Heart of Darkness; Joseph Conrad

Literatura universal contemporánea del siglo XIX y XX. Narrativa. Novela inglesa. Argumento. Personajes. Miedo. Contexto histórico # Symbolism

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  • Idioma: inglés
  • País: España España
  • 6 páginas


-“Heart of Darkness”, by Joseph Conrad, can be classified as a “novella”. A novella is a half-way between the novel and what we know as short story, in length and scope

-“Heart of Darkness” has its first narrator in the first person plural, and he's a not named narrator. The main narrator, which is introduced by this first one, is Marlow, a framed narrator. He's a first person singular narrator, a kind of narrator-witness sometimes, and moreover, he's one of the main characters. The way he tells the story is a very descriptive one. His narration is interrupted by himself only three times all along the novel.

-This novella has a tripartite structure. Moreover, the structure of “Heart of Darkness” is much like that of the Russian nesting dolls, where you open each doll up, and there is another doll inside. Much of the mean of “Heart of Darkness” is found not in the center of the book, the heart of Africa, but on the periphery of the book: in what happens to Marlow in Brussels, what is happening on the Nellie as Marlow tells the story, and what happens to the reader as they read the book.

-The three times Marlow breaks his story, added to the three parts into which the novella has been divided, the fact of there are three central characters -the narrator, Marlow and Kurtz- and the appearance of three characters that are women -Aunt, Mistress and Intended-, make us think that there is a three's pattern in this novella.

-“Heart of Darkness” setting begins firstly at the River Thames, but the story that Marlow tells is set firstly in Brussels, and afterwards in a river of the Belgian Congo, even though Marlow never gives those names, but he makes the reader suppose that he is referring to those places.

-The time of the novella is present as Marlow tells the story, but he is referring to the past. The facts narrated happen at the late part of the nineteenth century.

*“Heart of Darkness” provides a bridge between Victorian values and the ideals of modernism. Like other Victorian novels, this one relies on traditional ideas of heroism, which is nevertheless under constant attack in a changing world and in places far from England.

Like much of the best modernist literature produced in the early decades of the twentieth century, “Heart of Darkness” is much about confusion, profound doubts and alienation, as it is about imperialism:

-Alienation is reflected on the fact of some characters not being named, but mentioned by the function they have, as the pilgrims, the cannibals, the General Manager, the Brickmaker -who doesn't really make bricks-, the Russian trader, the Intended, the Aunt, and so on. But also we find alienation on Marlow considering the Helmsman as apart of the machinery of the steamboat.

- This work doesn't openly criticizes colonialism, but rather the hypocrisy of the rhetoric used to justify the invasion of colonies: the men who work for the Company describe what they do as “trade”, and their treatment of native Africans as part of a project of “civilization”. In order to criticize this hypocrisy in a subtle way, Marlow gives to his story a certain tone of irony: the blacks are being used by the civilised as carriers that come every week by bringing supplies from lower stations to stations farther in the Congo. The fact remains that the whites may be considered the savages for working those men to death.

In order to criticize colonialism, the theme of madness appears linked to imperialism, as a result of this one: Africa is responsible for mental disintegration as well as for physical illness. Madness has two primary functions: 1st) it serves as an ironic device to engage the reader's

sympathies. Kurtz, Marlow is told from the beginning,

is mad. However, his madness is only relative. Thus,

both Marlow and the reader begin to sympathize

with Kurtz and view the Company with suspicion.

2nd)Madness is the result of being removed from one's

social context and allowed to be the sole arbiter of

one's own actions.

It is curious to observe that even though Britain was an imperialist country, Conrad didn't dare to use it as an example of colonialism in his novella, but he used on his purpose the example of the Belgian imperialism. Maybe that's why this work is susceptible to be autobiographical, and so,

Conrad used real facts of his own life.


Much of the imagery in “Heart of Darkness” is arranged in patterns of opposition and contrast. For instance:

* Light/Dark; White/Black:

-“Light” and “white” have the meanings of “life, goodness, enlightenment, civilized, religion”.

