Plot, theme, setting, characters, symbolism and point of view are the fundamental components that comprise most literary genres. Characters, plot, setting, and dialogue aid in moving the story along. One, two, or all of these mechanisms combined explains the fundamental premise or theme of the work.
Symbolism is a conglomeration of symbols used to explain and/or embody an idea. This idea is usually the theme of the work – in essence the author’s particular commentary on something. Its vital role lies in its dual nature/purpose – it links all the components under the surface to the external action which in turn helps explain the theme.
Through allegory, metaphors, etc. the symbols represent something in addition to its literal connotation. An excellent example of symbolism and its correlation to theme is Joseph Conrad’s thought provoking novella, The Heart of Darkness – an expose on human savagery via imperialism. A part of the Western Canon, the novella was published in1902. Since the dawn of time, human nature has without a doubt exuded a persistent vein of unwarranted violence and cruelty.
The array of violence permeating the earth has been and is committed by those in high places and amongst average/ everyday people. Compound with such violence is the menacing ethos of one man’s heaven is another man’s hell. Human savagery is equally as much a weapon of mass destruction. Literature, as does all aspects of society, examines this unsavory element in human nature.
Revered as one of the greatest English novelist of all times and a cornerstone to modernist literature, Joseph Conrad was a native of Poland. His distinct contribution was the development of a unique prose style with a non-English sense of tragedy.
The backdrop for most of his literary cadre was maritime or seaboard settings. Such settings allude to the autobiographical nature of his work – Conrad had been a member of the French and British Merchant Navy. The thematic core of his writings examined the trials and tribulations of the human spirit/soul in relation to duty and honor as well as the pervading affects of world empires.
Most importantly, such inner schisms are reflective of the novelist’s fight with his own emotional demons (depression, pessimism, self-doubt, etc.). Despite such emotional upheaval and excavation of the human soul, Conrad had an unwavering sense of moral judgment and justice as evidenced in The Heart of Darkness. Aforementioned, The Heart of Darkness explores the dehumanizing affects of imperialism – in this particular instance the horrific European colonization of the Belgian Congo.
The novella depicts a sojourn in the life Englishman Charles Marlow (Conrad’s alter ego). A narrative within a narrative, Marlowe recounts his physical and mental experience as a Captain on Congo steamship.
A myriad of symbolisms exist in the novella. The deepest and second largest river in the world, the Congo or Zaire River has been used as an allegoric symbol by many literary greats (Edgar Allen Poe, Langston Hughes, Vaschal Lindsay). In The Heart of Darkness, the river symbolizes Marlowe’s search for his soul or journey into his inner spirit. This journey can yield one’s true self identity, but often is not a pleasant experience.
Quest for self identity is an integral part of the human evolvement process which is indelible and universal. Sometimes such soul searching can be dark/cloudy/ muddy experience as inferred by the dark and wilderness nature of the River. Marlowe’s description of the river renders such interpretation as true.
“In and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened with slime, invaded the contorted mangroves that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair. Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularlised impression, but the general sense ofvague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares (Conrad).”
The river opens Marlowe’s eye to the cataclysmic evil man is capable of rendering. The further he travels the more the layers of his soul are shed.
The elephant is the largest of land animals on earth. With a life span of 50 to 70 years, they can weigh up 26,000 pounds and measure in height over six yards. They are known for their exceptional memory as well as wisdom/intelligence and considered an exotic emblem. Elephants represent mammoth power and strength – like imperialism. Indicative of colonization is the pillaging of resources and objects viewed as sacred. Ivory is the external dentition or upper incisors of an elephant.
Profoundly amazing, countless numbers of elephants have been slaughtered for these simple protruding ordinary upper teeth. Acquiring a symbol of wealth and lavishness was and is the impetus for such slaughter. Ivory is a major commodity in this novella characterizing greed and destructiveness to the point that humanness, morality, and civility is subjugated as referenced by Marlowe’s following observations.
“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life.
