December 5, 2007
The Duplicity of Symbolism in Heart of Darkness
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
- T. S. Eliot
Joseph Conrad‟s novella Heart of Darkness is saturated with symbolism. Within its
pages, Marlow journeys into the African jungle and uncovers a dark hidden truth about himself and about the world in which he lives. Since Marlow‟s journey is also an inner journey, many
things Marlow encounters assume symbolic meanings which he uses to help define his experience. Rita Bergenholtz supports this assertion, suggesting that, “in order to deal with
people, places, and things Marlow must transform them into abstractions or symbols” (103).
Conrad suggests that in reading his novella, the reader must interpret his symbolism. He writes that “the inner truth is hidden” (132) and that “one sometimes gets…a flash of insight. The
essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface” (137). As a result, the symbols throughout
the tale very often take on a double meaning. Collectively, they serve to expose the disparity between the attractive façade of civilization and the brutal inner truth which it covers; therefore, an understanding of the duplicity of the symbolism in Heart of Darkness offers keen insight into
Conrad‟s intention and, thus, in understanding the work as a whole. As the narrator recalls
Marlow‟s tale, he shapes it conscious of its effect, offering various symbols throughout the work to substantiate and support the inner truth the Marlow‟s journey uncovers. Within Heart of
Darkness, there is an implicit observation that brutality is the means by which our notion of civility is achieved and spread. The duplicitous nature of the symbolism offered throughout the work serve to expose this ironic relationship. Conrad, therefore, juxtaposes the double meanings found within his symbols in order to contrast the idea of civilization and brutality and to urge the reader to question this ironic relationship.
The title Heart of Darkness itself is duplicitous in that it refers both to the unexplored
depths of the jungle as well as to the dark and brutal impulses of the human soul. Lillian Feder supports this idea, adding that, “Of course, the voyage into the heart of darkness is, on one level, a symbolic representation of an exploration of the hidden self and therefore of man‟s capacity for evil” (162). On another level, Marlow‟s journey is symbolic of the European exploitation of the
African jungle, where darkness is the unknown. Darkness, as a symbol, emanates from the title and reverberates throughout the work, symbolizing both the unknown and the unpleasant. There are, however, other symbolic elements in this work which, through closer scrutiny, might offer a flash of insight into Conrad‟s hidden truth.
Marlow‟s tale (proper) is framed by a narrative involving four elderly professional gentlemen together on a boat for a relaxing evening. Marlow‟s tale, as Conrad presents it in the
work, is actually a recollection narrated by one of these gentlemen. Early in the narrative, the accountant brings out a box of dominoes (99), which Conrad offers as his first symbol to carry the weight of two meanings. William Rogers supports this claim, adding that, “the
dominoes…suggest that the exploitative colonialism in Africa serves at least in part to provide the diversions of a civilization whose surface appearance is of order and culture, but whose
deeper reality may well be horrific” (44). In other words, the dominoes represent the absurdity
that such a trivial game of chance – a game played by supposedly civilized and refined
gentlemen – is a direct product and perhaps even one cause of the brutality of the European plunder of Africa in search of that precious ivory. Enlightened to this truth, Marlow isn‟t
inclined to play dominoes; instead, he feels compelled to explain the dark truth hidden in the ivory of the dominoes. So, he spins his tale.
Marlow‟s tale begins with his seeking employment which he eventually finds with the
Company, whose interest lies in the harvesting of ivory from the African jungle. The Company also takes on dual symbolic meanings early in Marlow‟s tale. The Company appears repeatedly
as a symbol of progress, of the social order, and of civilization, yet one which Marlow becomes painfully aware that is built on the horrors and atrocities of conquest and colonization. Marlow remarks on this unfortunate condition: “The conquest of the earth…is not a pretty thing when
you look into it too much” (Conrad 103). Marlow, however, does look into it deeply.
In an attempt to conquer and civilize the jungles of Africa, the Company has set up stations in the region along the river, up which Marlow navigates his steamboat. Throughout his journey up river, Marlow stops at the Company‟s stations to get information and supplies and, eventually his vessel. These stations had begun to take on profound symbolic meaning for him as he traveled deeper into the jungle, beyond the reach of civilization. In addition to the three stations, there are still other less obvious objects Marlow encounters along his journey which assume dual, contrasting symbolic meanings, further revealing civilization‟s dark inner truth.
The Company‟s stations, however, assume a most significant duplicitous nature for Marlow. At the same time the stations Marlow encounters along his journey indicate physical, geographical points of reference, each station also represents an internal quality of both the Company and the
individual men, like himself, who comprise the Company and the social order under which it operates. Referring at once to progress and the spread of European civilization and yet also to the brutal atrocities committed to spread civilization, the stations very effectively serve to expose the brutality lying beneath surface of the civilization of which Marlow and the Company were a part. Marlow metonymically describes the three stations together with their managers.
