Every great author posses the ability to create a novel deeply woven in symbolism and subliminal messages. Underneath the literal journey encountered in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness lies a tale saturated with subtle, yet, significant imagery that brings forth the true meaning of the novella. Throughout Heart of Darkness Conrad uses a plethora of simple colors, objects, and places to convey multifaceted images and ideas. His fine execution of the tools of the English language allows him to quickly lure the reader aboard the Nellie and not release him until the horror is over. Although the interpretation of symbols in the Heart of Darkness is elaborate, due to their simplicity they are often overlooked.
An overriding series of symbols in Heart of Darkness is the ongoing contrast of white and black, dark and light, and respectively holding representations of good and evil. Amongst most literature white/light relates to a civilized community and black/dark denotes savagery. However, Conrad often depicts many things usually associated with light to be dark in coincidence with the glittering light shed on dark images. Conrad illustrates the wrath of Europe, "And this also has been one of the darkest places of the earth." (Conrad 18) Furthermore, Conrad's frequent symbolic combination of life and death is a parallel to light and dark, echoing the fact that the two must exist simultaneously - there cannot be without the other.
Blatant, but often passed over is the symbolism of the number three in Heart of Darkness. First, notice that the book is divided into three chapters. From there Conrad only lets Marlow break from the story three times to let the unnamed narrator speak. As the journey through the Congo progresses it halts its journey at three stations-Outer, Central, and Inner. The triads do not end here, but persist through the characters in the novella. Though they play an integral role in Heart of Darkness only three women are mentioned principally-the intended, Marlow's Aunt, and Kurtz's mistress. Contrasting the women is the trio of Kurtz, Marlow, and the narrator. The triplet that binds the book is the various views of Africa from the adventure, economic, and religious standpoints.
The start of the book is set on the River Thames in England in contrast to where the journey takes place on the River Congo. The river acts as the path in for the Europeans allowing them entry to the inner Africa with out having to cross it, and furthermore giving them an inside perspective while the white man still is separate. "Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest." (Conrad 59) The action of travel upriver is another instance of the African environment trying to halt the progress of the whites while traveling downstream gives them a quick way out of the "darkness" and back to civilization. This alludes to Kurtz and his "choice of nightmares." "The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz's life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time. . I saw the time approaching when I would be left alone of the party of 'unsound method.'"(Conrad 109) Drawing from the text the river may be concluded to be an image of a demon or a snake threatening all who it may entrap. "A mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land." (Conrad 22)
The life and times of Kurtz serve as a valuable lead into the evil that is man. The Congo overtakes Kurtz on his journey to capture the ivory market. He goes from the products of European civilization and becomes victim to his barbaric instincts as his dark side reveals itself through partaking in horrendous rituals of the natives. Kurtz is symbolic of inner darkness that lies deep within refinement and civility. He feels it necessary to display his winnings atop poles outside his camp, yet facing inwards. "One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, 'I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.' The light was within a foot of his eyes."(Conrad 111) This quote illustrates the fact that Kurtz is overcome by darkness and blind to the light. Another such instance is embodied in an oil painting done by Kurtz, depicting a blindfolded woman surrounded by darkness, but carrying a torch which casts a sinister light over her face. The blindfolded woman can be taken as a common Western symbol of justice and liberty, things that man has created to differentiate himself from the beasts and savages. The fact that the woman is enshrouded in darkness with only insufficient torchlight to guide her says a lot about the nature of our society.
As the novella commences Marlow encounters huge buzzing flies that constantly pester and annoy him. Towards the close of Heart of Darkness he finds himself amidst a swarm of small flies. The diminishing size of the insects is a representation of the growth in Marlow's character as his journey progresses. Symbolism as such is one of the great examples of Conrad's intelligence
Heart of Darkness overflows with symbolism and is by far one of the greatest novels of the twenty century. Conrad employs the literary tricks as he unwraps more than just the quest of a man and his trip through the Congo. Looking between the lines helps convey the true meaning in Heart of Darkness and enhance the reader's enjoyment of the novel. Not to forget that Conrad closes the book with classic symbolism of Marlow in the lotus position closing his spiritual journey. "Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved fro a time. We have lost the first of the ebb,' said the director suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under overcast sky-seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness." (Conrad 125)