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

Darkness has several meanings in Heart of Darkness, including the literal darkness of the river and jungle, the unconscionable treatment of the Africans who process and transport ivory, and, ultimately, Kurtz's evil and madness.

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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”...

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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.

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