The Outer Station is described as a “muddle” of activity where “a stream of manufactured
goods [was] sent into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory” (115). The busy “muddle” of activity gives the necessary illusion of productivity. The Outer
Station represents the façade, the appearance of order and commerce, of work being done by slaves, and the books “which were in apple-pie order” (115). The accountant reinforces
Marlow‟s subtle inference that the sufferings of men are subordinate to the Company when the accountant “exhibited a gentle annoyance” with a sick man. “The groans of the sick person,‟ he
said, „distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate‟” (115). Marlow‟s observation reinforces the idea that the Company (and
the civilization it symbolizes) makes a conscious and diligent effort to maintain a neat and orderly, even if illusory, appearance. Marlow describes the chief accountant at the Outer Station as having a very neat appearance. His clothing symbolizes his civility.
Marlow comes to see the clothing the Europeans wear is charged with a dualistic symbolic meaning. In the wildness of the jungle, the contrast of a neat and clean appearance was an affirmation of progress and of the promise of civilization. As earlier stated, the attire of the chief accountant was an impressive testament to his supposed civility and hence, his supposed superiority. During his time at the accountant‟s Outer Station, Marlow also encounters a dying
slave attempting to wear a white collar like that of the European pilgrims. “He had tied a bit of
white worsted round his neck – Why? Where did he get it? Was it a badge – an ornament – a
charm – a proprietary act? Was there any idea at all connected with it?” (114). Conrad invites an
answer to the questions he has posed two paragraphs later when he describes the neat appearance of the Company‟s chief accountant. He says of the accountant, “in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That‟s backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-
fronts were achievements of character” (114). Marlow was puzzled at the time at the absurdity of the dying slave‟s collars but was impressed by the accountant‟s; he nonetheless offers this
image to his listeners as an opportunity for objective observation – one upon which Roger West
While the collars represent the violence, oppression, and hatred that dominate the
European‟s treatment of the African, the white worsted is an attempt by an enslaved
African native to gain the magical powers that he believes the white collar possesses…To
the black man, this „bit of white thread‟ symbolizes the power and magic that the white
man has used to enslave him and his people. In it are contained the powers of the white
deities, powers the black man hopes to possess. (223)
At the same time that the clothing of the European pilgrims represented a progression toward the triumph of European civilization in Africa, to the natives the starched white collars were glaring symbols of brutal oppression. The duplicitous symbol of neat clothing extends also to the group of men Marlow encounters from the Eldorado Exploring Expedition during his stay at the Central Station. Marlow recalls the arrival of the group as “headed by…a white man in new
clothes and tan shoes” (Conrad 127) and that “to tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire” (128). The group is not part of Marlow‟s Company; nonetheless Conrad uses these
men to emphasize the disparity between their supposed civility – as their attire might suggest –
and their true barbaric natures.
Moving further into the jungle‟s interior in his journey into the heart of darkness, Marlow
comes to the Central station. He describes the manager of the Central Station as inspiring “uneasiness” (118). Marlow also notes that “he had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. That was evident in such things as the deplorable state of the station. He had no learning, and no intelligence” (118). He also mentions that the pilgrims who also inhabit the
Central Station “beguiled the time by backbiting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of way” (121). The Central Station represents the futile efforts of a lusty ambition and internal bickering which lay just beneath the surface of the more attractive and seemingly productive façade of the Company. Marlow realizes that in traveling deeper into the „heart of
darkness‟ further away from the grip of civilization, there is a decline of civility into the darker human impulses approaching brutality. In this enlightenment lies Marlow‟s connection to Kurtz.
During his time at the Central Station, Marlow encounters an oil painting by Kurtz. Marlow recalls: “Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber – almost black. The
movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torch-light on the face was sinister”
(122). This painting is symbolic for Marlow on many levels, reflecting what he comes to understand. Mark Sexton notes that “Kurtz depicts the sketch‟s female figure in a highly
ambiguous stance: offering light against darkness, but herself unable to see the light her action offers” (387). Though this painting is also symbolic of Kurtz‟s psychological evolution, it also
emphasizes the disparity between civilization and brutality. Darkness also creeps into this powerful symbol as the unknown and uncivilized world against which the woman in the painting
holds her torch-light of civilization. That she is blindfolded is an identification of that façade which covers over the connection between the light of civilization and the darkness of human brutality.
