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Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Kristen Over, Associate Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, explains the symbols in Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness.

Heart of Darkness | Symbols


Symbolism operates throughout Heart of Darkness to create an ethical context for the work.


The symbol of darkness opens the novella, when Marlow is on the yacht on the Thames: "And this also," he says, speaking of England, "has been one of the dark places on earth." He means that the land and its peoples were primitive before the Roman conquest, a parallel to European colonial control of Africa. Light and peace is here now, Marlow implies, but "darkness was here yesterday."

Once Marlow's story is well under way, he says, "We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness" (Part 2, Section 2). There is literal darkness in the jungle and the waters of the river. But he also says that the suffering of the indigenous people and the evil in the hearts of the Company agents is a metaphoric darkness, a darkness of the unknown, of difference, and of blindness.

The most important metaphoric darkness is that revealed in Kurtz's heart and symbolized by the decapitated heads of native men displayed like decorative knobs on his fence posts. There, they are "black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids." These heads and the grisly fence stand as enduring symbols of Kurtz's depravity. Kurtz, then, symbolizes the darkness of the colonizers' lost morality, but there is also a sense in which Kurtz is the victim of the darkness of the jungle. Marlow comments on "how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own" in trying to explain his descent into depravity.


Ivory symbolizes the greed of the Europeans. It is a consuming passion for them, the lure that draws them to Africa. It has become like a religion to them: "The word 'ivory' rang in the air," Marlow says when he is at the Outer Station. It "was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it." Ivory, which is white, is the one thing of value that the Europeans in Heart of Darkness find in dark Africa. But ivory is also equated with darkness and corruption. Marlow muses that Kurtz had been captivated by the wilderness, which had "taken him, loved him, embraced him, consumed his flesh" until he had lost all his hair, his bald head now looking like an "ivory ball." When Kurtz is on the verge of dying, just before he says his last words, Marlow notes his "ivory face." Ivory no longer has value; it is a thing of evil, which is what Kurtz became.

Dark Wool

The knitting of dark wool by two women at the Company office in Brussels reinforces the symbol of darkness in the novella. The women are the knitters of funeral shrouds, used in death, the ultimate darkness. It is fitting that the work in a city that always reminds Marlow of a "whited sepulchre," or tomb. Marlow is disturbed by the women's indifference to him, which foreshadows the colonizers' indifference to death, both literal and figurative, throughout the novella. The older woman gives Marlow an eerie feeling: "She seemed uncanny and fateful," he says. Marlow says that he often thought of those women "guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool."

Knitting and weaving, viewed as women's work in Conrad's time, conventionally represent matters of life and death in literature, and Conrad builds on this tradition. In A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1812–1870), Madame Defarge secretly uses her knitting to weave into cloth the names of people to be killed. The convention relates back to Greek mythology, in which the Fates use thread to measure the length of a person's life, cutting it when it is time to die. However, in Greek mythology there are three Fates, who represent birth, life, and death. In Conrad's scene there are but two, representing, presumably, life and death, as they work on cloths for the Company's workers, who are well past birth and likely to face death.


When Marlow arrives at the Inner Station, he is greeted by a young Russian man dressed in clothes that are covered with bright blue, red, and yellow patches. The young man looks as if he is escaped from a troupe of mimes. Marlow compares him to a harlequin, something that does not fit in the African jungle. The harlequin's presence ironizes the tragedy of the situation and suggests another literary convention: the wise fool, although the Russian seems more naive than wise.


As Marlow pilots the steamboat up the river, he hears drums, which he finds unsettling but intriguing, calling it a sound "weird, appealing, suggestive, wild." He also senses that the drums have "as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country." The meaning escapes him, though. As the boat continues upriver and he hears drums again, it is unclear to all the Europeans whether the drumbeat meant "war, peace, or prayer." At the Inner Station, when Kurtz wanders ashore one night as his followers beat the drums, Marlow reflects that he had been driven "towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums." When Marlow stands outside the door of the Intended, he thinks back to "the beat of the drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heart—the heart of a conquering darkness." The drums, then, are the sound equivalent of the jungle—an aspect of the environment that is mysterious, uncivilized, and both attractive and destructive.

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