How are light and darkness used by Joseph Conrad in his novel Heart of Darkness?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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[Page numbers from which quotes are taken are not available, as the Kindle version of the book was used.]

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness uses light and darkness as metaphors for mental awakening and for representations of death, evil and emptiness.  The mere title, Heart of Darkness, is a reference both to the metaphorical “darkness” that resides inside of man – or, more specifically, in the European colonialists who systematically enslaved millions while exploiting their resources – and to the image of the deepest parts of Africa as “dark,” both in terms of the literal absence of light beneath the heavily-canopied jungles and to the long-discredited notion of Africa as devoid of culture and worth (“the dark continent”).   Early in his novel, Conrad’s protagonist, Charles Marlow, references his travels down the Congo River into the heart of Africa, and how the experience of visiting that location and finally encountering Kurtz

“seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me . . .” 

And, soon after, he notes again how the experience has caused his perceptions of Africa to be fundamentally transformed:

“It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.  It had become a place of darkness.”

Darkness definitely assumes a higher visibility in Conrad’s story.  Marlow’s observations during his journey down the river continuously illuminate the travesty of European colonialism and the effects of imperialism on those who were enslaved.  His mention of observing a French warship firing its cannons at unseen targets somewhere inland despite the fact that “there wasn’t even a shed there,” spoke to the folly of military endeavors that existed to serve commercial interests.  As Marlow continues to witness the moral depravity of the Europeans and the subjugation of the indigenous peoples, his views of the job he had so eagerly sought begin to change.  His description of the native peoples forced into labor designed to rape their own land is telling:  “The passed within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.”

The farther Marlow and his crew sail down the river, the closer they get to their destination, but the more morally perilous is their mission.  As he notes at one point, “We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.”  Conrad is, again, using “darkness” as a metaphor as well as for a literal description of life under the thick jungle canopy.  And, finally, Marlow encounters the individual who has fascinated him and driven him forward, Kurtz, who had famously turned his job running the ivory trade from deep within the jungle into a megalomaniacal obsession:

“Everything belonged to him – but that was a trifle.  The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. . . he had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land – I mean literally.  You can’t understand.”

“Darkness” in Conrad’s novel is both literal and visceral.  It is the environment and it is what lies within Kurtz and within those safely back home in London at the headquarters of the company that employs Kurtz and others like him to bring back the ivory.

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