Use Of The Word ‘dark’ In The Heart Of Darkness By Joseph Conrad

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Joseph Conrad’s story, “Heart of Darkness” is one of the most read novels that speak about events that mirror the contemporary world. Written in 1889, Heart of Darkness is about two men who face their own identities as they lose their self view as civilized Europeans as well as struggle not to abandon their morality once they venture into “darkness.” The use of the word “darkness” both in the title and throughout the book provides several meanings that cannot be easily understood until the progress of the story is realized. It is however important to note that the depiction of the meaning of darkness in the book is not constant and therefore keeps on changing. The author, Conrad has succeeded in using the word darkness through symbolism and imagery, while also consequently to address the thematic issues that he intended. This kind of change or the transition from one meaning to another is crucial in helping the reader gain a proper understanding of the ideas that Conrad wanted to communicate to his audience.

Reading the story makes the reader, or rather the audience, recognize that darkness is something that is constant but changes depending on the context in which it is utilized. For instance, in one context, Marlow (who is one of the protagonists in the story) uses the word “darkness” to reminisce about his childhood ambitions that involved the exploration of the undiscovered places on the map. In his view, Marlow referred to the places on the map that were unexplored and undocumented as dark. The first meaning of darkness in the story is, therefore, an adventure that has not yet happened. The thought drove various European powers into an Africa that was a dark place of savages and strange beasts. In his book, Heart of Darkness: Search for Unconscious, the author Gary Adelman notes that as the journey proceeded from the Coastal Station to Kurtz’s outpost, “the darkness rapidly became associated with the barbarity, anthropophagy and human sacrifice, with the Africans significantly perceived as the quintessence of the mentioned elements.”

Throughout this scene, Conrad succeeds in depicting Africa through the character and actions of Marlow. Commenting on his book, Gary Adelman further posits that Africans within their free state, as described and reported by Marlow, tremendously symbolizes both the underdeveloped nature of the humanity and an actively demoralizing influence, which the colonialist who comes to Africa would want to challenge first. Within numerous description in the novel’s contexts, Africa is depicted as being dark and consisting of the inhabitants who have inhumane nature. Marlow describes it as a haunted place dominated by men who were nor human. To a given extent, the darkness can be interpreted to mean the evil heart that the colonialists had in relation to the way they were dealing with the Africans. Marlow, who is a central protagonist and the narrator in the novel presents greater old racist prejudices against Africans. In the book, he says, “They howled and leaped and spun, and presented horrid faces to make you question their humanity. They are ugly people”. Not only does the meaning of a dark heart emerge in this case, but is a feeling that denies Africans a distinction of a name because he eliminates them from the fact of being normal human beings. The belittlement in this case through the use of derogatory languages and stressing that Africans are people who imitate animalistic behavior is a pure representation of the dark attitude that White people have on the Africans. In a book on the topic, Chinua Achebe terms this kind of representation as “those that call the very humanity of black people into question”.

The darkness has its opposite, which is “light.” Fundamentally, the light provides an impression that the darkness in the story is translating into something else. Notably, the darkness within the jungles of African Congo offers a good representation of something that has not yet undergone civilization or taming. Readers are further ale to understand that these characteristics are not related to the land in any way, but instead of the savage and the dark natives in the Congo region. “It emerges explicitly that the protagonist Marlow can share the majority of prejudices demonstrated by his fellow European through his own experiences where he faced scenes such as torture, cruelty, and near-slavery.” This experience made him demonstrate a tremendous skepticism to imperialism. This is even made clear when he asserts, “The earth’s conquest, which implies taking away from people who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses is not a good thing when you subject it to scrutiny.” Within this context, the heart of darkness provides a powerful insight into the perception into the hypocrisy involved during imperialism.

In the novel, darkness emerging is used to represent the hatred, fear and power. Marlow starts his story while dominated by the belief that these foundations exist within the jungles of the Congo, then with the natives. However, he ultimately realizes that darkness is an element that dwells within an individual’s heart. Humanity must, therefore, learn to restrict themselves from surrendering into the night. Marlow provides a discussion of his experience at one point in life stating how suffering in starvation can make a man have black thoughts and perception. He even goes ahead and recognizes that restraining oneself from such kind of ideas would nearly be impossible when experiencing such suffering. Another meaning of darkness can further be understood from the perspective of Marlow’s arrival in Congo. After arrival in Congo and finally getting the boat underway to search for Kurtz, Marlow develops a feeling of being drawn deeper and deeper into the darkness as he moves into the jungle. He realizes this feeling and decides to crowd the boat. The setting itself, in this case, is “darkness.” His meeting up with Kurtz further makes the reader develop a better understanding of the word darkness.

