Below, you’ll find literature essays on Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’, and Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.

I’ve recently discovered all of my old university literature essays so I thought I’d start posting them on here! Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is one of those texts that had a profound impact on me as a teenager; despite its brevity (my copy was around 94 pages), it’s just this compact powerful story full of the deepest questions about human nature.

If you find this essay useful and need more help with essay writing and/or literature, take a look at my online video courses.


Discuss Sigmund Freud’s claim ‘that many things that would be uncanny if they occurred in real life are not uncanny in literature, and that in literature there are many opportunities to achieve uncanny effects that are absent in real life’ (The Uncanny)


In order to distinguish between uncanniness in real life and uncanniness in literature, we must first discern what we mean by ‘the uncanny’ and also the various ways in which it appears, within both the spheres of reality and fiction. One thing that we may determine from Freud’s essay on ‘The Uncanny’ is that the term is in itself uncanny as it refuses to be compartmentalized into one specific category and both manifests itself in many different forms and subtly changes meaning according to its contextual milieu. For instance, Freud discusses the various etymological similarities between the uncanny and other forms of uneasiness, mystery, and ‘unhomeliness’, as well as noting the fact that ‘heimlich […] merges with its antonym, unheimlich’[1] which alludes to the idea that the familiar suddenly becoming unfamiliar is a particularly frightening branch of uncanniness. In An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory, Bennett and Royle separate the uncanny into thirteen different forms and discuss Schelling’s notion that the uncanny pertains to that which ‘ought to have remained…secret and hidden but has come to light’.[2] They proclaim that ‘literature is uncanny’ [3] due to the fact that it has the potential to mimic, heighten, or subvert aspects of reality. If this is the case, then it would suggest that uncanniness within literature would be intensified by the concept of literature pertaining to a form of the uncanny in itself, as the events that occur or ideas that are portrayed would have a kind of reverberating echo-effect, in other words, they would signify uncanniness within the uncanny. If literature is seen to be fundamentally a fictitious construct of the author’s psyche, then it would follow that any form of uncanniness within the writer’s work would be intentionally created to arouse feelings of uneasiness or uncertainty within the reader and thus the author is given scope to use the uncanny as a kind of literary device to create tension, mystery or suspense. This would support the claim that ‘in literature, there are many opportunities to achieve uncanny effects that are absent in real life’. Equally, the author may choose to create a fictional world in which ‘many things that would be uncanny if they occurred in real life’ are no longer found to be strange or intimidating. [4] For instance, within the genre of magic realism, magic itself ceases to belong to the uncanny and turns back into something familiar, or expected. Freud also states that ‘the uncanny that we find […] in creative writing, imaginative literature […] actually deserves to be considered separately’ [5], supporting his claim that uncanniness in real life is not commensurate to that which can be found within literature and also indicating that it is intentionally a different type of uncanniness; the concept becomes a literary device as opposed to the mere concept of an unsettling feeling.

However, as I intend to prove, it may also be possible for the uncanny to transfer directly from real life into literature in some cases. Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ is one such example, where the uncanny is a prevalent theme throughout and a technique of merging Conrad’s own frightening experiences of the Congo with fictional characters who depict the extremes of what he experienced and portray his critical view of colonialism. In ‘The Uncanny’, Freud states that Hoffman’s story ‘The Sand Man’ ‘creates a kind of uncertainty by preventing us — certainly not unintentionally — from guessing whether he is going to take us into the real world or into some fantastic world of his own’ [6] and this technique is also employed in the ‘Heart of Darkness’ where we become conscious that the real world is interspersed with elements of the supernatural. It is arguably this conflict of uncertainty between fact and fiction that heightens the atmosphere of uneasiness within the novel. For instance, the wilderness and the darkness are both at times subject to anthropomorphism (a form of the uncanny outlined by Bennett and Royle),[7] such as Marlow’s description of the wilderness when he is on the river — ‘I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks’. [8] The sense of these two inanimate concepts being attributed to human traits such as ‘watching’ is undoubtedly eerie, as in Marlow’s world they are inescapable all-pervasive, seemingly omniscient entities the sense of eeriness is heightened dramatically. There is a sense that the people watching Marlow within the forests and the darkness are somehow at one with the surroundings, and this merging additionally heightens the uncanny mood. The impression of the familiar would also have been disrupted for Conrad’s intended audience because they would have been conscious of the background being based on his experiences from the real world and yet aware of it containing so many foreign, unfamiliar aspects which may or may not have derived from reality; it is a world they are conscious of but have not experienced for themselves. Freud states that a writer may ‘[trick] us by promising us everyday reality and then going beyond it’. [9] Conrad (and also Marlow) certainly appropriate this technique of deception to accentuate the atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty.

Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo were the source of inspiration behind and also the fundamental reason for writing Heart of Darkness. When in Africa, he documented his own experiences (which later became The Congo Diary) many of which he found unsettling or uncanny, and this is the source text upon which Heart of Darkness is based. For instance, on Tuesday 29th July 1890 he observed: ‘on the road today passed a skeleton tied-up to a post. Also white man’s grave — no name.’ [10] (p106). Thus, Conrad could be seen to project his own fears and feelings of horror and repulsion onto his readers by replicating what he witnessed. This would suggest that uncanniness in real life and in literature can be linked, and are sometimes transferred from one to the other. Indeed, the feeling of uneasiness is intensified when we discover that much of Conrad’s novel has materialised out of reality. The image of the skeleton on a post is possibly converted directly into an even more horrific omen of dried heads on sticks outside Kurtz’s house. Marlow describes the head in great detail as if he is transfixed and mesmerized by its uncanniness:

‘I returned deliberately to the first I had seen — and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids — a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber’ [11]

This elaboration of Conrad’s real-life uncanny experience indicates that he is given more scope to create a greater sense of the uncanny and to instill it upon his readers. The use of repetition exacerbates this horrific image; the head is ‘smiling too, smiling continuously’. Another aspect of the journey that is magnified within the novel is the illness that takes hold of Conrad at various points in the voyage. ‘Conrad’s Last Voyage’, an article in the Times Literary Supplement discusses the various diseases that plague him throughout and after his voyage, the most notable of these being malaria.[12] Both Kurtz and Marlowe experience fevers and illnesses throughout the novel, which become progressively worse, culminating in Kurtz’s death and Marlow teetering on the brink of insanity due to all the horrific encounters he has experienced. Through Kurtz and Marlow, Conrad turns his own physical illness into a more psychological struggle with madness and the primitive urges which, once repressed, rise up within the two men. The article also discusses the ‘emotional disturbances [which were] the privation of Conrad’s boyhood’, [13] and we can perhaps also ascertain Conrad’s projection of these disturbances upon the main characters within his novel. Freud states that this particular strain of the uncanny, ‘the variety that derives from repressed complexes’, is unlike the other forms, which differ according to where they occur, and ‘remains as uncanny in literature as in real life’ [14] (p. 157) Conrad’s impetus for writing the novel was to express his first-hand experience of colonialism, and his distaste for the morals and conduct of the European colonisers within Africa. He was certainly in an unusual, if not unique, the position regarding colonialism, having experienced its effects from both the perspective of the coloniser and the colonised, and therefore had the ability to simultaneously observe both subjective perspectives. He chose to write the novel in English, despite English being his third language, perhaps to indicate that he was writing from the perspective of the coloniser, and so that his characters also spoke the language of the colonisers. With these influences in mind, it could be argued that he amplified the uncanny ordeals to which he was subjected in order to shed light on the immorality and horrors of the techniques used by the European colonisers. Throughout the novel, there are several specific allusions and references to these colonisers, particularly at the beginning of the novel, which serves as a forewarning of what is about to come. Marlow says of his experience: ‘It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness’, [15] his nonchalant dismissal of this manifestation of horror and violence that lies latent within men already indicative of the uncanny atmosphere which later haunts his words. Marlow also notes that he ‘was going into the yellow’, [16] which can be seen as a specific allusion to the Belgians.

