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Heart Of Darkness: Symbolism Essay, Research Paper

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: Symbolism of Light and Dark

What are the characterizations of a civilized person? Is it a person who conforms to a standard social molding, which “we” determine, sophisticated? Is it being education and staying within the societal stereotypes? In Joseph Conrad’s 1901 literary masterpiece, Heart of Darkness, these concepts of what is considered to be “civilized” in our European-adopted culture is the main theme of the story. Conrad’s theory that when man are taken away from civilization that the true darkness of a man’s heart is truly discovered and the “savage” within takes over.

Joseph Conrad uses symbolism to enhance the main theme of the novel by setting certain symbolic elements in opposition to contrasting elements. In order to achieve this, he relies heavily on metaphors. Repeating throughout Heart of Darkness was the contrast between elements representing as being light and elements characterized as being dark. Light carries with it the metaphorical meanings of what is good, true, civilized, and humane. The word darkness and the use of dark elements, epitomize everything that is evil, obscure, and uncivilized. Heart of Darkness is embedded with complex layering of interconnected and overlapping symbols. Conrad’s use of symbolism, metaphors, and irony was necessary in order to convey the story’s overall theme.

Africa was, to the Europeans, a place of another type of darkness. It was a place of the unknown, danger, disease, and violence. Charlie Marlow (the protagonist and central character) spoke fondly of the large blank map of Africa when he was a boy. It was empty because explorers had not recorded the features of that part of the world. A few examples in where Joseph Conrad uses this stylistic device of the element of dark and light was in the telling of the story of the two captains. Fresceven and Danes were stationed at a post near a native village. Due to a squabble over two black hens, Fresceven killed one of the natives. The natives in return killed him. The black hens foreshadowed the definitive outcome of what was to come of Fresceven. The symbolism of the color of the hens reveals the unpleasant fortune of the men and village. When Charlie Marlow arrives to retrieve the body of Fresceven, he describes the village as dark, black, and desolated, negative characteristics describing the fate of the village.

He makes his journey to the city where in the office building he is encountered by two women. The women are seated in the lobby knitting black wool giving Marlow uneasiness when entering. The knitting of the black wool is Marlow’s first indication of what is to come through his journey. Marlow s journey leads him traveling on the Congo River to the center of Africa. Conrad describes the center of Africa as a black hole. He also depicts the jungle and the native people with words that inspired images of darkness and gloom. The darkness therefore, is not a literal absence of light; it is instead a device creating a feeling of despair, anguish, and evil.

Reaching a new city, Marlow’s journey through the disease-infested town leads him an epiphany of what is civilized to him. He sees a young scrawny boy sitting underneath a rotting tree. His eyes catch Marlow’s as he is drawn into the dark depths of the boy’s. A blatant white piece of string is tied around the boy’s neck, giving a strong contrast with his dark skin. He meets the company accountant soon after who is contrasting to everything around him. When Marlow saw him he said, “I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed and oiled.” The description of the man is compelling, the fact that they are in the middle of Africa and the accountant goes through the trouble to keep his shirt and pants clean and pressed. The way the accountant is portrayed shows how he may know that if he lets his civilized ways slip that his sanity and his soul will slip as well. He might be terrified of becoming savage like the Africans that he goes all out in keeping himself and his near surroundings civilized.

Marlow’s search for Kurtz, the man Marlow all this time was in search for, is finally over. Kurtz had succumbed to the darkness within, becoming a savage. Further glimpses of Kurtz’ dark nature when Marlow discovered that on the ground of Kurtz’ station; he had set decapitated human heads onto stakes. A mountain of glistening white ivory tusks set in the middle of the grounds. The evil that possessed the land shadows all the areas around Kurtz’ thrown of ivory. The symbolism of the white ivory and the darkness enveloping everything around represents the civilized Kurtz, who once was a sane ivory trader, surrendering to the darkness and the greed.

Towards the end of the story, Kurtz’ death is the epiphany of symbolism. Marlow enters Kurtz’ cabin with a burning candle, a producer of light, as he is ranting about his anticipated death. The light from the candle falls short of Kurtz’ eyes as he cries, “the horror! The horror!” Marlow soon after blows-out the flame and leaves the cabin with Kurtz to die in the darkness. The light from the candle’s flame symbolizes the release of the final thread of sanity Kurtz was holding on to. Kurtz had become a barbarian; he had become a savage.

Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness takes on a physical journey through the lightness and the darkness. Marlow is on his quest for the inner truth where he must find the light and the dark within himself. He must find reality, his “self”, to be free to understand the complexity of life that surrounds him. Conrad’s use of symbolism, metaphors, and irony was crucial in the portraying the overall premise of Heart of Darkness.

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