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Darkness Essay, Research Paper

Heart of Darkness: A Literary Analysis

By Nguyen

Beyond the shield of civilization and into the depths of a primitive, untamed frontier lies the true face of the human soul. It is in the midst of this savagery and unrelenting danger that mankind confronts the brooding nature of his inner self. This, perhaps, is the underlying conclusion that Joseph Conrad attempts to portray in his disturbing novel, Heart of Darkness. His work reaches far past the aesthetic surface and attempts to bring the blinding harshness of reality before the eyes of its readers. The novel is the story of one man’s insight into life as he embarks on a voyage to the outskirts of the world. Here, he meets the bitter, yet enlightening forces that eventually shape his outlook on life and his own individuality.

Each of the main characters in The Heart of Darkness plays a significant role in the overall theme of the novel. The central character is a thirty two year old sailor, Charlie Marlow. He is a dynamic character who essentially controls the development of the theme. Through Marlow’s experiences and revelations, the author illustrates how forces of light and darkness serve to weave the human soul together; thus, essentially how good and evil are reflected in an individual. Marlow’s journey leads him in an urgent search for Kurtz, the one man who can provide him with the truth about himself. Like Marlow, Kurtz came to the Congo in hopes to bring “light” and civilization to a backwards society. He is a highly-educated, refined gentlemen; yet, in the end, the brutal nature of the Congo forces him to resort to the life of a murderer and pilferer. The name Kurtz itself has symbolic meaning. “The physical shortness in Kurtz implies a shortness of character and spirit” (Heart of Darkness: A systematic evaluation). Conrad greatly contrasts between Kurtz’s two mistresses. He portrays the black mistress as being fierce and magnificent. “She is an impressive figure and importantly, her human feelings are not denied. She faces the truth of the situation and the pain because she is able to endure it” (Mistress). On the other hand, his white mistress is depicted as being soft-tempered and patient: “an illusion of the European society” (Mistress). These two women serve the purpose of emphasizing the two images of Kurtz: a barbarous and savage man of an uncivilized society vs. a refined gentlemen from civilized Europe. The manager of the ivory company in Africa is essentially the villain of the plot. He is the dark force indirectly responsible for the corruption and decadence in the Congo.

Setting is also relevant to the overall theme of the novel. As the plot opens up, Marlow begins to compare and contrast the Thames River to the Congo. He describes both rivers to be connected like “an interminable waterway” (Conrad 65). Marlow means to say that the two are connected symbolically. Both represent the continual passage for the ivory trade. The ivory is carried out of Africa through the Congo and into Europe through the Thames. The Thames is depicted as being peaceful and tranquil while the Congo is it’s antithesis. Both are associated with darkness, however, the Thames has “conquered” it’s darkness and now is peaceful. Conrad portrays London to be the “light” of the world and Africa to be “one of the darkest places on the earth” (pg. 67). Europe is highly civilized and refined while Africa is considered to be primitive and untamed. The two societies represent the opposite ends of a spectrum.

One central theme that prevails throughout the novel is mankind’s capacity for good and evil. This is illustrated in the evolution of the two central characters, Marlow and Kurtz. Both symbolize the two conditions of human nature. “Kurtz represents what man could become if left to his own intrinsic devices outside protective society. Marlow represents a pure untainted civilized soul who has not been drawn to savagery by a dark, alienated jungle.” (Heart of Darkness: A systematic evaluation). When the two come face to face, each man sees a reflection of what he might have become in the other. In Kurtz, Marlow sees the potential for his dark self to emerge if he were to continue to survive in the savage soils of Africa. In Marlow, Kurtz sees himself as he once was: a man of innocence and civilization. Thus, Marlow and Kurtz symbolize both the light and dark forces of a single soul.

