Black and white illustration of the outline of the upper part of a body with a river and boat in the background

Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

Start Free Trial

How is "darkness" symbolized in Heart of Darkness?

Quick answer:

"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.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Describe the use of symbolism in Heart of Darkness.

Symbolism is such an important aspect of this novel, and symbols such as fog, darkness and the river are crucial to understanding the novel and how Conrad builds up his picture of Africa during the era of Imperialism. The river is a key symbol throughout the novel, and in particular, towards the beginning, Marlow describes how as a child it had captivated him. He talks about the time he spent poring over maps and dreaming about travelling:

But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. As I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird--a silly little bird!

Note the simile that compares Marlow to a bird being captivated and charmed by the snake-like river. Marlow from the first associates the river leading to the "heart of darkness" with temptation and evil. The symbol of the river is expanded when its value to Europeans is considered. It gives them access to the centre of Africa without having to laboriously trek through the land, meaning Europeans can travel swiftly and that Africa itself is only depicted through flashes as the boat moves down the coast and up the river. It is a symbol therefore of separateness, as it allows Europeans to venture into Africa without ever having to be part of Africa. In addition, the river itself seems to be a symbol of the way that Africa tries to shun or discourage Europeans from venturing on their soil: the current makes it difficult to go upstream, but the speed of the current seems to represent Africa itself trying to wash out or get rid of the European interlopers that walk on her land. The river therefore is one important symbol that reveals a lot about Conrad's depiction of Imperialism and Africa and white man's part in it.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

[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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the meaning of "darkness" in the novel Heart of Darkness by Conrad?

The darkness in Conrad's Heart of Darkness has several meanings, all of which are linked to either the setting (the Belgian Congo), the character of Kurtz, and the tension between civilization and the jungle in which Marlow finds Kurtz.

After arriving in the Congo and finally getting the boat underway to find Kurtz, Marlowe feels himself drawn deeper and deeper into the darkness as the jungle thickens and begins to crowd the boat.  The setting itself, then, is part of the darkness.

When Marlowe finally arrives at Kurtz’s station and begins to see the heads of natives on polls, and also realizes Kurtz is actually worshipped by the natives around the station, he begins to realize that Kurtz has abandoned civilization altogether.  When Marlowe says, “I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear. . . .,” we know that Kurtz has embraced the heart of darkness represented by life in the jungle.  In other words, Kurtz’s ties to civilization are gone, and he has become almost the worst example of a native.

Ultimately, Kurtz’s embrace of an “uncivilized” life is Conrad’s way of saying that, when civilization and the darkness come into contact, civilization is not strong enough to win.  Kurtz’s last words—“The horror, the horror”—confirms that even he recognizes the negative effects that the jungle had on his personality.

 

 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Posted on