Unspeakable Horror: Outing Syphilis in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

  • Nicole Cosentino
  • Wendy Ryden


The authors posit syphilis as the source for Kurtz’s affliction in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and argue for understanding the novella as a deployment of the rhetoric of disease, which yokes together medical fears and problematic sexual morality with a global violence infecting self-congratulatory European benevolence and charity. Conrad’s tale is both implicitly and explicitly eroticized as well as steeped in gothic representation of the hidden and revealed to manage an unsayable horror. As such, the language of the story parallels pervasive late nineteenth-century syphilis discourse that likewise relies on obfuscation and silences. Descriptions of Kurtz’s megalomania resonate with the symptomatology of syphilis and perceived syphilitics, such as Nietzsche and Columbus, who might have served as models for the character.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nicole Cosentino
    • 1
  • Wendy Ryden
    • 2
  1. 1.University at AlbanyAlbanyUSA
  2. 2.Long Island University PostBrookvilleUSA

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