In Joseph Conrad’s novel, ‘Heart of Darkness’, the term “darkness” can be related to a few different meanings. Conrad uses this term in various ways to characterize social, political and psychological affairs in order to help the reader get a feel of his attitudes towards things, such as colonialism, Africa, and civilization. The first impression of the word “darkness” in relations to this novel that I understood was its reference to racism. This, I got from the way Conrad writes about the White people and how they treated the natives (Black), in Africa.

During the colonization of Africa, forced ideals of a race that thought of themselves as more superior than those who occupied that land before them existed. This is demonstrated as Conrad writes about how the Whites completely dominate the Blacks in Africa. A significant passage from the novel illustrating this point is when Marlow describes, ” Black shapes crouched, lay… The work was going on… this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die… they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and tarvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom” (34-35).

The natives were not “helpers”, but slaves who were forced to work till physical exhaustion under the orders of the White colonist. To further support the idea of racism as seen in this novel, consider the description that Marlow gives about an incident he encounters, “And whiles I had to look after the savage who was a fireman… to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs… he was useful because he had been instructed” (63-64).

From this, Conrad acknowledges that lthough the natives take on some White Lai 2 characteristics, they are still seen as inferior. In that passage, the fireman is seen as a joke. Not as a man, but a “dog in breeches”. Therefore, no matter how educated or similar in appearance the Blacks become, they are still seen as being beneath the Whites. The natives are not given any personal traits or uniqueness unless they possess a similarity to the Whites. Even then we see no glimpse of humanity in their characters through Conrad’s writing.

From racism, the idea of civilization is brought about in terms of “darkness”. Conrad uses the contrast of light and dark with relation to the civilized and the uncivilized. The light of course, represents civilization or the civilized side of the world and the dark, more importantly represents the uncivilized or savage side of the world. From the passages quoted earlier, when Marlow calls the workers “black shadows of disease and starvation” (35), Conrad is reinforcing the idea that Blacks and the dark images they project are uncivilized and they are nothing to be wishing for.

However, through Conrad’s reiteration of Marlow’s experience, there as an interesting aspect of the slaves seen. The reality is that these Blacks are what created the civilized life for the Whites. The Blacks are being used by the civilized, in turn making them uncivilized. But, the fact remains that the Whites may be considered the savages for working these Blacks to death. However, as ironic as it may seem, their view was that the natives were there to be conquered. All in all, Conrad writes about civilization versus savagery.

Through the novel, he implies that the setting of laws and codes that would encourage en to achieve higher standards is what creates civilization. It prevents men from reverting back to their darker tendencies. Civilization, however, must be learned. London itself, in the book is a symbol of enlightenment, was once “one of the darker places of the earth” before the Romans forced civilization upon Lai 3 them (18). While society seems to restrain these savage lifestyles, it does not get rid of them. These primitive tendencies will always be like a black cloth lurking in the background.

The possibility of reverting back to savagery is seen in Kurtz. When Marlow meets Kurtz, he finds a man that has totally thrown off the restraints of civilization and has de-evolved into a primitive state. Marlow and Kurtz are two opposite examples of the human condition. Kurtz represents what every man will become if left to his own natural desires without a protective civilized environment. Marlow represents the civilized soul that has not been drawn back into savagery by a dark, alienated jungle.

This darkness that Conrad writes about can also mean the wilderness in which the story took place. The wilderness, where the natives live n, continually watches for the “fantastic invasion” (58) of the White man. The activities of the White people are viewed throughout the novel as insane and pointless. Conrad feels that they spend their existence looking for ivory or plotting against each other for position and status within their own environment. Marlow comments, “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed.

You would think they were praying to it… I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life” (44). In contrast, the wilderness appears solid, immovable, and ominously threatening. During Marlow’s stay at Central Station, he describes the surrounding wilderness as a “rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to… sweep every little man of us out of his little existence” (54). It is difficult to say, however, what the intentions of the wilderness actually are. Through Marlow’s eyes, it is always somewhat of an enigma.

It is “an implacable force brooding over and inscrutable intention” (60). Lai 4 Conrad pictures the wilderness as not just an remote force that is unconcerned with anything else but itself, but rather, a mirror in which one can see clearly the darkness idden in one’s heart. The environment of the jungle, in contrast to the European form of society from which the White men have come, imposes no restraints upon the behavior of an individual. It is a harsh environment that tests one’s ability to hold onto sanity without an organized structure of society.

The people who are successful in fighting the wilderness are those who create their own structured environments. As long as they keep themselves busy with surface activities, they cannot hear the whispers of the wilderness, and the darkness in their hearts can remains buried. Marlow himself must face the truth that the wilderness reveals to him. He sees the wild dancing and chanting of the natives, and though he says at first that it is incomprehensible to him, upon reflection he admits that he does feel some kind of connection to the “passionate uproar. He says, “[The earth] was unearthly, and the men were-No, they were not humans. Well, you know, that was the worst of it-this suspicion of their not being inhuman” (62). But, even in the great demoralization of the land, Marlow’s work, piloting and repairing the steamboat distracts him from such thoughts. Kurtz, the fabulously successful chief of the Inner Station who has come from Europe to civilize the natives, surrender to the savagery of the wilderness.

He gives up his high aspirations, and the wilderness brings out the darkness and brutality in his heart. All principles and desires of the European society are stripped from him, and the unspeakable passions and greed of his true nature are revealed. He collects a following of loyal natives who worship him as an idol, and they raid surrounding villages to collect a huge amount of ivory. The full significance of the wilderness can be seen only hrough Kurtz, because he gives in to the powers of the wilderness.

Conrad writes that Lai 5 through the influence of the wilderness, basic human nature is revealed to him. At his death, he sees the true state of mankind. His gaze is “piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness” (113). His final statement of “The horror! The horror! ” (112) is his judgment on all of life. The wilderness brings Kurtz to the point where he has a full awareness of himself, and from there he makes his affirmation about all mankind. Thus, in the story the wilderness is more than a backdrop for the plot.

It is an unmerciful force that continually urges the characters to shed the restraints of civilization and to indulge the despicable desires of their hearts. The wilderness destroys man’s pretensions and shows him the truth about himself. I think Conrad is trying to imply that every man has a heart of darkness that is usually drowned out by the light of civilization. However, when removed from civilized society, the raw evil of untamed lifestyles within his soul will be unleashed. And that I think, is the meaning of the “heart” of darkness, which is the journey of discovering one’s true self.

Cite This Work

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

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