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Symbolism of Darkness in "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad

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The enigma of adventure literature and hyper-masculine prose reveals itself when the protagonist or a subordinate character cowers in the face of darkness. The unknown strikes the heart of man and satiates his inner desire to meet a force grander than he. The darkness, not frightening in and of itself, is frightening because it conceals that which lies in its folds. In his novella Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad explores common human questions through the exploration of his narrator, Marlow. Conrad addresses the question “why does man fear darkness” on a metaphysical level. Conrad brightens humanity’s fear of the unknown, bringing such a construct out of the darkness, with his intentional use of contrast between light and dark and unintentional employment of hyper-masculine tones.

Conrad’s novella tells the story of a captain, Marlow, who also functions as the novella’s narrator. At the commencement of the novella, Marlow sits upon a yawl and recounts the nature of his journey into the African Congo. Marlow informs his acquaintances that he once took a job with a trading company referred to simply by the “Company” and met a man named Mr. Kurtz. This encounter illuminates his mind to the true nature of the world and man. While working for the company, Marlow witnesses savage acts of wildness by the native inhabitants and observes the brilliance and barbarism of Mr. Kurtz. Marlow, sent by the company to retrieve a very ill Mr. Kurtz—who the company considers to be a great asset—fails to bring Kurtz back to Europe. Over a series of months, Marlow journeys up the Congo River, finds Kurtz, witnesses his death, and returns to Europe as a different man. Marlow’s tale ends with the last words of Mr. Kurtz, “The horror, the horror” and Marlow’s final trip to tell Kurtz’s fiancé of Kurtz’s passing (Conrad 91). Marlow chooses not to let the trip to Africa be a vain expenditure, instead, taking from it great enigmatic lessons about human nature and a new-found cynicism which he regards as realism towards society.

Darkness, the most frequented symbol in Conrad’s novella, has a ubiquitous force. In Heart of Darkness Short Story Criticism, various scholars conclude: “To demonstrate the uncertainty of this world and of life in general, Conrad consistently alters common symbolic conceptions of light and dark” (Palmisano 3). The primal instinct, that darkness represents some larger evil, pervades the human mind from childhood into adulthood. A child does not fear the darkness of an ominous closet because the lack of light is intrinsically frightening; rather, darkness is undesirable because it menacingly conceals that which man innately feels he has an entitlement to know. This reality of “unknowingness” threatens the dominant position man has conquered for himself in the natural order of things.

Conrad understands that this darkness enrages man and employs this understanding in his writings. When Marlow elucidates the nature of Belgian imperialism to his friends aboard the yawl at the start of the novella he remarks, “It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness” (Conrad 21). The question arises, what is the darkness tackled, or more acutely, of what unknown arena are the characters afraid? As put by Dr. Thomas C. Foster, “No one looked longer or harder into the human soul than Conrad, who found truth in extreme situations and alien landscapes”  . In Heart of Darkness, Africa as a continent, the afterlife, the reality of The Other, and the wilderness of the jungle all present an unknown dilemma for Marlow and other subordinate characters.

Africa as a largely unexplored continent adopts the pseudonym of darkness. The Congo rests in the heart of Africa and beats as the heart of darkness. Shortly before gaining a status privy to the nature of Africa, Marlow flocks to the continent for nothing more than an attraction to its sheer mystery—it’s undeniable characterization by the lack of known characteristics. Marlow recalls, “Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps .  At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth  there was one yet—the biggest, the most blank, so to speak—that I had a hankering after” (Conrad 22). Africa, for Marlow, is nothing more than an unknown province whose mystery tugs at his inner hyper-masculine desire to douse his own ignorance. The acclaimed literary critic Chinua Achebe argues that Conrad characterizes “Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril” .

Marlow makes his adoption of this view of Africa evident shortly after arriving. The clouded view of Africa—held outside of Marlow—pervades the novella. There are others who characterize Africa as a vapid wild darkness. Shortly after arriving in Africa, Marlow witnesses a strange event: “We came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there and she was shelling the bush . . . In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent . A projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding  someone on board assured earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies—hidden out of sight  somewhere” (Conrad 29). Africa undergoes a physical attack of cannons. Fear plagues the men, claimed by insanity, aboard the man-of-war. The mystery of Africa threatens the white man who feels a God-given right course through his veins to know and control all things. The immensity and uncontrollability of Africa is scorned laughter in the face of the white man’s entitlement. This realization fuels the frustration of those aboard the man-of-war to unleash a tangible attack on a continent, on Africa, on Darkness.

A more focused fear manifests itself in the jungle of Africa. One of the most fear-laden sections of the novella occurs when Marlow heads a steamboat up the Congo River. In this section, a think dense fog drapes over the surroundings, blinding the boat’s passengers. This blinding fog covers a once bright and shining river whose waters reflected the sun’s light. Marlow notes the sudden change from light to dark: “When the sun rose there was a white fog more binding than the night a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation, soared slowly in the opaque air  it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed” (Conrad 55). Walter E. Anderson, in his dissertation, points out that “Conrad so overwhelms us with images of darkness that we are in danger of missing the light” . The sharp and sudden contrast from rising sunlight to falling fog is vital to this scene. The rising sunlight illuminates the secrets of the wilderness, leaving the men aboard the boat with a sense of control and ease. The wilderness robs the sailors of their growing knowledge of the jungle by draping the river in a dense fog. The piercing cry that seems to come from the “mist itself” never actualizes itself as a concrete threat. Perhaps, the cry really does come from the mist. Perhaps the men aboard the boat paint their own scenario of danger spurred by the new fear of the unknown created by the mist. This ostensibly dangerous scene is the only scene in which a piercing cry, typically a premonition of a native attack, never actualizes into a consequential danger.

