Comparison of the Writing Styles of Joseph Conrad and Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Joseph Conrad and Alexander Solzenitsyn each have a distinctive style which is apparent in many aspects of their writing. Heart of Darkness is about the adventure of Charles Marlow into the heart of Africa to find the elusive ivory trader, Kurtz. The story focuses on Marlow’s discovery of himself and the nature of man under savage conditions. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tells of the monotonous day of one prisoner, Ivan Denisovich, in a Siberian gulag. The result is a knowledge of the terrible treatment and the perseverance of the prisoners in the camps.

The distinctive style used by each author can be compared by discussing the symbols, diction and motif in each novella. The symbols in Heart if Darkness and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are congruent, however they are approached in unique ways by each author. Animal symbolism is the most apparent throughout both novellas. Solzhenitsyn uses animal imagery to refer to the oppression of the prisoners, namely as domesticated livestock.

Every morning, meal break and night the men in the camp had to line up by fives and be counted, “Just like a bunch of sheep! 39). This exclamation from a guard demonstrated the lack of human compassion and respect given to the prisoners of the gulag system. By contrast, Conrad used animal symbolism as an indication of savagery. When Marlow looked at the map he was drawn to the snakelike Congo River because he knew it lead into the savage innards of Africa, which England professed as in need of civilization by the colonists. The animal imagery of the African natives enforces the idea that the white men where needed to help the people to a better future.

When Marlow first arrived in Africa he was “horror-struck [when] one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink” (84). The use of this language exhibited the popular view, in England in the late nineteenth century, that the Africans needed to be domesticated like dogs and be brought into society. It is clear that the use of animal symbolism in these two books was employed for completely different meanings. The diction used by Conrad and Solzhenitsyn are the most significantly different aspect of the two novellas.

The analysis of diction relies on two main aspects of writing: narration and sentence structure. Although both works have a single, limited, first person narrator, the actual story telling is very dissimilar. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich the narrator speaks as if the events are occurring just as you read the book. Denisovich has no knowledge of what is to come in his day and therefore remains focused on the actual events that happen. On the other hand, Heart of Darkness is a frame story that is being retold to the reader by an unknown narrator.

Even if one were to deviate from the technicality of the unknown narrator in the frame story, Marlow’s retelling of his adventure often digresses as he reexamines the events that took place. The interruption of the frame story does not allow the reader to become to entrenched in the situation of Marlow, but Solzhenitsyn’s goal was to put the reader in the prison camp with Denisovich so he would be able to experience the pure horror and degradation of the gulag experience. Along with narration, the structure of the author’s words also adds to the overall affect of the work.

Solzhenitsyn and Conrad are again at opposite ends of the spectrum. The understated, economy of words used by Solzhenitsyn “gives a greater reality to the cruelty of the camps, to the systematic criminality of the Soviet penal system, than a shriller voice and an emphasis on the killing, the suicides, the self-mutilation, the torture would have given” (507 Rothberg). This quiet tone of the novella allows the reader to analyze the situation of Denisovich and his prison mates for himself — without the comments of the author intruding upon his thoughts Conversely, Conrad employs long, descriptive and , at times, convoluted passages.

This stylistic technique is useful in drawing the reader into the confused mind of Marlow. The main character’s digressions from his actual story display the inner workings of his mind as he reviews and evaluates the occurrences on his voyage to Kurtz. The application of different diction techniques adds individuality to each man’s work, nevertheless there are similarities between the novellas as well. Despite the authors’ different approaches to symbolism and diction, their implementation of universal motifs provides a link between the works.

The ever-present battle between darkness and light appears in both of the novellas. Curiously, it seems that the typical darkness as evil and light as good is in reverse in both of these books, using darkness to represent good and light to represent evil. This theme is clearly used in Heart of Darkness to characterize the people. The natives in the grove of death looked out into the colonized station and the “white flicker in the depths” of their souls was extinguished as they all died (83).

The association of the black people with pure, innocent souls also is used to contrast the white colonists. These people who self-proclaimed themselves as “emissaries of light” exploited the land and its people in the darkest of ways. The most obvious example of a white person with a tarnished soul was the accountant who, in the “great demoralization of the land” was able to keep his shirt fronts clean and starched (84). Again Conrad uses this reversal of a universal theme to describe Kurtz.

He has a bald head that is white like ivory, and yet the inner workings of his mind are filled with the dark purposes of the ivory trade. Also used in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich , the reverse theme of darkness against light is very clear. The dark coats and rags of the helpless prisoners contrast with the stark white spotlights that suspiciously patrol the camp at all hours. These same camp lights were so powerful they “blotted out the stars” that reside in the heavens (8). This is an distinct inversion of the tradition motif.

The evil camp lights blinded the prisoners from the view of the sky in which heaven is believed to be. the good of religion is overtaken by the horror of the constant guarding of the prisoners from escape, thus giving them nothing to believe in except the gulag system. This was exactly the goal of Stalinist Russia and the exact system Solzhenitsyn was condemning. Conrad and Solzhenitsyn’s twist on an old motif allows the reader to become more involved in the examination of each text as well as the situation it addresses.

Also utilized in Heart of Darkness and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the motif of the dehumanization of man by another man. Apparent in the treatment of the natives by the English colonists, this theme is also seen in the treatment of the prisoners by the gulag officials. The deprivation of a person of his human qualities — such as individuality or compassion — show the lowest morality in any human being. The sadness of the conditions that were endured, during both eras in history, permit the reader to be in awe of the strength of each person who was ever a victim of such degradation.

Indeed, the comparison of symbols, diction and motif used in Heart of Darkness and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich show the distinctive style of Joseph Conrad and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. These two men, from different societies and cultures, share some of the same techniques because they are universal archetypes. The difference in style exhibits the contrast in how their personal experience affected them. Thus it is clear that these two novellas share many qualities and allow for the divergence of each author’s style as well.

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