Heart of Darkness Questions and Answers
by Joseph Conrad

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Do the pilgrims represent slaves in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness?

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Octavia Cordell eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I don't think the "pilgrims"—not actual pilgrims, but company men, looking to go upriver in quest of ivory—"represent" slaves; for Conrad, the actual slaves are more than capable of representing themselves! There is, however, a certain commonality between the slaves and the "pilgrims," in that both find themselves the victims or slaves of fate. They share a certain ineffectiveness. The slaves in the grove submit to their fate, waiting silently for death. This is contrasted with the pilgrims, who empty their guns into a hippopotamus to no effect. Like the work of the slaves, their "work" is useless, like the cladding for the bottom of Marlow's boat that can't be used without rivets, or the bit of white cloth around the slave's neck in the grove, which perhaps had no meaning at all. As the manager says to Marlow, "no man here bears a charmed life”

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, the pilgrims are not slaves.

First of all, the black men who are slaves are shackled together. Marlow first sees this vision of "hell" at the Lower Station. These men are starving, with a look of death about them. They are prisoners, they are treated badly, and forced to work while guarded by white Company men. They certainly are not allowed to possess weapons of any kind.

The title of "pilgrim" is ironic because pilgrims have always been associated with those who make a long journey to visit a holy shrine or a destination with religious significance—as an act of worship. The pilgrims in Heart of Darkness are anything but spiritual beings. They are "cynics" who believe that "goodness and faith [are] unrealities."

The "pilgrims" are actually Company men. They look like pilgrims because they carry staves (long sticks or poles) with them wherever they go. This is as far as the comparison goes. They also carry rifles. From the steamboat, they fire indiscriminately into the air or jungle foliage, while their guns rest on their hips. They have no regard for the natives, Kurtz, or even Marlow. They are Company employees, who wish to improve their standing within the Company, but have no desire to work.

They are called pilgrims based upon their appearance, but they are not slaves.

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