Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights
To understand Heart of Darkness, we need to look at some of the traditional symbols Conrad uses.
The journey. In literature, physical journeys are often used to represent intellectual, emotional, or spiritual searches.
The jungle. While the term jungle is often used to indicate a primitive and lawless environment where survival at any cost becomes the sole objective (“it's a jungle out there”), the jungle also represents that which is unknown because it is deep, dark, and difficult to penetrate. In this regard, critics suggest that in this novel, the jungle symbolizes a hidden psychological truth and/or reality. In Conrad's metaphysical tale, the “heart of darkness” is found deep in the jungle.
Darkness and the color black. Traditionally, these concepts have been used to symbolize the unknown, or something difficult to comprehend or understand; they also have symbolized foreboding and, frequently, evil.
Light and the color white. Traditionally, these colors symbolize goodness, the opposite of evil. “The whited sepulchre,” mentioned in Heart of Darkness is an allusion to Matthew 23:27. It refers to the Pharisees, who were priests, supposedly pure, but corrupt in their behavior (as a sepulchre is painted white on the outside to give the appearance of purity yet filled with dead and decaying bodies).
In Revelation 6:8, paleness suggests illness and death (Death comes riding on a “pale horse”). When Kurtz's fiancé, is described as pale at the end of the novel, consider this interpretation and how it refers to Conrad's description of Kurtz.
Also, note Marlow's physical journey as it relates to his emotional and spiritual experiences. In this regard, consider possible symbolic interpretations of Marlow's journey.
Frequently, journeys result in the enlightenment of the hero-traveler, in which he or she learns something about the world, the nature of humankind or God, or the nature of good and evil; on these occasions, the character also grasps an understanding of his or her personal self. To what degree do the characters in Heart of Darkness achieve enlightenment?
Highlight details and comments that support or relate to the following generalizations and themes that appear in the novel:
Humans act inhumanly toward their fellow humans.
Humankind's nature is dualistic in that it contains the potential for both good and evil.
Confronting one's own evil nature may lead to self-knowledge, but it can also lead to disastrous consequences.
Those who claimed to be bringing light and enlightenment to Africa were, in fact, destroying the continent. Consider how whites and natives interact in the novel.
Examine the proposition that Heart of Darkness reflects Conrad's anger at the barbarities of imperialistic greed.
Relate the religious allusions that are made throughout the text, especially those that refer to life, death, disciples, the soul, and Christ to specific characters and themes in the novel.
Laocoön – from Greek mythology. During the Trojan War, he was a priest of the god Apollo and warned the Trojans about the wooden horse.
Walk-ER! – a common exclamation of surprise and disbelief
sticking-plaister – adhesive tape; a band-aid
farthing – an old British coin worth very little
feign – to portray; imitate
strait-waistcoat – another term for straitjacket. It was made of canvas material and used to bind and restrain violent prisoners and mental patients.
bishop – a type of wine
- How is "darkness" used as a symbol in Heart of Darkness?
- In Heart of Darkness, how does the Outer Station represent European waste and neglect?
- How does the death of the helmsman help to illuminate a theme of Heart of Darkness?
- In Heart of Darkness, what is the true nature of the "knobs" that Marlow describes?
- In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, how does Kurtz use modern civilization to control the native people?
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