The contrast of light and darkness to represent the civilized and the uncivilized is also a dominate theme throughout the novel. At the opening of the novel, Marlow is sitting amongst a serene atmosphere under the “lights” of London. The light image associates London with civilization. However, this illusion is cut short when Marlow states, “And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth” (pg. 67). This implies that London, “the pinnacle of structured life, only became enlightened and sophisticated after the Romans forced “light” on the native savages” (Heart of Darkness: A systematic evaluation). He describes how England was once a place of war and bloodshed during the time of the Roman conquest; thus, the civilized connotation of modern England is contrasted with a barbarous era of England’s history. Later on in the journey, Marlow comes upon a native dressed in patches of “bright colors.” Marlow views the bright colors as a symbol of civilization, especially in the Congo where everything is brown or dark. The boy is standing under the sun looking “extremely gay and wonderfully neat.” (pg. 126). This illusion to light makes the boy seem attractive to Marlow, not because he is a native, but rather because his persona of light associates him with civilization (Perfect Native). Marlow expresses his fear about conquests when he states that it is nothing but “robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind as is very proper for those who tackle darkness.”(pg. 69) Here, the illusion to light and darkness implies that Marlow sees colonization as a darkness which conquerors must thrive in by “closing their eyes” in order to complete their mission. ” This reflects the insecure balance between the civilized and uncivilized” (Fear).

Throughout the novel, Conrad frequently employs the use of symbolism to either contrast between two different aspects or bring out a distinctive quality. The contrast between black and white is symbolically significant. Black and white have the connotation of being good and evil. The white souls of the blacks is frequently contrasted with the black souls of the whites. Upon hearing that he received a job as the skipper of a river steamboat, Marlow goes to the company’s office for an interview. Here, he comes upon two women knitting with skeins of black wool. The women represent “the guardian that keep men from returning to his savage past” (Heart of Darkness: A systematic evaluation). The wool itself foreshadows dark fate and tragedy for Marlow. On the office wall, Marlow catches sight of a colorful map of the world. At the dead center of the map is a yellow patch marking the Congo River. This yellow symbolism foreshadows that the Congo will be a place of danger and decay. The reference to the Congo as a “deadly snake” symbolizes evil. “This reference has its roots in the Bible when the snake entices Eve to eat the forbidden fruit” (Setting). The yellow ivory mentioned throughout the novel denotes that the ivory trade will be the source of this decadence and corruption.

There are several ironies throughout the novel. In characterizing Europe as being the “light of the world,” it is ironic that the people from this society are the ones responsible for bringing darkness to Africa. In general, the color white usually has the connotation of goodness and purity while black represents evil. Yet, it is ironic that the white men who go to Africa and colonize there are the ones who are dark and barbarous. “They are greedy and have become dark, like the appearance of the Africans” (Congo). The contrast between Kurtz’s two mistresses is also ironic. His black mistress is donned in a colorful attire and ornate jewelry while his white mistress is draped in black. The whites saw the African pagan rites and savage dances as being barbarous and from animalistic instincts, but the Europeans did them as well. C.P. Sarvan states that, “As for pagan rites and savage dances, the Europeans with ‘imbecile rapacity’ were ‘praying to ivory, that is, to materialism, and one red haired man ‘positively danced’ blood thirsty at the though that he and others must have made a glorious slaughter of the Africans in the bush” (Congo). Perhaps the most apparent irony is the fact that Marlow’s revelation of the truth or the “light” and the source of his enlightenment come from his encounters with the darkness in the Congo.

In conclusion, the novel is essentially about one man’s quest for the truth. Little did he know that in the end, his search would lead him into the depths of his own soul. Through his portrayal of the characters, setting, themes, symbols, and ironies in The Heart of Darkness, Conrad reflects the true nature of man. He concludes that within every man lies a heart of darkness. “This heart is drowned in a bath of light shed by the advent of civilization. No man is an island, and no man can live on the island without becoming a brutal savage. Inside his heart lies the raw evil of untamed lifestyle” (Heart of Darkness: A systematic evaluation).


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