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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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Symbolism in Heart of Darkness


In Heart of Darkness, symbolism is pervasive, with key symbols including darkness representing the unknown and savagery, the Congo River symbolizing the journey into the subconscious, and Kurtz embodying the corrupting influence of power and colonialism. These symbols help convey the novel's themes of imperialism, human nature, and the thin veneer of civilization.

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What is an example of symbolism in Heart of Darkness?

Heart of Darkness is very dense with symbolic language and themes, and much of Marlow's story is not intended to be literal but instead an evocation of the feelings he gained from traveling into the jungle. One good example is Marlow's shoes; after the helmsman is killed, Marlow's shoes are filled with his blood and Marlow becomes desperate to get them off.

To tell you the truth, I was morbidly anxious to change my shoes and socks. 'He is dead,' murmured the fellow, immensely impressed. 'No doubt about it,' said I, tugging like mad at the shoe-laces. 'And, by the way, I suppose Mr. Kurtz is dead as well by this time.'
(Conrad, Heart of Darkness,

Marlow's discomfort is not only because his shoes are full of blood, but because he has just become fully aware of the fragile state of human life in the jungle. He links the dead helmsman to his shoes, and links his shoes to Kurtz, and is convinced that Kurtz is already dead. Flinging his shoes overboard is, to Marlow, an act of rebellion; he wants to meet Kurtz and feels that having the physical proof of death right there on his feet could somehow hurt his chances. For Marlow, his shoes are an unacceptable proof that death is real and even inevitable; he moves past them later, and finds himself unable to explain his real feelings about the event to his audience.

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How is "darkness" symbolized in Heart of Darkness?

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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How is "darkness" symbolized in Heart of Darkness?

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,

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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How is "darkness" symbolized 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.

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How is "darkness" symbolized in 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.

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How is "darkness" symbolized in Heart of Darkness?

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.

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What are some possible meanings of darkness in Heart of Darkness?

On several occasions in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad uses the word “darkness” to describe the vast Congo River and its environs. Even the forest surrounding the river is said to be “dark-faced and pensive.”

The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.

The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress.

I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river—seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.

The darkness of the river serves as a metaphor behind the darkness of the colonial project itself, and for the men executing it in far-flung places like the Congo. From the comfort of their homes in France, Belgium, Holland, and other European powers, people simply did not know the true scale of the horrors of colonialism. An individual immersed in the heart of this darkness like Kurtz, however, understood the darkness—and became consumed by it, despite his talents.

The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

Despite their noble intentions to bring lightness to the world, the European powers brought mainly darkness to the indigenous groups in places they forcibly colonized. Indeed, the “impenetrable darkness” also refers to the natives, who, according to the concept of the “white man’s burden,” lack sophistication and knowledge of the proper way to live—which to the Europeans, was the ways of white Europeans. But in the end there was no hope for the natives, and they were cursed to live in perpetual symbolic darkness by their dark, "inhuman" skin.

They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything...

Indeed, the mind is capable of anything—even able to believe, however obliquely and with a perverse sense, that colonization is for the common good of the world. Colonizers may have had the idea that it’s best to “exterminate all the brutes” through imposition of European ideals or killing. It would be well into the 20th century before colonial powers even began to recon with their past. In the meanwhile, in Conrad’s time, European civilization lived largely in darkness, while the truth

was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

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What are some possible meanings of darkness in Heart of Darkness?

Heart of Darkness is Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece, which is ostensibly about a trip through the Belgian Congo to retrieve a man named Kurtz, who has essentially declared himself a god to the natives, because of his control of the ivory trade.

There are many possible meanings of “darkness” in the narrative, some overt and some symbolic. On the surface, darkness is literal. Marlow, the protagonist, is sent by boat up the Congo River in Africa, probably in the 1880s or so, along the ivory trade routes. He notes that some sections of the river are so deep and dark that he sees it as a bad omen. Likewise, Marlowe did not expect the almost-total blackness when in the thick of the jungle itself. He notes that sunlight never penetrates the canopy in the nearly impassible rain forest.

Darkness could also mean the distaste Marlow begins to have for the ivory trade. At one point, when he disembarks at an ivory “plantation,” he notes that the natives are little more than slaves, that they live in dismal conditions, and that they treat each other with contempt and violence. His slow realization that he had no idea of the exploitative nature of processing and transporting the ivory causes him to question his own values.

Some critics have also noted that Marlow has a dismissive and superior attitude toward the dark-skinned Africans, which is a sort of "darkness" probably unintended by Conrad but obvious and problematic when viewed through modern eyes.