While the novel purposefully accentuates many problems and horrors concerning colonialism, indicating Conrad’s narrative voice and authorial intentions, it also paradoxically appears to illustrate many techniques of distancing the author from their text, exemplifying experimentation of modernist techniques. Conrad’s choice of narrative, for instance, is intriguing in that it furthers the notion that the ideas presented within the text arguably do not always reflect his own. The decision to distance himself from the text by structuring the novel as a frame narrative could be coupled with his decision to not write in his first language in that they both appear to suggest that his intentions and viewpoint are not necessarily the main focus of the text. This distancing and blurring of the authorial voice with the narrator’s voice in itself creates a sense of esoteric uncertainty, as the reader becomes unsure as to whether Conrad is speaking through Marlow, a notion which immediately evokes the uncanniness of possession, or whether he is letting Marlow tell his own story and present his own ideas, which would in another sense evoke uncanniness in that Marlow would be seen to be a sentient character liberated from the author’s control. Conrad himself appeared to encourage this latter notion when he wrote: ‘Of all my people he’s the one that has never been a vexation to my spirit. A most discreet, understanding man…’ [17] However, if we take the first notion to be true, then it would follow that Marlow becomes a means for Conrad to comment on the situation, allowing him to overcome the monologic colonialism. Virginia Woolf noted that ‘It is Marlow who comments, Conrad who creates’, [18] concurring with the idea that Marlow gives his own person and is partially freed from Conrad’s control. Conrad also plays with our expectations and furthers the atmosphere of uncertainty within the reader’s mind when the original narrator (who is nameless) relinquishes his position of a storyteller to Marlow. This layering of techniques that distance the reader and text suggests that Conrad is creating a cocoon around the heart of darkness, perhaps in order to protect us from it and perhaps to further the sense of mystery. When Marlow’s method of storytelling is explained to us at the beginning of the novel, it also appears to concur with this concept:

‘But, as has been said, Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him, the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine’ [19] (p6)

Marlow’s method of ‘spinning yarns’, therefore, befits both his tale and character in terms of its atypicality and also reinforces the air of mystery by his refusing to recount the story directly and choosing instead to skirt around the heart of it, revealing only the essence of what happened so that we may piece together the tale for ourselves, which contributes to the sense of obscurity by furthering the effect of recursive layers of meaning. Another aspect of Marlow’s storytelling which may strike us as uncanny is that his voice is bestowed with an unusual eloquence that arguably befits neither his situation nor his position; he is merely recounting a tale among friends, and, unlike Kurtz, he is not highly educated and yet, despite the use of quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph to remind us that the story is being spoken aloud and references to him being a well accomplished and well-traveled sailor, Marlow’s words adopt no perceptible accent or dialect and contain no phrases or words which pertain particularly to the speech of either sailors or colonisers, as one might have expected. Bennett and Royle state that ‘Nothing is stranger, or more familiar than the idea of a voice.’, [20] and in literature voices have even more potential for uncanniness and strangeness than they do in real life. A certain type of voice may be the distinguishing feature of a particular character, and the power of a deeply evocative or rhetorical voice can have a significant impact on what is being said. A character’s voice is often indicative of their essence and conscience. The multiplicity of voices and within a singular voice itself, for instance quoting others or adopting their tone of voice, can create a sense of confusion or corroboration, and Conrad uses this technique to great effect within The Heart Of Darkness. His own narrative voice is sublimated, as is the voice of the original narrator, and the story is recounted by a physical voice; it is heard first before being read. Voices become a useful technique for Conrad’s experiments in the fragmentation of Kurtz’s character, and sophistically contribute to the aura of mysteriousness throughout the novel as a whole; Marlow initially hears of Kurtz only through the descriptions of others, and consistently is notified of his intelligence and pre-eminence — ‘He is a prodigy…an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and the devil knows what else’ [21] The act of storytelling itself is an example of what Freud describes as the ‘compulsion to repeat’, [22] as it expresses a desire, and perhaps a need, to recount what we have experienced for ourselves or at least heard elsewhere. It signifies the return of the repressed, which again Freud acknowledges as a form of uncanniness. The readers and audience within the novel are all ‘listening’ intently to Marlow, and there are barely any interjections from the others during his tale, which mimics the way in which everyone was captivated by Kurtz’s words. The original narrator notes that is precisely the sense of uncanniness or uneasiness which demands our complete attention:

‘I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night of the river’ [23]

In the same passage, he notes that darkness has descended upon the camp and that Marlow has become ‘no more…than a voice’, [24] just as Kurtz was often no more than a voice to him. Marlow says of Kurtz: ‘a voice. He was very little more than a voice. And I heard — him — it — this voice — other voices — all of them were so little more than voices’. [25] In real life, hearing multiple voices within your own mind is a sign of madness, and insanity is another theme which runs throughout the novel. Conrad purposefully ascribes the idea of disembodied voices to Marlow and Kurtz (and also the others) to create the uncanny effect of merging and also perhaps to hauntingly evoke that there is something about the darkness which pulls at the soul, attempting to dissociate it from the body and consume it, which lingers still within Marlow.

