The 1997 edition of the Nelson Canadian Dictionary defines irony as an “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” For example, a paper attempting to explain in an explicit manner the inevitable ambiguity of words, as perceived by modern writers, could be qualified as ironic.
Unlike this essay, which tries to extract a clear and objective meaning from a particular experience, modern novelists favour a subjective recreation of existence in all its inordinate and confusing complexity. Because words are merely symbols for what they designate and because they can be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on one’s experience and imagination, modern writers view objective truth as unattainable and impossible to directly convey. Truth is elusive. It is like a spirit that haunts the text itself and remains intangible.
This precise metaphor is used in both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. In Conrad’s novel, Marlow is haunted by Kurtz, the man he seeks. In Gilman’s book, the narrator is troubled by a presence inside her bedroom’s wallpaper. In both texts, the “ghosts” reflect a hidden truth about the protagonists: Kurtz embodies the greedy and abusive nature of European colonialism, and the ghostly presence in The Yellow Wallpaper is its narrator’s repression given form.
Though Marlow is only introduced to him in the third and final section of the novel, Kurtz remains an important presence throughout Heart of Darkness. The narrator’s eagerness constantly leads the readers to believe they’re about to meet him: “I was then rather excited at the prospect of meeting Kurtz very soon. When I say very soon I mean it comparatively. It was just two months from the day we left the creek when we came to the bank below Kurtz’s station.” Marlow is obsessed with the notion of Kurtz. Meeting him becomes his only ambition: “I had traveled all this way for the sole purpose of talking with Mr. Kurtz.”
At this point, Kurtz is not a person to Marlow but rather an elusive presence. He is intangible: “I didn’t say to myself, ‘Now I will never see him,’ or ‘Now I will never shake him by the hand,’ but, ‘Now I will never hear him.’ The man presented himself as a voice.” This doesn’t change once Marlow meets Kurtz. He still refers to him as a shade and as a wraith: “I am trying to account to myself [...] the shade of Mr. Kurtz. This initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere honoured me with its amazing confidence before it vanished altogether.”
Kurtz is the living embodiment of Europe: “his mother was half-English, his father was half-French” and his name is a German word. He comes to Africa “equipped with moral ideas of some sort”, but once there, he lacks “restraint in the gratification of his various lusts”. He is blatantly greedy: “You should have heard him say, ‘My ivory.’ Oh yes, I heard him. ‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my…’ everything belonged to him.” Kurtz symbolizes the true nature of European colonialism in all its depravity.