by David Dunson
The wilderness is a very significant symbol in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It is not only the backdrop against which the action of the story takes place, but also a character of the story in and of itself. The vastness and savagery of the wilderness contrast with the pettiness and foolishness of the pilgrims, and the wilderness also shows the greed and brutality that lie under the noblest of ideals.
The wilderness is not a person as such, but rather an ominous, brooding, and omnipotent force that continually watches the "fantastic invasion" of the white man. The activities of the white people are viewed throughout the book as insane and pointless. They spend their existence grubbing for ivory or plotting against each other for position and status within their own environment. Their whole society seems to have an air of unreality about it. It is as if they are building their whole lives on nothing more substantial than a morning mist, easily blown away by the merest puff of wind. Marlow comments: "The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it . . . I've never seen anything so unreal in my life" (37). In contrast, the wilderness appears solid, immovable, and ominously threatening. During Marlow's stay at the Central Station, he describes the surrounding wilderness as a "rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to . . . sweep every little man of us out of his little existence" (49). It is difficult to say, however, what the intentions of the wilderness actually are. We see the wilderness entirely through Marlow's eyes, and it is always somewhat of an enigma. It is "an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention" (56).
The wilderness is not just an impersonal force that is unconcerned with anything else but itself. It is, rather, a mirror in which one can see clearly the...