Heart of Darkness - Metaphorical or Physical Journey?

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The worth of any physical journey can be measured by the value it has to the traveller; by the psychological, moral and philosophical insight gained during the course of travel. This is especially valid for a trip of such immense significance as the one undertaken by the narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow, as he travels along the Congo River in Africa. The symbolic importance of the Congo River is paramount throughout the novella; however, it is equally important to consider the role of the river on which the tale is told – the Thames, the centre of the nation that dominated colonial expansion. Both rivers offer a platform of observation of their respective societies – allowing Marlow to remain independent from these cultures and thus maintain his own moral compass. On a surface level, the Thames appears to be the epitome of tranquillity and civilization, as Marlowe describes it as being ‘calm’, waiting for the ‘turn of the tide’ and being the centre of ‘the biggest, and the greatest, town on Earth.’ However, Conrad’s multi-layered writing undercuts this view, as many descriptions of the Thames have mortuary connotations, implying a feeling of death on the river. For example, Conrad describes a ‘mournful gloom, brooding motionless’, the feeling of stillness coupled with the ‘gloomy tone creates a corpse-like atmosphere. Even the images of light that Conrad employs are more or less negative in their more subtle meanings. He describes the torches of light (a metaphor for Western Civilization) as being merely a ‘flicker’, which implies that the façade of culture and humanity is ephemeral in nature. The first words Marlow uses describe his surroundings as ‘and this also… was one of the dark places of the earth’, reminding listeners of the dark past, which is only partially and insubstantially covered. He then goes on to describe the ‘robbery with violence’ and the ‘aggravated murder on a great scale’ which the Romans had committed in ancient...
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