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Old Wednesday, June 06, 2007
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Default Heart of Darkness: Symbolism

The complexity with profundity of most of the modern writers leads them to fill their wirings with greater significance than we find on the surface. Symbolism means a deeper meaning in what has been written than meets the eye. “Heart of Darkness” is replete with symbols. Every person and everything means more than what we find on a superficial view. The novel is based on the facts of history as well as on the facts of Conrad's own life; but Conrad has tried to convey the evasive and elusive truth underlying both the historical facts and his personal experiences.

Almost every character in “Heart of Darkness” has some symbolic significance. The central figure Mr. Kurtz, firstly, symbolizes the greed and the commercial and corrupt mentality of the western countries. Secondly, he symbolizes the white man’s love for power.

Power corrupts man and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Thirdly, the change, which comes over him during his stay among the savages, symbolizes the influence of barbarism upon a civilized man. It also symbolizes the irresistible influences of barbarism upon a civilized man cut off from civilized society.

Where there is no check on a man, the worst of him may come out.

Finally, Mr. Kurtz symbolizes the repentant sinner. Mr. Kurtz's desire to collect the maximum quantity of ivory conveys the exploitation of the backward people of Congo by the white colonizers.

Marlow too has a symbolic role in the novel. Firstly, he symbolizes the spirit of adventure and a love of knowledge. Secondly, he symbolizes the thoughtful observer of human life and the thoughtful student of human nature. He also symbolizes a philosophical approach to human life by constantly meditating upon what he observes. To some extent, he too symbolizes the influence of savagery because his own primitive instincts have been awakened when he heard a lot about Mr. Kurtz’s way of life and then by his close personal contact with that man.

The subsidiary characters too possess symbolic significance. There is the manager of the Central Station. It is wrong to say that he symbolizes inefficiency. If he had been inefficient, he would not have been able to continue at his post. He symbolizes spiritual emptiness. If he is unable to inspire respect or love or fear, it is because he is spiritually barren and has no originality and no solid ideas in his head, though he can do his manager’s work like a machine.

The brick-maker acts as a “papier-mâché Mephistopheles” and symbolizes cunning and trickery. There are numerous white agents or traders loitering around the Central Station because they are idle. These men are described by Marlow as “faithful pilgrims”.

The cannibal crew on Marlow’s steamer really symbolizes efficiency because they do not shirk work. More than efficiency, they symbolize self-restraint because they do not try to satisfy their hunger by killing and eating white men’s flesh.

The knitting women in the beginning of the story symbolize the Fates who determine the future of every human being on the earth. These knitting women symbolize the danger which lies in store for Marlow.

In the outer room the two women knitted black wool, feverishly.

The majestic-looking native woman, who appears on the riverbank when Mr. Kurtz is being taken away, symbolizes a woman’s strong devotion and steadfast loyalty to her lord and lover.

Mr. Kurtz's fiancée also symbolizes loyalty but her loyalty is that of an innocent, inexperienced woman who is deluded by false appearances and does not know the ways of the world. The fiancée symbolizes the hold of an illusion upon a woman’s mind.

The Russian symbolizes inquisitiveness or the desire to learn. But he also symbolizes loyalty and fidelity, the two virtue which Marlow also symbolizes.

Many sights seen by Marlow also possess symbolic significance. The French warship firing aimlessly into the forest, and the rock being blasted with gun powder but without any purpose symbolize the sense of futility and an aimless endeavor. Ivory symbolizes the white men’s greed.

Then there is the sight of one over-worked and starved native labourers dying slowly of disease and starvation. The condition of these men symbolizes the sufferings of the natives who do not receive any sympathy from the white colonizers.

They were dying slowly … They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, - nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation.

The chain-gang with half a dozen native men chained to one another, and each wearing an iron collar round his neck, symbolize the white man’s sway over the ignorant backward people without any concern for their welfare.

“… the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all
were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking.

The description of the natural scenery also serves a symbolic purpose. The scenery is wild and awe-inspiring. The silence of the woods and the abundance of trees symbolizes mystery and horror. Marlow has given us many pictures of the thick, dense, matted forests.

And the river was there – fascinating – deadly – like a snake.

The city of Brussels symbolizes the inner corruption and degeneracy of white man’s civilization. Brussels seems to Marlow to be the white sepulcher – something outwardly pleasant and holy but inwardly rotten.

Finally, Marlow’s whole journey into the Congo has symbolic significance besides its literal meaning. It may be regarded as a journey into subconscious mind of Marlow in particular and of mankind in general. “Heart of Darkness” is the story of a journey involving spiritual change in the voyager. Symbolically, Marlow’s journey into the Congo is an arduous physical activity or adventure. The literal meaning of ‘heart of darkness’ is the inmost region of Congo; but symbolically this phrase means the inmost region of man’s mind or soul. As Marlow stands for Conrad, the novel becomes a kind of Conrad’s exploration of his own mind during his visit to the Congo in 1890.

In the business of exploration, both exploiter and exploited are corrupted.

In short, the imperial exploitation of the Congo has effectively been conveyed through a symbolic description of numerous scenes and situations.

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