Symbolism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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Symbolism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Essay

Symbolism plays a major role in the portrayal of some of the basic concepts in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. In the beginning of the book, the symbols of darkness and light appear with their universal meaning, which, with the progress of the novel, is broadened so that it completely changes in the end. In the beginning, darkness seems to show the backwardness of the African continent and its people, whereas light stands for the enlightened, civilized world of Europeans. Later, the author takes a slightly different course with his work, which can be seen in the interrelatedness between the two opposing forces of the dark and the light. The black, savage natives that are often involved in horrific traditions (cannibalism) and strange customs turn into victims of the hypocritical attitude of the imperialistic Europeans. Although it looks as if everything on the ‘black’ continent is enwrapped with natural darkness, in the end the reader still wonders if it is not composed of small sparks of light that overall make it guiltlessly white.

Darkness and light appear as symbols almost on every page of Heart of Darkness which makes their consideration difficult, but the more obvious concepts they are introducing should be explored for the sake of the understanding of the novel itself.

The traditional view of white as good and black as evil is introduced when Marlow gets to the Outer Station where for the first time he becomes familiar with life in the Congo. His first impression of the “black fellows” immediately suggests the savageness of the Africans: “They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks – these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement…” (30). The narrator feels “comfort” while looking at them, because he knows these black men are wild and therefore occupy lower social level than he does. Marlow’s...
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