Heart of Darkness Questions and Answers
by Joseph Conrad

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Please comment on ivory and bones as symbols in the Heart of Darkness.

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Ivory is central to the plot and symbolism of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. The protagonist, Marlow, is hired as a steamship captain on the Congo River to transport ivory. The enigmatic Kurtz is an ivory trader. The Chief Accountant in the Outer Station tracks ivory shipments in well-ordered columns. Ivory is so central to Europeans working in the Congo that Marlow claims, “The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed.” The frenzied European hunt for ivory precipitates Marlow’s journey to the Congo and is mentioned so frequently in various contexts that it becomes a regular motif. Conrad establishes the ivory motif to represent the decay of Western civilization.

From a symbolic perspective, it is important to remember that ivory is polished bone. Obtaining ivory requires the death of an elephant and, in the case of the Belgian Congo, often the deaths of many African workers. Marlow witnesses the terrible impact that European lust for ivory brings to...

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