’s novels deal with the domestic and everyday social life of the English people, while Conrad’s novels deal largely with life on the distant seas and with the unusual experiences of human beings. Besides, irony in Jane Austen’s novels has a comic effect; while much of Conrad’s irony has a sombre or grim quality.
The Transformation in Kurtz, the Greatest Irony in the Novel
The greatest irony in Heart of Darkness is the transformation which takes place in Mr. Kurtz during his stay at the interior station of the Company of which he is an agent. Mr. Kurtz had been a kind of intellectual during the years of his prime. He had once written a pamphlet stating his views about the role of the white man in the backward countries explored by him. In that pamphlet he had written that the whites necessarily appeared to the savages as supernatural beings and as deities. The whites could therefore exercise a great power over the savages and bring about a great amelioration in their way of life. The whites, according to Mr. Kurtz, could confer great benefits upon the backward people of the countries which they visited, which they conquered, and which they governed. The whites could suppress the savage customs of those backward people, and could civilize those people. Thus Mr. Kurtz had, in those days, held highly progressive views about the role of the white men in the dark and unexplored countries of
Africa. And yet Mr. Kurtz had written at the end of that pamphlet the following words: “Exterminate all the brutes.” This bit of writing at the end seemed to contradict what he had written about the constructive role of the white people. Anyhow, a man of the kind of Mr. Kurtz was expected to strive to bring about all possible improvements in the way of life and in the way of thinking of the savages of the Congo where Mr. Kurtz had settled down to carry out his duties as an agent of a Belgian trading company. However, just the reverse happens. Mr. Kurtz, instead of civilizing the savages, himself becomes a savage. This is one of the most surprising developments in this novel. Of course, Mr. Kurtz retains his identity as a civilized man. Whenever he is at his headquarters, he thinks and behaves like a civilized man; but, when he goes into the interior of the dark country, he identifies himself with the savages and becomes one of them. Gradually he becomes very powerful, and begins even to rule the savages, so much so that they begin to worship him. He then begins to preside over their dances which always end in “unspeakable rites”. From all the reports which Marlow hears about this man, he forms the impression that this man has become a kind of devil living among savages, participating in their savage customs, and sharing their inhuman activities. Living among the savages, Mr. Kurtz has begun to gratify, without any restraint, his various lusts. He has begun to satisfy all his monstrous passions, and has begun to give a free outlet to all the primitive instincts which originally lay dormant in his nature but which have now come to the surface. Thus the opposite of what was expected from Mr. Kurtz has happened. This, as already pointed out, is the chief irony in the story of this novel.
The irony of Marlow’s Ultimate Reactions to Kurtz
Another great irony in this novel is the attitude which Marlow ultimately adopts towards Mr. Kurtz. Marlow’s impressions about Mr. Kurtz are of a very adverse kind in the beginning. From the various reports that he has heard about Mr. Kurtz, he forms a most un favourable opinion about Mr. Kurtz’s character. And yet, afterwards, Marlow becomes an admires of Mr. Kurtz, and begins to harbour strong feelings of friendship and respect towards that man. We had expected that a rational and intelligent man like Marlow would continue to react to Mr. Kurtz in the same adverse manner. But what happens is just the opposite of what we had expected. Marlow becomes so attached to Mr. Kurtz that he uses all his powers of persuasion to bring Mr. Kurtz back to the ship’s cabin from the forest into which Mr. Kurtz had slipped in response to the call of the wilderness. Marlow then tells us that it was “written” that he would never prove disloyal to Mr. Kurtz. Thus Marlow has now become almost a follower of Mr. Kurtz. Knowing fully the evil which has begun to dwell, in Mr. Kurtz, Marlow yet begins to cherish feelings of regard and esteem for that man. Evidently, Marlow’s own primitive instincts, have also been aroused, and been brought to the surface. That is why Marlow has begun to perceive a kind of kinship between himself and Mr. Kurtz. Thus, another civilized man, one who is an embodiment of reason and sanity, has also fallen a near-prey to the influences of savagery and primitivism.
