Home » The Visions of Light vs Darkness

The Visions of Light vs Darkness

When Joseph Conrad composed Heart of Darkness he created a literary masterpiece which embodied the essence of light contrasting with darkness. Throughout the novel Conrad constantly utilizes the images of light and dark and uses them to mold a vision, which the reader is then able to use to decipher the literal and metaphorical meanings of the novel. As Conrad said, my task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel- it is, before all, to make you see.

Crankshaw 34) In Heart of Darkness Conrad makes the reader see by absorbing into every aspect possible of the book images of lightness and darkness. The light and dark images of the novel contrast not only each other but them selves allowing the reader to envision the struggle one encounters once they have met with the darkness in their heart. The setting, symbols, and the characters each contain light and dark images create the center theme of the novel.

The physical setting of the novel plays a major role in the journey through Heart of Darkness in both a physical or literal sense as well as in the metaphorical journey through ones own heart. Each and every aspect of the setting can be paralleled to darkness and unknown aspects of ones own self. This aspect provides for the metaphorical ways of interpreting the novel. The novel opens on the deck of a large sailing vessel called the Nellie. As the reader is introduced to each character onboard the ship the sun is continuing its decent and shortly all will be exposed to the utter darkness brought upon with the approach of night.

Marlow then begins the journey, which will bring the reader into the far reaches of the African Congo. This beginning scene is the first use of the darkness. These images are used to foreshadow the mystery of what lies ahead for Marlow on his journey. Marlow uses the first images of light verses the dark or the civilized verses the uncivilized when he imagines what the past must have been like on the Thames Estuary: Light came out of this river since- you say Knights? Yes; but it was like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds.

We live in a flicker-may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. (Conrad 7) Within this narrative paragraph Marlow sets the tone for the rest of the novel. He speaks of what culture of people brought civilization or light to Europe, as he describes it, Light came out of this river. Within this paragraph Marlow reveals one of his greatest fears. This is the thought of how uncivilized man could survive in the dark time when there was no technology or sophisticated people.

Marlow then goes on to discuss how short and meaningless our lives really are compared to the light of all life and history. Another important aspect of the paragraph is the use of the word, knight representing nobility accomplished during the flicker of civilization. It is not only what Marlow says that makes him fit in with the solemn setting but it is also his appearance: Marlow is pointedly described as sitting in the pose of Buddha, suggesting that he has been the recipient of a weird Enlightenment, which he is impelled to share with his listeners. (Bennett 76)

Within the story Marlow narrates to the crew and the reader by taking his listeners back into the darkness of yesterday. As Marlow approaches the African coast, the reader is able to visualize the dusting of colonies left behind by great explorers. These colonies barely survive; they neither expand nor retract as the years continue to pass by. The light of civilization obviously does not belong in a place as blackened with uncivilized cultures as in Africa. The light has been unable to penetrate the darkness. Once locked within the country Marlow finds his surroundings extremely harsh:

The Congo is described as a place of intense mystery whose stifling heat, whispering sounds, and strange shifts of light and darkness place the foreigner in a kind of trance which produces fundamental changes in the brain, causing acts that range from the merely bizarre to the most extreme and irrational violence. (Telegan 98) In the above mentioned quote Diane Telegan sums up the theme of light and darkness and even goes on farther to discuss the effects of it to a human. She suggests that it is the setting of the Congo that causes Kurtz to go insane.

The setting causes many of the characters to go insane, The sun was too much for him, or the country perhaps (Conrad 80). Marlow says this as he views the body left hanging on the limb of a tree after the native took his own life. Marlow assumes that the native killed himself because he could not deal with life in as harsh as a setting as the Congo is. This is at the beginning of the novel before Marlow has begun on his journey within his heart. Perhaps if his journey had already begun, Marlow would have assumed that it was the darkness that he could not live with. Shortly after this scene Marlow begins his journey to the inner station.

Once on the journey into the Congo it is very important to notice the transformation of the jungle itself as Marlow travels closer to Kurtz. When Marlow first enters the Congo it is not that dense with forest. The sun flows heavily through the trees causing great discomfort. Once Marlow is aboard the ship and on his passage down the river the forest becomes more and more impenetrable. The river is dark brown and just barely flowing, the forest becomes so thick right before they reach the inner station that the men aboard the steamer could not even see the savages that would soon ambush their boat.

Once at the inner station the setting alters to that of infernal worship. Marlow in the beginning of the third part of the novel describes the setting as he first encounters the inner station: I looked around, and I dont know why, but I assure you that never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness. (Conrad 94) Just the setting itself is so concentrated with the darkness of Kurtz that it almost consumes Marlows soul.

