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Symbols are used to represent an idea by suggesting what that idea could mean instead of giving a direct interpretation. It makes the reader question what the true purpose of the symbol is and leads to many analyses. Joseph Conrad uses Marlow’s exploration of the Congo in Heart of Darkness to explore the late 19th Century and early 20th century using symbols throughout the story.
Charles Marlow is an Englishman who is traveling up the River Thames and is telling his crew the story about traveling through the Congo. His mission was to travel up the long, treacherous river in order to transport ivory from Africa to other countries to sell. He faced many obstacles along the way as well as many unfriendly native tribesmen. His story is full of descriptions of many objects that have a deeper meaning, otherwise known as symbolism.
The first symbol Conrad uses is the Congo River itself. Rivers can hold many meanings in and of itself including its movement, shape, and appearance. The Congo River is very curved and winding which makes it look like a snake. Snakes are often thought of as temptation and evil. The men on Marlow’s boat faced many of these temptations while traveling to meet Mr. Kurtz, a wealthy businessman who needs to transport his goods. One of the main temptations faced by the crew is cannibalism. Without much food on the boat hunger is always lingering in the pit of the crews’ stomach. Marlow explains that looking back on the situation now he was surprised he didn’t become someone’s dinner. Marlow also had to face the evil of the jungle around him. The jungle seemed to hold many secrets within its gloomy appearance. It was dark and filled with many dangers including the native people. Darkness is a major theme of the story and the river is one of the first places we discover this darkness.
Like all rivers the Congo is always flowing with a strong current. This movement not only seems to keep Marlow and his crew going but it also seems to keep the plot of the story moving. It is the catalyst for the story to unfold. As Marlow and his crew are making their way deep into the jungle the current is traveling against them making it hard for them to travel up stream. It almost seems as if the jungle itself did not want their company. Once Marlow made it to Mr. Kurtz and picked him up and his cargo he was able to travel back down the river. As Marlow said, ‘The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress’. This description also holds a meaning of its own about the darkness of the jungle as the river appears to not even want to flow towards the heart of the jungle, it wanted to flow away from it as if it knew that there was evil further up the river.
When Marlow arrives at the Central Station he is told that his boat has been sunk and it will take a while before the parts arrive to repair it. He spends a few weeks at the station where he stumbles upon two women. The two women are sitting there quietly knitting black wool. Marlow describes them as being, “Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool”. The women seemed to be normal until one of them got up and approached Marlow. “The slim one got up and walked straight at me – still knitting with downcast eyes – and only just as I began to think of getting out of her way,…stood still, and looked up. They seemed to be consistent with their task never even taking an eye off of what they are doing to greet Marlow. The interpretation of these women by most people is that they represent the ancient Greek mythology of the Moirae – the fate sisters. Two of the fate sisters spin the thread, that represents a person’s life, and the third sister cuts the thread when that person’s time is up. Conrad could have used this famous Greek persona to foreshadow Marlow’s journey through the jungle and how his time might be measured out and cut short on the trip.
While Marlow was at the Central Station waiting on his boat to be fixed he notices an oil painting hanging in the station. The painting is of a woman who is blindfolded carrying a lighted torch. This simple painting holds many meanings in itself. The most obvious meaning is it represents the Station itself who is trying to ‘blindfold’ it’s occupants of the treatment of the natives around them. The natives are used to do much of the hard labor around the camp and they receive nothing more than ill treatment and starvation. The painting is also unusual in the way that a blindfolded women, who cannot see, is trying to guide others. This contradiction is similar to how Marlow led his crew up the river which he has never traveled before. From a broader perspective the blindfold could have also represented mankind’s selective vision when it comes to expansionism and destruction of land in other territories that they know little about. The torch in this situation represents the Europeans trying to bring civilization, ‘light’, into the darkness of Africa.
