When the protagonist or subordinate character is forced to face darkness, the mystery of adventure literature and hypermasculine prose becomes apparent. The unknowable strikes man’s heart and fulfills his deepest desire to encounter a greater force than himself. Although the darkness is not itself frightening, it hides what lies beneath. Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness explores common human issues through the eyes of Marlow, his narrator. Conrad answers the metaphysical question of “Why does man fear dark?” Conrad lightens the fear of the unknowable by making it a positive construct.

Conrad’s novella is about Marlow, a Captain who serves as the novella’s narrator. Marlow sits on a yawl as he recounts his journey into Africa. Marlow tells his friends that he used to work for a trading firm called the “Company” where he met Mr. Kurtz. This encounter awakens Marlow to the reality of the universe and man. Marlow is a witness to the savage acts by native inhabitants while working for the firm. He also observes Mr. Kurtz’s brilliance as well as barbarism. Marlow is sent to the rescue of Mr. Kurtz by the company. Kurtz is a valuable asset that the company regards as a great asset. Marlow makes a series of trips up the Congo River and finds Kurtz. Marlow witnesses Kurtz’s passing, then returns to Europe a changed man. Marlow’s story concludes with Kurtz saying his final words. Marlow makes one last trip to tell Kurtz and Kurtz about Kurtz passing (Conrad91). Marlow doesn’t let Africa’s trip be wasted. Instead, he learns great lessons about humanity and develops a newfound cynicism that he views as a realism towards society. Conrad’s most popular symbol, darkness, is omnipresent in his novella. Many scholars concluded that Heart of Darkness Short Story Criticism was a way to show the uncertainty of the world and life generally. (Palmisano 3, 3). From childhood to adulthood, the primal instinct that darkness is a greater evil pervades our minds, which can be seen in our subconscious. A child doesn’t fear darkening closets because they are intrinsically scary. But darkness is bad because it menacingly hides what man feels he deserves to know. This “unknowingness”, which threatens man’s dominance in the natural order, is dangerous.

Conrad knows that darkness angers men and uses this knowledge in his writings. Marlow tells his friends about Belgian imperialism at the beginning of the novella, saying, “It was just violence, aggravated crime on a huge scale, and men trying to do it blind-as is very right for those who tackle a dark.” (Conrad 21). There is a question. What darkness are they trying to tackle? And, perhaps more importantly, of what unknown area are they afraid? Dr. Thomas C. Foster said that Conrad “never looked more deeply into the human soul” than he did, and that he found truth in both extreme situations as well as alien landscapes. Marlow and his subordinates are faced with a dilemma in Heart of Darkness: Africa as a continent and The Other’s reality.

Africa, a continent that is still largely unknown, adopts the pseudonym “Darkness”. The Congo lies in Africa’s heart, and is known as the Heart of Darkness. Marlow flew to Africa shortly before being granted access to Africa’s nature. This was purely because of its mystery and unknowable characteristics. Marlow recalls that he was a young man who had a passion and a love for maps. Although there were many blank spots on the Earth at the time, there was only one that I was interested in. It was the largest and most unexplored. Marlow’s view of Africa is that it is a mystery province that tugs at the hyper-masculine desire in his heart to tame his ignorance. Chinua Achebe (an internationally renowned literary critic) argues Conrad described Africa as “a metaphysical battlefield without all recognizable humanity, into which a wandering European enters for his peril.”

Marlow soon after arriving in Africa, makes it clear that he has adopted this view. The clouded vision of Africa

The novella is based on events that took place outside Marlow. Some others describe Africa in vapid wild darkness. Marlow witnessed a bizarre event shortly after her arrival in Africa. “We saw a man of war anchored off Africa’s coast. She was also shelling the bush and there wasn’t even any shed. . . She fired into a continent in the void of sky, earth and water. A projectile could make a faint sound, and nothing would happen. It was impossible for anything to happen. The proceeding was fraught with insanity. One board member admitted earnestly that there was a group of natives, whom he called enemies. They were “hidden out of view somewhere.” (Conrad 29). Africa is under attack from cannons. The man-of-war suffers from fear. The mystery surrounding Africa threatens the white person who believes that God has given him the ability to understand and control all things. The white man’s entitlement to Africa’s immenseness and inexplicable nature is met with scornful laughter. This realization fuels frustration among those on the man-of war to unleash a tangible assault on a continent, Africa on Darkness.