Primarily, though, Conrad seems to be most interested in the darkness in Kurtz’s heart. When Marlow arrives to retrieve him, he is appalled to find that Kurtz has set himself up as the lord and master of his own fiefdom and that the natives revere him as a god. For reasons that are never really explained, Kurtz has decapitated many Africans and has decorated the encampment’s fence posts with their heads. Such practices were common in medieval kingdoms, mainly as a warning to those who would oppose the king.

Ultimately, the darkness at the heart of the story is Kurtz’s insanity and depravity. Conrad seems to be suggesting, among other things, that men who are given great power will become tyrants when they have no one watching them. They give in to the darkness and begin to rewrite morality so that it suits their evil intent.

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What does "darkness" represent to both the colonizer and the colonized in Heart of Darkness?

In the novel ‘Heart of Darkness,’ Joseph Conrad tells us about an ivory trader working down the river Congo in Africa. The  river he tells us  is

 “... 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.”

The seaman , Marlow, starts to obsess about an ivory agent and realises that the man has become almost a legendary character both  in the eyes of the local population and the ex-pats from nearer home.The tale explores the dark side of imperialism and the brutality needed to suppress a population, keep them dependent and make money out of them. Man’s darkness is his inhumanity to man. Darkness can also be seen in the absence of the light of reason - where man is isolated and away from his own people he has no foil against which to modify his thoughts. As Conrad himself said in a letter to Blackwood

"I call your own kind self to witness [...] the last pages of Heart of Darkness where the interview of the man and the girl locks in—as it were—the whole 30000 words of narrative description into one suggestive view of a whole phase of life and makes of that story something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad in the Centre of Africa’’

In these situations (as some would say are similar to Hitler and MacBeth) a kind of dark madness ensues, becoming greater as it has nothing to feed on but itself. More lately, the novella has provoked it’s own kind of darkness as former devotees see a new, more worrying side to it. Some experts are now saying that far from highlighting the plight of the Africans, the novel actually dehumanises them. Colonials, as in Ireland and other colonies, stole the natives’ language and demeaned their culture, so reducing them to a cheap sideshow - a metaphorical extension of ignorant jungles and dark uneducated forests  into which colonials fear to tread. The colonised people's darkness stemmed from the extinguishing of that light - their culture.This view is contentious even now as many other experts respect the book. So we must all look for our version of ‘darkness’ in the novel and look into our own hearts. It may also be prudent to remember not to judge Conrad by our own standards of education and globalisation today - in his own way he was in darkness too, blindfolded by a lack of knowledge and vision that we are lucky to have today.

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What are the main symbols in Heart of Darkness?

This complex novel is indeed rich in symbolism. Some of the major symbols include these:

  • The Congo River: It is the river that takes Marlow deep into the African continent, carrying him away from civilization and into ever darker regions of an uninhabited wilderness. The river acts as a stream of consciousness as Marlow makes not only a physical journey but a psychological journey, as well. As he travels into the primitive Congo, he also travels into the unknown wilderness of his own psyche.
  • Kurtz: In his brutal, self-obsessed state, Kurtz can be interpreted as a symbol of Sigmund Freud's id, the part of the human psyche that is most elemental, where instinct and primitive human impulses live. The id is not subject to conscience or social restraints, just as Kurtz's behavior is not held in check by any moral or social codes of behavior.
  • The fence of human heads: This is a powerful symbol of Kurtz'sdescent into depravity; it symbolizes how completely isolated he has become from humanity.
  • Ivory: The European traders' insatiable demand for ivory and their horrible, inhuman activities undertaken in pursuit of it make ivory a symbol of naked greed.
  • The candle: As Kurtz lies dying aboard ship, Marlow goes to him carrying a candle. The candle can be interpreted as a symbol of Marlow's humanity. He despises the evil that Kurtz represents and the suffering he has imposed upon the natives, but Marlow finds compassion in himself for the dying man. The light of Marlow's candle contrasts the darkness of Kurtz's inhumanity and depravity.

There are many other symbols throughout the novel, but these five play an important role in developing Conrad's primary themes.

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What sort of symbols are there in Heart of Darkness that contribute to larger themes in the novel?

There are several symbols that achieve a larger significance beyond the literal meaning of the text. Many of these symbols attach a moral dimension to an image or object. For example, the "darkness" and wildness of the deep jungle also alludes to the depraved state of man's heart. The river journey is a literal journey, but it also symbolizes Marlow's journey into a deeper understanding of Kurtz and his motives. The ever-present fog and swarming flies also possess a significance beyond being simply a distraction during the journey. There are more examples at the link below:

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