It is supernatural the way that Kurtz is treated like a divine creator, his powers are infinite and he grotesquely abuses them. Kurtz had been so devoured by the darkness within himself that this led him to irrational violence. Those who displeased Kurtz would have to confront his violent wrath. The remains of these unfortunates are viewed by the rest of the cult, upon the stakes that pierce through the remains of their withered skulls. Marlow, somehow, survives his confrontation with the darkness in the Congo and conquers his fears. He is then able to return back to the light setting of civilization.

The setting would not be such a significant factor of the novel if it werent combined with the symbolic images located within the setting. Nearly every object of this dense book contains a deeper meaning, which in some way can be associated with the theme of light and darkness. The river is the first of these symbols to appear in the story. From the very beginning of the novel there is comparison of the two rivers which act as vessels to the inner core of the darkness. The first river is the Thames which brings life to Europe. The second river is the Congo River, which represents the ill of the uncivilized.

Right away as the reader is able to visualize both settings of each river, they are able to decipher Conrads metaphor of civilization, representing goodness and light and the uncivilized representing evil and darkness. As the crew onboard the Nellie wait for the turn of the tide, there are other boats floating on top of the river with their lights gleaming out over the still water. In the Congo there are no lights, only the fear of being eaten by the cannibals which hide so delicately camouflaged in the bush. Neither river is flowing during the time of the course of the story.

This represents a time lapse that occurred while Marlow was going back into his mind and even farther within himself to remember the darkness, which he encountered. Perhaps the most graphic symbolic image using the river metaphor is in the ending of the book, The brown current (that) ran swiftly out of the heart of the darkness (Conrad 129). It is here that Conrad retreats from the intensity of the novel once again upon the river of the Congo whose color is as murky and mysterious as the secrets which it keeps. Elaine Ward thought that this quote was:

Perhaps the ultimate description of the savagery and uncivilization of the Congo as Marlow and Kurtz try to quickly escape the savagery and death of the Congo. With their escape and these words comes the title of the book, Heart of Darkness (Ward, webpage 1) The symbolic image of the reader was so significant and profound that it does become the title of the novel. It is this title, Heart of Darkness, which offers a first impression to the reader that suggest the novel contains deeper interpretations beyond their literal meanings. The novel is densely composed with much symbolism.

The title is just one example of a piece of symbolism, which contains many different meanings: The heart of darkness serves both as an image of the interior workings of the mind of a man, which are dark and foreign to all observers. The literal journey into the jungle is a metaphor, or a symbol, for the journey into the uncharted human soul. On another level, the voyage into the wilderness can be read as a voyage back to Eden, or to the very beginning of the world. On still another level, the actual trip into and then out of the African continent can be seen as metaphor for sin and redemption. (Telegen 98)

Here the several different meanings of the novel are clearly stated and supported by different events which take place during the journey. The story itself is a symbol or a metaphorical journey into the darkness of the human heart. As Marlow journeys down the river into the heart of the Congo, he is also on a journey into the depths of heart and discovers things such as evil and darkness which he never knew existed. The main character, Marlow, is a symbol for the author, Joseph Conrad who also during his life went on a voyage into the Congo and had nearly an identical experience to that of Marlow.

The objects which appear in the novel are similar in content, most have multiple, contrary meanings. Ivory is one symbol which is found in the heart of the Congo, or in the heart of Marlow. This image has a role which is just as superior as the river. Ivory is an aspect of the novel which is very complex as it contains many different meanings and can be interpreted in many different ways. It holds a different meaning depending on whether or not it is in a relationship with another aspect of the novel, such as that with the white men.

The first way to examine this symbol is by taking into deliberation its appearance and its derivation. Ivory is a pearl white color. Generally, white represents light, goodness, and purity. Before man placed a value over this object all these qualities were true. Ivory comes from the tusks of male elephants which are large, powerful, and wild creatures, giving ivory a sense of life. These elephants can be found in the heart of Africa were the natural way thrives and civilization has not yet destroyed and industrialized. This is a dark place because it is so mysterious and unknown.

Then the white men came from Europe with greed in their hearts and souls to colonized and depleted Africa of its natural beauty and assets. The life of a man or animal should be held much higher than of a non-living object. When the greed of the white men took over, the value of ivory became equal with that of any native or animal. In Heart of Darkness the pure, white ivory represents the greed, darkness, and evil in the white mans soul. It is in this aspect that the images of light and dark contrast with not only each other but also themselves as white is no longer a representation of light.

Conrads first description of the power of the ivory clearly depicts the profound effect the jewel has over the white men: Everything else in the station was in a muddleheads, things, and buildings. Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass wire set into the depths of the darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory. (Conrad 29) This paragraph describes how much the white men are willing to sacrifice for wealth. Much of which they are sacrificing is not even theirs.