And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion…….Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; … and in return came a precious trickle of ivory(Conrad).”
Ivory has become an idol, deified like a God, and acquiring at the expense of others no matter what the cost.
Light and dark, good and evil, black and white – a great deal has been attached to these words when it comes to justifying the subjugation of a people. Black, dark, and evil are synonymous attributing the traits of ignorance, death, negativity where as white, light, and good of course epitomize innocence, life, purity, or enlightenment.
Suppose these categories represented in essence the reverse – where innocence, good etc. was applied to black, etc. and evil and ignorance to white? Kurtz‘s Woman With the Torch, which hangs at the Central Station, paintings seems to infer this premise.
The painting depicts a blindfolded woman standing against a black background with a lighted torch. Women have always been idealized from the standpoint of purity and innocence with such attributes bringing solace to a gloomy world. Marlowe’s views support this premise.
“It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living with consistently every since the day of creation would start up and knock the first thing over (Conrad).”
The woman in the painting personifies this image – to point of being unreal. Her flaw however, is that she is rendered blind via being blindfolded. What is she blind to? It has been suggested that the woman symbolizes a blind/uncivilized Europe coming to impose their domination/values/way of life (the torch) over the African Continent and its peoples.
History espouses that African and many other ancient countries (China, etc.) were in existence long before Europe. With these civilizations far more advanced how is it possible that they needed to be civilized? The painting depicts how arrogance and ignorance fuels imperialism and lays the foundation for a false sense of power.
Most importantly, as indicated by the blind fold, its blinds one from these ignoble traits and as well the perpetrated injustices. He seems to imply that it is not about color that deems one evil, good or bad, but rather what is in their hearts. In the end Marlowe finds truth in the darkness that had been covered up by white falsehood.
“True, by this time it was not a blank space any more…a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river… resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land…the snake had charmed me (Conrad).”
Other significant images are the heads on sticks and the flies. The former represents barbaric nature of the so called civilized colonizer. By the time Marlowe comes in contact with this barbarianism, he has already seen a great deal. His only way to deal with the horror is via humor as he regards it as “no big deal (Conrad).” Death and decay has always been associated with flies as Satan who other name is Lord of the Flies
Via symbolism, the darkness as indicated by the title has a threefold nature with the colonization and the Congo wilderness representative of two. All of the negative connotations attributed to Africa as the Dark Continent and the people are vividly depicted. An intrinsic component of imperialism/colonization is culture clash – a clash between the colonized (Congolese) and the colonizer (British).
This clash is ubiquitous in The Heart of Darkness as well the role of individual conscience and duty/image. Marlow embodies the industrialized/ imperialistic West with its trappings of technological excellence, civic administration, and insatiable need to civilize the so called savages – the uncivilized.
The evilness of the colonizer spirit is embodied in Kurtz’s character, the enigmatic and rogue ivory collector. In this invincible clash – a mental quagmire throughout the novella – the reader witnesses Marlowe’s personal ethos at odds with his institutional persona as the novella progresses.
He becomes very sensitive to human suffering and savagery and learns the ultimate consequence of imperialism – destruction and evil. It subjugates all of humanity as Marlowe comes to realize. Following the expectations of others is not always good and being trapped to point that ones principles are compromised propels one into a hellish state. It is the worst kind of authoritative/imperialistic control.
The Heart of Darkness appears to be the vehicle Joseph Conrad uses to show disdain or utter contempt for imperialism. The acceptance/normalcy of inhumane acts and the manner in which they are carried out manifest how humans can be monsters. The Heart of Darkness is thought provocative and tragically relative today just as it was when published.
It serves as Joseph Conrad’s plea for the sanctity of humanity and the human experience on earth. Contributing to Conrad’s outstanding literary legacy, The Heart of Darkness transcends time and place as well as culture and will forever leave an indelible influence/impact on Western Literature.
Conrad, Joseph (1998-01-05). Heart of Darkness & Other Stories. Wordsworth Editions Ltd.