Psychoanalytic Theory, Deconstructionism and Heart of Darkness

Posted by in Stuff About Writing

The following is a short paper that I wrote for my literary theory class on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It is a classic text and a quick read if you’re interested. The story, unlike my analysis of it, is riveting…

The Psychoanalytic approach focuses on the power of the unconscious to shape our thoughts and behavior. Deconstructionism focuses on the assumption of legitimacy and meaning. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can be can be analyzed using both theories, but the psychoanalytic theory is more useful for understanding the depth of the themes and the author’s intentions.
In this passage Marlow describes coming to a realization about the native helpers:
And I saw something restraining, one of those human secrets that baffle probability, had comes into play there. I looked at them with a swift quickening of interest – not because it occurred to me I might be eaten by them before very long, though I own to you that just then I perceived – in a new light, as it were – how unwholesome the pilgrims looked, and I hoped, yes, I positively hoped that my aspect was not so – what shall I say? So- unappetizing… Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear – or some kind of primitive honor? (42)
From a psychoanalytical perceptive, it is as though Marlowe is seeing these helpers as people for the first time. People with their own motivations and rules, that are different from his, and he struggles to understand them. Marlow’s sense of self developed as a child, modeling himself after an ideal (Freud, 439). But this revelation causes him to question his own sense of self – he doesn’t want to identify with the ‘unappetizing’ pilgrims, but he doesn’t feel close to the “primitives” either, he doesn’t get them, but he sees positive traits in them that he didn’t before, and it calls into question what he knows. Lacan argues that the “Mirror Stage” is the beginning of this identification, where the relationship between and organism and it’s reality is established (443). A child views himself in the mirror and identifies himself. A bifurcated self, he now knows that he is both seeing and seen. One could argue that Marlow is seeing some of himself and the traits that he holds dear mirrored in the natives, and things that revolt him mirrored in the company men, and it causes confusion and questioning.
In a deconstructionist reading of this passage what stands out is the binary (Johnson, 346) and privileging of white men vs. natives. Marlow, as a white, European man, vs. his African helpers, and the obvious separation between the two. Marlow makes many unflattering assumptions about his helpers, and when they show positive traits, he almost doesn’t believe them, he doesn’t understand how they could be good. This passage also addresses Lyotard’s idea of the metanarrative supporting the legitimacy of power (Lyotard, 358). Legitimacy allows morality to become reality. Power shores up power. Marlow was raised with the idea, with the metanarrative that he as a white man was better than the native Africans, his realization on the boat that they are more alike than he thought, undermines this narrative and the legitimacy of the power of the company, and the whites in general.
Deconstructionist theory brings to light themes of racism, of white narcissism, and the roots of power in Heart of Darkness. But, psychoanalytic theory does that and more. Psychoanalytic theory addresses both the group and the individual identities and motivations. While deconstructionism questions, it doesn’t speak to what happens to the individual who questions like psychoanalytic theory does, which is why psychoanalytic theory is more effective in analyzing Heart of Darkness.

Works Cited:
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Global Classics, 2014.
Freud, Sigmund. “Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2013, pp.438-440. Print.
Johnson, Brenda. “Writing.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp. 340-347.
Lacan, Jaques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2013, pp.441-6. Print.
Lyotard, Jean-François, “The Postmodern Condition.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2013, pp.355-64. Print.