What do the "drums" symbolize in "Heart of Darkness"?
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On a more literal level, the drums attest to the presence of a primitive people not yet under the control of "civilization." As they 'speak their own language,' so they also live by their own rules.
Even so, their vulnerability to the white man's influence and conviction of his natural superiority eventually lead them into a deeper degree of barbarism than they have ever known before.
On a more symbolic level, the drums symbolise the savage instinct in all men which can run rampart in absence of imposed controls or sanctions:
Kurtz's appalling moral corruption is the result not only of external forces such as the isolation and loneliness imposed by the jungle, but also, Conrad suggests, of forces that lie within all men and await the chance to emerge. Kurtz perhaps realizes the depth of his own moral corruption when, as he lays dying, he utters "The horror! The horror!" Marlow feels this realization transferred to himself and understands that he too, living in a lawless state, is capable of sinking into the depths of moral corruption The savage nature of man is thus reached at the end of the journey, not upriver, but into his own soul.
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