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Symbolism in Heart of Dearness

Conrad is a forerunner of the twentieth century novelists in his careful creation of the symbolic significance. In certain passages he elaborates his symbolic imagery so as to give a new dimension to descriptive writing. The external details are vivid in themselves but they do not remain merely scenic. Each has a symbolic value which deepens and enriches the emotional and moral elements involved in the picture. One of the finest pieces of such writing is the description of the steamboat immediately before it is attacked.

Conrad’s method here merges three elements: the perfect serenity of the night and the apparent safety of the steamboat; the inner moral significance of that in terms of the apparent ease of keeping a straight course as long as all is calm and peaceful; Marlow’s personal sense of his own security and his habit of escape into daydream fulfillment. The whole thing can be left at the level of description, but a study of the language reveals that Conrad is playing “the game of art” in every detail.

The universe, the steamboat, Marlow, and Kurtz, all seem part of a changeless placid pattern: a pattern of simple lines, curves and circles; of simple effects of light and dark on a flat surface. Walter Allen believes that, “The Heart of Darkness of the title is at once the heart of Africa, the heart of evil- everything that is nihilistic corrupt and malign – and perhaps the heart of man”. (122) According to Conrad (1958) himself, the story of “heart of darkness” is about the “criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing working Africa”.

(37) The most obvious symbolic image pattern in Heart of Darkness is perhaps the light-and-darkness imagery; no reader will miss such a striking metaphor, although it is easy to miss some of its subtleties. “Conrad’s use of colour symbolism in Heart of Darkness is extremely complex. ” (Haen, 1998, 314) But there is another dimension of the imagery just as important: if Marlow’s Journey up the Congo is away from light and toward darkness, it is also away from form and toward chaos.

From its outer shell of humanitarian idealism, the story progresses to Marlow’s reliance on his own skill and craft to the enigmatic and seductive behaviour of the natives to Kurtz’s lusts and a world less “Intended”, and finally to some un-specifiable “horror;” from its outer shell of carefully formulated commercial plan to its inner core of discriminate greed; from its outer shell of civilized constructs (passionless marble buildings, steamships, and railroads) toward mere raw material (rank vegetation, stockpiled ivory).

Sometimes the light-darkness and form-chaos imagery are strikingly conjoined, as when Marlow sees two women in a Brussels office giving form to black wool by knitting or when he meets the Harlequin, who both in speech and in consume exhibits a partial disintegration of normal form and a step away from simple nationality toward the dark universality of Kurtz. Theo D’Haen says in this regard;

“…what everyone seem to agree on is that Kurtz’s journey into literal darkness of Africa is initially motivated by his desire to bring light there, but that his experience there derives him into the figurative darkness of his own soul, thereby returning him to the primeval darkness he originally set out to combat. Kurtz has been corrupted by the very forces he set out to vanquish. ” (314) The first narrator in Heart of Darkness dwells pensively on an immense pathetic fallacy: the haze and darkness brooding over London.

He speaks of it three times in four paragraphs, reminding one of Conrad the Pole, native of a land where rough nature still had the ascendant in the men’s minds. But the gloom that is pendant over London is more than local colours. It is pending in Africa, where Marlow is aware of “the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an Inscrutable Intention. ” And he sees it again in the “half-shaped resolve” of Kurtz’s native woman when her god is carried back dying to his people. However, we are allowed occasionally to see glimpses of light through the Marlovian fog.

As the novel begins, both the first narrator and Marlow give voice to the same thoughts with subtle differences. “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth,” says Marlow, implying that this England, this London, are no longer dark, though the first narrator has just noted that they are quite hidden beneath the gloom. Then, looking at the Thames, Marlow puts in his own words what the other has just said about the “great knights-errant” of Elizabethan exploration, the “hunters for gold or pursuers of fame bearing the sword, and often the torch bearers of a spark from the sacred fire.

” Answering Marlow says, “Light came out of this river since-you say Knights? Yes, but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker-may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. ” Both voices give us the curious picture of torch carriers issuing out of darkness. Marlow, the English seamen, is modestly aware that the light of England s achievements and civilization was struck by men long dead that he and his contemporaries bask in the reflection of their glory.

The dark English coast recalls for Marlow the darkness of modern African which is the natural darkness of the jungle but more than that the darkness of moral vacancy, leading to the atrocities he has beheld in Africa. For Marlow, the moral darkness of Africa is not the simple darkness of native “ignorance”, but of white men who have blinded themselves and corrupted the natives by their claim to be light-bearers. Both Kurtz and Marlow have symbolic connotations too. Both are the agents of civilization as against primitivism.