So much is given to the effort of obtaining the ivory that the need for ivory becomes an obsession rather than an occupation. It is Kurtzs obsession for ivory which drove him farther and farther into the heart of the Congo. It is here that he becomes insane and no longer is consuming by the means of greed, but it is greed that consumes him (Telegen 97). The greed, which is caused by the ivory, is the driving force of evil within the novel. Another symbol which occurs in the novel but it frequently overlooked is that of the two women in the beginning stages of the novel who knitting black wool.

Obviously this short scene has some symbolic significance simply because they are knitting with black wool. Because this scene takes place before Marlow truly begins his journey, one may think that the women are merely foreshadowing the darkness which Marlow will encounter on his voyage. This is true, but the true meaning of the women and the black wool lies deeper than just upon the surface. These women sit waiting outside of Marlows interview room and as he walks in. These women can be seen as symbols potential judges as they recall the Fates of Greek mythology:

Marlows journey to Africa starts from a whited sepulchre of a city, presumably Brussels, where amid images of the Fates and of the Styx he obtains an appointment as captain of a steamer on a mighty river in a place of darkness, obviously the Congo (Bennett 76) Carl Bennett recalls the meeting Marlow had with the women knitting the black wool as a journey which began on land with the encounter of the women which foreshadowed his fate in the Congo. Another approach to this symbol is to imagine that the women serve as guardians to the gates of hell.

As Marlow walks through the door and receives the commission onboard the steamer, it is like he is walking through the gates of hell or Hades. The symbol of the river then transforms to that of the Greek mythology in which the person going to hell must pay the boatman a token for his one way voyage across the sea of the dead. Unlike any person on their way to the mythical hell, Marlow did not reach hell, he nearly brushed upon it and was able to escape. Kurtzs fate was not as fortunate. The knitting women are not the only image which takes place at the beginning of the novel.

As Marlow begins narrating his story he and the crew are waiting onboard the Nellie for the tide to turn. The turning of the tide represents the turning of the revolution which is taking place in the African Congo. The white men are continually trying to colonize the jungle so that they can easily get the ivory out and make wealth off of the land which in the future the hope to industrialize. The tide in history is about to turn. The European Kurtz symbolizes the decaying Western civilization for that light can not penetrate the darkness of the Congo.

Also in the beginning of the novel just before the story begins Marlow is described as sitting in a Buddha position. This position represents, for most people, experience and great knowledge. These are the qualities that he gained while venturing into his heart of darkness. Candles are another symbol which, like ivory, represent light, clarity, and goodness, but in the novel represent nothing more than white supremacy. The company manager is the only one of the first or outer station who had any right to the candles.

In essence, this white man is the giver of light, of life. A black person is never given a candle for they are uncivilized, only the civilized men are welcome to the light. The candles also symbolize hope, which the white people are allowed to have but the natives are not entitled to. Once at the inner station, which Kurtz has turned into his own civilization, the reader is able to find symbolism in many different objects. A Russian member of the cult-like society serves as a guide for Marlow and his crew. He is a symbol of the reality of the darkness in the soul.

The heads which are propped up on stakes represent the fate of one who could not handle the encounter with the darkness in their soul. The very existence of this primitive civilization represents the death which is in the air, on the ground, upon the buildings, and in the inhabitants. The inner station represents the darkness of the uncivilized. There are many characters in the novel and even the most minute has key roles in the sequencing of the novel. The most important characters or groups of characters which appeared in the novel and are essential to the progression of the journey are Marlow and Kurtz.

The relationship which they have with one another is the main thrust of the story. The natives which appear in three different stages through out the novel have a vital role, for they appear in scenes throughout the novel and interact with the symbolic objects also carry with them a symbolic aspect of light and darkness. Charlie Marlow, as the main character, is very complicated. Because of the structure of the story Marlow plays two roles; one as a narrator and the other as the messenger on the voyage.

The book is set up in a cylindrical style so that when the reader is first introduced to Marlow he seems tainted with wisdom, for he appears to know the meaning to life which would essentially make it not worth living. Marlow feels obliged to convey his story to his mates as they wait for the night to pass and the tide to turn. As the narration begins the reader is then introduced to the old, nave Marlow who once walked the earth. It is through the eyes of this Marlow that we see the world change and develop as he transforms from innocence or light, to understand evil or darkness.

As an European Marlow had never really encountered anyone of significant difference until along the shore of the African Coast. Here Marlow meets the first grouping of natives which he feels apathy for, but nevertheless he doesnt take too much notice of them. Marlow doesnt think of them as humans but merely as something which grew out of the African soil. They are just assets to the African surroundings which represent death and suffering. As Marlow is travelling through the African Congo, he is going through a journey in his soul. As the darkness appears in the jungle it appears within Charlies heart.

