Black and white illustration of the outline of the upper part of a body with a river and boat in the background

Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

Start Free Trial

Discuss some of the possible meaning of darkness in Heart of Darkness.

There are several possible meanings of darkness in Heart of Darkness. There is the darkness of the Congo River surrounded by the jungle. Darkness is associated with colonialism and ignorance, as wealthy, white countries sometimes fancied themselves as bringers of light to darkened corners of the world. There is the individual darkness of Marlow and Kurtz. There is, finally, the darkness of the natives in the Congo.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

On several occasions in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad uses the word “darkness” to describe the vast Congo River and its environs. Even the forest surrounding the river is said to be “dark-faced and pensive.”

The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.

The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress.

I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river—seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.

The darkness of the river serves as a metaphor behind the darkness of the colonial project itself, and for the men executing it in far-flung places like the Congo. From the comfort of their homes in France, Belgium, Holland, and other European powers, people simply did not know the true scale of the horrors of colonialism. An individual immersed in the heart of this darkness like Kurtz, however, understood the darkness—and became consumed by it, despite his talents.

The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

Despite their noble intentions to bring lightness to the world, the European powers brought mainly darkness to the indigenous groups in places they forcibly colonized. Indeed, the “impenetrable darkness” also refers to the natives, who, according to the concept of the “white man’s burden,” lack sophistication and knowledge of the proper way to live—which to the Europeans, was the ways of white Europeans. But in the end there was no hope for the natives, and they were cursed to live in perpetual symbolic darkness by their dark, "inhuman" skin.

They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything...

Indeed, the mind is capable of anything—even able to believe, however obliquely and...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

with a perverse sense, that colonization is for the common good of the world. Colonizers may have had the idea that it’s best to “exterminate all the brutes” through imposition of European ideals or killing. It would be well into the 20th century before colonial powers even began to recon with their past. In the meanwhile, in Conrad’s time, European civilization lived largely in darkness, while the truth

was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Heart of Darkness is Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece, which is ostensibly about a trip through the Belgian Congo to retrieve a man named Kurtz, who has essentially declared himself a god to the natives, because of his control of the ivory trade.

There are many possible meanings of “darkness” in the narrative, some overt and some symbolic. On the surface, darkness is literal. Marlow, the protagonist, is sent by boat up the Congo River in Africa, probably in the 1880s or so, along the ivory trade routes. He notes that some sections of the river are so deep and dark that he sees it as a bad omen. Likewise, Marlowe did not expect the almost-total blackness when in the thick of the jungle itself. He notes that sunlight never penetrates the canopy in the nearly impassible rain forest.

Darkness could also mean the distaste Marlow begins to have for the ivory trade. At one point, when he disembarks at an ivory “plantation,” he notes that the natives are little more than slaves, that they live in dismal conditions, and that they treat each other with contempt and violence. His slow realization that he had no idea of the exploitative nature of processing and transporting the ivory causes him to question his own values.

Some critics have also noted that Marlow has a dismissive and superior attitude toward the dark-skinned Africans, which is a sort of "darkness" probably unintended by Conrad but obvious and problematic when viewed through modern eyes.

Primarily, though, Conrad seems to be most interested in the darkness in Kurtz’s heart. When Marlow arrives to retrieve him, he is appalled to find that Kurtz has set himself up as the lord and master of his own fiefdom and that the natives revere him as a god. For reasons that are never really explained, Kurtz has decapitated many Africans and has decorated the encampment’s fence posts with their heads. Such practices were common in medieval kingdoms, mainly as a warning to those who would oppose the king.

Ultimately, the darkness at the heart of the story is Kurtz’s insanity and depravity. Conrad seems to be suggesting, among other things, that men who are given great power will become tyrants when they have no one watching them. They give in to the darkness and begin to rewrite morality so that it suits their evil intent.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team