Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, originally published in 1899, is centered around an anonymous narrator retelling the story of a man named Marlow’s journey as an ivory transporter down the Congo River in Africa. Marlow, through his aunt, lands a job as a pilot on a steamboat under the control of a Belgian business referred to as the Company. On this voyage Marlow is on a mission to meet Kurtz, a man whom has become quite infamous among the natives and the Europeans. Marlow’s interest in Kurtz and his prestigious yet mysterious reputation grows as the novel progresses.
Marlow begins his travels through Africa and encounters a large amount of brutality and carelessness at many of the Company’s stations. Many of the regions natives have been forced to work for the Company and are being mistreated. They are extremely overworked and neglected by the people of the Company.
The violence and cruelty that occur are quite different from the natural beauty of the majestic jungle surrounding the settlements of the white men. This contrast makes the settlements appear as small areas among the widespread darkness.
This example of darkness is not the only one explored throughout Conrad’s 1989 novel Heart of Darkness. Throughout the novel it is evident that there are multiple meanings of the word darkness being presented. Some are very obvious such as skin color, literal environmental darkness, and violence. However there are other occurrences such as mapping, and the psychological darkness that Conrad incorporates artfully into the novel. I will use this paper in order to explore the multiple meanings of darkness f Conrad provides throughout the entirety of Heart of Darkness.
The setting of Heart of Darkness takes place along the Congo River in Africa. Chinua Achebe’s article titled An Image of Africa refers to Conrad’s novel saying, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as the other world” (783). On his journey in Africa, Marlow comes into contact with many of the regions natives. One of the meanings of darkness presented in the novel refers to skin color. The natives of Africa have a darker skin tone compared to the white European men. The natives are described as being savages, which is why the Europeans view themselves as being superior.
The treatment of these natives is often demeaning and cruel. In various passages they are referred to as exemplifying savagery with animalistic behaviors. There is often conflict between the white Company men and the African natives. Throughout the novel, skin color is used effectively as a tool of symbolism, specifically when it comes to darkness. I find the description of these natives to be rather racist in terms of skin color. This passage below from the novel Heart of Darkness is an example of the negative views on race that the Europeans had against the natives.
But these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meager breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily up-hill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. ” (Conrad 117) This excerpt from the novel describes how the natives were treated as slaves. The Company saw them as a threat and decided to chain them up making them become battered and weak.
They were perceived as uncivilized and evil because of the darkness of their skin color. The natives in Heart of Darkness are treated as objects rather than actual people. The overall theme of darkness is portrayed in the natural setting throughout the novel. Conrad is able to develop this darkness through the ominous and gloomy descriptions of the characters and setting. His portrayals convey a sense of foreboding leading to a lot of sinister imagery. The dismal surroundings described are parallel with the darkness that has infected Kurtz and the continuous growing of it inside of Marlow.
In one scene Marlow says “[… ] then the night came suddenly and struck you blind… (Conrad 35). This quote illustrates that the darkness infested in the physical environment can affect ones ability to see the blackness inside their own morals. Heart of Darkness’s description of the literal darkness leads us to the next meaning in the novel, psychological darkness. Much of the novel involves the discovery of Kurtz and his descent into the heart of darkness, as well as the main character Marlow’s. The passage below is from the scene in which the steamboat is passing the African natives.
Here the members of the company are showing prejudices towards these natives and their savagery. “It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was jus the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly” (Conrad 58). This passage exemplifies the main character Marlow’s struggle into the heart of darkness.
He relates the native’s ugliness to himself, symbolizing the ugliness inside of everyone. This passage is an example of the psychological darkness portrayed in Conrad’s novel. Marlow wants to believe that these natives are in fact inhuman because he wants them to have no relation to him or the Company men. In reality however, he knows that they are all bonded. There is in fact darkness inside of everyone. This descent into darkness happens to both Marlow and Kurtz. From the beginning of the novel, Marlow and the readers are informed that Kurtz has gone mad.