“Black” and “Dark” denote: “death, evil, ignorance, mystery, savagery, uncivilized”.

The Fog is a sort of corollary to darkness, because it 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.

This symbolism is not new; these connotations have been present in society for centuries.

In “Heart of Darkness”, this usual pattern is reversed, and darkness means “truth”, as whiteness means “falsehood”:

-the psychological truth within, about Marlow and all of us, is therefore dark and obscure.

-the trade on ivory, that is white but dirty.

The Whited Sepulchre, which is Brussels, where the Company's headquarters are located. A sepulchre implies death and confinement, and indeed Europe is the origin of the colonial enterprises that bring death to white men and to their colonial subjects.

*Civilised/Savage: A major theme of “Heart of Darkness” is civilisation versus savagery. The book implies that civilisations are created by the setting of laws and codes that act as a buffer to prevent men to revert to their darker tendencies. This implies that every man has a heart of darkness that is usually drowned out by the light of civilisation. However, when removed from civilised society, the raw evil of untamed lifestyles within his soul will be unleashed.

The tendency to revert to savagery is seen in Kurtz. When Marlow meets him, he finds a man that has totally thrown off the restraints of civilisation and has de-evolved into a primitive state.

Marlow and Kurtz are two opposite examples of the human condition: Kurtz represents what every man will become if left to his own intrinsic desires without a protective, civilized environment. Marlow represents the civilized soul that has not been drawn back into savagery by a dark alienated jungle.

-This idea has also any kind of relationship to the contrast of light/dark mentioned above: Marlow and Kurtz are the light and the dark selves of a single person; Marlow is what Kurtz might have been, and Kurtz is what Marlow might have become.

*Outer/Inner: comparisons between interiors and exteriors pervade “Heart of Darkness”. As the narrator states on the beginning of the text, Marlow is more interested in surfaces than in any hidden nugget of meaning deep within the thing itself -normally one seeks the deep message or the hidden truth-. These outer items are all the material he is given and that he must interpret, as if they were signs, for instance: the two old women knitting black wool, the two black hens. Or the “gateposts” which become heads on poles, shrunken and dried, and that are signs of terror.

Some other symbols in the novella are:

*Women: Both Kurtz's Intended and his African Mistress function as blank slates upon which the values and the wealth of their respective societies can be displayed.

Marlow frequently claims that women are the keepers of naïve illusions. These naïve illusions are at the root of the social fictions that justify economic enterprise and colonial expansion -for instance, Marlow's Aunt-. They become objects upon which men can display their own success and status.

*The River: the Congo River is the key to Africa for Europeans; it allows them access to the center of the continent without having physically to cross it.

The current of the River seems to want to expel Europeans from Africa altogether: it makes travel upriver slow and difficult, but the flow of water makes travel downriver, back toward “civilization”, rapidly and seemingly inevitable.


“Heart of Darkness” concerns Marlow -a projection to whatever degree, great or small, of Conrad- and his journey of self. Marlow reiterates often enough that he is recounting a spiritual voyage of self-discovery. He remarks casually but crucially that he did not know himself before setting out, and that he liked work for the chance it provides “to find yourself in what no other man can know”.

At a superficial level, the journey is a temptation to revert, a record of “remote kinship” with the “wild and passionate uproar”, of a “final rejection of the abomination”:

“The mind of a man is capable of anything, because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future”.

Marlow's temptation is made concrete through his exposure to Kurtz, a white man and sometime idealist who had fully responded to the wilderness; a potential and fallen self.

“Heat of Darkness” is a journey into the unconscious, and confrontation of an entity within the self. Certain circumstances of Marlow's voyage, looked in these terms, take on a new importance.

The true night journey can occur only in sleep or in a waking dream of a profoundly intuitive mind. Marlow insists on the dreamlike quality of his narrative: “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream -making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream sensation”.

Even before leaving Brussels, Marlow felt as though he was “about to set off for center of the earth”, not the center of a continent.