Marlow notices that the natives worship Kurtz, especially around the station. He further realizes that Kurtz has abandoned civilization. In the story, Marlow asserts that “I saw the unimaginable mystery of the soul that recognized no restraint, no faith, and no fear.” Marlow’s statements, in this case, show that Kurtz had embraced the heart of darkness that is broadly represented by the life they were leading in the jungles. The ties of Kurtz to civilization no longer exists and has emerged as the worst example of the natives. Consequently, Kurtz embraces a civilized life of Conrad’s way and posits that the association between darkness and civilization renders the latter unable to win. Kurtz’s last words, “The horror, the horror” offers a great confirmation that he can recognize the adverse effects that the jungle had on his personality. However, readers can notice that the inhuman deceptiveness and the selfishness of Kurtz and Marlow constitute the primary source of darkness within the African land. They have caused tremendous disruption of the solitariness of the natives. The culture of these two characters significantly made impure, and their way of living has been degraded to darkness through interruption of those around them. Fascinatingly, the darkness’ existence is at the center of thriving civilization.

In the view of both Kurtz and Marlow, Africans, who are the natives in Congo are tremendously uncivilized. Their functions, therefore, would entail giving light to all the Africans who still lead a life full of ignorance. Civilization and education are their primary purpose in this case. They have dominated the processes involved in economic production. Ideally, the social status, political authority, and power lie upon them. The social and legislative powers are dominated by people who claim that they are the light-possessed people. The author, Conrad, has further demonstrated a great use of darkness as imagery in the novel. For example, before Marlow began to speak, the sun and the dark clouds were observable in the river. The meaning is further conveyed in the scene where Marlow comes across a knitting woman sitting outside the door of darkness while knitting the black wool. These are the experiences that propel Marlow to describe to his shipmates from his company that Kurtz is from darkness. These examples clear the air about whether or not the novel is dominated with the symbolic aspects of light and darkness.

Nearly all the characters are seen to describe the bad side of dark, alongside the bright path of the light. However, the irony that appears in the story is that those who utter even more about providing solutions to the problem of darkness are the one covered with a dense fog of night. As readers, we can easily take Marlow and Kurtz as individuals who possess the heart of darkness. Both of them are the first to mention that Africans are living in darkness. As such, the whole structure of the plot revolves around the symbolic meaning of dark and light. The imposition of more darkness than the view over Africans is a form of imperialistic approach that Marlow and Kurtz used. In this sense, therefore, the symbolism of light and dark play a critical role in the interpretation of Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Darkness is used to illustrate the corruption and abuse of power. In the novel, Kurtz is involved in the power abuse that allows him to take the advantage of the primitive nature of the natives, while at the same time trying to establish certain illusions to help the natives develop into a more civilized culture. The corruption in his heart provides the meaning of darkness in the novel. Despite being aware of the uncivilized culture of the Africans, he takes the advantage to change the plans aimed at benefiting the lives of the Congolese Africans. He uses them as a pawn to accomplish his ultimate objective of success and ivory.

In conclusion, the use of the word “darkness” both in the title and throughout the book provides several meaning that cannot be easily understood until the progress of the story is realized. As discussed in the essay, darkness offers a symbolism of the darkness and wickedness that is associated with the white imperialism in African continent. Various undertones and actions of characters in the novel provide a depiction of this. Thus, the meaning of “darkness” in the novel is subject to a variety of interpretations about what the author infers by utilizing the phrase heart of darkness that can be expeditiously associated with many thematic issues in the story. The title meaning will be more likely to be eternally blanketed in indistinctness. At some point, the darkness emerges is used as symbolism, to represent both the hatred, fear and the symbol of evil power. Both Marlow and Kurtz are able to provide a good exposition of this, as the colonialist who comes to Africa. They would want to challenge first. Within numerous description in the novel’s contexts, Africa is depicted as being dark and consisting of the inhabitants who have inhumane nature. Marlow describes it as a haunted place dominated by men who were not human. So it is in these parenthetical assertions made by Conrad that we have insight into the use of the darkness in his book. Darkness symbolizing that which fills the hearts of Marlow and Kurts, but also the darkness that absolutely permeates the world around them.

Works Cited

  1. Achebe, Chinua. ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.’ The Massachusetts Review 57.1 (2016): 14-27.
  2. Adam, Sanosi Zakaria Musa, Mahmoud Ali Ahmed, and Abulgassim Mohammed Elamin. ‘Analyzing the Themes of Greed and Colonization in the Novel “Heart of Darkness.’ (2018).
  3. Atkinson, William. ‘Bound in’ Blackwood’s’: The imperialism of’ The Heart of Darkness’ in its immediate context.’ Twentieth Century Literature 50.4 (2004): 368-393.
  4. Chrisman, Laura. ‘Postcolonial contraventions: Cultural readings of race, imperialism and transnationalism.’ (2018).
  5. Brantlinger, Patrick. ‘Heart of Darkness’:’ Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?.’ Criticism 27.4 (1985): 363-385.
  6. Firchow, Peter Edgerly. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
  7. Stronach, Ian. ‘Enlightenment and the ‘heart of darkness’:(neo) imperialism in the Congo, and elsewhere.’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 19.6 (2006): 757-768.


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