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Wexler, J.P. (2010). Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious in Heart of Darkness. Psychoanal. Rev., 97(3):469-482.

(2010). Psychoanalytic Review, 97(3):469-482

Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious in Heart of Darkness

Joyce Piell Wexler, Ph.D.

No one reads Heart of Darkness for the jokes (1899; page citations refer to the edition specified in the Reference), but a few critics have appreciated Conrad's humor, generally interpreting it as a reprieve from an otherwise intolerable vision of depravity.1 Covino (1977), for example, writes that Conrad softened the “harsh truth” with a “comic sensibility, helping us ‘carry on’”: “Without humor, the horror becomes unendurable and would force us ‘ashore’ with Kurtz for a howl and a dance” (p. 224). While Covino emphasizes the contrast between humor and horror, from a psychoanalytic perspective Conrad's humor is rooted in the same unconscious material as the horror. Jokes about lawyers and sex express the principal anxieties of the narrative as a whole: being too far from the law and being too close to women. These fears culminate in the final scene when Marlow meets Kurtz's Intended. Although Marlow faces the dangers of Africa with equanimity, he blunders into a verbal pratfall in a Belgian drawing room.

Psychoanalytic readings usually focus on individual characters or the author, but Freud's 1905 paper on “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” provides a theoretical bridge between personal and public manifestations of the unconscious. Emphasizing the social foundation of jokes, Freud's argument not only illustrates how his dramatic paradigms of the nuclear family are related to public behavior but also avoids some common objections to psychoanalytic literary criticism.2 Even critics who accept the therapeutic value of psychoanalysis point out that in the absence of a subject who can engage in free association, there is a tendency to reduce all texts to the same Freudian themes.

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