In its treatment of imperialism and individual experience, Heart of Darkness is on many levels a story about ambiguity. Thus, Marlow’s use of language is at the very least thematic. Throughout the book, words assume a bizarre, almost fetishistic power: “ivory,” for example, becomes almost more concrete than the elephant tusks themselves. The name “ Kurtz ” also takes on a life of its own, as it comes to stand for a set of legends and rumors rather than an actual man. Marlow becomes suspicious of words, as they threaten to overtake and distort the meaning they are supposed to convey. On the one hand, words fail to reflect reality adequately, and reality is often so paradoxical that the words don’t exist to describe it; but, on the other hand, words sometimes take on an independent life of their own. Marlow’s vague terminology, in addition to possessing a lyrical beauty, helps him to negotiate the dual threats of language.
Salinger uses two main techniques with great efficiency. The first is to emphasize a contrast between Holden’s relatively casual description of his actions and the apparent desperation of the actions themselves. When Holden describes walking to the Central Park duck pond late at night, for instance, he casually mentions that he had icicles in his hair and worried about catching pneumonia, but he does not seem to consider it strange to walk outdoors with wet hair in freezing weather. It does seem strange to the reader, however, and Salinger uses that sense of strangeness, as well as Holden’s apparent obliviousness to it, to emphasize his mental imbalance. His other technique is to provide alternative viewpoints in the other characters’ responses to Holden’s behavior as guidelines. For instance, when Holden has his meltdown with Sally and tries to persuade her to flee society and live with him in a cabin, she repeatedly asks him to stop shouting. In his account of the scene, Holden claims he wasn’t shouting, but we believe Sally. Salinger uses her angry, fearful response to signal to the reader that Holden’s mental state is worse than he admits or acknowledges.