In the African jungle, there is a more severe fear. Marlow takes a steamboat up to the Congo River in the section that is most fear-inducing. This section is where a dense fog covers the surrounding area, blinding passengers and causing them to lose their vision. This fog blinds a river that once shined brightly and reflected the sunlight’s light. Marlow points out the sudden transition from light to dark. Walter E. Anderson’s dissertation argues that Conrad overwhelms us with images that depict darkness so that we risk missing the light. This scene is crucial because of the sharp contrast between rising sun and falling fog. The rising sun illuminates the wilderness’ secrets, giving the men on board a sense control and ease. The dense fog covers the river, obscuring the forest and preventing sailors from learning more about the jungle. The “mist” that sounds like a piercing cry never becomes a threat. The mist may be the source of the cry. Maybe the mist has triggered fear and created a new scenario for the men in the boat. This scene is most dangerous. It is the only one where a piercing call, often a premonition about a native attack and a warning of imminent danger, is not actually a real danger.

Marlow’s heart harbors another fear. Conrad’s novella reveals that a fear that stems from fear of the jungle extends itself to women. Conrad deliberately makes use of contrast between light, dark and shadow to show the joy of knowledge and learning. Conrad’s fear of the unknown–the mystery surrounding women–is reflected in the literature’s tone. Kaplan explains, Marlow insists that truth and lies be distinguished between men, women, and civilization. Marlow’s awareness of this text is not sufficient for him because he’s so deeply ingrained in his culture that he finds this awareness ‘too dark’–too much altogether. Conrad’s novella portrays the Congo woman as “the wilderness itself” with her “savage, superb, wild-eyed” appearance. Johanna Smith, English Professor and Women and Gender Studies, says that Marlow confounds the body of the woman with the jungle. The jungle then takes on the body of the woman, and the woman becomes the symbol of the forest’s soul. Marlow aims to control and contain both by symbolizing the woman as well as the jungle.

Conrad speaks of Marlow’s aunt and the “queerness” of women who are out of touch. Conrad and Marlow feel a dilemma because of Conrad’s queerness. Marlow, Conrad and his narrator Marlow feel fearful because they don’t know the implications for the woman–or of the Other. Kaplan points out, “The’savage’ woman is not unknowable. Thus, her’struggling halfshaped resolve’ is even more alarming. Kaplan explains that Marlow is clear in his distinction. . . Between Self & Other . . In psychological terms, the Other is only the unexplored territory within the Self.

Marlow also made a reference to Africa, which Marlow called Darkness. He said with hyper-masculinity that “They were men enough for the dark” (Conrad 20). Ironically, hyper-masculine tendencies are rooted in fear and acknowledgement of the fact that man cannot know everything. Uninformed minds will never discover the deep and insurmountable mysteries of Africa, or of women.

Furthermore, imagery of light/dark in relation to the afterlife furthers humanity’s fear for the unknown. Marlow and the famous Mr. Kurtz are accompanied by Marlow. Marlow then takes a rest in Kurtz’s cabin at the end. Marlow listens as Kurtz speaks and then lights a candle. What a fright! It was horrifying! Kurtz–is dead” (Conrad 86-87). Kurtz is “here in darkness waiting for his death” when the candle shines in the room. Its presence in the space resembles Kurtz’s false grasp on reality. Kurtz becomes an unknown being after Kurtz passes away. Kaplan stated, “As Kurtz passes, the room will grow darker. This signifies an unknown future–the afterlife.” The smoke dissipates the uncertainty that had been filling the minds of Marlow, Kurtz and the flame of the candle. The blackness that looms over Africa, Marlow’s woman, and the threshold of the afterlife is too dark to be man’s security. All men feel the pain of missing out on inexplicable treasure hidden in the dark folds. The West has been made and imperialized to a system that allows men to believe they are entitled to all knowledge. Marlow says that things whose natural world is unknown to the mind of man are damned. The darkness conceals all, even fear.

The African continent’s darkness, Marlow’s women and the threshold of the afterlife are all too dark for man to feel secure. All men feel the pain of missing out on the inscrutable treasure hidden in the dark folds. The West has been made and imperialized to a system that allows men to believe they are the only ones who can know everything. Marlow says that the things whose essence is evaded by human consciousness will be damned. The darkness conceals all, even fear.


  • louiedawson

    Hi, my name is Louie Dawson and I'm an educational blogger and school teacher. I've been writing and teaching kids about stuff like math, science, history, and English since 2010. I hope you enjoy my work!

Symbolism Of Darkness In “Heart Of Darkness” By Joseph Conrad


Hi, my name is Louie Dawson and I'm an educational blogger and school teacher. I've been writing and teaching kids about stuff like math, science, history, and English since 2010. I hope you enjoy my work!

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