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The Depiction of Devastation in "The Heart of Darkness"

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Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness presents an exciting exploration of the vast ethnic and geographical depths of Africa and the Congo River. The novella is a tale of immense conquest of new ground and culture, but under the primary level of the plot, it reveals one’s journey to self-discovery on a distorted road, intertwined with impediments and enigmas. The author utilizes extremely rich vocabulary and a plethora of varied descriptions to evoke the sense of being obstructed from moving forward with the story. The extensive usage of elaborate, convoluted adjectives, which induce a feeling of faint confusion in the reader, effectively infuse the text with the ominous feeling of mystique and confusion. In addition to this, Conrad makes use of specific word choice to convey the bleak, desolate nature of the whole world of the novella. Through the diversity of the figurative language and the use of literary devices such as metaphors, gradation, symbolism and imagery, Joseph Conrad exemplifies the portentous, yet inscrutable and barren landscape of the world that the characters are forced to stagger through.

The novella carries the sense of imminent doom throughout the whole story, creating a feeling of hopelessness and inevitability, effectively augmented through the calm, resigned embrace of this danger by the characters. The first ill omen of the journey is presented early on though Marlow’s remark upon setting foot in Belgium: “I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulcher” (4). This comparison between the city and the imagery of the “whited sepulcher”, in effect a tomb, immediately gives the passage an ominous tone. This crypt-like town, carrying the intrinsic connotation of sorrow and death, sets off the evil-boding tone of the upcoming travel. As the time for sailing off approaches, the threatening feeling seems to wrap tighter and tighter around Marlow, creating an uncharacteristic sense of anxiety, a mood that gradually makes him realize that something is amiss. The protagonist detects this as he is tending to the business details of the voyage in the office of the Company, confessing that “[he] began to feel slightly uneasy … and there was something ominous in the atmosphere. It was just as though [he] had been let into some conspiracy—I don’t know—something not quite right” (4). Marlow’s words explain what he is feeling reasonably, but what truly illuminates his fear of the menacing vibe of the impending journey is the stuttering tone of the passage, stylized through breaking the sentence with em dashes. Furthermore, the ascending gradation of the sentiments “uneasiness”, “ominous atmosphere” and “conspiracy” creates a crescendo in the passage that mirrors the overall feeling of slow-burning danger, present in the novella. The sensation of looming peril escalates as Marlow ponders about the two secretaries, who “seemed to know all … about [him] … [he] thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes” (4).

The portentous, mysterious depth of the passage is evoked through the imagery of the women “guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall”, which evokes a strong connection to death and tragedy, amplified through the symbolism of the color black, traditionally associated with morning, and the simile “as for a warm pall”, tying in with the mausoleum-like representation of the city. In addition, the imagery of the two women knitting while deciding people’s faith alludes to Greek mythology, and more specifically, the three Moirai, who control the metaphorical thread of life of every person in the world by actually knitting their destiny. This mythological reference and the repetition of “introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown” further highlight the already heightened feeling of wariness palpable in the passage.

Conrad incorporates even more symbolism pertaining to impending doom in Marlow’s account of entering the office: “I was going into the yellow. Dead in the center. And the river was there—fascinating—deadly—like a snake” (4). The author utilizes the color yellow as a harbinger, hinting at the troubles in the future, as the color carries importance as a symbol of alertness and danger, and the snake, also as an ominous symbol. The figura etymologica “dead” – “deadly” more explicitly reveals the portentous character of the passage, setting the bleak tone of the journey very early on. While the string of ill premonitions is very easily noticeable in the opening pages of the novella, these forewarning passages continue to manifest themselves, albeit more rarely, but with greater fervor as Marlow is exploring Africa. One of his first impressions of the continent and more specifically, the land itself, is that he “would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly” (7). The personification of the land as a scheming devil immediately establishes the whole landscape as an omen of imminent peril, and Marlow is completely aware of this. The juxtaposition of the “flabby, pretending” nature of the evildoer and his “rapacious and pitiless folly” creates a sense of bewilderment and uneasiness as the conflicting qualities make the image of the “devil” questionable.