Marlow is on the quest to find Kurtz at the inner station. One may interpret this in such a manner, that Kurtz does not even exist as a real character but merely as a representation of Marlows evil and darkness. Once at the inner station and confronted with Kurtz, Marlow kills him, therefore killing the darkness in his heart and being able to escape the grasp of the river. In another light, Kurtz can be viewed as another aspect of Marlow. Kurtz traveled down the same path in life as Marlow now is. Once confronted with the darkness in his soul, Kurtz was overwhelmed and consumed by it.

Marlow, by seeing Kurtzs fate, and realizing that that could be him, chose not to travel as far down that river as Kurtz. Because of Kurtzs warning Marlow was able to escape being engulfed by his darkness. If Kurtz and Marlow are one then the differences in where they are according to the darkness should be taken into consideration. Marlow is merely on the journey towards his darkness while Kurtz is being suffocated by his own. It was the greed for the ivory which drove Kurtz to this stage of insanity. Once Kurtz isolated himself from the civilized world he developed characteristics similar to that of a cult leader.

He was able to manipulate minds of certain native tribal members to follow him and his ways. He gave himself god-like qualities such as divine wisdom and inner strength while in reality his inner self was in complete turmoil. The love and the hate within his soul were in a struggle to conquer the heart. As one critic said, To call Kurtz an egoist is surely one of the great understatements of our time (Johnson 70). As the relationship between Kurtz and Marlow develops they gain a certain respect for each other in that they understand each other. They are like one.

When Marlow sees Kurtzs death he knows that if he went into his darkness any farther he too would meet his death. Kurtzs last words were The horror! The horror! (Conrad 138). At this point the reader is able to make the assumption that the hate won over the love in Kurtzs heart. The natives, which appear in three different stages of the novel have a role which is second to only Kurtz and Marlow. The natives embody the sum and substance of darkness within the Congo. The natives serve not only as characters but also as symbols which transform as Marlow gets closer to Kurtz.

This transformation takes place in three different stages; the natives at the company, the cannibals who serve as guides on the quest to Kurtz, and those who are the protectors of Kurtz and are completely lost in their obsession for Kurtz. Each of these groups represent not only the darkness of the uncivilized world of the Congo but they also are symbolic of Marlows maturing process as he gets closer to Kurtz and closer to the darkness in his heart. The first groups of natives are located at the company station which is on the outside of the dense jungle.

As Marlow is forced to stay here for a few months with the steamer is being repaired, he sees many uncivilized things. These natives are slaves whose lives amount to nothing except for hard work in extreme conditions. Marlow is disgusted by the way that they are treated. This is the first time in his life that he is exposed to the evilness of civilization. These natives are nave and prone to death like Marlow is at the beginning of his journey. Once the steamer is repaired, a group of cannibals is sent with Marlow to guide him to the inner station.

These savages are slightly more advanced then the previous. The one thing which amazes Marlow is their will power. They are able to sustain tremendous amounts of time without food while not killing anyone to eat onboard the boat. A white man probably would not be able to sustain circumstances like this. The cannibals protect Marlow and take him to the inner station. Once at the inner station the reader is introduced to a new kind of native. The natives which appear here are the followers of Kurtz. They are corrupted by his manipulations, and out of fear, are willing to obey his every command.

All of the natives are hollow men. The civilized man is equipped with the lusts and desires for a rich and fulfilled life style while these men are happy in being one with themselves and nature. The reason why these men do not get lost in their own darkness like Marlow and Kurtz is because Marlow and Kurtz and, outsiders, unable to read nature and, at least in the case of Marlow, constantly and uselessly pondering its inscrutable intention, the native is one with it, embraced by it, fairly breathed by it (Johnson 71).

This paragraph explains clearly why the white men go insane when in isolation and why the natives are defined as hallow men who are easily manipulated and abused by the white men. Here, within explanation of characters, the reader is able to decipher the secret as to why light and darkness can not intertwine with one another. By reading the novel and comprehending all of the different aspects, one will be able to go through both interior and exterior journeys of Marlow.

While reading Heart of Darkness one must take George Moores advice in that you must study the paragraph, and afterwards the page, and after the page the chapter. And the chapter (should be)sought in relation to the book: the book was always in mind (Moore 167). This quote represents the cylindrical cycle which the novel is set in. Once Marlow is finished with his story the untold story of the narrator will begin, and all through his adventure he will surely keep in mind the story of Marlow and the light and darkness in us all.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.