The concept of doubles is a theme that runs throughout the novel, both in the form of binary oppositions and also more specifically in the form of the Doppelganger. There are darkness and light, white colonisers and black natives, and also Kurtz and Marlow. One of the most striking uncanny effects is created when these opposites appear to merge. Freud discusses the concept of the doppelganger in his essay and states that ‘a person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self, or he may substitute the other’s self for his own. The self may thus be duplicated, divided, and interchanged’. [26] When Marlow empathises with Kurtz he realizes that Kurtz represents what he could become and when Kurtz dies his words and his essence lives on through Marlow, who recounts his tale, although he is also in part concealed by (and therefore interred within) him, as Marlow decides to keep some of his secrets for himself, opting to dissemble Kurtz’s last words and instead of comfort the intended, so that in her eyes he remained charismatic and homely rather than the disintegrated person he had become. Marlow then justifies his decision to lie to her and ends his tale with the words ‘it would have been too dark altogether…’.[27] It could also be argued that in some ways Marlow is Conrad’s double, in that he has assumed Conrad’s role of storyteller and is recounting his horrific experiences from the Congo. There are also several elements of Marlow’s character which refer to Conrad’s own personality, such as Marlow’s passion for maps and interest in exploring the previously unexplored spaces — ‘But there was one yet — the biggest, the most blank, so to speak — that I had a hankering after’. [28] This also expresses the allure of the unknown, the unfamiliar and potentially frightening that attracted many men of that period to colonialism, and serves as a warning to others. Freud discusses O. Rank’s studies on doubles, noting that he connects ‘the double with mirror-images, shadows, guardian spirits, the doctrine of the soul and the fear of death’.[29] The black people are at times described as ‘shadows’, and tend often to merge into the background whereas the white people are always elaborately characterised. This suggests that the blacks are seen as negative doubles of the whites, that they are the shadows that serve as a reminder of the more primitive, less ‘civilised’ past, and is an element of the mind which, according to Freud, ‘was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed’. [30] (p148). Many of the white people in the novel find the natives frightening, as their beliefs and superstitions differ greatly. Marlow is not afraid of the ‘savages’, although he does regard them with curious amusement, and his tone when describing them is still at times condescending. For instance, when he describes the man who helps him on the boat, he notes that ‘He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler.’ [31] although it could be argued that he is sardonically displaying the conventional opinion of the white colonisers as opposed to stating his own viewpoint.

The figure and concept of Kurtz are both highly uncanny in many different ways; his body, for instance, is ‘a compendium of decadent excesses’, [32] a vessel for all the possible corruptions of the soul to collect together and culminate in one terrifying ‘horror’ [33] His body and soul, at times, appear to have become dissociated; he is physically ill and yet his voice contains a preternatural strength and charm. As the merging of that which should remain separate creates a sense of the uncanny, so we may also say that the untimely separation of that which should remain together has an equally frightening effect. Kurtz also possesses the uncanny ability to captivate and bewitch those who he encounters with his eloquence and intellect. When he dies, Conrad notes that ‘The voice was gone’, suggesting that it was Kurtz’s words and not his physical presence that had mattered, and also creating a sense of uncanniness due to the fact that his voice is clearly distinguished from his body. The youth that Marlow encounters in the wilderness is completely devoted to Kurtz — ‘The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions’. [34] The way in which Kurtz’s influence on the youth is described evokes the uncanniness of possession; he does not only have a large impact upon the youth but also appears to penetrate his thoughts and his being. There is a sense that his voice and each word he speaks contains a contagious dose of the darkness with which he is himself possessed:

‘of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words — the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness’ [35]

The idea of possession surrounds and consumes Kurtz; he is both possessed by the darkness and is also himself highly possessive — ‘My intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my — ‘ Everything belonged to him.’ [36] In order to conquer the darkness and illuminate the ‘dark spaces’, the body of Kurtz becomes voracious; it assumes the darkness and attempts to combat it internally.