This general feeling of anxiety grows stronger and stronger as Marlow begins to recognize the same ominous atmosphere in the gestures and words of others. While Marlow, the narrator of this story, is eavesdropping on a conversation between the manager and the manager’s uncle, he becomes terrified of the evil-boding nature all around them as “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” (15). Through the personification of “the forest, the creek, the mud, the river”, the whole landscape seems like a harbinger of imminent peril. The passage again works with juxtaposition to emphasize the “lurking death” of the journey, creating contrasting imagery such as “dishonoring flourish” and “before the sunlit face … to the profound darkness”. Moreover, the descending gradation of “lurking death”, “hidden evil”, “profound darkness” aims to downplay the importance of the characters’ physical peril as if this fate has already been established for them. The novella creates a sense of constant threat through the use of varied language, and the use of this ominous atmosphere cleverly introduces the motif of uncertain darkness.

The inscrutable nature of the novella’s world is conveyed through many bizarre moments during Marlow’s retelling of the story, with all of these unfathomable events establishing a metaphorical impenetrable darkness, clouding all possible clarity and judgment on how to act accordingly on this quest. Many aspects of life in and around the Company’s stations in Africa evoke feelings of perplexity and estrangement, starting as soon as Marlow sets foot on the new continent. One of his first encounters with the inscrutable is described in the account of his first steps while exploring: “I avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossi-ble to divine … It might have been connected with the philanthropic de-sire of giving the criminals something to do. I don’t know. Then I nearly fell into a very narrow ravine, almost no more than a scar in the hillside” (7). The protagonist’s bewildered reaction to this new, inexplicable world is conveyed through his absurd explanation of the matter, suggesting that the only real reason for this pit to exist is to provide actual work to the captives on the land. The curiosity of the situation is also amplified through the slight irony that while he avoided the larger, more dangerous hole, he almost had an accident with the small obstacle, “no more than a scar in the hillside”. Moreover, the “vast artificial[ness]” of the man-made pit is juxtaposed with the natural quality of the ravine, evident by the personification of the land through “scar”, which further demonstrates the unfathomable character of this realm.

At first, Marlow is puzzled by the strangeness of the land and scenery, but this turns out to be just a small part of the whole oddness of the world. Very soon, he encounters other humans, whose living conditions and appearance evoke an even stronger sense of confusion in him. As Marlow continues to explore the land, he comes upon “[b]lack shapes [which] crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all their attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair … The work was going on. The work!” (7). Again, he is dumbfounded by the juxtaposition of the miserable lives of the workers, coming to their end, and the relentless mining work, stopping for nothing or no one. The enigmatic nature of the whole situation is expressed through the metaphorical degrading of the workers as “shapes”, incomplete human beings and the symbolism of the color black, synonymous with darkness and the unknown. Marlow heightens this sensation through the vivid, rapid enumeration of the labor workers’ actions, which creates a chaotic, perplexing feeling in the reader, and also evokes the sense of dismay through the exclamation mark at the end of the passage. In this incomprehensible world, Marlow does not truly see the Africans as whole human beings; instead, his fragmented descriptions signify just how inconceivable he finds his whole surroundings. The people he encounters are “bundles of acute angles [which] sat with their legs drawn up. One … stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse … ” (8). Marlow’s lack of understanding of this world is evident by his misinterpretation of the gazes of these people, dismissing them as “star[ing] at nothing” and being “overcome with great weariness” without any knowledge about them. His frustration with the unfathomable permeates through his “intolera[nce] and appal[l]” at the person, who seemingly gazes towards nothingness. The inscrutability of the continent is conveyed again through the descriptions of the black inhabitants as “acute angles”, “phantom[s]” and “pos[ing] [in] contorted collapse”, which all illustrate a bizarre image, characteristic for this strange world. Near the end of the novella, as the crew is sailing back, Marlow finds the physical, human manifestation of this curious world in Mr. Kurtz himself, remarking that “his [life] was an impenetrable darkness” (32).

