I want to write a novella that to some degree translates Conrad's Heart of Darkness to a modern urban setting, and I want the astute reader to be able to make multiple connections between the two works. But I'm unsure how far to go with intertextuality. Even the Wikipedia article notes that

Intertextuality does not require citing or referencing punctuation (such as quotation marks) and is often mistaken for plagiarism.

So, how do I avoid clever, deliberate literary allusion being mistaken for plagiarism?

To recap Heart of Darkness, a sailor (Marlow) regales his mates with his recollections of an ill-fated journey into darkest Africa in the late 1800s. Marlow had sailed up the Congo and met ivory trader Kurtz, a mysterious but charismatic man who had gone "native" and had become a demi-god to the local cannibal tribes. Kurtz was both mentally and physically ill, and died on the return journey. Marlow struggles with the greatness and darkness of Kurtz (in particular) and Africa (in general). Conrad's novella also touches on themes of imperial rapacity, human barbarity, colonial stupidity and waste, and the corrupting influence of power.

In my story, a journalist is commissioned to write a series of articles on urban homelessness. He spends some time visiting homeless persons' camps along the city's main river - under bridges, in disused industrial lots, etc - and learns of a dark, mysterious character (Mr Short) who seems to run some kind of extortion racket. It's arranged for him to meet Short one night, which involves him being led up-river to a secret location. The journalist is deeply dismayed at the human suffering he sees in the camps, and is both captivated and appalled by Short. I'll explore themes of exploitation and human brutality, narcissism/psychopathy (Short), capitalism, urban decay, etc.

So far so good - I'm inspired by Conrad's tale and excited about the creative possibilities of a modern "adaption". In fact, my own story will be less of a direct re-telling than the film "Apocalypse Now" in which the two main protagonists are called Marlow and Kurtz, Marlow sails up a jungle river, Kurtz says "The horror! The horror!", etc.

I'm not intending to copy Conrad's style, as his melodramatic gothic horror would seem completely over-the-top in the literary genre I'm writing in. And I want to provide enough clues for the reader to be in no doubt that Heart of Darkness is the inspiration: some subtle (e.g. my Kurtz is Mr Short - a nice twist on Conrad, who originally named his character after a company agent who died on Conrad's own journey down the Congo; he later changed the name from Klein - "small" in German - to Kurtz - "kurz" means short), and some more obvious - plenty of references to darkness, heart, horror, etc.

What I'm struggling with is how far I can go in deliberately incorporating actual text from Conrad's novel.

For example, Marlow comments about modern Europe that "what saves us is ... the devotion to efficiency." I'd like to incorporate these exact words somewhere, as a description of capitalism in a modern city. My journalist might note the "extremity of an impotent despair" in one of the homeless characters. The homeless are "dying very slowly ... they were nothing ... but black shadows of disease and starvation". Short himself is a narcissist, utterly lacking in empathy - he's "hollow to the core" (one of the more memorable lines from Heart of Darkness).

These are just a few examples of text I want to find some way of including, as a direct homage to Conrad's novella. I'm keen to add other allusions as well - to T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men, Dante's Inferno, to Lord of the Flies, Beckett's The Unnamable, maybe some Rabelais - as a way of enriching my novella. Plenty of precedents for this - Joyce's Ulysses is a minefield of literary allusion. Conrad himself in H.o.D. uses a translated line from de Maupassant.

But where do you draw the line when including multiple snatches of text from the one work? When does literary cleverness trip over into plagiarism? For example, one of my homeless characters might describe Mr Short with the following, taken verbatim from H.o.D. -

'I tell you,' he cried, 'this man has enlarged my mind.' He opened his arms wide.

Does the longer piece of text make it easier for the astute reader/critic to pick (and appreciate) the reference, or does it increase the risk of accusations of unoriginality and plagiarism?

Related questions, but not quite answering the above:

3 Answers 3


Laying aside all questions of legality, which are not my expertise, the question becomes one of how your audience will receive this work. I think there are two major hurdles to clear, and in some ways they are directly opposed to each other:

  • You need to make it clear that your borrowings are intentional, and that you are not presenting them as your own work. Otherwise you'll be perceived as a plagiarist.

  • You need to create a work that stands on its own, independent of its sources. Otherwise, what's the point?

I would suggest you start the book with some very explicit reference to Conrad's book --nothing that requires any effort to puzzle through. This might be a quote from the book, outside the text, or (if you're willing to get more "meta") maybe your main character owns a copy of the book (which he might or might not read), or maybe he overhears a discussion about how Apocalypse Now was inspired by it. After that, don't throw in any more references for at least a few chapters! That makes it very clear from the beginning what you are doing, but also gives time for the story to breathe on its own a little, and establish its own reality.

