"Heart of Darkness" Novel Review

Mar 11, 2021 at Free Literature Essays Online as Urgent Writing Help


Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

The novel Heart of Darkness by a Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad is considered to be one of the best writings of the twentieth century. The central character, Charles Marlow, tells a story about his travel to the Congo Free State that is located in the middle of Africa. As the story proceeds, the readers find out that Marlow is supposed to return a famous and qualified ivory trader named Kurtz to the coast. The story, however, gains momentum as soon as Marlow reveals the horrible outcomes of the colonization during his impressive voyage. The wide variety of the symbols that work together with the theme of darkness as the definers of the evil in men, and also the topic of colonization are the contributors to the relevance and success of the novel.


The novel, though being short, includes a variety of symbols throughout the story. Using the symbols, the writer managed to create a meaningful picture that is, however, easy to interpret. The entire voyage is already a symbol that has been used by many other writers for many years. Every trip is a specific way or searches for the characters who want to find the truth. Nevertheless, in the case of Charles Marlow's journey, it manifests a journey to the most distant places of his mind. Additionally, Konrad tends to use the characters themselves as symbols. For instance, Kurtz becomes a manifestation of the dark side of the entire humanity. He who used to be an ordinary representative of the civilized world, transformed into the savage affected by the untamed Congo so that he simply lost the connection with the morality that governs the society. As he shouts the horror, the horror (Conrad 145), one can see that these words are the reflection of his current state, and also the result of his dehumanization. Therefore, Kurtz is a symbol that stands on the dark side of the human race.

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As the story contains the word darkness, it also presupposes that one should pay special attention to it. The darkness in the story is a ubiquitous symbol that deals with human flaws, decay, the hidden side of human nature, and also the corruption in different spheres of social life. The importance of this symbol lies in the fact darkness in the novella is used both in a metaphorical and literal sense. While the literal meaning refers to the dark and untamed land, the symbolic meaning is related to the moral and ethical decay of the people. For example, Kurtz is a character who is strongly affected by the events that took place in the jungle. The destroyed soul of the man is also seen through the small sketch in oils painted by him. The picture represented a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch, while the background was somber almost black (Conrad 48). It is worth mentioning that the entire sketch created some unpleasant feelings as the movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister (48). Paintings always mirror the state of mind and, in the case of Kurtz, it also represented his transformed soul. Conrad was a very poetic writer who knew how to incorporate symbols. The torch in the hands of the woman is an allusion to the European Enlightenment and civilized world in general.

The river Congo is in the center of the story and also constitutes a relevant symbol. If one looks at the river on the map of the world, it is possible to see that it reminds of the snake's body. In the Bible, the snake is a manifestation of temptation, sinfulness, and also all-absorbing vice. Being seduced by the ivory, many people gave in to the river. Many of them were punished for their greed and fallen morality principles. Therefore, ivory is a symbolic image reflecting human greed. It can also be added that Congo manifests the trial, while it became a real challenge for Marlow and his team.

Joseph Conrad oftentimes uses well-understood symbols that have similar connotations in the different cultures. In the novel, the fog and smoke are the symbols used to convey the idea of mystery, confusion, and even fear. It is not a coincidence that the ship of Charles Marlow and his team was constantly followed by fog. What is more, as the story progressed, the fog became sicker. It has a great symbolic meaning as well, while if one faces a thick fog in the real life, they are not able to see anything in front of themselves. As for the symbolic interpretation of the fog in the story, it presupposes a metaphorical fogging of the morality, ethics, and humanness that is fueled by the hidden greediness of the people's soul. It is also noteworthy to mention that as the travelers go deeper into the jungle, the fog covers their ship more and more, which is one more symbol of the progression of their dehumanization.

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The Accountant is another symbol incorporated in a plot. The man symbolizes a big corporation. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow is amazed by the appearance of the man and says, I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand (Conrad 33).

In the context of the extremely chaotic and even filthy environment, the accountant seems to be very noticeable. It is, however, a very symbolic character who manifests the philosophy of the big corporation that exists for the sake of the benefits no matter what.

Speaking further of the symbols in the novel, one cannot but mention the whited sepulcher. The novella represents confinement and death. What is more, the whited sepulcher incorporates Europe as a birthplace of the colonial enterprises that bring misery and death not only to the white men but also and far more to their colonial subjects (Dhain 489). In addition to everything aforementioned, the white sepulcher symbol is associated with a number of the materialized principles that govern the society on the one hand and favor the dehumanization and vice on the other hand. As in the case with the snake symbol, this one is also connected with the Bible. "White sepulcher" is a phrase taken from the book of Mathew. Specifically, there is a passage, where Matthew describes it as an object that has a beautiful surface but is rotten, evil, and horrible inside of it.