When Marlow finally finds Kurtz he is able to see that his mind has begun to deteriorate and he definitely suffers from madness. At the end of the novel when Kurtz finally dies his last words were “The horror, the horror” (Conrad 178). I believe his last words are a symbol of him accepting the darkness that has infected his mind and the darkness that he has caused since coming to Africa. When Marlow returns home and brings the papers to Kurtz fiance after his aforementioned death he informs her that his last words were her name. “I could not tell her.
It would have been too dark- too dark altogether…” (Conrad 157). This quote from the novel is from when Marlow is speaking to Kurtz intended. It is an example of how Marlow participates in something he does not like, lying. He has fallen victim to some of the darkness. He also comes to the realization that there is no way to survive without becoming a little mad. Ultimately the psychological darkness discovered in Heart of Darkness is that all men are barbaric at heart. The human psyche presented in the novel proves that men are just as savage as the unchartered regions of the jungle themselves.
The theme of darkness is explored through Conrad’s use of mapping. Throughout the novel the maps are significant because they help to exemplify the irony presented in Heart of Darkness. Blank spots on the map signify the unexplored regions. Once they have been discovered and colonized by the Europeans they become colored in to signify the exploration and colonization that has been achieved there. The maps are an example of the exploration occurring in Conrad’s novel. “It (Africa) 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” (Conrad 77). This quote from Heart of Darkness symbolizes that Africa had once been a place of wander and mystery but now because of the colonization it had become a place of darkness. Published in the academic journal the Explicator, author Richard Bodeck states “As Marlow delves deeper into the continent, it is things European that weigh most heavily on his soul. ” I believe that in this scene the reader is able to see a turning point for Marlow in which he does not approve of everything the Europeans are doing.
From the quote, Marlow is explaining that the undiscovered areas are full of mystery and wonder until they eventually become colonized and filled with darkness. The darkness signified by the mapping in the novel is an example of how when settings are bad enough, men can turn evil. I believe that Conrad uses darkness in order to symbolize his disagreement with colonization and his belief that what they are doing to the natives is in fact evil. Some of the areas in the jungle were undiscovered and symbolized darkness because of the uncertainty and dread that came along with exploring there.
Marlow says, “We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness” (Conrad 105). He says this after they repair the steamboat and are heading to the inner station. This quote is an illustration of the uncertainty and fear that was felt by the Company men when it came to venturing deeper into the unchartered jungle. Because of this uncertainty the European men experience dread and therefore act out with irrational violence. Earlier I quoted the passage involving the natives being chained up.
The Company men felt threatened by the uncivilized nature of these natives, leading them to act out in violence. The violence that occurs is a very obvious sign of darkness presented in Conrad’s novel. I have already mentioned that the natives were treated cruelly and with brutality. In one scene an act of violence occurs when the natives are chained and shackled as if they were slaves. In another Marlow comes across multiple heads perched atop stakes. The heads were located on Kurtz property and are evidence of his thirst for violence.
The Russian does tell Marlow that these heads were the heads of rebels. However only a violent man would cut off a mans head and then display it in his yard to be seen. The violence that occurs in the novel symbolizes the barbaric behavior that occurred in the jungle of Africa at the hands of the Company men. The violence was presented through a series of inhumane actions. There are multiple meanings of darkness presented throughout Heart of Darkness. The novel begins and ends in darkness, along with many of the significant events happening in darkness throughout.
I think that Conrad uses darkness as a major symbol and theme in the novel to represent the core of our being. When you take back civilization and the illusions with it, you are left with tremendous emptiness. The darkness is in the novel revolves around the evilness and corruption in the world. I believe that Conrad used the multiple meanings of Darkness throughout the novel in order to present that things mean more than the way that they are superficially viewed. Whether it is skin color, violence, unchartered land or even the descent into madness Conrad provided us with multiple meanings of darkness in his novel.
Richard Bodeck also states in his article “We as readers are left with the horror that is in ourselves”. I agree with Bodek’s assentation and believe that Conrad’s purpose for involving multiple meanings of darkness throughout the novel was to point out that evil can exist in all of us. Everything in the novel was wrapped in the metaphor of darkness provided by Conrad. Heart of Darkness explores the many meanings of darkness but I believe ultimately the darkness is meant to symbolize the darkest side of human nature.
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