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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
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Darkness In Heart Of Darkness

How is "darkness" used as a symbol in Heart of Darkness?

"Darkness" is used as a symbol in Heart of Darkness to represent the bleakness of reality and human nature. Conrad employs the symbol of darkness both literally and figuratively, through the dark sky and through the moral and ethical corruption in the Congo.

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To answer this, we need to come to an understanding of the Western attitude of Conrad's period regarding the colonial empires that had been established.

One often hears Africa described in the European mindset as the "dark continent." Despite the slave trade and exploitation of Africa that had been going on for several hundred years, Europeans still, by the end of the nineteenth century, knew little, if anything, about the interior of Africa. In Heart of Darkness, the disappearance of Kurtz deep within the unnamed country of Marlow's visit is emblematic of this mystery the Western mind had nurtured concerning not just Africa but any of the lands peopled by non-whites. But "darkness" also refers to the darkness that exists within Kurtz's own mind and soul. What is it, Marlow keeps wondering, that this man (about whom there is a mystical and dangerous aura) is actually doing in the interior? What has motivated him, and what has created the lurid notoriety with which Kurtz has been invested? The revelation that Kurtz has gone mad, that he has set himself up as a kind of king or even a god over "the natives," is like an apocalyptic vision of destruction.

Kurtz's psychosis, the "darkness" inside him, is a metaphor of the darkness at the heart of the European effort to conquer and to control other peoples. Though he does not say so explicitly, Conrad, through the persona of Marlow, has grasped the futility of the white man's dominion in Africa, if we may paraphrase Orwell's observation in "Shooting an Elephant" about the British control of Asia. The irony, however, is that Conrad, like Orwell, seems more obsessed with the effect this dysfunctional arrangement has on the Europeans than its effects on the non-white peoples. The "darkness" of his tale is therefore a multi-layered phenomenon in which even those who are critics of imperialism may themselves have been blinded as to the actual nature or significance of the colonial system's criminal dysfunctionality.

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In Heart of Darkness, the titular "darkness" represents various parts of reality, human nature, and the corruption of decency when faced with insurmountable obstacles. Marlow uses it regularly both in a literal sense -- "the starred darkness" -- and in a symbolic sense to show how the Congo affects people morally and ethically. He uses it most effectively in regard to Kurtz, who, in Marlow's view, has had his moral soul completely destroyed by some event, or perhaps a succession of events, in the jungle.

Kurtz discoursed. A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart.
(Conrad, Heart of Darkness, gutenberg.org)

The bolded phrase shows up in varied form throughout the novel. Marlow refers to the dark heart of the jungle itself, of the darkness that eats away at his own moral core, and of what he sees as the destruction of Kurtz's soul. The only part of Kurtz to survive the Congo's destruction was his voice, which he used to force others to his will. The darkness ate away at his morality, but left the tools of his influence intact; Marlow is entranced by Kurtz even as he is disgusted by Kurtz's actions. Darkness symbolizes both the moral place where Marlow fears he will end up, and the attraction of greed and power, which overcame Kurtz.

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