Joseph Conrad’s Use of Symbolism in the Novel, Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad's Use of Symbolism in the Novel, "Heart of Darkness"

Heart of Darkness is replete
with symbols. In Heart of Darkness
every person and everything means more than what we are likely to find on a
superficial level. The novel is based on
both the historical facts and the facts of Conrad’s own experiences.
But Conrad has tried to convey the deeper truths underlying both facts. Through
the novel he certainly tries to reveal obscure truth which lies underneath.
Almost all characters in Heart of
have some symbolic significance. The central figure in the
novel, Mr. Kurtz is highly symbolic. First, he symbolises the greed
and the commercial
mentality of the white people of the western countries. Mr. Kurtz’s desire to
collect the maximum quantity of ivory shows
the exploitation of the backward people by the white colonizers.
Second, he symbolizes the white man’s 
excessive love  of power. Third, the change which comes in
him during
his stay, among the savages, symbolizes
the influence of barbarism upon a civilized man. Mr. Kurtz becomes savage
because of his prolonged stay in the dark continent symbolizes the irresistible
influence of barbarism upon a
civilized man who is isolated from
society, It shows
that the primitive evil instincts continue to exist in every human
no matter how civilized he may have become. These
primitive instincts
lie dominant within him; and they would rise in a favourable environment and
then would
govern his whole
The role of Marlow is highly symbolic. Firstly, he symbolizes the spirit
of adventure and a love of knowledge. His boyhood dream of travelling to Congo
and sailing upon the river Congo is translated into reality only because of his
inborn spirit of adventure. He also symbolises philosophical approach to human
life by his constant brooding and meditation upon what he sees.
Similarly, the characters too carry symbolic significance.
The Manager
of the Central Station
symbolizes spiritual emptiness. He is unable to
inspire respect or love or fear
because he is spiritually barren. Though he has no originality and no solid
ideas in his head yet he can do his manager’s work like a machine. Then there
is the brick-maker who acts as the manager’s spy and informer. Marlow calls him
as a “papier-mache
means cunning and trickery. Then there are a number of white agents who keep loitering around the
Central Station because they have nothing to do. Marlow calls them “faithless
The cannibal crew on Marlow’s
steamer symbolize efficiency because they do not shirk work; they also
symbolise self-restraint because they do not try to satisfy their hunger by
eating their flesh. The knitting women in the beginning of the novel symbolises the
Fate, who determine the future of every human being on the earth as they seem to know all about
everybody who visits
Company’s officer. The
majestic-looking native woman
, who appears on the river-bank when Mr. Kurtz
was being taken away, symbolizes a woman’s strong devotion and loyalty to her
lord. Mr. Kurtz’s fiancée, Intended, also symbolizes loyalty, she symbolizes
the hold of an illusion upon a woman’s mind. The Russian, who resembles a harlequin, symbolizes inquisitiveness,
loyalty and fidelity.
Besides characters there are also other symbolic elements in the novel. Ivory symbolizes the white men’s greed.
The French warship firing aimlessly
into the forest, and the rock being blasted with gunpowder without any purpose,
symbolize the sense of futility and aimlessness. Then the sight of the
starved native
symbolizes the sufferings of the natives who do not receive
any sympathy from the white. Then half a dozen native men chained to one
another, and each wearing an iron collar round his neck symbolizes the white
man’s sway over the backward people. In short, Conrad has effectively conveyed
exploitation of the people of Congo through Symbolic descriptions.

The chain-gang with
half a dozen native men chained to one another, and each wearing an iron collar
round his neck, symbolize the white man’s sway over the ignorant backward
people without any concern for their welfare.
is a sort of corollary to darkness. Fog not only obscures but distorts: it
gives one just enough information to begin making decisions but no way to judge
the accuracy of that information, which often ends up being wrong. Marlow’s
steamer is caught in the fog, meaning that he has no idea where he’s going and
no idea whether peril or open water lies ahead.
Furthermore the description of the natural scenery also serves a
symbolic purpose. The wild and awe-inspiring scenery makes an observer think
that he has gone back to the beginning of the world when the huge trees were
kings. The silence of the woods and the abundance of trees symbolises mystery
and honor. In sharp contrast to the wild imagery, the city of Brussels
symbolizes the corruption of the white man’s civilization. The city
of Brussels
seems to Marlow to be something outwardly holy
and pleasant but inwardly rotten. Brussels thus symbolizes
the degeneracy of the white man
Finally, Marlow’s journey
into Congo is
it is a journey into Marlow’s sub-conscious
mind or a journey
into the
subconscious mind of
making in
general. According to a 
critic it
is a psychological-anthropological journey. The very title of the novel is also
symbolic. The literal meaning of the phrase “heart of
darkness” is the inmost region of
the dry country known as Congo;
symbolically it means the inmost
region of a man’s mind or soul. So the incursion into the heart
of darkness also means a descent by Marlow into the depths of his own soul. As Marlow
stands for Conrad himself so the novel also becomes a
kind of the exploration of Conrad’s own mind during his visit to Congo. 

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