Besides coming into contact with their own primitive selves, the civilized men must come into . contact with the primitive men and societies, before they can get to the bottom of their own natures, but they must not linger there too long. If they do, they may be hopelessly split away from their civilized selves and may become prey to satanic temptations like Kurtz in the heart of his African darkness. Marlow claims that the Roman conquest of England was “just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and men going at it blind-as is very proper for those who tackle darkness.

” What the civilized Romans did to the primitive English, the civilized English have done to the primitive Africans. Kurtz goes to Africa with all the intentions of civilizing the natives, but when he reaches there, he forgets his original mission, and behaves like another European exploiter. He advises the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to “Exterminate all the brutes. ” It is only on the level of animal reflex that Marlow makes a decisive move against his heritage. As the nightmare journey nears its climax, his very clothes, tokens of his European “reality” become irritating.

After the blood of the native helmsman stains his shoes, he impulsively casts them overboard. His impulse is to disassociate himself from the blood-guilt. Symbols of efficiency and intellectual superiority are also pervasive in the novel. Marlow has a great admiration for the accountant’s elegance, and his devotion to his job. When he tells Marlow about Kurtz, more efficient than all other- agents in sending out ivory, a dying Euroropean who has just come out of Kurtz’s territory is lying within earshot. But the accountant does not bother about the dying man and keeps himself absorbed in his work.

In the design of the novel there are the extremes represented on one hand as efficiency and intellectual superiority, signaled by the accountant and the “harlequin” respectively, pointing to Kurtz as head, and on the other hand extremes of inefficiency and inanity, represented by the anonymous official of the company, by the “brickmaker”, and the manager. When Marlow chooses the nightmare dominated by Kurtz in preference to the nightmare of the inferior traders, he gravitates to the pole of his own values, without fully exploring his kinship with Kurtz.

A further example of Marlow’s devotion to efficiency is built up around the handbook of seamanship which Marlow discovers in an abandoned hut, in front of which hung a “flag of some sort” and a “neatly stacked wood-pile”-the one a symbol of yet another nation planting its claim in African, the other a fine example of good method. Again, like Marlow, the young Russian is also a worshipper at the” shrine of efficiency and ideas. Jungle serves as a subtle and elaborative symbol of evil in the novel.

Moser writes that “going into the jungle seems to Marlow like traveling into one’s own past, into the world of one’s dreams, into the subconscious,” Finding the jungle described in the story as “lurking death,” “profound darkness,” and “evil”, he concludes that “the vegetation imagery means much more than female menace; it means the truth, the darkness, the evil, the death which lie within us, which we must recognize in order to be truly alive.

” The implication is that in siding with Kurtz, Marlow is in some Freudian and Nietzschean “way attracted into a revolt against the cage that society has made for him. But he makes plain that the savages in the Jungle are as “virtuous” and humane in their society as he is in his own. His revolt is only against the falsehoods that are ruining his society. Cannibalism and sexual perversion exist in the jungle, as in different form they exist in cities. One can conclude that familiarity with the “dark” races breeds contempt for one’s “better” in the sense of “more social” instincts.

Marlow puts it clearly that “the wilderness” had found Kurtz out early, “had taken on him a terrible vengeance,” had “echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core. ” Time is treacherous. This is part of the truth that Marlow says is “hidden-luckily, luckily. ” The river- that carried Marlow back in time “to the earliest beginnings of the world” also carried him forward to civilization’s superman, Kurtz. And this conquering genius, by the might of his Nietzsthean will, had not conquered but surrendered to the savage customs he most hated.

The implication is that he and the people that contributed to his making will disappear into the reality of Africa as torchlight disappears in sunlight. “Ivory forms an important real and symbolic leitmotif in the tale… it is the actual raw wealth which private individuals, colonial companies and imperial powers covet and as well as a symbolic center for their self-aggrandizing motives. ” (Goonetilleke 2007, 14) Ivory symbolizes the white man’s greed. Ivory is the commodity in which the Company’s agents are most interested. It is to collect ivory that these men have come here.

Apart from the symbolism of ivory, many sights seen by Marlow in the course of his travel also possess symbolic significance. For instance the French warship firing aimlessly into the forest, the rock being blasted with gunpowder but without any purpose, symbolize the sense of futility and an aimless endeavor. By mentioning these incidents, Marlow wishes to produce in our minds the feelings that human effort is being spent here to no purpose. Then there is sight of the over-worked and starved native laborers dying slowly of disease and starvation.

The condition of these men symbolizes the sufferings of the natives who do not receive any sympathy from white colonizers. Works Cited Allen, Walter. 1955. The English novel; a short critical history. New York: Dutton. Conrad, Joseph. 1958. Letters to William Blackwood; ed. W. Blackburn. Durham N. C. ; Duke University Press. Goonetilleke, D. C. R. A. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Routledge guides to literature. London: Routledge, 2007. Haen, Theo d’. (Un)Writing Empire. Cross/cultures, 30. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

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