Conrad purposefully discloses Kurtz’s character in stages, so that his characterization is fragmented; we hear about the power of his voice long before we experience the effect he has in person, which contributes to the aura of uncanniness and otherworldliness within which he is shrouded as he is seen to have a profound effect upon both Marlow and ourselves before we have even encountered him. This exemplifies another form of modernist experimentation. The supernatural quality which he possesses pertains to what Freud describes as the ‘omnipotence of thoughts’.[37] The International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis unconscious hostile wishes that lead to animistic thinking and obsessional neurosis.’ [38] and Kurtz appears to be subject to both these factors. Throughout the novel, Marlow queries several times whether Kurtz has lost his mind, and is told repeatedly that ‘Mr. Kurtz couldn’t be mad.’ [39] When he finally encounters Kurtz, he discovers that ‘his intelligence was perfectly clear […] But his soul was mad. ’ [40] Kurtz’s vision as he dies, the ‘horror’ which he voices, is the closest we get to a physical manifestation of the all-pervasive darkness which has throughout shrouded the tale in mystery and haunted Marlow’s words. Darkness becomes more than physical, it relates also to the psychological darkness within the mind. Although the truth about this ‘horror’ is never revealed, we may presume that it relates to the darkness deep within the soul, within man’s own heart. The binary opposites of darkness and light relate directly to the idea of civilization and savagery; the colonisers are attempting to illuminate the ‘dark spaces’ on the map and to tame the savage wilderness that lies within this darkness. The novel’s title itself is uncanny — it subverts the conventional symbolism associates with the heart, that of love, tenderness, and emotion, and turns it into a place of mystery and uncertainty. Marlow is aware of this connection between the heart of the wilderness and the environmental darkness to his own heart and soul — ‘the silence of the land went home to one’s very heart — its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life.’ [41] This merging of the two definitions of the heart once again contributes to the climate of uncertainty and heightens the aura of uncanniness by associating the familiar with the unfamiliar.

Jentsch said that ‘the essential condition for the emergence of a sense of the uncanny is intellectual uncertainty’, [42] and the presence of the uncanny that perseveres throughout Heart Of Darkness certainly derives partially from the sense that the reader is suspended between many different uncertainties for instance the ambiguity regarding the world within Heart of Darkness, as it appears to be a real world authentically constructed from Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo and yet contains aspects where the realism appears to be broken, such as the ethereal qualities Kurtz possesses and the savages, the uncanny sense of possession and the anthropomorphism of the darkness and wilderness. Heart of Darkness is an example with both supports and contradicts Freud’s claim, as it derives from Conrad’s authentic experience and yet also contains many examples of where his experience of the uncanny has been exaggerated or exacerbated to heighten the effect. Although it originates from reality and Conrad’s intentions were to elucidate the horrors of colonialism, the uncanny is used as a literary device throughout to exacerbate the climate of uneasiness within the text.


Primary Texts:

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, (London: Penguin Classics, 2007) (also includes The Congo Diary)

Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919) in The Uncanny trans. by David McLintock, Penguin Freud, ed. by Adam Philips (London : Penguin, 2003) p123–62

Secondary Texts:

Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 4th ed.(Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall Europe, 2009)

Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On The Interpretation Of Narrative, The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures : 1977–1978 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1979)

Neil Hertz, ‘Freud and the Sandman’, in Textual Strategies : Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. by Josue V. Harari (London: Methuen, 1979)

Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002)

Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory : A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997)

Sigmund Freud, ‘Beyond The Pleasure Principle’, in The Penguin Freud Library Vol 2 On Metapsychology, trans. by James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1984)

[1] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919) in The Uncanny trans. by David McLintock, Penguin Freud, ed. by Adam Philips (London: Penguin, 2003) p. 132

[2] Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 4th ed.(Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall Europe, 2009) p. 40

[3] Ibid. p. 35

[4] Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, pp. 155–156

[5] Ibid. p.157

[6] Neil Hertz, ‘Freud and the Sandman’, in Textual Strategies : Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. by Josue V. Harari (London: Methuen, 1979)

[7] Bennett and Royle, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, p. 37

[8] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, (London: Penguin Classics, 2007) p.42

[9] Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p. 157

[10] Joseph Conrad, ‘The Congo Diary’ in Heart of Darkness, p. 106

[11] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p.72

[12] p. 3 — find reference!

[13] Ibid. p. 5

[14] Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p. 157

[15] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p.7

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p.112

[18] Discussed in a seminar by Miss Jessica Gildersleeve

[19] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 6

[20] Bennett and Royle, ‘Voice’ in An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, p. 71

[21] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 30

[22] Sigmund Freud, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in The Penguin Freud Library Vol. 2 On Metapsychology trans. By James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1984) p.290

[23] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 33

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. p. 59

[26] Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p. 142

[27] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 96

[28] Ibid. p. 9

[29] Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p. 142

[30] Ibid. p. 148

[31] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 45

[32] Ibid. p. xxi

[33] Ibid.p.86

[34] Ibid. p.70

[35] Ibid. p. 58

[36] Ibid. p.60

[37] Ibid. p154


[39] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 70

[40] Ibid. p.83

[41] Ibid. p.31

[42] Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p.138

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