Despite even this revelation, Marlow never learns to decipher the perplexing nature of life, yet grows to accept things how they are. He muses: “droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose” (33). The metaphorical “mysterious arrangement” skillfully synthesizes the notion of the inscrutable world, but Marlow’s dismissal of the “futile purpose” reveals this world is nothing to be preoccupied with. The novella portrays Marlow’s tale as a journey into a mysterious, unfathomable world where nothing makes sense, a notion which, through his embracing attitude at the end, is rendered trivial. This world is not only trifling in its inscrutable law and order, but also very desolate and empty.

The barren landscapes and internal reflection and pondering of the characters create a sense of isolation and seclusion in the novella, effectively establishing the notion that every person in this world is perpetually alone, at first physically and consequently, mentally and spiritually. While Marlow does not see this in the beginning of the novella, his personality has changed significantly due to the journey to Africa. He has become extremely moody, often internalizing and analyzing all emotions he feels, choosing only to share out his ideas rather than engage in real conversation. His transformation begins during the trip itself as he evokes the terrible sense of isolation, first present in nature: “not the faintest sound of any kind could be heard. You looked on amazed, and began to suspect yourself of being deaf – then the night came suddenly, and struck you blind as well … just there, standing all around you like something solid” (18). The serenity of the landscape inhibits Marlow’s senses, which starts the internal process of feeling isolated, alluded to by the notion of “suspecting yourself” in Marlow’s own words. The simile “standing all around you like something solid” further heightens the overwhelming quality of this newfound bareness. The change is gradual, with Marlow beginning to connect everything with this imposed seclusion, often amplified in his internal exploration of real world, physical maters. While the helmsman is dying, Marlow contemplates that “as though in response to some sign we could not see, to some whisper we could not hear, he frowned heavily … the luster of inquiring glance faded swiftly into vacant glassiness” (21). The isolation he feels is two-fold, for he feels the helmsman’s misery at not being to adequately respond to the sign only he can sense, and at the same time, he feels insulated himself as he cannot grasp who the addressee of the dying man’s reaction is. The anaphoric repetition of “we could not see … we could not hear” creates a sense of total sense deprivation, and coupled with the bleak connotation of “vacant glassiness”, it establishes the extremity of the world’s desolate effect on humans. Marlow has become so affected by this notion that he finds no refuge in the idea of death, but actually objectifies it as the ultimate symbol of desolation, “tak[ing] place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat … without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary” (33). The irrevocable effect of loneliness death possesses is corroborated through the listing of its qualities with the constantly reoccurring “without” and the notion of the “impalpable greyness”, which serve to create a feeling of perpetual isolation. This morbid sensation of life being an unceasingly lonely affair continues to haunt Marlow upon returning to Europe. He feels permanently misunderstood, dismissing people as “in-truders whose knowledge of life was … an irritating pretense, because [he] felt so sure they could not possibly know the things [he] knew” (33). This quote reflects the change Marlow has undergone as previously, in the wilderness, he could not find human contact to remedy his sense of remoteness, yet now, when he is among people, he labels them “intruders” with an “irritating pretense”, which signifies the way his physical isolation has been gradually transformed into emotional. Through the portrayal of the austere landscapes of Africa, coupled with Marlow’s growing internalized sense of loneliness, the novella portrays the complicated notion of how isolation is felt two-fold, physically at first, and later spiritually, thus establishing a sense of involuntary seclusion.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a tale of exploration and travel, emphasizing the inner and spiritual along with the physical. While the plot is driven by a journey to Africa, the novella conveys a story about humans’ struggle to preserve their true self. Through a plethora of literary devices, the author portrays an ominous world, filled with unfathomable mysteries and problems, which ultimately leaves a person feeling isolated and forlorn. In the text, Conrad exposes the world as the miserable place it really is, and by allowing its lonely characters to somehow come to terms with the ill-boding, highly illogical order of things, he reaffirms the trifling nature of people’s existence.

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The Depiction of Devastation in “The Heart of Darkness”. (2018, May 08). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 28, 2021, from
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