Once Marlow’s boat is fixed he is able to continue his journey up the Congo River. On his way to the Station where Kurtz is located a thick white fog appears that makes it almost impossible to see. Marlow describes it as, “When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night” (Conrad 47). This thick fog makes it impossible for Marlow to tell where his boat is going. The fog represents confusion that people face when they blindly follow something or someone. This makes them have to make important decisions without being able to judge the accuracy of their decision or what effects it could have. This thick fog also represents Marlow’s mental state. At first he did not really care about who Kurtz was but after hearing a few stories he was actually interested in meeting the guy, even saying the boat, “crawled toward Kurtz – exclusively” (Conrad 44). He was fighting a battle within himself because he wanted to be like Kurtz. Even though he knew that Kurtz was malicious, he still wanted to be a man isolated from the annoyances of modern civilization. The fog almost seemed to manifest itself based on what was going on in Marlow’s head. He was internally struggling with what he was going to do with his life after he met Kurtz.
When Marlow finally makes it to the last stop on his journey through the heart of Africa he meets Mr. Kurtz who he has heard much about him from the other people at the station. Kurtz is a wealthy, ambitious man who is full of greed and hunger for power. His hunger for power drives his motivation for treating everyone around him cruelly and making sure everyone knows that he is the boss. He does this to show the villagers and guest that he is the leader of the land. This hunger for power that makes Kurtz so barbaric is also parallel with how civilization works. Conrad is trying to show that the little area of the Congo of Africa is symbolic of how things are run in the much larger English society. Kurtz is also filled with greed. The only reason Kurtz is risking his sanity in the heart of the Congo is so that he can get ivory to sell in the new world. Marlow says that Kurtz has “no restraint” because the jungle has taken its toll of Kurtz to the point that he does not know the difference between right and wrong and he will do anything to get his ivory. His quest for money is all too familiar with society. Conrad shows this through Kurtz who is willing to risk not only his sanity but even his own life just to get the money for the ivory. Kurtz is so obsessed with ivory that even Marlow describes Kurtz’s head as being, “like a ball – an ivory ball”.
When Marlow finally arrives at Kurtz’s house to meet him, his first impression of Kurtz arises as he is seeing decapitated heads stuck onto the tops of the fence posts. “They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Although it does not seem to bother Marlow much, it shows how evil Kurtz can be. Kurtz represents the dark side of mankind. His lack of living in civilization has driven him mad, even to the point of putting decapitated heads on stakes Kurtz also has features that show how even though he is a civilized man that he has a primitive instinct, which if not controlled, can be released and start destroying the civilized self.
The final symbol used in Heart of Darkness, and possibly the most important, would be the darkness itself. Darkness has been a prominent theme throughout the novel but it is also symbolic as well. Conrad hints at the darkness throughout the story by saying things like, “into the gloom of the overshadowed distance” and “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness”. The darkness could represent two things, one being the evil of an uncivilized place and the other being the cruelty of racism. The first representation of the darkness is that it resembles what is inside all of us; an uncivilized side that is usually controlled until your environment and background begin to influence the darkness. Marlow grew up in England and was a relatively civilized person who followed laws as did most everyone else. When he made his trip to the Congo, Marlow could immediately tell the difference. There were no laws governing anyone and the leaders of the Central Station could do almost anything they wanted to.
The description of how things were run at the Central Station leads to what the darkness could also represent – racism. Conrad talks about the heart of Africa being the heart of darkness because of not only the uncivilized people who inhabit the land, but also the treatment of those same inhabitants. Conrad published Heart of Darkness in 1902, and during this time the language he uses like ‘black’ and ‘nigger’ were very common and were not considered offensive. However, the villagers at the Central Station were definitely discriminated against in different ways including being called ‘savages’. They were there to do nothing but work all day for little to no food, much less any pay. When Marlow first sees them he describes them saying, “I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain”. This vivid account is nothing but horrific even for the early 1900s. It is plain to see how badly the Africans were treated in their own homeland. Marlow also describes one of the buildings burning down and the white men automatically find the first black person they can find and punishing him. He says, “A nigger was being beaten nearby. They said he had caused the fire in some way; be that as it may”. Marlow knew what they were doing was wrong but that is how things work in the jungle where there are no rules.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is not lacking in its detail or its symbolic values. His story, told through the eyes of Charlie Marlow, discusses many hidden meanings that make the reader question his intentions. He allows the readers of any point in time to not only enjoy an adventurous story but also one that is filled with lessons we could learn from no matter the age in history.
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