Finally, the rivets also have a symbolic meaning in the novel by Conrad. They are used to put stress on the company's stagnation. When Marlow asked the company to provide him with the rivets to fix the steamer, he faced some problems, while the company evidently did not bother to help him. Interestingly, even though Marlow needed the rivets to find Kurtz for the company, he did not get the required support. Moreover, it can also be highlighted that the rivets as a part of machinery manifest not only the lack of progress but also the absence of effectiveness.

The Pervasiveness of Darkness and the Problem of Evil

Darkness is a powerful symbol in the novel, being at the same time a central topic of Heart of Darkness. To begin with, it should be said that the story is structured in the form of framing so that the tale by Marlow starts in literal darkness, and it also ends up under the same condition. What is more, the setting of the story is always either dark or subdued. This is, in fact, what one faces when one finds himself in the jungle: the abyss of darkness. In the story, the darkness is initially seen as a literal concept and later transforms into a philosophical concept in the course of time.

In such a way, a common idea of the darkness turns around its entity that is able to unite all the unknown, mystical, unseen, extremely frightening, and hazardous. In the novel, people encountering the darkness are afraid of what is hidden within it. In other words, darkness as a concept that masks the fears of the people is twice as scarier. It is said that in the emptiness of the landscape, a cry arose whose shrillness pierced the still air like a sharp arrow flying straight to the very heart of the land (Conrad 123). Therefore, people who come across the complete darkness were mostly bothered by the things that lay within this obscureness (Odak). These people heard that frightening scream somewhere nearby, and it was far more thrilling taking into account that it was hard to prepare themselves for something that was not even seen. The idea of the potential danger is frightening itself, while the awareness of its closeness scares even more when you cannot prepare yourself for the protection.

In addition to this, the darkness also effectively covers the acts of savages. It is said that those who go into the wild, will have to live in accordance with the rules of the savage place. In the case of the novel, there were certain regions of darkness, where any savage was able to operate in the filthiest ways if needed. The idea is that no one will ever find out about what can be done under the screen of night. Importantly, this is a characteristic of the jungle, something that can hardly ever happen somewhere in a civilized European city. The best example to illustrate this function of darkness is the one where the Manager suggests hanging the scoundrel as he helped Kurtz with the ivory procurement. As far as the incident took place in Congo, a place that is far from the lights of civilized society, it was a common and appropriate thing to do.

Colonization as Destruction

Colonization is another cross-cutting issue in the novel by Joseph Conrad. In the book, colonization, ironically, manifests a mighty destructive power. It is noteworthy to mention that Kurtz expresses his own altruistic attitude towards the concept of colonization. According to the man, he used to believe that Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing (Conrad 65). His initial understanding of colonization seems to be a hopeful prediction for a better life. Nevertheless, he did not know that colonization is a more complicated concept with a variety of hidden traps and pitfalls.

It should also be noted that there are others who also support the philosophy of Kurtz. For instance, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs is an organization that had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance that is connected with the civilizing of the savage people of Congo (Conrad 102). Interestingly enough, in the end, he saw the role of the whites as equalized to the one possessed by gods, and said that the whites must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings ... with the might of a deity (Conrad 102). There were also several other characters who believed in the idea of "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways" (Conrad 21). The intentions and hopes of all these people, however, did not survive the pressure of real life.

The main character of the novel does not envision colonization as an ideal system that is likely to serve the purpose of the men. Charles Marlow is the man who sees the real side of the colonization practice. The character gives a wide description of colonization with the following words: The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much (Conrad 10).

In such a way, for him, colonization was not a dream that could make everyone happy. He saw it as it was, with all the flaws, physically exhausted workers, awfully deplorable conditions, as well as greedy and insidious co-workers who would do anything to gain the biggest profit. The colonization of the face of the company is a kind of a steamroller that is likely to crash everything that does not fit into its structure for the sake of the forthcoming revenue. Interestingly, the readers vividly see the crack in the idea of colonization in the scene at Kurtz's station. Charles Marlow experienced real savagery when he saw many decapitated heads of those who dared rebel. Marlow was both shocked and irritated, Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear? There had been enemies, criminals, workers and these were rebels (Conrad 121). The real nature of colonization has always been all about suffering, death, and destruction. Therefore, illustrating this, Kurtz who once had some noble plans with regards to the colonization, eventually felt that he needed to "Exterminate all the brutes! (Conrad 103).

All things considered, it goes without saying that the symbolism works together with the central topics of Heart of Darkness to create a true literary masterpiece. Joseph Conrad is a masterful writer who managed to use his own experience and the current central for his time topic of colonization with the aim to raise the hearts of people despite their brightest thoughts and most complicated intentions. The ability of the author to uncover possibilities, transfer meanings, and look into the darkness of a man's soul is mesmerizing. 

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