My one biggest concern for you is that you need to make this book MORE than just a collection of quotes and clever references. I've often fallen into the same trap of making my book more about my own pleasure in the conceits I've created than a real book someone else can read and enjoy. Lots of intertextual modernist works are painfully thin and derivative, shining only with reflected glory. This really has less to do with how many quotes you include, or how exactly you copy the wording, and more to do with how alive the book is between the quotes. In other words, make sure your book is a real book, not just an updated copy. Also, I'd caution you against bringing in too many other allusions --or really any others. With your book being based so closely on one particular source, you're running a real risk of just muddying the waters by tossing in others (you'll make both your hurdles higher without much significant gain).

  • I'd been hoping for some stronger guidance on how to make intertextuality work, whereas all 3 responses have been more like "don't overdo it, here's what I'd focus on instead." But I guess it makes sense to respond to new Writing.SE users with advice aimed at the "beginner" rather than at a more sophisticated writer. In any case, this answer does provide some useful suggestions, for which I'm grateful :-) Sep 18, 2018 at 3:50
  • @Chappo IMHO, all SE answers should be primarily aimed at the larger general audience, not the specific querent. But in any case, my own advice was more macroscopic than microscopic not because I'm assuming you're a beginner, but because the challenges I perceive in this are at the larger level, not the fine-grained level. How this work will be received will be less a matter of how exactly you quote Conrad, and more a matter of how derivative or original your book feels as a whole. Remember, "all artists borrow, but great artists steal." Sep 18, 2018 at 13:24
  • BTW, as a side note, I'd strongly recommend Delany's About Writing, not so much for this particular question, but for advanced level, specific advice on a variety of post-modernist writing quandaries. Sep 18, 2018 at 13:26
  • Thanks Chris, much appreciated. Sounds like Delany's book will be an essential addition to my writing toolkit! Sep 19, 2018 at 0:09

In my opinion, it's not about ethics; it's about affect.

In other words, I think your main concern should not be about whether readers would understand you're paying homage (or making an intertextual connection) rather than plagiarizing.
Your main concern should be about what readers will get out of this realization. There is a fine line separating "Wow, this is cool" from "Meh, this is ridiculous". This is especially the case for such a famous text - not to mention one that has an (in)famous adaptation already under its belt.

The way I would do it (which isn't necessarily what's best for what you and what you have in mind, but it's the only piece of advice I can offer):

  • Focus on affect, rather than text. Don't copy passages, "copy" mood.
  • Don't underestimate audiences. Those familiar with the original text will feel greater reward (and will appreciate your own work best) if they are not "force-fed" the information. Basically, by providing actual text from the original, you're basically telling those who have read the text "I don't trust you will get the reference otherwise". Not to mention, those only vaguely familiar with Heart of Darkness remember mood and context far better than text.
  • There has to be a certain kind of rationale and perspective as to why you're basing your work on Conrad's. There has to be a certain kind of wider context. As I'm unfamiliar with your work, I cannot comment further on that, but to make it easier for you to recognize what I'm talking about, ask yourself: "Why would reading this (new) text is something I must do?"
  • I'm essentially repeating myself, but it's because I think it's a crucial aspect: You said

I'm not intending to copy Conrad's style, as his melodramatic gothic horror would seem completely over-the-top in the literary genre I'm writing in.

But have you realized the effect of copying the text leaving the style/mood out? Again, I can't comment on your own text (since I don't know anything about it), but I believe that, generally speaking, taking text out of its affective context is not a great idea.

Intertextuality is based on affect, not text.

In other words, when Stoker in Dracula refers to, say, Coleridge or Keats, he doesn't quote text in length. Indeed, when it comes to Coleridge he first creates a narrative link by quoting directly The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but that only so that he facilitates the reader's attention to the real reason he links to Coleridge: because of Christabel, featuring innuendos on homosexuality and vampirism (both directly related to his own work). The same goes for Keat's "La Belle Dame sans Merci", only very indirectly referred to (that is, with a very weak textual link), but the mood and affect of the poem is what makes it relevant in Dracula

  • Thanks for a well-considered and well-argued response, and yes I certainly aim to recreate some of the mood of H.o.D., but perhaps you missed the point that I absolutely intend to include text from H.o.D., some of which will not be apparent to the general reader. Joyce had great fun including a huge number of text excerpts in Ulysses and joked that it would keep university lecturers employed for a century finding them all. Interestingly, I'd thought of including allusions to Coleridge's Rime and had then forgotten - thanks for the reminder! Sep 14, 2018 at 8:45

I'm no lawyer but to my mind the question is perhaps moot. Heart of Darkness appears to be out of copyright. If that be the case then I can't see how plagiarism can exist.

My mind travels to one of my own novels where a character is a Thespian. She quotes Shakespeare at every opportunity and her own character arc is of a woman needing to be 'tamed'.

Plagiarism is broadly defined as passing another's work off as your own. If your intent is for the text to be recognised then I cannot see how an accusation of plagiarism would have any foundation.

  • 4
    Plagiarism and copyright are different. There's no legal issue about plagiarism per se, it's more a matter of ethics and reputation. If I tried to pass off passages from H.o.D. as my own, that would definitely be plagiarism, even though it would not be a breach of copyright. I think I'm looking for a more nuanced answer here... Sep 14, 2018 at 3:04

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