Another fear cultivates in the heart of Marlow. A fear that springs from the fear of the jungle is extrapolates itself onto women in Conrad’s novella. Conrad intentionally uses contrast between light and dark to illuminate the ecstasy of knowing and gaining knowledge. However, the tone of misogyny present in the literature is unintentional and actualizes Conrad’s own fear of the unknown—the mystery of women—present in his subconscious. Kaplan explains, “Marlow insists upon the distinction between truth and lies, between men and women; between civilization and savagery this awareness offered by the text eludes Marlow for, enmeshed in his own culture, he would find this awareness ‘too dark—too dark altogether’”. Characterized by little more than a “savage and superb, wild-eyed” appearance, the woman of the Congo in Conrad’s novella represents “the wilderness itself”. Professor of Women and Gender Studies and English Johanna Smith contends, “In this symbology Marlow distances the woman’s body by conflating her with the jungle; as the jungle takes on a body, the woman becomes the image of the jungle’s soul. By symbolizing the woman and personifying the jungle, Marlow works to contain and control both” .

Conrad generalizes the “queer ness of how out of touch with truth women are” when speaking about Marlow’s aunt . This queerness—or strangeness, mystery even—presents a dilemma of “unknowingness” for Conrad and his narrator Marlow. Thus, the frustration of not knowing the implications of the woman—or the Other­—strikes fear into the heart of Marlow and Conrad. Kaplan notes, “the ‘savage’ woman is not without purpose—and thus, her ‘struggling half-shaped resolve’ is all the more menacing for being unknowable” . Kaplan further sheds light, “throughout the text, Marlow insists upon the distinction . . . between Self and Other . . . in psychological terms, the Other is but the undiscovered territory in the Self”. Additionally, in alluding to the African continent, named Darkness, Marlow notes with hyper-masculinity, “They were men enough to face the darkness” (Conrad 20). Ironically, the hyper-masculine attitude arises strictly out of fear and the acknowledgment that man does not know everything. The mystery of Africa, of women—deep and unconquerable—can never be truly explored by ignorant minds.

Moreover, imagery of light and dark in regard to the afterlife furthers the theme of humanity’s fear of the unknown. The infamous Mr. Kurtz, accompanied by Marlow’s presence, rests very ill in his cabin near the end of the novella. Marlow listens to Kurtz’s last words then extinguishes a candle: “‘The horror! The horror!’ I blew the candle out and left the cabin . Kurtz—is dead” (Conrad 86-87). The candle in this scene casts light into the room where Kurtz lies “here in the dark waiting for death” . Its presence in the room resembles the false grip on a certainty that Marlow and Kurtz seems to have on reality. With Kurtz’s passing, Kurtz enters a realm of an unknown nature. Kaplan asserts, “As the room grows darker as Kurtz’s death nears, the darkness symbolizes a different unknown—the afterlife” . With the extinguishing of the candle flame, the certainty that had begun to fill the minds of Marlow and Kurtz dissipates into the air with the smoke. The darkness that rests over African continent, the woman in Marlow’s world, and the threshold to the afterlife are dark—all too dark for man’s own security. The inscrutable treasure that lies clandestine in the draping folds of darkness pangs all men’s hearts. The Western world has been fashioned and imperialized into a system where men are inculcated to believe they have a prerogative to know all. For Marlow, damned be those things whose nature eludes the consciousness of man—damned be Africa. Darkness conceals everything, even man’s fear.

The darkness that rests over the African continent, the woman in Marlow’s world, and the threshold to the afterlife are dark—all too dark for man’s own security. The inscrutable treasure that lies clandestine in the draping folds of darkness pangs all men’s hearts. The Western world has been fashioned and imperialized into a system where men are inculcated to believe they have the prerogative to know all. For Marlow, damned be those things whose nature eludes the consciousness of man—damned be Africa. Darkness conceals everything, even man’s fear.

Works Cited

  1. Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Massachusetts Review, vol. 18, no. 4, Winter 1974, pp. 14-27. EBSCOhost, doi:114187095.
  2. Anderson, Walter E. “Heart of Darkness: The Sublime Spectacle.” The University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 3, Spring 1988, pp. 404-421. EBSCOhost, doi:5313455.
  3. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. edited by Ross C. Murfin, 2nd ed., Bedford and St. Martin’s Publishing, 1996.
  4. Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Revised ed., Harper Collins Publishing, 2014.
  5. “Heart of Darkness.” Short Story Criticism, edited by Joseph Palmisano, vol. 69, Gale, 2004, Literature Resource Center, doi: go.galegroup.com/ps/i.
  6. Kaplan, Carola M. “Colonizers, Cannibals, and the Horror of Good Intentions in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 34, no. 3, Summer 1997, pp. 323-333. EBSCOhost, doi:2791865.
  7. Smith, Johanna M. Too Beautiful Altogether: Ideologies of Gender and Empire in Heart of Darkness.Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. edited by Ross C. Murfin, 2nd edition, Bedford and St. Martin’s Publishing, 1996, pp. 169-184.

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Symbolism of Darkness in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. (2018, April 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/brightening-the-meaning-of-darkness/
“Symbolism of Darkness in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.” GradesFixer, 18 Apr. 2018, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/brightening-the-meaning-of-darkness/
Symbolism of Darkness in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/brightening-the-meaning-of-darkness/> [Accessed 16 Jun. 2021].
Symbolism of Darkness in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Apr 18 [cited 2021 Jun 16]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/brightening-the-meaning-of-darkness/
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