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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
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Give at least 5 examples of symbolism (and their symbolic meaning) that Joseph Conrad uses in Heart of Darkness.

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Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) is one of the most symbolic books in the Western canon. It practically drips with symbolism, one of the reasons why it it still widely read and studied in college and high school English. For more context and criticism, I would...

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Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) is one of the most symbolic books in the Western canon. It practically drips with symbolism, one of the reasons why it it still widely read and studied in college and high school English. For more context and criticism, I would advise picking up the Norton edition of the book.

One prominent symbol is the river. There are two rivers in the novel, the Thames, where the story is being told, and the Congo, where much of the story occurs. In literature, rivers often represent a journey or a quest. In the case of Heart of Darkness, as Marlow goes up the river, he gets further from civilization and rationality.

A second symbol is the color black (and the darkness of the title). Some have seen Conrad's depiction of the African characters as racist, notably novelist Chinua Achebe. Black frequently represents evil or the unknown, and though the book is anti-imperialist, the Africans stand in contrast to the white Europeans, who represent civilization and culture.

A third symbol is Kurtz himself, the destination of Marlow's journey. Kurtz is an almost mythic character in the book, and he exists as both a man and as a symbol of everything that can go wrong with a white man in Africa, namely that he succumbs to megalomania and the savagery of the continent. Continuing with that theme, the land itself, the Belgian Congo, is raw, untamed, uncultivated and so can be seen as savage and primeval, which is why is undoes so many of the white colonists. Again, this symbolism can be seen as racially fraught, and that line of thinking is worth pursuing.

A final symbol, albeit a rather minor one, is the two women knitting in the office. They can be seen as the fates, who in Greek mythology controlled the destiny of men. One spun the thread, one decided how long it would be, and one cut it.

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