Marlow has moved from a gentle annoyance of the Outer Station to the uneasiness of the Central Station; however, he must still travel further. Michael Levenson clarifies this point, offering that, “it then turns out, comically, cryptically, that the center is not near enough to the core; Marlow must travel hundreds of miles farther until he reaches the Inner Station” (153).
The Inner Station is where Marlow meets Kurtz, the station‟s chief. Both Kurtz and the Inner
Station represent the farthest depths of human experience. Marlow says that Kurtz “had taken a
high seat amongst the devils of the land” (Conrad 148). Just as Kurtz had reached the height of
prestige and productivity, he had also reached the dark depths of brutality, so much at to approach uncivilized. And being at the innermost point beyond the veil of civilization, his brutality had fully surfaced. His prestige and progress was a direct result of his brutality, yet seems to be unacceptable without the façade of civility. Marlow comes to realize this irony. The location of the Inner Station is as far as most have traveled in the darkness of that land, yet also, in reaching the station, Marlow, like Kurtz, has traveled deeper than most into the darkness of the human soul. “Within the uncanny geography of darkness these two antithetical images fuse into a spatial paradox. To travel to the edge is to find oneself at the heart, and to approach the center is to stand on the threshold” (Levenson 156). Marlow, however, contrasts himself with
Kurtz in the end: “I had peeped over the edge myself [but Kurtz] had made the last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot” (Conrad 171).
Marlow thus resists the plunge into darkness and leaves the Inner Station and travels back down river with Kurtz in his company – away from the brutality, back toward civilization.
The steamboat Marlow navigates up and down river also becomes a duplicitous symbol. When Marlow arrives in the jungle to assume control of his ship, it is at the bottom of the river. Marlow comments that he did not see the meaning then, but he fancies he sees it now (117). At the same time the steamboat was his and his mates‟ lifeline and last frail connection to the
civilized world, it is also the vehicle, the carrier, for the brutal oppression of the natives and the exploitation of the land. What Marlow fancies that he now sees is a response to this two-fold meaning. That the steamboat was at the bottom of the river symbolizes the decline, or the sinking, of European civilization and virtue in the midst of the primeval forces of the jungle, both natural and human; and yet, raising it out of the murky depths to continue its mission symbolizes the lusty drive to conquer and exploit that same primeval world.
This realization comes to Marlow „like a flash of inspiration‟ as he tells his tale, and the
symbols he uses serve to support his realization: that the guise of civilization is simply an attractive façade which covers over the dark human impulses present in every man, and that the veil of civilization holds only a tenuous grip over those impulses; and once removed, those dark impulses inevitably surface.
Marlow reiterates what he has already stated, that “one gets sometimes…a flash of
inspiration, you know” (Conrad 165). A flash of inspiration is what Conrad expects from his reader. Conrad intends for his reader to absorb his story largely through the symbols he uses, presented to the reader as glimpses into his foggy intention. “Thus, the narrator signals us, the
meaning of Marlow‟s whole story rests ultimately outside the tale itself, reflected in the illumination the tale has offered those who heard it” (Sexton 392). The purpose for Marlow‟s
(and hence Conrad‟s) tale, the narrator emphasizes, can be found “enveloping the tale which
brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that
sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine” (Conrad 101). This
illumination comes from the piecing together in recollection the collection of symbolic meanings which pervade and ornament the tale, in much the same way as Marlow seems to view his own history, as Lillian Feder suggests, “By viewing that world indirectly, through an image, Marlow
comes to closer grips with it than he has ever before been able to” (169). The reader is endowed
with the same benefit, as Marlow‟s use of symbols faithfully serves to expose the disparity
between the attractive façade of civilization and the dark inner truth of brutality which it covers, thus bringing the reader closer to the world, as it really is. In doing so, Conrad uses Marlow‟s
tale to urge his reader to question this ironic relationship between civilization and brutality.
Bergenholtz, Rita A. “Conrad‟s Heart of Darkness.” Explicator 53.2 (1995): 102-106. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Ann Arbor, MI: Border Classics. 2007.
Feder, Lillian. “Marlow‟s Descent Into Hell.” The Art of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Symposium.
Ed. R. W. Stallman. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1982. 162-170. Levenson, Michael. “On the Edge of the Heart of Darkness.” Studies in Short Fiction 23.2
Rogers, William N., II. “The Game of Dominoes in Heart of Darkness.” English Language
Notes 13 (1975): 42-45.
Sexton, Mark. “Kurtz‟s Sketch in Oils: Its Significance to Heart of Darkness.” Studies in Short
Fiction 24.4 (1987): 387-92.
West, Roger. “Conrad‟s Heart of Darkness.” Explicator 50.4 (1992): 222-23.