The Irony in the Admiration Felt By Kurtz’s Fiancee for Kurtz
There is irony also in the attitude of Mr. Kurtz’s fiancee towards Mr. Kurtz. This woman has been a devotee and worshipper of the man with whom she had fallen in love. She has been entertaining feelings of the highest admiration and esteem for him. She has been feeling proud of the man who had proposed marriage to her, and whom she had agreed to marry in opposition to the wishes of her own family. After hearing about the death of her lover, this woman is plunged into grief and, when Marlow goes to meet her a year after Mr. Kurtz’s death, he finds her still in mourning. She talks about her deceased lover in glowing terms and pays to him the highest tribute which a woman can pay to her lover. The irony in this case lies in the fact that the man, whom this woman still worships and adores, had become a devil as a result of his stay among the savages. The irony becomes all the greater when Marlow tells her that the last word uttered by her lover before his death was her own name. She feels overjoyed to hear that Mr. Kurtz had spoken her name while dying though the actual fact is that the last words spoken by him had been: “The horror!” The irony in this case arises from the contrast between what Mr. Kurtz had actually become and what his fiancee still continues to think about him.
The Irony in the Russian’s Adoration of Kurtz
There is a similar irony in the Russian’s attitude of worship towards Mr. Kurtz. Mr. Kurtz has become a devil, as Marlow tells us. But, to the Russian, Mr. Kurtz has been a kind of hero worthy of adoration. The Russian tells Marlow, that Mr. Kurtz had enlarged his mind and that Mr. Kurtz had taught him to perceive the very essence of things. In other words, Mr. Kurtz had appeared to be a great sage and moralist to the Russian. The Russian had found in Mr. Kurtz a hidden wisdom which was a source of great enlightenment and illumination to the Russian. It is very strange that a man, who has become a savage and a beast, should be able to inspire such a deep respect in the Russian who is by no means a fool or a simpleton.
Marlow’s Ironical Descriptions
There is irony also in Marlow’s descriptions of things at certain points in his narration. For instance, his description of the blasting of a rock with gunpowder, when the rock does not stand in the. way of the building of the railway line, is surely ironical. Ironical also is his description of the warship firing its guns without any purpose. The supposed purpose of the firing of these guns is to destroy the enemy, but no enemy is visible anywhere in the forest; and the warship is merely wasting its ammunition. There is irony also in the fact that, although the white man has brought a lot of machinery into the dark country of the
, the machinery is lying unused. Equally ironical is the fact that, although there are heaps and heaps of rivets lying at one of the Company’s stations, no rivet are made available to Marlow for the repairing of the wrecked steamer which he has been able to pull out of the river-bed. Congo
Irony in Some of Marlow’s Portrayals of the White Persons
There is irony also in the way in which Marlow describes some of the white persons. His description of the two knitting-women, in the Company’s office in
is ironical. There is a tinge of irony in his description of the Company’s doctor and the manner in which he examines the prospective employees of the Company. There is a lot of irony in Marlow’s description of the white agents who are seen loitering about at the Central Station in the Brussels , and in Marlow’s describing these men as faithless pilgrims. The irony here becomes most pungent. For instance, referring to the sticks which these men carried, Marlow says: “I verily believe they took these sticks to bed with them”. Besides, the irony here is not sombre or tragic but most comic and most amusing. Then there is irony in his portrayal of the manager’s uncle, and the brick-maker who tries td extricate some information from Marlow because in his view, Marlow is a highly connected man wielding a lot of influence among the higher officials of the Company. Congo
The Purpose of the Use of Irony in This Novel
As already indicated, irony deepens a particular effect. In this novel, the use of irony deepens the effect of melancholy and sadness which constitute the prevailing atmosphere of the story. Irony sharpens the sorrow which we, experience when we read about the unexpected transformation which comes, over Mr. Kurtz. The ignorance of Mr. Kurtz’s fiancee about this transformation in him saddens us because, being innocent and idealistic, she still visualizes him as her noble knight and her adorable hero. Similarly we feel a deep regret at the moral deterioration which unexpectedly takes place in Marlow and which him admire Mr. Kurtz.