Symbolism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Literary Analysis

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In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the utilization of various literary devices are used and placed throughout the story with meaning and importance. With the creative use of these tools, Conrad gives his readers an opportunity to understand the main concepts and ideas he is trying to portray through his work, yet still leaves the opportunity to interpret it on their own terms.

Through a formalist approach, these literary devices include Conrad’s choice of setting and time, symbolism, as well as writing style. Conrad’s choice of setting is centered around the 1800s, which ties into life outside of the book. This helps build connections for the readers. While the symbolism and imagery throughout are slowly revealing the true meaning behind the novella. And finally, writing style plays a role as he executes the tools of English to allure his readers into a trans, keeping them engaged and not releasing them until the horror is over.

The novella is set to be on the Thames in London. This can be found at the beginning of the novella where the book reads, “The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway.” (p.132) Marlow’s narrative later takes place in Congo after his opportunity of becoming a steamboat captain.

The symbolism seems to be a consistent key role in the development of his story theme. Throughout his experience, the novella is emphasized with imagery to reveal various symbolizations. These symbolizations are shown through both characters and key elements in the novel. Conrad’s use and execution of this is what hooks the reader, and keeps their attention to continue reading. This technique helps Conrad indirectly reveal different messages, meanings, and imagery indirectly. The symbolism in this novella has an emphasis on darkness, facades, as well as movement and understanding.
Immediately, the title itself can be an indicator of symbolism that darkness will represent throughout the story. Darkness usually can have an eerie, or dark interpretation in most reader’s minds.

As expected, it has the same meaning throughout Heart of Darkness. However, the foreshadowing of darkness in Conrad’s words can have many interpretations such as being lost, or depravity. In the story, an example of this darkness can be the use of fog through imagery. “Imagine him here– the very end of the world, a sea the color of lead, a sky the color of smoke–” is an example of Conrad giving imagery to the idea of darkness and fog. Fog can represent a form of corollary to darkness. The idea is that fog can distort vision. Fog distorts your view to the point where you can only see a small image of what’s ahead. Although it is not direct, fog indicates the darkness that they are currently oblivious to. It also is an indicator to subliminally show that they are taking risks. The reason being, they do not have enough information to make decisions, and because of their inaccurate knowledge and experience, things go wrong. Such as when Marlow’s steamer becomes stuck in the fog, and they no longer know what lies ahead.

Another example of symbolism is used with white sepulcher. Marlow visits Brussels for an appointment and while there he mentions the city to be a sepulcher. The sepulcher is mentioned to be in Europe, within a “sepulchral city.”(pg153) A sepulcher has the representation of death, confinement, and as well as a facade. This is an important symbol in this novella, through a biblical sense. A white sepulcher is something that has a nice representation on the outside but is misunderstood because the inside is full of darkness and horrors within. For those who readers who understood, or took the time to research what a white sepulcher is, understanding the relation of this symbol. Marlow calling Brussels a sepulcher is appropriate, because of the imperialism there.

Lastly, Conrad’s use of the river was a key symbol throughout the novella. While on the river, Marlow says “The essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface, beyond my reach, beyond my power of meddling.”(pg.166) While saying this, the rapid is high and he says he felt as if he was experiencing “the last flickers of life.”(pg.166) Marlow is able to view both sides of the continent, and while saying this he is coming to the realization in being able to understand both sides of the situations. The river also acts as their movement through Africa, but as well as a divider. It keeps Marlow and Kurtz separated protecting the natives. The division can represent two sides. These sides being both good and bad within. The river is a symbolism of both movement and understanding.

In conclusion, Joseph Conrad utilizes symbolism in a meaningful way throughout this novella. Instead of always being direct, his use of symbolism keeps his reader’s minds engaged. While reading, key elements can be found and have thought put into them. Joseph Conrad created a novella that ties into a real experience while telling a story. The reader had to take the time to understand each message and image that was being represented and choose their own interpretations of each. Through the successful execution of symbols and imagery, the greater meaning is revealed.


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Symbolism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Literary Analysis. (2020, Sep 20). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/symbolism-in-joseph-conrads-heart-of-darkness/



What are the symbolism in Heart of Darkness?
The symbolism in Heart of Darkness includes the river as a metaphor for the journey into the unconscious mind, darkness as a representation of the corruption of civilization, and the ivory trade as a symbol of colonial exploitation. These symbols contribute to the novel's exploration of the human psyche and the destructive effects of imperialism.
What does the darkness Symbolise in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness?
The darkness in Heart of Darkness symbolizes the unknown and the fear that comes with it. It also represents the power that the darkness has over people.
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