Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Symbols

In Heart of Darkness, every person and everything mean more than what we find on a superficial level. A symbol is used to imply a hidden meaning behind the surface. Through the story, characters, and places mentioned in the novel, Conrad wants to reveal the truth of colonialism and its effect on both the whites and blacks.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

The central figure in the novel is Kurtz who stands for many things. Firstly, he symbolizes the extreme greed and the commercial mentality of the Whites. Secondly, he represents the white man’s excessive love of the power to lead others, thirdly, he stands for the influence of the savages on the civilized man. And finally, he is the epitome of the repentant sinner. The transformation of Kurtz into the cruel, savage and a barbaric self ironically states that every civilized self has the primitiveness within. If it is not controlled, it would rise and start governing the civilized self, and there remains no civilized one but the real primitive one.

Another major figure of the novel is Marlow. He has a symbolic role in the novel. He symbolizes the spirit of adventure and a love of knowledge. He stands for the thoughtful observer of human life and a student of human nature. His habit of constant brooding and meditating upon what he sees and finds symbolizes the philosophical approach to human life. And to a great extent, he too symbolizes the influence of savagery on the civilized one and exposure of hidden primitiveness.

The minor characters too have significant importance. The manager of the central station symbolizes spiritual emptiness. He is a good manager because he works like a machine, but he cannot inspire any love, respect and fear as he is barren and empty in terms of spiritual fertility. The brick-maker represents the cunning and trickery. He does not make any brick, but he works as a spy to the manager. The pilgrims stand for a complete absence of any faith or belief. They further symbolize the parasitic existence. The cannibal crew on the Marlow’s steamer symbolize efficiency and self-restraint because they control their feeling of cannibalism in the boat even at the time of extreme hunger. The native woman represents a woman’s strong devotion and loyalty to her lord or a lover. Kurtz’s fiancée stands for the illusion held by an innocent woman.

Except these characters the novel has another many symbols. One of them is ivory, around which the novel revolves around. The ivory is the symbol of the white man’s greed. It is the greed of wealth, greed of success and greed of superiority. The aimless firing in the forest and the purposeless bombing of the rocks stands for the futility of the works that the whites are carrying on in the African interiors. The dying and the starved natives are the symbols of the negligence and indifference of whites towards the natives. The silence of the woods and the abundance of trees mean mystery and horror that the land of Africa possesses. The pictures of dark, dense woods and fog refer to the prevailing darkness of the human mind and heart. The city of Brussels, especially the white sepulcher symbolizes all of European civilization. The beautiful white outside reminds the supercilious ideas and justifications that Europeans use to justify colonization, while the hidden hollow inside the sepulcher hides the insincerity and desire for power and wealth that truly motivate the colonial powers.

The title of the novel, the Heart of Darkness, too has symbolic meaning. Geographically, the heart of darkness is Africa, where barbarism and savagery is rampant, but psychologically, the heart of darkness is within all of us. It is in our mind, in our subconscious, hidden and disguised in the form of civilized one. Our greed and the ill intention towards others is dark. Thus, the heart of darkness is nowhere but inside us.

Finally, Marlow’s whole journey into the Congo is symbolic. This journey can be taken as the journey of Marlow into his subconscious or a journey into the subconscious mind of humankind. In physical terms, it is the journey towards Congo, an interior of Africa, a dark continent, but in symbolic terms it is the psychological and mystical journey.